A few days ago, I dug out my copy of Savannah Café, a game I picked up years ago when I was first discovering the world beyond Risk and Monopoly. It’s a game that I had found memories of but it’s also a game that I hadn’t played since 2005. So, I decided to get it back out on the table and see if it held up to my memories.
Savannah Café is one of the children’s games that offers enough decisions and options that it’s one that adults can play without getting bored or frustrated.
The actual game itself is rather pretty. The board is two-panel, showing a race track formed out of the skin of a dead zebra, its tongue comically sticking out. Each player gets a set of three wooden discs with a lion, gazelle or hippo printed on each one. The bits are rounded out by a deck of movement cards.
As you have probably already guessed, it’s a race game. The object is to be the first player to get one of your pieces to the end of the track, where the café in the name of the game is located.
The heart of the game is in the cards. There are 27 cards in the deck, nine for each animal. The backs of the cards show which animal the card pertains to. Each type of card is further broken down into six of one type of card and three of another.
The gazelle has six 0 movement cards but the other three let it move up to nine spaces. The lion has six cards that let it move up to four spaces while the other three only let it move one space. If a lion ever lands on an enemy gazelle(s) space, the gazelle gets eaten and a new one starts back at the beginning. The hippo has six cards that let it move up to two spaces. The other three are a special roar card that forces an enemy lion to go back up to eight spaces. Nothing makes the hippo go back.
The deck is shuffled and each player gets three cards face down in front of them, although they do get to look at them. On your turn, you draw a card from the deck. You can look at it and then choose one of your four cards to use. OR you can swap it sight unseen for an opponent’s card, look at that and then choose of your four cards to use.
So, Savannah Café has bluffing, card counting, a memory element and it does have a lot of player interaction since there are plenty of ways to pull other players’ pieces back. The mechanics of the game still seem to be solid to me after all of this time.
However… The gameplay was not as good as I remember it.
The game essentially becomes one of tug-of-war. Lions and gazelles are constantly getting dragged back. In fact, since you need to be able to use all three of the gazelle movement cards to get over the finish line, properly aggressive lions can almost always catch up with them. The hippo does serve as an inevitable force that will eventually cross the line but you have to juggle that with attacking the other players.
In short, the game felt like we were doing a lot of rinse and repeat and simply didn’t feel very dynamic.
It also felt like, despite the three card hand, that luck could make the game too swingy. As I mentioned, the gazelle has a two in three chance of not moving but, if luck is with you, it comes an unbeatable piece.
Now, I may be being too harsh on a children’s game. And I’m not quite ready to get rid of it yet. However, when I put Savannah Café back on the shelf, I had a feeling I wouldn’t be pulling it out again any time soon.
I agree with your statements, my only issue is my son Loves the game and so it hits the table quite often. The board even has some sentimental moment for me, when my son was about 4 years old, after a game he decided to help put the game away and folded the board the wrong way and 'SNAP' the board became 2 parts. I could of gotten upset, but I got the game for like 5 bucks, however what happened next definitely killed any anger i may of had, my son went and grabbed some scotch tape and offered to fix it.
Now back to your review, like I said I would have to agree with everything you say. The idea is that the hippo is actually the best strategic chance to get across first, while the gazelle can do it with a bit of luck.
Sometimes when I play my kids, when I draw a gazelle 9 card, i like to act disappointed and put it down and see if they call my bluff and switch it for themselves.