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Earlier today I played one of my favorite collectible card games, Overpower. Even though I've played the game hundreds of times and had all of my cards sorted out, it still took me some time to throw two decks together and play a fun game. In contrast, I simply slid some decks out of the box for the game Nature of the Beast (Eye-Level Entertainment, 2005 - Mark and Matthew Anticle), shuffled some cards around, and had two decks ready to go. This is one of the key differences that an "Expandable" card game has. Nature of the Beast is currently sold in two boxes - each giving two of the four armies of animals that ferociously fight in the game (city, suburb, forest, and farm). There are no booster packs, no rare cards; but a player can still customize their deck.
For myself, I'm quite content simply owning these four decks. I can fool around with deck construction and change cards from one deck to the next, but the game is well balanced and interesting enough that I don't feel like I HAVE to. At first, it took me a little bit to get into the "Animal Farm" spirit of the game (in fact, there is one character that I am sure is directly inspired from that interesting book), but the mechanics are truly well done. No cards seem unbalanced, the "Favor/Fury" mechanic is quite clever, and there's a lot of strategy involved when attacking and moving. Nature of the Beast plays like a clever two-player card game; and while the luck of the draw is present, strategy reigns supreme."
Each player has two decks of cards: "Troops" and "Tricks", each of which they shuffle and place in front of them. Players draw three Trick cards for their opening hand and place three Troop cards face down in "the Pen". In front of each player's pen is an invisible three by three grid that is considered the "field" of that player. Players also have a Favor/Fury card, which tracks both their favor with humans and their "fury". Players may place a counter on both tracks at whatever number (from zero to nine) they want, as long as both counters are on the same number. One player goes first, and then play alternates between the players.
The first thing a player does on their turn is "preparation". They turn over any of the face-up animals in their pen, and then draw three Trick cards (minus one for each card that they turned face-up.) The player then may do three of the following actions in any order.
- Recruit: Each animal has a "Rank" number, which is their recruiting cost. A player has two choices (that can be combined) to bring out a new recruit. They can either "Trash" (discard) another animal(s) in the pen, or they can "tilt" (tap) animal(s) already in the field. Each animal has a "Clout" statistic, which is used for recruiting others. When an animal is recruited, they move directly onto the field, following one of the vectors on their card. Each animal has arrows pointing in some of the eight directions - these are known as vectors.
- Move Animal: A player may move any animal on the field one space in the direction of one of that animal's vectors.
- Dismiss Animal: A player may tilt an animal that has a higher "Rank" than the animal they want to get rid of, which is trashed.
- Defer Recruit: A player may take an animal out of their recruiting area and place it shuffled back into their Troops deck.
- Draw another Trick card.
- Untilt one of their animals.
- Declare a Battle: A player may attack any other animal in another player's field with any untilted animal from their field. Each animal has a Combat value, which is compared. Players then, in turn, take an action or pass on their turn. Actions that can be taken in battles include "calling an ally", which means tilting an animal with a vector pointing at one of the two animals involved in the battle. Allies add one to that player's attack total. Players may also be able to play "Trick" cards from their hand to increase their total or use items that are equipped on the animals. Finally, some special Animals (called "Legends") can get "+1" to their total if their owner trashes a card from their hand. Battle continues until both players pass in a row, at which point the battle totals are compared. The player with the lower total trashes their animal, and the attacking player increases their fury by one.
Players also have a few actions that they may take for "free" (don't use up one of their three actions.
- Call Human Ally: If a player meets the requirements on a Trick card of this type, they may place a Human card next to one of their three rows. Humans give special abilities and untilt each turn automatically, as long as the player continues to meet their requirements.
- Claim Location: A player can play a location card on one of their spaces, as long as they meet its "Rank" Requirement (the animal's rank in the space plus all the animals whose vectors point at that space).
- Equip Item: A player may equip an animal with an item from their hand if they can pay the cost listed on the card from their Favor points.
After a player's turn, they discard down to only five Trick cards, and then the next player takes their turn. The game ends when…
- One player's fury reaches "10", at which point they lose, since humans get irritated at them enough to wipe them off the face of the planet.
- One player gets animals in all nine spaces of their Field, in which place they win the game.
- Both players run out of animals, in which case they both lose.
There are other rules in the game; I'll address them in the comments…
1.) Components: I still do not like the type of box that Nature of the Beast comes in; it's a bit annoying to slide two decks into it and then fold down the flaps. Boxes with lids are much nicer. That being said, I enjoyed the artwork in the game quite a bit. It finds a nice compromise between gritty animal warfare and too-cute-cartooney drawings, and fits the theme of the game quite well. Somehow, the theme works in that players are laughing about some of the absolutely inane humor in the game, yet at the same time taking it fairly seriously. The cards, despite their easily nicked black borders, are of good quality; and it's easy to figure out the statistics of the animals from a glance.
2.) Rules: The rulebook is forty-four pages, which seems rather long; but it includes some detailed examples of battle, strategy tips, options, a quick reference guide, and much more. There are many black and white illustrations; and I found it simple, although it took a bit of time to go through. Most players will likely need some of the examples explained to them, but the game isn't really that difficult, and players will quickly grasp the concepts. Those familiar with CCGs will find that this is easier to learn than most of them.
3.) Stats: Animals have several stats on them besides the ones that I have already mentioned, such as Special movement (like climb and swim), a cunning ability, animal size, etc. Most of these other statistics are only used when referred to by specific Trick cards. I was a little disappointed by how cunning wasn't as useful in the game as I thought, but the game was easier to navigate because there were fewer numbers to deal with. It was amazing how balanced the animals were; you could not put in just gigantic animals and hope to win, because it would be very difficult to get them on the board. Most of the huge powerhouse creatures had few special abilities, poor movement, and bad recruiting. The animals that are quick and can do unique, devastating effects are puny compared to the bears and alligators. It's been a long time since I've been this impressed by the balance between cards.
4.) Balance: Not only were the animals balanced, but the Trick cards were terrific. None of them were terribly powerful, and the ones that were more useful required a higher cost. Yet at the same time the cards could mean the difference between winning and losing. While all of us have a favorite deck (mine is Farm - I love the roosters), the decks seem to be perfectly balanced; and even with deck building, I don't see that anyone will make a "killer" deck.
5.) Strategy: Part of the reason that players won't be able to dominate through deck building alone is the fact that tactics and strategy really play a huge part of the game. Since a player's fury can kill him, if it reaches "10", they can't initiate too many battles. Yes, there are cards that bring down the total fury, but they are few and cause a player to waste valuable time on them. The low number of battles means that players must know exactly when to strike and where. The vectors on the animals create a web of alliances and strengths, and a careful player will make sure that their weaker animals are constantly backed up by animals with stronger defenses. Players also have to be constantly moving their animals so that they fill in all the available spots on a field. It's easy to not think much about it, and then have all of your back line clogged, so that new recruits can't come out.
6.) Tilt: Of course, the "tilt" mechanic is not new to the genre, it being the repeating of the "tapping" from Magic: the Gathering. Yet in this game, creatures don't automatically untap - something I found quite unique. Players must waste valuable actions untiliting their creatures, since tilted creatures are vulnerable, can't recruit, and do many other options.
7.) Fun Factor: After my first game, I wasn't sure that I liked the game system. But as I played more, I slowly realized the tactical options, and the way that a player had to be careful what battles they partook in. I played the game with a CCG critic and wargaming fanatic, and he gave the game high praise - higher than even myself. The most fun aspect of many CCGs is the deckbuilding aspect; I can't tell you how many hours I spent building decks back when I played them more often. But while the deckbuilding in Nature of the Beast can be fun, it's the game itself that is impressive; and if a player wins, it's because they did a better job, not had a better deck.
8.) Decks and Players: I don't think that you need all four decks to start yourself out with the game - one pack will suffice, giving you two decks to play with. For me, that would be enough; because even though players can make alliances in a multi-player game, it would seem that the two player game is the way to go. Games take about forty-five minutes to an hour, giving them a good "meaty" feel without taking too long.
I've pretty much sworn off most CCGs and usually turn a suspicious eye at "Expandable Card Games" also. But Nature of the Beast is so well balanced and acts like a war game played with cards that I don't mind the "expandable" part. With the vectors allowing some interesting movement, and players constantly watching to make sure all of their troops support each other, the game feels like a battlefield struggle. At the same time, players must watch their resources and play the "Trick" cards at the right time. Most card games I don't mind, because they're light and lots of fun. This game, with it's "Animal Farm" theme, is one has some "meat" to go with the fun.
"Real men play board games"
Great review; I think I want this game...