I like realistic features in a game, and I like balance. Sometimes, that just isn’t possible, so a game maker needs to be able to decide what goes: realism or balance. In the case of WildLife (Uberplay, 2002), a certain amount of realism had to be sacrificed for the sake of balance, but for me it was a worthwhile trade off.
In WildLife, a player takes on the role of a creature on a primordial continent. There are six creatures, and six types of terrain on the continent (you can see the balance already, can’t you?). Each player is trying to dominate the continent by various means, but they are constrained by the types of terrains available to them – and thanks to the balance, each creature is very potent in one area, but totally impotent (in fact, not even able to exist) in two of the six area types.
The picture above shows the six “creature cards,” and on each there is a rating for each of the six terrain types. The mammoth, for example, may “Attack” (the most potent ability) in the plains, but may take “No Action” in the desert or the water. Fair enough, right? But the snake is most potent in the desert (so far so good), but totally impotent in the mountains and in the savanna. One doesn’t need to be a wildlife biologist to know that snakes can be found, plentifully, in each of these habitats – so if you are the type who must insist that every aspect of a game must conform to reality, you might have a problem with WildLife. But if you can somehow get through this, there is a great game waiting to be played. By the way, in the interest of completeness, there is one “Migrate” terrain per animal, and two “Expand” terrains, each of which allow limited use of a terrain type.
Once a player has taken a creature and made initial placements, they struggle to expand their herds and dominate regions of the continent, and by doing so they earn points. Points are awarded for how dominant an animal type is in each region on the board, the size of the biggest herds, and the holders of different game tokens: Food points, adaptations, and ability cards.
The key to WildLife is the use of WildLife action cards every turn, which is initially limited to three. These cards allow use of a certain type of terrain, provide an upgrade in adaptation for a specific terrain (see pic immediately below), or confer a special ability (through “ability cards,” pictured below), such as intelligence, food, etc. The player is allowed to do whatever their creature card says they can do in a given terrain – Migrate (move an existing tile into an adjacent open spot), Expand (Introduce a new tile into an open spot), or Attack (Introduce a new tile onto an occupant’s spot, forcing that occupant’s tile out of the game).
If an upgrade, or “adaptation,” is chosen, that tile is placed onto the creature card, and becomes the creatures new level of ability. Hence, a snake could go from No Action on a mountain to migrate, to expand, up to attack. If an “ability” is chosen, that could allow extra points every turn, or an extra action, or more. In fact, some of the abilities described on the cards can be used every turn, sometimes amounting to an extra action for that turn. One feature that makes WildLife fun is that there are limited numbers of these ability cards, so when a player makes a bid for one, they must take it from the current holder who has the most points at the time – this is a very cool mechanic that made our most recent game very interesting.
The fact that a player is limited to three action cards per turn forces some interesting decisions – go on the offense, tighten up on defense, or build up a multi-turn strategy. What really forces the decisions, however, is the fact that each player must use one of their actions each turn placing one of their own cards up for auction for opposing players. The currency in the game is food, and these food tokens are used to place bids – and the winning bidder pays the auctioning player. A player may also choose, an unlimited number of times, to turn in three food tokens in order to move one space up in victory points, or they may move one space down to earn three coins they might need for something else.
One other very interesting feature of WildLife is the uncertainty about scoring rounds. Every time a particular region (as defined by its single terrain type) is filled, a minor scoring round occurs. Each player is assigned points based on their relative dominance within each region, then the game continues – until the 4th, or the 8th, or the 12th region is filled. At those points in the game, a major scoring occurs, in which players get points per region (as in the minor scoring), and points are awarded as outlined above (for largest herd, etc). There is an excellently done, attractive, and very useful scoring system on the left side of the board pictured below, so the substantial risk of missing something while scoring is not an issue at all.
All in all, WildLife is one of those complicated games that turn out to be pretty simple once you get going. Half way through the first play, when all the possibilities and implications of the various abilities and adaptations are understood, it may be a good idea to stop and start over. Just half of a game played provides enough of a learning curve for this game.
I recommend WildLife to all serious gamers. People who are into board games like me will love it. Otherwise, the theme of biological variation, competition, and adaptation might appeal to some (like me!), enough to justify it as a gift. Any folks who show an interest in the complex Eurogames would like it as well. But don’t be buying this for the kiddies just because there is a wooly mammoth on the box cover – they might be a few years older before they can try it out.
(This game is not available through Amazon.com, and is now, sadly, out of print, because Uberplay is out of business – but it can still be found online through various game vendors!)