Friday, December 19, 2014

Animal Upon Animal - Unnatural Stacking Made Fun

"Not to go on all fours…that is the law. Are we not men?"
-- Sayer of the Law, "The Island of Dr. Moreau"

My ship, the Queen Elizabeth, sank far at sea. I and I alone, by sheer folly and random chance, found my way to a life boat before Neptune himself reached up and drew the listing ship down into his murky embrace.

After many days, both tepid water and stiff cracker rations totally exhausted, did I finally spy land and awkwardly navigate my desolate vessel towards a distant rocky shore.

I had seen only plant life during my approach. A palm tree, some gently swaying grasses transitioning to a pristine white sand beach. My lifeboat ran aground and I clawed my way to the wet muck at the edge of my salvation. I graciously thanked luck and mysterious benevolence at my landing.

It was not long, not very long at all, that I drew an audience from the native inhabitants.

First I saw a giant alligator. I was fearful at first. One snap of those huge jaws and I would be finished. In my weakened condition I had no hope of evasion.

But the mysterious reptile stopped its advance, and moments later a monkey (hidden from view until now) climbed up onto the alligator's back. Unlikely allies indeed.

Then more animals came! Another sort of lizard found room on the scaly surface. A hedgehog leapt on. A slithering snake. A huge-beaked toucan. Finally a dainty penguin found a spot near the very top.

Once I saw the penguin, I knew I was hallucinating. This wasn't a real island. I was still in the row boat, playing Animal Upon Animal. A fine way to die.

Mechanical Animals

You start with a handful of animals out of the box. The object of course is to get rid of all your animals after balancing them precariously on the back of the starting monster alligator. In many ways, the mechanics mirror the last HABA game I checked out, Rhino Hero. The pile keeps building up until you are sure it will collapse, but then usually people get a couple more animals in after that.

The player who bungles the stacking has to take all the fallen animals back into his or her hand, up to a maximum of 2 (extras are returned to the box). Which is a big benefit to folks who want to see a completed stack of animals at the end of the game. Lots of stacking games give you a hypothetical end condition, but really its about stacking until the structure collapses 99% of the time. Here you will see a pinnacle of unnatural animal transformation at the end of every single game.


Danger Die!

The die to decide the active player's action is one of the best things about the game. With this die, Animal Upon Animal shows the kind of innovation a simple dexterity game can make vs. the standard UNO-ish choices you see in a lot of kids games (skip, reverse, lose a turn)

1) 1 pip on the die (on 2 sides) - active player places 1 animal
2) 2 pips on the die - active player places 2 animals
3) crocodile - active player place one animal, but on the ground touching the crocodile and expanding the base of the animal pile.
4) the hand - Take that! Give one of your animals to an opponent and make them add the creature to the pile.
5) the question mark - It's you versus the MOB! The rest of the table decides which animal the active player has to place.

There is real thinking and strategy when you want it, but kids can also just do it without overanalyzing (if that's what you really want).

Also a Toy

Finally, for a kids game like Animal Upon Animal, you have to consider the game for its components. Not just how the game is for its rules, but how the pieces interact when used just as a toy.

Sometimes younger kids don't really want competition in their games. And they don't want to play by the rules. My daughter (who is 3) has yet to play a full real game. But she is incredibly familiar with all the animals from spending evenings stacking them. I would call that a success.

For adults and older kids (5-9ish) the game is serious business. Rolling the question mark elicits quite a lot of conversation, and building the next animal fixes everyone's attention on the pile. Animal upon Animal definitely falls under the category of a good family game to introduce to your extended family around the holidays.

Animals: Apocalypse Matrix

The Shifting Sands of Animals

Look at the way the hedgehogs lock together. Look at the way the toucan's bill fits into spaces to provide a solid lock for the layer above. Look at the way the frilled lizard grabs hold of pieces from multiple different directions.

As someone who has spent a fair amount of their life sitting at a table stacking Settlers of Catan pieces while waiting for his turn to come around, I can really appreciate the artistry of the pieces and just how awesomely they stack together. In typical HABA fashion (from what I've seen so far) quite a bit of thought went into the design of these wooden animals and stacking always elicits new surprises.

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