Monday, February 13, 2017

Rabbit Island: Explore, Build, Conquer! Preview

Rabbit Island
Designer: Samantha Et Alia
Publisher: Infinite Heart Games
2-4p | 45-90m | 13+
Quick Review - Rabbit Island: Explore, Build, Conquer! - Kickstarter Preview
Disclaimer

I work for a smaller web development and hosting company called Web 2 Market.  We design, build, and host ecommerce sites for small to medium sized businesses.  I've been working there for almost 14 years now and the owner's wife started working there almost 13 years ago.  In the IT industry that's a pretty long time to be at one company, but I love it.  The employees at the company are very close, almost like a family.  We know about each others' hobbies and passions.  Everyone in the company knows I love board games, and my boss and his wife love rabbits (she runs the site bunnymama.com).  So when I got the offer to review a game called Rabbit Island I couldn't pass it up.  It seemed like the perfect fit!

Rabbit Island: Explore, Build, Conquer! is a light, 4x style game about rabbits that have discovered a new island that they need to explore.  It's for 2-4 players and takes about 90 minutes, although there's also a short variant that takes about 45 minutes.  Rabbit Island will be available on Kickstarter for $44 with free US shipping ($5 international) and will run to March 12, 2017.

Overview:
Rabbit Island is a 4x style game that is very friendly for casual gamers and newcomers to that genre of games.  If you aren't familiar with the term 4x, it stands for explore, expand, exploit, exterminate.  In a 4x game, players try to eXplore a map or territory and by moving units around to discover what is there, eXpand into the newly discovered territory through area control, eXploit resources produced in controlled territories, and eXterminate opponents through some form of combat.  Most 4x games are huge behemoths that take many hours to play and include complex elements like technology trees, government simulations, economies, multiple resources to manage, and more.  Some games have managed to pack the 4x experience into a shorter game, but there aren't many, and there sure aren't many that try to do it in such a cute, friendly package to entice the whole family.  Rabbit Island attempts to do just that.

Little Bunny Foo Foo, hoppin' through the forest.  The theme is great for all types of gamers!

Rabbit Island plays in two phases, an Explore phase where players simultaneously build and explore the island, and the Build phase, where players expand their control of the island, exploit the carrots produced, and exterminate opponents through a very friendly way of taking over territories.  The Explore phase is pretty quick, lasting only a few minutes, but can involve quite a bit of strategy in setting up the island for the future.  The Build phase is the core of the game, and will take about 20 minutes per player, lasting 20 rounds.  There is a shorter variant as well, that cuts play time in about half, and still gives a great experience.

In Rabbit Island each player controls a single rabbit as it explores and develops the island.  Players will also have a number of round tokens that represent settlements the rabbits will build around the board.  There are also carrots, which serve as the only currency and resource in the game, movement cards that provide options for moving around the board, action cards that shake things up a bit, and a bunch of custom shaped, squarish Map tiles that will be used to build Rabbit Island.  At the beginning of the game each player will take the pieces in their color, 100 carrots, and a number of Map tiles that varies by the number of players (always an odd number).  There are also a number of Tunnel tiles and two Founder's Hill tiles (one for the standard game and one for the short game).  Founder's Hill will be laid out in the middle of the table to start the island.

Even in the prototype there are rabbit meeples!

The Explore Phase
The Explore phase begins with each player, in turn, placing two territory tiles to expand the explored parts of Rabbit Island.  But there are some placement rules.  Each tile depicts two paths crossing from each side of the tile to the opposite side.  The tiles each have a mixture of concave and convex notches in the four sides.  Convex sides show some rabbit paw prints leaving the tile.  When tiles are placed they must be arranged so that paw prints leaving an already placed tile connect to a concave notch on the tile being placed.  This create a number of different paths all leading out from Founders Hill.  There are a few other placement restrictions, too, like keeping all text facing the same direction and no looping paths.  Sometimes this makes placing a tile challenging, but there are usually ways to avoid this if you plan carefully.

As your rabbits explore, you'll construct the island.

After placing two tiles you may move your rabbit to one of those tiles and build on it.  To build on the tile you place one of your discs on the center of the tile and pay the cost, in carrots, for a camp (indicated in the top left of the tile).  You don't have to build, but it's a good idea to expand your control in this phase so you have areas to build out from in the Build phase.  There are two main types of tiles that you'll be adding to the island; Territory tiles and Carrot Patch tiles.  Carrot Patch tiles simply allow players to earn some carrots and gain an Action card when they move there.  There are five different types of Territory tiles; caves, forests, meadows, valleys, and rivers.  In the short game valleys and rivers are removed.

Each tile is a custom shape.

The Territory tiles have a number of different icons on them.  They look busy at first, but once you understand the icons it gets easy.  Each of the four quadrants of the tiles have the same set of icons and numbers that indicate cost to build or upgrade, carrots earned when harvesting, and points for what is built on that island, a camp, village, or town.  The top left quadrant indicates the values for a camp, top right is for a village, and bottom right is for a town.  The bottom left simply indicates the type of terrain.  Different types of terrain have different costs and benefits.

The tiles look busy at first, but they really do a great job of conveying a lot of information in limited space.
Once all players have placed all of their tiles, two at a time, except for one, the Explore phase is complete.  The island should be nearly complete now, with a number of paths that criss cross, split up, rejoin, and generally lead away from Founder's Hill.  Where any paths lead off of the constructed island you'll add a Tunnel tile, which is mechanically adjacent to Founder's Hill.  This causes all the paths to eventually cycle back to Founder's Hill.

The Build Phase:
The Build phase of Rabbit Island is the core of the game.  The Explore phase is quick and just sets the stage.  There's a bit of strategy behind how tiles are placed, but there is a lot that happens in the Build Phase that can thwart any plan you might have had in the Explore phase.

The Build phase will last 20 rounds (10 in a short game), each round consisting of each player taking one turn.  There is a round tracker on the scoresheet for the game and after each player has taken a turn a round is checked off.  Once all the rounds for the game are complete, scores are tallied and a winner is determined.

To start the Build phase, first deal out two Movement cards to each player.  In a short game, also deal out two Action cards to each player.  Then each player takes a turn, in clockwise order.  A turn consists of five steps: play a Movement card, move your pawn, play Action cards, resolve the Map tile, and draw a new Movement card.

1. Play a Movement card - you'll begin each turn with two Movement cards in your hand.  These dictate how far you can move your rabbit pawn and range from one to six.  There is not an even distribution though, and most movement is three, or four, with two and five being the next most common.

The movement cards don't have any artwork yet, but judging from the cover, I expect they'll be pretty awesome looking!

2. Move your pawn - once you've determined how far you want to move you'll move your pawn along the paths that many spaces.  When moving you MUST follow the paw prints.  You can only leave a tile from a side that has paw prints and may only enter a tile from a side that does not have paw prints.  During setup it is possible to place tiles so that they are adjacent on sides that both do not have any pawprints, but you may not move between these tiles.  If you are on a tile that has multiple exits you may choose which path to take.  There are four types of tiles that you can end your move on: a Territory, a Carrot Patch, a Tunnel, or Founders Hill.  You'll get to resolve the tile you end your move on, but not quite yet.  The next step may change things up a bit.

3. Play Action cards - once you've finished moving you may play an Action card.  Action cards can shake things up a bit by changing what happens in the game.  There are two types of Action cards, Regular cards that can only be played on your own turn and Interrupt cards that can be played at any time.  Every player has a chance to play any appropriate Action cards during this step.  Sometimes no one will play an Action card.  Other times it'll turn into an Action card battle.  Starting with the active player, and going clockwise, each player can play an Action card.  This continues until everyone passes.  So it's possible for the active player to take an Action that gets canceled by another player, and then the active player can cancel the cancellation and still trigger the original Action.

All sorts of different kinds of Action Cards really shake things up.
There's even an Earthquake card that can be used to topple towns and villages!

In practice we found this the most confusing aspect of the game.  Not so much because it's confusing, but because sometimes determining how some cards affect other cards, and when cards can and should be played got a bit complex.  This is definitely an exciting part of the game though since some of the cards can cause a player to be moved to a location other than what they thought they were going to end on, sometimes completely derailing a strategic move.  We found pausing for this step a bit awkward, especially when the active player didn't have a card to play.  The natural tendency is to just take the action available on the tile you end your move on as soon as you are finished moving, but instead you have to stop and see if anyone has any Action cards to play.  It's a minor speed bump, but once you get into the habit of it, the chaos that ensues in this step of each turn is quite fun.

4. Resolve the Map tile - once all Action cards have been played, you get to resolve the actions available on the Map tile that your pawn ended up on.  Usually this is where you chose to move to, but sometimes it's a different location.  If you land on an Event tile (Carrot Patches, Tunnels, and Founder's Hill) you simply do what the tile says - gain some carrots and maybe gain an Action card.  If you land on a Territory tile you have more choices.  If you own the tile you can Harvest Carrots and then Upgrade.  If you land on an unoccupied tile you can only Upgrade.  If you land on someone else's tile you can either Share a Harvest or Upgrade, but regardless, the owner of that tile will at least get to earn carrots equal to the production of the settlement on that tile.

When you Upgrade you'll pay the carrots required for the next larger settlement.  If the tile is not owned yet you can build a Camp by paying the amount of carrots shown in the top left corner of the tile.  You then place one of your tokens on the center of the tile and you now own the tile.  If you land on it in the future you can both Upgrade and Harvest.  If there is already a Camp on the tile you'll pay the cost to build a Village (the top right corner) and you'll place one of your tokens on top of the Camp token that is already there.  Likewise, a Town (bottom right corner) is built over a Village, and you can't upgrade beyond a Village.  It doesn't matter who controls the tile when you upgrade, you'll always build over the current settlements.  All other tokens are left in place, so a tile with a Town will have three tokens stacked on it.

Expand your control and improve your ability to harvest carrots by building settlements.

There are several benefits to building larger settlements.  First, the obvious, the more settlements you build, the more points you'll score.  At the end of the game you'll earn points for every settlement that you've built.  The value of each settlement varies by the type of terrain that is built on, but the more valuable settlements also cost more carrots to build.  Next, the bigger the settlement the more carrots can be harvested.  Finally, as you control more territories adjacent to each other you'll be able to have even larger harvests.

Which brings us to Harvesting.  When you Harvest you'll collect all the carrots indicated for the tile you are on and the settlement built there.  But what's more, every tile that is connected to that tile that is owned by the same player will also produce carrots to Harvest.  This is called a Harvest Group.  If you are the owner you're the only one that gets that Harvest.  But if you're on an opponent's tile both you and the opponent gain that Harvest.  So if the Harvest Group produces 80 carrots, both players earn 80 carrots.  This adds a real interesting weight to decision to harvest on an opponent's territory or not.  Often Action cards can be played that mix this up, giving the owner of the tiles nothing from a shared harvest, or doubling the owner's harvest.

One thing to note is that you can't take any action on opponents' tiles that have a Town on them.  If you wind up there, the owner just gets to Harvest for that Town and you don't get to take any actions.  As the game progresses it gets harder and harder to move around the board without giving someone else some benefits.

5. Draw a new Movement card - to end your turn you'll simply draw another movement card so you're back up to two.  This gives you a chance to start planning your next turn while the other players are taking theirs, but don't ignore the game too much.  You might have the chance to play Action cards on your opponents or maybe earn some carrots if a player lands on a tile you own.

End Game:
After 20 rounds (10 in a short game) the game ends immediately.  Every player will have had an equal number of turns and chances are the tiles that make up the island will be pretty filled up with Villages and Towns.  Then scores are tallied.  Scoring is pretty simple.  The first thing to look at is who has the most carrots.  They'll get a bonus point.  Then look at who has the biggest contiguous Harvest Group.  They'll also get a bonus point.  These two points generally don't amount to much, but can be just enough to push someone into the lead.

Most of the points in the game will come from the settlements that have been built.  First, each player will earn points for all their Towns, removing the Town tokens from tiles as they are scored.  Second, each player will earn points for all their Villages.  Players earn points for Villages even if they had been upgraded into Towns later, and then Village tokens are removed.  Finally, each player will earn points for all their Camps.  So a Meadow will generate eight points total; one point for the Camp, three points for the Village, and four points for the Town.

Scores are tallied on the score sheet at the end of the game.

The winner is the player with the most points.  I've found that scores tend to range from about 18-40 points.  There are no tiebreakers, so if there is a tie both players share victory.  If you are concerned with breaking a tie I supposed you could house rule that the player with the most carrots wins in a tie, but really, this is a friendly game, so sharing the win fits the theme.

Concerns:
There were only a few very minor concerns with the game, but none of them are deal breakers and all should be pretty easy to fix or ignore.

The Rules: Overall, the rules were very simple and easy to both understand and explain.  After re-reading them though, I realized that we did one thing wrong.  We missed the rule that says landing on an opponent's tile lets them harvest on that tile, regardless of if the active player chooses to upgrade or harvest.  I don't think this changed our experience much, but it would have made carrots a bit more readily available, which would have made it easier to build a bit more.  It also makes harvesting on an opponent's territory a little more attractive since if you don't, the opponent will be earning some carrots anyway.  It also makes moving to an opponent's territory with the intention of upgrading a little riskier since you'll be giving the opponent some carrots in order to take that territory from them.  So, this section of the rules could be a bit clearer.  In fact, the entire section on resolving map tiles could be a bit clearer.  There's also no description of exactly what happens if you choose to upgrade on an opponent's tile.  It's easily discerned from descriptions of upgrading in other areas of the rules (in fact I didn't notice that this section was missing until I reread the rules while writing this review).  But, given how carefully the rest of the rules have been crafted (they're excellent for a prototype game and I'm sure will only be nicer for the finished copy), these are two obvious oversights.

The Tiles: The tiles are very busy to look at.  They have a ton of information packed onto them.  This detracts a bit from the lighthearted feel of the island.  I'm not sure how all that information could be presented in a less intrusive way, but it's something that might be worth looking into.  As they are though, the tiles do a great job of conveying a lot of information in a very structured, understandable way, and after playing for a little bit they're very easy to use and reference.  They just don't look as pretty as I'd like.  Who knows though, maybe they will have updated artwork for the production game.  Even if they don't though, the tiles are very nice, and super functional.

Another problem with the tiles is the number of Tunnel tiles included.  We found that often there were more paths that ended than Tunnel tiles to add to those ends.  We ended up just placing some of the extra, unplaced tiles face-down at the ends of these paths.  There are two possible solutions for this; either include more Tunnel tiles in the game, or make all the tile backs Tunnels.  So after the island is built all the unplaced tiles can be flipped and used as Tunnels.

In the four player standard game we ran out of Tunnel tiles and had to improvise.

The Explore Phase: I really liked the Explore phase and the little bit of strategy that is involved in placing rabbits and building camps.  But other friends thought it felt a bit awkward and would have preferred to just take turns only placing tiles.  Then everyone would just start the Build phase from Founder's Hill.  I'm not sure that would work out well, but it's something that can easily be house rules if you find the Explore phase to be not to your liking.

Another concern with the Explore Phase was the positioning of the tiles.  It sometimes gets complicated trying to figure out what tiles can be placed where.  I'm not sure it's an issue that really needs addressing, but it does turn what should be a pretty quick, interactive setup of the island into a somewhat fiddly and AP prone part of the game.  However, as you gain experience with the game you'll learn to look at the tiles you were dealt and make decisions about which ones will be easier to place later in the island's construction, and save those for later.  It can all be part of your initial strategy!

The Build Phase: My only concern with the Build phase is in the playing of Action cards.  This gets a bit chaotic at times and sometimes it's unclear exactly when a card can and should be played.  Sometimes the playing of Action cards felt a bit unnatural and contrary to the flow of the game.  But again, this is more something to just get used to than something to dislike about the game.

The End Game: The game ends after a certain number of rounds, which need to be tracked by checking off a mark on the score sheet every time a round is complete.  This is a mechanic that I loathe.  Any time rounds need to be tracked I find myself forgetting at some point in the game, then wondering how many rounds I missed tracking.  This is especially so when the tracking of rounds is external to the gameplay.  There are quite a few games that do this, and I always wish for a better solution.  I'm not sure if there is one though.  Maybe have a stack of 10 carrot tokens on Founder's Hill and every time someone cycles back to Founder's Hill they take a token?  When all the tokens are gone the game ends?  That might work, but it might also encourage players to just move along the shortest paths to rush the game to its end.  So I'm not sure if there's a solution, other than just avoid having me track the rounds...  Some people might also be against the game not having any tiebreaker rules, but as I mentioned before, that's something easily house ruled if it concerns you.

Rabbit Island pays great whether you play the full game or the short game.
We didn't feel that the short game was lacking at all!

But all of these are minor and nitpicky.  Overall, Rabbit Island: Explore, Build, Conquer! is an EXCELLENT game that I can't wait to see published.  I had a whole lot more fun playing a game featuring rabbits than I ever thought I would.  Rabbit Island will definitely be joining my collection and I think it should be in yours, too, especially if you like gateway games, family games, or 4x games.

Final Thoughts:
I really, really liked Rabbit Island, and so did everyone I played with.  This was one of the few review games I've received that my friends actually asked to play again (and the list of prototypes that they've asked to play multiple times is even shorter).  The theme is fun, the mechanics are very simple and easy to learn, and the gameplay is engaging.  It's a tough task to build a 4x game that is truly a great gateway game, but Rabbit Island accomplishes that goal and more!
That's a lot of game for just $44!
Check out Rabbit Island: Explore, Build, Conquer! right now, on Kickstarter!  It's available for only $44, including US shipping ($5 international shipping), through March 12, 2017.

Preliminary Rating: 8.5/10
This review is of a prototype game.  Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.





George Jaros is a board game player and designer from DeKalb, Illinois. He has loved board games for years and played all the classics when he was younger. He loved Civilization (the Avalon Hill version) back in highschool and college, and played tons of card games, board games, and more for most of his formative years. He didn't play games much after he got married and had kids, until 2014. Now his boys are old enough to play most games and he has found that tabletop games are a huge hit in his household. Their collection keeps growing and they keep playing. Over the last few years, he has been getting more and more engrossed in the gaming community and started GJJ Games to both showcase his own game designs and review others' games. He does a lot of Kickstarter previews, occasionally review published games, and has been adding more content to GJJ Games, like the People Behind the Meeples series of indie designer interviews, Eye on Kickstarter, and more. Find out more about George at http://georgejaros.com/GJJGames

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