This post is peculiar in the sense that it is both a KS spotlight post on a game I’m currently backing, and a Table Presence post on a game I’m currently playing; the game is Habitats, and it’s not even a solo game.
Wait, what? No, no, don’t worry, I won’t tell you about multiplayer play here. The game is perfectly soloable. Actually, it’s very much a multiplayer solitaire, the only interaction coming from the fact that players draft tiles from a common market – akin to Cascadia or Overboss in this regard. On top of this, the designer himself provided a solo variant on BGG. There are two, actually, and I tried both. So, even though the game is listed as a 2-4 players one, I purchased it for solo play only, and I don’t regret it.
Let’s start with the game. You start with a park entrance in front of you. Every round, you must pick a tile, and place it adjacent to a tile in your park. There are 22 such rounds, at the end of which you just score your park. Each tile is scored individually, and there are either animal tiles (which grant you points if you fulfilled their “habitats” requirements), or special tiles that score depending on how much of a given terrain you have, or how many animals in a straight line starting from the tile. It doesn’t take long, and I don’t think I have checked the rulebook much after the first play. It’s just very simple.
Now, as I mentioned, there are two variants. In the first one, you just pick tiles randomly, one after the other. It may be frustrating in the sense that you can get screwed from the very beginning, or be unable to fulfill a plan because of bad luck of the draw. But it requires no set-up and it plays in 10 minutes, if not less. In the second variant, you draft tiles from a market of eleven tiles in which you move your little meeple around. Each round, you select a tile facing your meeple, move it so that it “picks up” the tile, and fill the gap behind them. It requires slightly more set-up (laying 11 tiles and a meeple in a rectangle), and because you are now allowed to plan ahead, it takes significantly more time (even though you play the exact same number of rounds and do exactly the same thing).
Why is it good, then? Well, it’s all about the animals. Animal tiles (which are all unique!) have requirements: for instance, the Warthog wants to be adjacent to a Plain, a Desert, a Forest, and a Water tile – which is the most constraining of requirements. Each animal also comes with its own background environment, so you fulfill the requirements of animals with other animal tiles. It’s up to you to find the right synergies. What is more, sometimes an Animal requires, say, two Water tiles. In which case, you don’t need these two water tiles rightly adjacent to your animal: as long as your animal is adjacent to a group of water tiles of size at least two, it’s okay. And this really leads to an interesting spatial puzzle. You often want to place several tiles of a given terrain type next to each other, but on the other hand, all animals on these will want a greater variety of terrain tiles, so you must balance the two. It’s truly fascinating.
Now, why do I think it’s especially good? In the end, it’s a Beat Your Own Score game, plain and simple. I am often of two minds about this kind of solo games, in a sense that sometimes, it feels like you are chasing a number that doesn’t bear much meaning on the game. Here it’s different. During the game, you have the drive to build a nice park. You want your little animals to be happy, and you want to provide them with the right habitats – there is something fundamentally satisfying about it. And it’s all the more fortunate that these two motivations – satisfying your sense of animal-friendly tidiness, and scoring points – happen to exactly coincide. The park in itself is the true reward; the points are just a convenient quantification of a result that you already feel.
Before I move to the true question – why am I backing it if I own it already? – I’ll just have a quick word on Sagani , which is the direct heir of Nova Luna, itself a re-implementation of Habitats (I haven’t played Nova Luna so I won’t say anything about it). The spatial puzzle of Sagani is “purer” in the sense that it’s both cleaner (you don’t have special scoring tiles, to begin with) and it grants you more freedom, inviting you to display all your patterning creativity. But I favor Habitats for two reasons. Thematically, I far prefer real-life animals to silly, cartoony, and generic “Nature spirits”. As a result, in Sagani, I don’t care about the final arrangement. Second, Rosenberg didn’t go with a “BYOS” solo mode, but a true win/loss condition – manage to reach score threshold X within N rounds – yet adding a BYOS variant in which you just have to place all the tiles available and see what the final score is. So, it has less clear a purpose, and therefore I don’t feel compelled to play it as much.
A final word on the Kickstarter campaign. There are three things I don’t like about Habitats. First, the graphic design is a bit repellent, even though I do like the realistic take on the animals. Second, shuffling tiles is a horror, and since you tend to group them during the game, it’s absolutely essential to shuffle well. Third, as long as you don’t fulfill an animal’s requirements, you place it upside down, so that, in the final scoring, you know at first glance whether to account for it or not. But it means, first, that it’s aesthetically discordant during the game, second, that you need at times to retrieve a tile in the middle of your park to rotate it correctly, which is inconvenient.
The new edition offers a pretty graphic design (although I don’t like that the animals are now weirdly and exaggeratedly colorful), a very nice bag to shuffle tiles, and tokens you place on the animal tiles when fulfilled. You even may go crazy and purchase the completely useless add-on that replaces these tokens with a bucket of animal meeples. It's so clearly an over-production madness that I truly appreciate these are optional – yet I am most certainly grabbing them. I’m just too fond of critters.