Food Chain Island (Button Shy Games, 2020)

Basic details: 1 player; 20 minutes; no automata

Date played: October 21, 2020

Gist of the game: You are trying to facilitate animals’ meals on a lonely island.

Sixteen animal cards (value 0-15) are shuffled and randomly dealt into a 4×4 grid. Two sea creature cards, whale and shark, are placed off to the side for use during the game.

On each turn, choose one animal on the grid to be the predator and move it one orthogonally adjacent space onto an appropriate prey. The predator can only eat prey values 1-3 below that of the predator. When the predator eats the prey, those cards form a stack, which is treated as a single animal with the identity of the top card. When the predator has eaten its prey, the predator’s special ability is activated.

Some special abilities require animals to move. Animals must move to open spaces, but these open spaces can be outside the original grid area. If an animal moves multiple spaces, it can: move over other animals but must end on an open space; and move in multiple directions, but it cannot end where it began.

At any time during a turn, one or both of the sea creatures’ abilities can be used. Sea creatures are discarded once their ability has been used.

The game ends when you are unable to make a move. If there are three or fewer animals left on the island, you win. Sea animals do not count toward this total..

The game can be made more challenging by trying a different starting grid configuration or by omitting one or both of the sea animals.

Color commentary: This was my first experience with a wallet game, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about Button Shy, and I had a discount from backing a Kickstarter, so I decided to splurge a bit and stock up on interesting looking games in their library. This game takes up a bit of table space because of creating the grid (but by no mean an onerous amount), but you can’t get much smaller packaging than a container about the size of a business card holder. Because of the packing space, this seems super nice for travelling, should such a thing ever be allowed to occur again. I can definitely see myself taking a game like this to Myanmar to play in my hotel room or in the airport waiting a billion hours on layover. Even better if it’s a Tokyo airport and I can eat Tokyo Banana Company snacks while playing, but I digress…

In the first game, I had 10 cards left, but then remembered the sea animals. I used the whale to move one animal to any other space, and the shark to move an animal one space to eat an animal of any lower value, ending the the game with 6 cards. I ended the second game with 5 cards left, and the third game with 4 cards. Bolstered by this progress, I tried again, and ended with two animals left. Victory! With two remaining animals, I ended with the status of “Accidental Matchmaker.”

I know a lot of people prefer interacting with automata for solo games rather than “beat your score” type dynamics, but I’m unconvinced I’ve ever implemented an automata correctly, and I enjoy the simplicity of beat your score mechanisms.

Overall, this is a breezy, quick game that nonetheless makes you think. It clearly took a few attempts to do well, but on each play I feel like I was making more considered and careful decisions about which predators to move. It’s hard once you start having gaps between the cards, because then you might really need to be able to move an animal multiple spaces to make it adjacent to an appropriate other card, but many special abilities only really allow for movement of one space. Special abilities can also work against you by forcing you to move animals you can’t really afford to move, usually further away from all the other animals, or requiring your next turn to occur in such a way that making an appropriate move is actually harder.

Thoughts I think M have if he had played: There’s definite strategy here in choosing which predator to make the opening move with, and what choices you make following on, but there’s also definitely an element of luck as to whether the cards end up initially placed in such a way to make victory technically possible. The rules are super easy to pick up on, and the game does have a fair amount of strategy for such a simple setup and short gameplay. I would also be remiss if I did not note that the artwork was cartoonish and fun. But, most importantly, why do all the cute animals have to eat each other?

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