Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Charlie Bink
Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games
My kid is ready to take the next step in gaming as she slowly transitions out of the HABAs’ and Gamewrights and into slightly more complex strategy games with short rule sets. In search for a set of games to make this transition easier, I don’t have to look very far from my own collection as I am a huge fan of “German games”. These games generally feature very short rule sets, not a whole ton of components which appeals to kids but also having enough depth to satisfy adults. It’s not easy crafting games that cut across different age groups and several designers during this period such as Reiner Knizia do it very well. Botswana by Knizia definitely falls into this category of games.
There have been many versions of Botswana or Wildlife Safari. The game remains the same across the various themes. At least for Botswana, players play a card and pick up an animal. Each card depicts one of the five types of animals with values ranging from 0 to 5. The card type you play doesn’t need to match the animal you pick up. All card played of a particular animal type has to go into the same animal column with the newest card played stacked on top the previously played card. In this way, the value of each animal type is determined by the most recent card of that type played.
The goal of Botswana is to own the most valuable collection of animals based on the types of animals collected and the value of each animal which is determined by the final card played to each animal column. So if the game ends with a player owning 5 zebra but the value of the last zebra card is “0”, then they score nothing. So timing which cards are played when is critical for winning the game. The card play itself creates some tension but it is the end of game trigger that provides more drama because the round will end abruptly as soon as someone completes a single column of animals by playing the 6th and final card – it doesn’t matter if there are no lion cards at play if all 6 zebra cards are on the table, the game ends.
While there is certainly some luck in the cards that are dealt in each round, the impact of luck is hard to define in this game. Having a combination of high low cards is usually what happens with the high cards being somewhat more preferable since you can target collection of those animals. However, I am not at all convinced that having a hand of low value cards is a losing hand. Just because you don’t have a high value card, doesn’t mean you have to play blind at all. Look around the table and observe how your opponents are collecting the animals. You can glean plenty of information to aid in your decision. In fact, if you have low cards, you can really play spoilers because playing a low card on a stack with high cards already out is a killer move. Besides, having only high cards does not mean victory either. Plenty of times, the game ends abruptly enough that you do not have time to place the cards you want.
Botswana plays quickly and the rules suggests a number of rounds equal to the player count. This will even out the advantage for starting first since the start player stand to gain more animals depending on how the cards come out. The version I have from Eagle-Gryphon is delightful since it comes with plastic animals. Yes, it’s totally unnecessary, but the animals really elevates the game from just being a pack of cards or tokens to something a little more visual and tactile. I would say that with kids, the toy component definitely contributes to their enjoyment. While I am not enamored by gimmicks or useless trinkets in a game, the animals in Botswana are delightful.
Botswana is an old school Knizia filler and an excellent gateway game for kids evolving into a more competitive and mature gamer. If you have kids, Botswana is a no brainer. If you enjoy heavy fillers, Botswana is definitely on the lighter side of the equation, probably on par with 6 Nimnt! or No Thanks! That so many different versions of Botswana have been printed argues that the game has an enduring appeal. Most folks I played with enjoy the game and so this will be part of my permanent collection.
6 years and 10 months: If nothing else, this is a great filler for end-of-night gaming on a school day. It is short and sweet while having just enough depth to satisfy both adults and child. There is a healthy dose of luck in the game, but it never overstays its welcome. As a transition game, I think this checks many boxes. It certainly involves slightly more thinking and planning but does not overwhelm. I know that because I can see the game slow down a tad bit when my kid plays. I can see the gears in her head start to crank and some times, after the game, I will ask her what she was thinking during her turn. To her credit, she is actually quite capable of describing the logic and rationale for her decisions. I find that endlessly fascinating. I really enjoy dissecting a game with her. Get a copy of Botswana if you can, preferably with the cute animals.