Valley of the Mammoths: my view.
I like games with rich themes. I’m even willing to forgive the odd rules foible if the theme is strong and well served by the mechanics. I really dislike games that have very clever mechanics but where the theme feels pasted on. Even some popular games like Ra and St. Petersburg utterly fail for me in this respect. Both seem to have clever mechanics but the theme is essentially irrelevant, and I just don’t get a buzz out of playing them. Valley of the Mammoths falls into the opposite camp (along with games like Bootleggers): dripping with theme but with the odd rules/mechanic/component foible.
Valley of the Mammoths is a game of survival in caveman times for 3 to 6 players. The gameboard is very nice. It comprises two double sided halves that can be combined to create 4 different boards. This is an excellent idea that instantly increases variety and replay value. The boards are nicely done, depicting large hexes of different terrain (forest, mountains/volcanoes, plains, lake), with rivers along some hex edges. There are areas for the decks of cards, numbers on the different areas of each terrain (for determining card effects), and letters around the edge of the board (for determining where animals arrive). There is also a game turn track and a compass rose with directions labelled 1-6 (for moving animals). There are 54 round cardboard animal tokens with letters on the back. These depict the wolves, tigers, bears, bison, rhino and mammoths that can wander across the board, and they come with a black cloth drawstring bag to pull them out of. There are 8 additional wolves. The different tribes are depicted by round cardboard tokens (10 warriors, 6 females, 5 camps/caves per player) in orange, pale blue, yellow, green, red and darker blue/green. In addition there are fire, flood, neutral warrior/female, crop, fence and food markers. There are 40 fate cards and 15 each of summer and winter event cards. Finally there are two wooden dice and a wooden season marker. The artwork on the counters is cartoon fun. The pictures on the cards are even better, with amusing cartoon scenes that, depending on the player, will often generate a smile/smirk/chuckle/fit of the giggles.
The rules are nicely written and presented, though the combat bonuses table contains errors. The game website contains errata, but I strongly advise new players to download the excellent full colour help card from http://jesweb.net/old/coin/adj/adj.html. I printed these out in colour and photocopied them onto thin card. The look like they should come with the game, which is a black mark against the components, because they should have been included by the manufacturer.
Firstly the players choose a gameboard. All of the animal tokens with letters on the back are placed in the cloth bag. The summer and winter event decks are shuffled and placed on their spaces on the board. Each player takes one set of coloured tokens and 12 points of food markers. Starting with a random player, each player then places 1 camp, 2 females and 5 warriors onto any open space on the board. If the camp is placed in a mountain hex, it is flipped over to become a cave. If a camp is placed in a plains hex, the player may immediately spend 1 food token to plant crops, placing a crop marker (showing 2 ears of corn) in the hex. Players may not place camps in adjacent hexes unless they are separated by a river. Finally, 5 fate cards (4 in a 5 or 6 player game) are dealt, face down, to each player. The rest of the fate card deck is placed on the appropriate space on the board. The wooden season marker is placed on the 2nd turn of summer on the turn wheel on the board and play is then ready to begin.
Game turns then proceed with a number of phases, some of which are specific to seasons. The turn wheel is split into 3 summer and 3 winter turns. The game begins mid-summer, so there are only 2 summer turns before the initial winter.
Phase 1: Events (except in first two summer turns of the game): All wildfire and flood markers are removed and then an event card is drawn from the appropriate deck. Players resolve the actions dictated by the card. If the card refers to a region (group of hexes of the same terrain type), a die is rolled to determine which of the 6 regions of that type is effected (corresponds to numbers 1-6 on the regions on the board).
Phase 2: Arrival of new animals: A number of new animals are drawn from the cloth bag, depending on the turn and the number of players (somewhere between 1 and 6). Each token is placed in the space at the edge of the board specified by the letter on the back of the animal token.
Phase 3: Movement of animals: Animals in the same hex as humans do not move. All other animals move in the direction determined by rolling a die and consulting the direction compass rose at the edge of the board. Each type of animal has a different maximum movement and only certain types can cross mountains or rivers. Animals will attempt to move their maximum move in the direction indicated but will move in the opposite direction if they begin adjacent to an obstacle (terrain, flood/wildfire counters, lake, board edge). Once an animal has moved one hex, it will stop if it encounters an obstacle, rather than turning around. Animals that move into a hex containing humans will stop immediately. Animals that move into a hex containing other animals of the same species will stop and form a herd or pack. If a bison, woolly rhino or mammoth moves through or stops in a hex containing crops, the crop marker is flipped over (from 2 ears of corn to 1) or removed (if already 1 ear of corn).
Phase 4: Movement of tribes and setup of camps: After the first turn, the player with most camps on the board (or in case of a tie, most humans, or in case of a tie, most food) moves first. Each player may move all of his/her tribe tokens. Tribe tokens in a space occupied by animals or enemies may not move unless they outnumber the animals/enemy, in which case a number of tokens equal to the number of animals/enemies must remain in the hex. Each tribe token may move up to 2 hexes. Tribe tokens entering mountains must stop. Tribes may not cross a lake or river. Tribe tokens entering a hex containing animals or enemies must stop, though if they are numerous enough, some may continue moving provided a number of tokens equal to the number of animals/enemies remain in the hex. If 1 warrior and 1 female of the same tribe find themselves alone in a free hex, they may form a camp (or cave if in the mountains) instead of moving. Once a camp/cave is formed, one female must always remain there, otherwise the camp is lost.
Phase 5: Combat: Combat occurs between players (and then animals) in the same hex. Combat between tribes involves warriors and is a simple die roll with modifiers (+1 per warrior, +1 in friendly camp, +2 in friendly cave). The victor kills the loser and also claims any females in the same hex (replacing them with tokens of their own colour). Females must fight each other if they end up in the same space, but females facing warriors are immediately captured (and replaced). If combat involves more than 2 players, all losers remove tokens. A player who conquers an opponent’s camp takes 25% (rounded down) of that player’s food (or 50% if it was his/her last camp). The victor may then either replace the camp and any females with their own tokens or burn the camp and massacre the females.
Fighting against animals is similar except that both warriors and females can fight animals. Animals gain +1 bonus per animal in a herd/pack. If the humans lose, one token (warrior or female) is lost. If the humans win, they take food tokens equivalent to the food value of the animal(s), which varies from 1 (wolf) to 6 (mammoth).
Phase 6: Survival: Players calculate their food production, which is based on: 1 point (fishing) for each occupied hex on a lake shore or bordering a river; 1 point (foraging) for each occupied forest hex (cumulative with fishing); 8 points (harvesting) for each undamaged crop token or 4 points for each damaged crop token (these tokens are removed). This total is compared to the food consumption (1 point per human) and tokens then added to or removed from the food stock. Humans who are not fed are eliminated.
Phase 7: Births (only at the end of each season): For each camp with a female token, 1 die is rolled. For each camp with 2 or more females, 2 dice are rolled. A roll of 1-2 produces another female, 3-5 a warrior and 6 twins (2 more rolls, with 6s now producing warriors). New tokens are placed in the camps immediately, providing there are sufficient tokens (the limit is 10 warriors and 6 females per person).
Phase 8: Planting Crops (only at the end of winter): A tribe may plant crops if they have a camp in a plains space. Planting crops costs 1 food token and a crops token showing 2 ears of corn is then placed in the appropriate hex.
Phase 9: Draw new fate cards (only at the end of each season): Players with fewer than 5 fate cards in hand (4 for a 5-6 player game) draw 1 new card. Fate cards can be played at any appropriate point in the game (as shown by the text thereupon).
Phase 10: End of turn and victory: the turn marker is moved one space on the season wheel. If any player has 4 or more camps, he/she must announce it. If he/she still has 4 or more camps at the end of the following turn, that player wins the game. If a turn ends with no humans on the board, the game wins (survival is tough for cavemen!).
Player Elimination: a player eliminated before the end of the first year is given a new tribe consisting of 3 warriors, 1 female, 8 points of food and 3 fate cards. This tribe is placed on any free space between phases 2 and 3.
Advanced Rules: fire: in the advanced game, a player must have 4 camps and fire in order to win. Fire can be captured by any token alone in a volcano space during the movement phase (instead of moving). Furthermore, a tribe token can gain fire even if it moves, from a space adjacent to wildfire or a lava flow provided there are no animals or enemies in the same space. Tribes with fire gain a +1 bonus during combat with animals. A player that conquers a camp of a tribe with fire also gains fire. Possession of fire is shown by placing a fire marker in any one camp (this can be moved if the camp is lost). If the fire rules are used, survival during winter requires 1.5 units of food per human (rounded down) for tribes that do not possess fire.
So, What Do I Think?
Overall, I like Valley of the Mammoths a lot, and I give it a commendable 7 out of 10. It has a rich theme, and highly amusing cards and artwork. I’ve heard it described as nightmare civ., which is pretty apt. It is certainly a game that can swing wildly with various events and appearance of animals in annoying places. I’ve heard that some players think it really drags on, and I notice that the game’s page on BGG gives a 3 hour playing time whereas the box says 2 hours. It can occasionally outstay its welcome a little. The ending is certainly not the best that I’ve seen but I think that players need to adapt and plan carefully for it. Just scraping to 4 camps (and fire) is a very dangerous thing to do because it just invites ‘bash the leader’ syndrome from all the other players, which will cause the game to drag on. Instead, the skill lies in getting to a position of strength with 3 camps so that when you get to 4 camps you have enough artillery (in the form of warriors on the board and decent cards in your hand) to make it very difficult for the other players to knock you back. I’ve won several games by getting to 4 camps and then unleashing some combination of natural disasters on everyone else (volcanic eruption, avalanche, blizzard, forest fire, rock slide) whilst backing up my fighting capability (e.g. with flint or amazons). Another good strategy is to get into a position where you can suddenly jump from 2 camps to 4 quite quickly. Provided you have a decent board position and some good cards to back you up, it is unlikely that the other players will drag you back (but of course everyone else may well be trying to do the same thing!). Overall, we find that a game usually takes about 2.5 hours, but occasionally this can be significantly less when a player manages to exploit a particular situation well. If it drags on, it is often because the game is difficult to survive (food can be pretty scarce) and all the tribes are constantly being hammered by the elements (fate cards). If you find this to be the case, then try starting with more food or playing to 3 camps or a time limit instead. Regardless, it is one of those games where having fun is paramount, and winning a close second, so just have fun playing.
Good review for an excellent game!
Thanks very much!
Honestly, this games not a real, serious strategy game. It's a little too rnadom for that. It is however a hell of alot of fun as long as you don't take it too seriously.
We love it because of the way the game constantly, brutally tries to kill you every chance it gets. Those "event" cards are actually "how are we all going to die" cards. And don't even get me started on the animal draws. Big cheer from the whole group everytime someones crops get trampled.
Great, fun game if you've got the right attitude.
Also, one of my friends has played 4 times, and every, single game he's been killed by a pack of wolves. He always comes back for more though.