Mammoth Hunters (Eiszeit, or Ice Age, in the original German) is the latest big-box game from Alea, the brand that has eclipsed Hans im Glueck as makers of serious games for gamers. Now, I must admit that while Union Pacific is a game I think very highly of, in general Alan Moon's track record is hit and miss for me. He has some good lighter stuff like Elfenland or Andromeda, but then again also some glaringly broken games like King of the Elves or the Elfengold expansion to Elfenland, so he is generally a try-before-you-buy designer for me. However, when it comes to Alea, Kosmos, and Hans im Glueck, brand trumps designer, so I left Origins with a copy of Mammoth Hunters in tow, buying a copy before I had played despite lukewarm reactions to his bigger recent games (Capitol, New England).
The basic idea here is that each player represents a tribe of hunters attempting to survive the Ice Age. Each hunter who survives a round of play is worth points, more points if he's in good hunting grounds (i.e., lots of Mammoths around). The board is divided up into areas, and card play is used to add, move, or remove Hunters and Mammoths to the various areas.
Each turn you get one card play. All cards will either cost or earn you money (the currency of the game being, somewhat amusingly, rocks. This results in less inflation than you might expect). This is the interesting bit. You will have a hand of 5 cards that is a mix of light (good, costing you rocks) and dark (bad, but earning you rocks) cards. You play one of these cards, and either pay or recieve the required rocks. If it's a good action - deploying hunters to the board, moving around hunters on the board, placing or moving mammoths - you just do it. If it's a "bad" action, these are of the format "choose another player to do X" or "allow all other players to do Y". You then dutifully pick another player, who then will perform the action - typically removing hunters or mammoths from the board, moving around existing hunters, or placing their own hunters (this last one most common in the "every player does Y" format).
And that, speaking quite broadly, is it. You continue in this manner, playing cards and then drawing to replenish (your choice of card types, so the mix of light and dark cards in your hand can vary with the game situation - but you always have to have some of each), until the supply of available rocks, dictated by the number of players, is exhausted. Then you determine who survives, and score.
Survival can be a little tough. Each area has a limit of 3 hunters that it can support, with that limit increased by 1 per mammoth in the area (although they don't get eaten, surprisingly) and then a random bump from between 0 to 2 due to campfires. Hunters in excess of this limit die off; for those of you who have played Civilization, the mechanism here is completely identical to that classic. If you haven't, basically each player present in the area must eliminate hunters in turn until the limit is reached - with the least numerous hunters eliminated first.
Scoring is then one point per hunter base, with one additional point per mammoth in the area (to a maximum of 3 total). So 3 hunters in an area with 2 mammoths are worth 9 points, a very significant total - final scores will be in the neighborhood of 40.
At the end of the scoring, whoever is doing the most poorly gets to plow under an entire area as the Glaciers advance - killing off everyone and everything in the area. That area then becomes unplayable. That then constitues a round. All the rocks that people have spent then become the pool of rocks available to earn next round from playing dark cards. Continue for 4 scoring rounds, most points at the end wins.
Since this is an Alea game and targetted at the hobby gamer, there are a number of additional, detail-type rules. Hunters can acquire clubs, which protect them from a lot of bad things and affect the conflict rules; cult cards allow you to replay discarded cards; campfires can be moved around; and so on. However, this is still one of the simpler games that Alea has done, and I consider it certainly less complex than Puerto Rico, Traders of Genoa, Taj Mahal - in fact virtually every game in the line except perhaps the classic Adel Verpflichtet. There are non-trivial subtlties to play, but once you've gone around the board a time or two, most players will have grasped the entirety of the game and play will proceed smoothly. Conflict will possibly create a hiccup for someone as they see it for the first time, but it is still pretty straightforward. But, is there anything there? Well, yes and no.
Yes, because there are some nice resource management issues. The number of rocks you have in your supply will dictate your flexibility - more rocks, more options (duh). Since most decent light cards cost about 3 rocks to play, when you have a middling supply of rocks, it's actually a pretty tough decision - playing the light card now may significantly improve your position, but on the other had will force your play next turn most likely, since you'll have to play a dark card - thus meaning the other players will have plenty of time to erode your good work before you can respond. On the other hand, once you've accumulated 8 rocks you must play light cards - but this is generally not as problematic as being forced to play cards that help other people. There is also a nice tension with the dwindling supply of rocks for playing dark cards. Obviously, in general you want to save your big guns for the end of the round, when the other players have less time to undo the good work you've done. As the rock supply dwindles, you will generally be in a position of deciding whether to play your power-card now, or to try to hold out for one more turn - but this will generally involve playing a dark card, which will serve to accelerate the end of the round. Calling the end of the round, too, can be tricky - there can only be two rocks left in the dark pool, but if everyone has plenty of rocks the round can go several more times around the table - but if only one player is short, the round could end abruptly. Tough call, and this sort of thing is a theme in Alan Moon games.
The other singificant interesting element of the action is who to pass off your dark card actions to. In this way, Mammoth Hunters is actually similar in feel to El Grande for me. In El Grande, the game is usually won or lost not so much by your own scoring, but by how well you leverage other player's scoring (so in that game, if you get a lot of points from scoring second places in other players' areas when they choose to score them, this is very good). Here in Mammoth Huntes, it seems to me that the management of the dark cards is where the game really is. When you play the "remove a mammoth" or "move a campfire" events, you want to pass them off to somebody who is going to have your best interests at heart, or at least is motivated in some way not to hose you too badly. If you have to play some dark events in which the obviously play is going to be for your designee to turn around and hammer you, this is not the fast track to victory. Part of this is just managing the events themselves (don't play the "remove a mammoth" on the last turn before the scoring round when you have the most mammoths), and part of it is managing the onboard position; if you can get into a situation where you are sharing resources with exactly one other player, you can feed them dark events and not be too worried. This ideal case isn't going to happen too much, but you can manage less obvious things to some degree.
I said the answer was yes and no, because there is a downside here too, which should be pretty obvious - this is a "hammer the leader" game. Dark cards bring in generally about a third to a half more in rocks than light cards at similar power levels cost to play, so (roughly) half to a third of the cards played will be dark - and they are virtually all hosers of some description, which allow you to more or less arbitrarily pick on people. So, you really do *not* want to be ahead on anything but the last turn. Now, it is true that this is not like Vinci in that you can't just arbitrarily pick someone and go after them - you'll be limited by available cards, and by the fact that you can't just whack someone - you have to choose someone else who you hope will whack the player you'd like them to whack (and the rules expressly disallow negotiation on this, or any other, point). The damage does get spread around, it seems, but the player in first is always an easy target and it's pretty easy to get at him with generally much less of a downside than in, say, El Grande again. In that game, almost everything you do is motivated by self-interest in the end - you're removing blocks from a region to protect your own majorities, or so that you can take areas over; picking on the leader usually checks in around 3rd on the list of priorities - not insignificant, to be sure, but not usually the major driving impulse. Here, the board situation changes so much and so often, building up strong positions is hard and you're often reverting to the default of getting the leader. Still, this seems less of a problem to me than you might expect. I usually have a very strong aversion to games like Vinci, Condotierre, Citadelles, Illuminati, or Europa 1945-2030 which are dominated by a "reign in the leader" impulse and tend to end when one player sneaks in for the win while other player's aren't watching. Mammoth Hunters appears on first inspection to be in that ballpark, but it seems that the leader-hunting is just oblique enough, and the situation dynamic enough, that it does not bother me greatly; and I think that with more experience, it will become less significant as players learn to cope as much with the on-board state - which is not overly complex - as with the point track, especially given that negotations are expressly forbidden (this is smart; while negotiation games number among some of my all-time favorites, this game is better off without them, I think). The card actions are fairly powerful, and between light and dark cards you can go from being almost wiped out to having all your pieces back on the board to being bulldozed again by a glacier in the space of less than a round.
Another point that should be made regards the game length. Initial games took about 2 hours, which I think is a bit over where the game wants to be, which is around 90 minutes. An occasional weakness in Alan Moon's games can be that they can feel repetitive - Elfenroads is a classic example, a neat game that simply went far too long and became tedious well before the end. Mammoth Hunters is not quite in that category for me - although it's close - but it has been for some of the people I've played with. The play time has been trending down, and I think if it hits 90 minutes (my sense is that is where it will end up for play 2 or 3 with the same group) life should be good for everyone, at least in this one respect.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention a rather major production glitch in the Rio Grande version of this game - the dark Cult card has text from some other card on it, text that is completely inaccurate and meaningless. This is not good, and reminds me of the Guild Hall from Puerto Rico that had deceptive and inaccurate (and very problematic) text in the first printing. That, however, was more excusable - this is a basic proofing here and basically inexcusable, and I would expect Rio Grande to replace these cards for free given the egregiousness of the error. However, I also do not expect that this will happen. It's impact on play is somewhat limited, but not entirely trivial since unlike most cards, the icons on the Cult cards are not entirely enlightening. Also, note that Rio Grande has left off the '8' on the side of the box that indicates this is the 8th game in the Alea big-box line (the '8' is present on the German version). What's the deal with that? For someone who loves the Alea games, the numbering is a nice touch. The only reason I can think is that Rio Grande has not published two of the games in this line (Adel and Chinatown), so didn't want to confuse anyone; but presumably they're alredy confused by the '7' on Puerto Rico? Slightly annoying to me I must admit, but this is perhaps somewhat irrational. In the interests of piling on, also note that the yen symbol on the front of the box between the designer's names, another very basic proofing error. Now, none of this stuff is critical to the game, and isn't going to turn a "buy" decision into a "pass" for anyone I don't think, but Rio Grande has been doing these things for a long time now and it's a bit unsettling to see problems like this creep in, problems that simply shouldn't occur.
So, now we come to the bit where I give you the bottom line. I liked Mammoth Hunters. It didn't blow me away, and it didn't have the same feeling of depth that Alea games usually have, but it is fun, the environment is dynamic and there is tension, and the choices are interesting. I don't think I can identify a single other big-box Alea game that I'd say it's better than, but these are some of the finest gamer's games to come out in the past 5 years, so that's not necessarily a problem. I liked it significantly more than Alan Moon's other recent game, New England - Mammoth Hunters is more dynamic, more engaging, and presents you with a lot more interesting choices, although it is modestly more complicated. Interestingly, one of the things that distinguishes Alea's games from most other German games for me is a sense of strategic depth - games like Taj Mahal, Traders of Genoa, Puerto Rico, and Chinatown reward long-term vision much more than your average, short-term-optimization based eurogames. Mammoth Hunters is more mainstream in this respect, without much (any?) long-term planning required, although there is some medium-term thinking (you manage your rock supply to set up your next move, or the move after that).
If this sounds a bit like waffle, you might be right. I hoped for more, I got a bit less, but, on balance, I'm reasonably happy. I've enjoyed the game more than any Alan Moon game since Union Pacific, it has some of the subtelty I crave in games, and it has a unique feel. This is not a game with a shot at greatness - if you're going to buy only one or two games this year, Amun-Re and Domaine have to rank higher - but it is sound, is fun, has good and interesting decisions, and it engages me to draw me back which many games do not. On balance, a recommendation.