Habitats (review feat. Morisi and Switch)

Designer: Corné van Moorsel
Artist: Steven Tu
Publisher: Cwali
Players: 2-5
Ages: 10+
Playing Time: 30-50 minutes
Times Played: 8 with purchased copies or convention library copies

This is going to be a post about the paths we take.  I don’t think I mean in some sort of life choices sense.  More the physical directions we go.

Here’s one:

It’s for elevation. I told my wife that when I get dementia or am in any similar situation, to take me back to that trail. I just found recently that alltrails.com will show you these elevation graphs of given trails. This specific trail brought me an unexplainable amount of mental comfort. If I remember it or not, if I’m aware of what’s happening or not -if something can break through to bring me solace, it’ll be that trail.

Here’s another.

One day last year, that’s the sequence of paths I took. A sort of double figure-8.  

I like to count stop signs on the way to work. This thru street has 8.  The next has 7, but is one block further out of the way. Is there a time saving. That highway exit leads to x stop lights while the next one has y, but it also will involve z left turns.  If I take the bus, it’s a larger time commitment, but I’m free from driving and supporting public transit and other things; it is a much different path.

Here’s another one.

This time a second or third grade project to map out the path between your house and school.  Glad to see I noted where the ice cream parlor was and that I was distinguishing between banks and savings and loans.

A few years ago, a friend mapped out the patterns of his day and designed his new house around the paths of his home life.

In general, I don’t notice the paths in my life (despite being very aware of them), but I’m coming to recognize that it’s something featured in many board games that I love, and it’s important to me in an effort to understand myself, that I trace back the games I love to my life outside of these games. In my ongoing efforts to catch up with games I love that we’ve never reviewed, today I’m going to talk about Habitats.

In Habitats, you’re building a wildlife park and hoping to, naturally, do so while achieving the most victory points over three rounds.

Each player receives an entrance to their park and chooses a color, placing their score marker on the scoreboard, and their figure in the market.  (Depending upon the version, these figures may be wooden meeples of a sort or they may be ceramic animal figurines.) The scoreboard is setup for the number of players, and a number of intermediary goals are set out for each of the three rounds.

The size of the market will vary upon player count, and the placement of the players’ markers will be dependent upon turn order.

On a player’s turn, they move their figure forward one, left one, or right one, and turn the figure to face the corresponding direction if the movement was left or right. If another player is occupying the space, the player moves to the next tile in that direction beyond the opponent and the player can’t move outside of the grid.

The player collects the tile in their destination location and draws from a pile of unused tiles one to replace where they’ve been (we refer to it as “pooping” the tile out, but, uh, I guess you don’t have to). The player adds the tile to their park adjacent to at least one other tile, and not bordering a road.

The tiles come in a few varieties.  The majority of the tiles represent animals in the park and show at the top icons of landscape types the animal would like to be near.  (This typically means directly orthogonally adjacent to, but multiple requests for the same terrain can be “chained” through one adjacent tile.)  If the animal’s conditions are satisfied, you place the tile right side up, and if the conditions are not yet satisfied, rotate it upside down.

Some tiles arrive satisfied, such as flowers; some will be end game scoring conditions, such as largest lake area, or most distinct forest regions; others will be watchtowers, from which your visitors hope to see satisfied animals in certain directions; and a few are rear access roads to your park.

Players take 18-21 turns over the course of a game, with 2 breaks during, and one at the end, to resolve those scoring criteria that were chosen during setup, such as most variety of flowers or longest park diagonally.

In an addition to the points scored for these criteria, at the end of the game the satisfied animals will earn a certain number of points, as will the flowers, watchtowers, and roads.

What if Habitats took place on a hex tiling basis rather than square?  Corné has explored this type of path game before, including in the Isi -> Morisi -> Netzwerk series, where the first is square tiling, but the latter two use hexes.

Designer: Corné van Moorsel
Artist: Coline van Moorsel
Publisher: Cwali
Players: 2-4
Ages: 10+
Playing Time: 45 minutes
Times Played: 3 with purchased copy

Morisi fits another obscure category of types of games I like: Maps that Feature Towns with Only Three-Letter Names. (Ugo! is the other one, by the way.  I don’t just make these up. I like to have at least two examples.)

In Morisi you’re….ah…no idea. Making some roads between cities.  These roads will get you points in ways that we’ll get to, but for now, it incentivizes both having every city connected to at least one other and having the most connections to other cities coming from a central city.

To set up the board, you shuffle the 39 hexes and tile them in anyway you wish, provided it meets certain structural conditions that ensure it is fairly round and without holes.  Next, turn the tiles face up and, depending upon player count, add a certain number of cubes of a matching color to each of the non-city hexes.

Each player receives a pawn which will navigate the board, a set of roads, and several building pieces which will be placed in the cities to represent how many other cities that first city is connected to by a player.  The building pieces come in three sizes (1, 2, and 3), and if you need something of a higher value, just use more than one.

Turns consist of one mandatory portion and one optional portion.  

The mandatory portion is pretty easy: move your pawn one hex.  (You can’t move to a hex where someone else is; you jump past them instead.)  If the tile has a cube, pick it up.

The optional portion has a bit of criteria to it, but this is where you’ll lay roads.  Without reproducing the rulebook, the requirements are things like you must build a complete path (typically starting in one city and ending in another); turning in a cube matching the color of the tile at one end of the road for each road in the path being built; if an opponent(s) already has a road across that hex edge, an additional cube(s) might be required; and only one new path per turn.

Once the route is built, check the “population” levels –that is, the number of cities each city is connected to.  For example, let’s presume you have no routes currently on the board. You play a route that connects city A to city B.  Each of them is connected to one other city, and so you add one of your buildings that represent level 1 into both A and B.  If on a future turn, you connect B to C, you would do the same, and now A and C are at population 1 and B is at population 2.  

(Alternatively, you could have connected to C from the middle of the path that connects A and C and now each of A, B, and C would be at size 2.)

So, going back to scoring for a moment, at the end of the game a player earns 4 points for each city in which they have at least 1 population.  Additionally, look at the three most populous cities (inclusive of each players’ buildings there), and the players’ score points equal to their own population in those select cities.

The game ends when either all cubes of one color have been removed from the board or a player achieves an auto-victory by placing their last building onto the board.  High score wins.

It’s a real puzzle.  The scoring conditions are a tricky balance, and the tri-populous-umvrite is its own puzzle –I see you building a lot of connections to that city: do I follow suit and help it grow, or do I avoid it to hopefully starve you of the excess points? –because more than 1 population in a non-top 3 city was likely an inefficient use of resources (and ooooh boy are they tight!)

Think over the board when you first see it set up.  You’ll need a game plan. Where are you going to go. Where are they going. Which routes should you prioritize building. Where will the largest cities be.

It’s also has moments of tactics as your pawn nears another player’s pawn.  Turn order being turn order, how will you navigate to the cubes you want without their pawn squatting on that hex. And flip it: which tile should you pause on when. And watch the timer.  When will a player grab that last cube of that color.

You weren’t asking “Yeah, but what about a poker variant that uses this sort of mechanic?”, but I got you anyway!

Switch (As featured in the designer’s 1963 book Abbott’s New Card Games)
Designer: Robert Abbott
Players: 2 or 4
Playing Time: 30 minutes
Times Played: 3 with a standard deck of cards

@kumagoro_h’s Trick Taking Party has slowly dug into my brain and opened me up to exploring more games that are played with a standard deck of cards.  Abbott’s New Card Games, which has a BGG entry as a book as well as entries for some of the games, appeared as an entry on a recent “Games Only You Have Played This Month” list, and I wasn’t aware of it before that. I don’t remember what originally pushed me enough to check it out from the library or why I picked Switch as the first one to try out, but here we are.

Switch is a poker variant that takes place on a 6×6 grid of face-up cards.  At the start of a hand you will be on your own, but may have a partner later. You may only need to collect 5 cards, but it could be up to 9.

Each player starts with a token in the corner nearest to them.  On a turn they’ll move the token in an orthogonal line any number of steps to another space – it may have a card or it may be vacant, but you cannot move to the same space as or past an opponent.  If you landed on a card, take it face-up in front of you.

Play rotates around the table with each player following this procedure, moving around the board and collecting cards.  At some point, a player can, on their turn, declare that another player is their partner. The other player cannot refuse the offer, and the 2 players not involved are now partners with each other.   Teammates do not combine hands or anything like that; it is largely a way to share points. Table talk is allowed – if not openly encouraged – in the rules, and teammates often take on a blocking role after the partners are chosen.

A hand technically ends when all the cards have been acquired, but practically ends when the players agree that a hand cannot be created to beat the current winner.  

There are generally 10 points available in a hand.  If a player wins without a partner (which seems unlikely), they earn 10 points.  If a player chose to declare a teammate and that teammate has the high hand, the teammate earns 7 points, and the declarer 3.  If, however, one of the remaining two players wins, that player earns 6 points and the teammate 4. If the declarer wins, no one scores.

Switch has been interesting in several subtle ways.  Many hands that you try to acquire will broadcast your intentions with a clear signal.  But will another player be able to prevent your hand while staying on course with their own? Will they wait on someone else to jump in front of your train?

The points are structured so that the declarer is the least rewarded position.  It can also be a tricky call to make. Three points are certainly better than zero points, but there are seating position issues with regards to how well you can be a fullback. How long, though, do you push it -call too soon and you risk being defeated, but call too late and someone else will have made the call.

Often the hand you set out to make, is not the hand you end with. You parlay what you were making into something else.

It is so elegant and yet sitting unknown. For T6, maybe I’ll try to have a day of standard deck of card games. (It goes with that other plan we talked about.)

I love Habitats.

It’s interesting: in Morisi, you know all of the cubes that will be available in the game, but uncertainty abounds in where the other players will move their pawns or build their roads.  In Switch, you know all the cards that will be available; there may be more fierce competition for the same locations; and tactical blocking is an easier task.

In Habitats though, you can only see so far ahead.  When you move to acquire a tile, a new one will appear behind you.  It might change your strategy (though it will take you 3 turns to get there). It might change your opponents game plan.

Sometimes you need a rocky terrain tile, but an opponent may too.  Are they going there or somewhere else? How many are there to choose from? What path will you take to get there and will you be able to satisfy the animals you acquire on the way?

The market is one puzzle, but your park is another. (That last paragraph again.) Where will you place that rocky terrain – so that it satisfies this animal. And the one you think you’re picking up next turn. But that may clash with your backup option for next turn in case the other player does the other thing.

(It’s not unusual to play square-tiling games and think “I wish I could try this with hexes”, but that’s not the case here.  I fear that hexes would make the adjacencies too easy, and I relish the puzzle of efficient placement of square-tiling adjacencies.)

You haven’t forgotten the mid-game scoring, right. You’re working on making the most compact park?

I like the gift that the new tiles provide.  A sort of moment of bated breath waiting to see what is entering the market.

All round it’s a delight.  A pleasant theme and an interesting puzzle.  That chef’s-kiss balance of tactics and strategy.

James Nathan

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Mark Jackson: Note – the 3rd edition rules of Habitats have you place 2 goals per “year” – which we like a lot!

Tery: I love Habitats,for exactly the reasons James Nathan described. When I first learned it I had very low expectations because it looked too light based on the artwork and the cute bits (an upgraded copy with little ceramic animals), but boy, was I wrong. There is a lot of game packed into a short time frame. Optimizing your path and trying to figure out what your options might be based on your fellow players is a puzzle I enjoy. It is easy to teach, works well with any number of players and it plays in a relatively short amount of time, even with more players. I have the 2nd edition, but we’ve tried the 3rd edition rule Mark mentions above and we like that, too.

Dale: I really like the puzzle of figuring out the paths.  And, yes, clearly I refer to the tiles as being “pooped out.”

Dan Blum: I like Habitats although I prefer it with fewer players as the path optimization is more interesting that way (the more your path can get disrupted, the less optimization you can do). I played both Morisi and Netzwerk (and Isi for that matter) back in the day but didn’t find them engaging. I owned High Hand (the proprietary version of Switch) for years but never played it.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

I love it! James Nathan, Jonathan, Mark Jackson, Tery
I like it. John P (and I love Morisi!), Dale Y, Dan Blum
Not for me…

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