Designer: Yusuke Sato (佐藤 雄介)
Publisher: New Board Game Party (新ボードゲーム党)
Times Played: 14 on purchased copies
I’m writing this as a “review” of Golden Animal, but there are a few things you should know before we get started. It is scheduled today because I helped license the game for Allplay (boardgametables.com) and they are launching it on Kickstarter today, under the new name and theme, Couture. I will financially benefit if you back it.
I don’t enjoy auction games in general, but it’s more that I don’t enjoy the predominant type of auction featured in board games – as we continue around the table in slightly increasing numbers until all players have passed. For auction games which exist outside of this space (or turn that model upside-down), I often adore them – as in the case of Suroboruos, Strasbourg, or Gossip and the City.
In Golden Animal, there’ll be three lots to bid on each turn. (It’s unlikely you’ll win the whole lot, but the highest bidder will take the first card from the lot, then the second highest, and so on.) You begin the game with 4 cards in your hand representing the money you have to, uh, “spend” (but more on that later), and you distribute those 4 cards as you’d like across the three lots.
On the table, the lots are separated by a card showing mountains and one showing a river. Hey, that’s how they’re separated in your hand too: in addition to 4 money cards, you have a mountain and a river. Simultaneously, players arrange their hands to align their money with the location of the lot(s) they’d like to bid on, and when ready, reveal them. As you each began the game with the same amount of money, you’re likely to have a few ties. Each money card also has a tie break number printed on it, and the lowest number present among tied players will take priority.
We’ve already had so many of the auction twists and we haven’t even left the first round or talked about what you’re bidding on – but they also went by a bit fast, so let’s review. You have 4 money cards with which to bid: a 3, a 2, and two 1’s. Divide them across 3 bids as you’d like, but there are no other denominations (yet) or change. Also, everyone has the same amount of money!
But! Your two 1’s aren’t equivalent – one will have a lower tie break number. Which lot are you most concerned about tying for? Can you put your best tie break there? This also means that 2+2 ≠ 3+1 – both mean you bid 4, but the tie breaks will be different. There is a cascade here which shouldn’t be understated: if you want to bid 4 on the mountain lot, but decide for tie break purposes to swap out a plan which had involved 2+2 for 3+1, your other bids must now be adjusted, as wherever you pulled a 2 from is being replaced by a 3 (increasing that bid) or a 1 (decreasing it). Maybe we’ve gotten too far into the tactics of the auction puzzles for this point in the explanation, but I just love it so much.
OK, where were we. We’ve all arranged our hands and revealed. Lot by lot, determine who bid the most, second most, and third most. Then, by rank, each player takes 1 card from the lot. (Once everyone has taken one, any leftovers go to the highest bidder.) The game takes place over 7 rounds; In the first round, there are 3 cards available in each slot, but the remaining rounds will only have 2 cards in each.
I want to chat about what you’re bidding on, and then reveal another auction twist, but things will make more sense if I explain what happens to your money first: nothing! You pick it back up! Sure, it’s an auction game, but you never spend your money. You’ll continue to use those 4 money cards for the remaining auctions – though adjustments to these cards is one of the things you’re bidding on.
Some money cards you bid on will be variations of what you have – something worth 2 money, but this time also 1 victory point. Some will be quite nice – worth 4 money – but at a cost of -2 victory points. For each of these, you’ll add them to your hand when the three auctions are over, but then remove one money card from your hand.
There are other money cards you can buy worth, well, uh, 0 money, but 1 victory point. And I hear you, that doesn’t, um, sound great. Buuuuuut you simply add them to your hand. They give you a new slot! Now you have 5 positions for money cards and when you win a 2 money card, you can discard the 0. (Though it can be hard to say goodbye to a 0, as you’ll fall in love with the tie break on it.)
Other cards are victory points. Just, uh, here’s a card worth 2 victory points.
The remainder show food symbols – meat, leaves, berries – and the players with the most, 2nd most, and 3rd most such symbols at the end of the game will earn victory points. While we’ve been talking about some small victory points from money cards, having the majority of these food symbols grants points in the 5 to 7 range! If you choose one from a lot, place it face up in front of you.
So we’ve arranged our bids, revealed our bids, and taken cards. Add any cards with new slots to your hand, add any new money to your hand, and pick up your hand. Reveal the cards for the next round’s lots and arrange your bids.
At the end of 7 rounds, the player with the most points wins.
Golden Animal is an unassuming auction game and one that succeeds for me because of the limits it places on what you can bid. The bidding is not unreminiscient of Strasbourg – a game where you also have fixed money cards and must distribute them among a fixed number of auctions (though the more direct analog is Nidavellir.)
I’m generally a fan of taking bits and jimjams out of games until they are the minimal version of themselves, so while I love Strasbourg, Golden Animal packaging some of the same auction feel into a 15 minute game without as much of the tinsel is a delight.
I first played it at 4 player and had trouble visualizing how well it would work at 3 or 5, but it does! As can be true of your strategy in many games, knowing when to zag when others zig is important. You may note to yourself that these two lots have cards you expect the other players to want, but does that mean a sole 1 money card could be the only thing bid on the 3rd lot, gaining you both cards?
I love how tight the majorities are for the different food points at the end – often just as tight as the auctions, with ties coming down to tie breaks printed on the cards. (I assumed from reading the rules that these tie breaks would be an inelegant road bump in the game, but in practice I find them the FDA Nutrition Facts label on the cards I’m selecting – this is the one with more fiber and less added sugar. Make the smart choice.) It gives the auctions – and the later selection of cards from the auctions – a palpable pressure, as you jockey for who will get the majority in meat, leaves, and berries.
The 7 round arc of the game is perfect. The incentives to buy into more money cards – and possibly get out before you’re left holding a -2 pt card – are there. The corollary is that players who may not get an early money card probably took a food card instead and likely have a lead on the end game points. It’s the analysis the game asks you do to each turn: for my larger strategy, what are the proper tactics this turn? Which lots can I win and which lots have the most acceptable consolation prize(s)?
This is probably my favorite 2022 release.
There are a few versions of the game now. In a reprint from Jelly Jelly games which was released in October, as Golden Animals, the middle auction is always 3 cards and to support that, two new types of cards were added: a -1 money card and a -2 victory point card. The Allplay version, Couture, launches today, but I’m not sure what changes there are as I write this.
The original game was an honorable mention for Japan’s Arclight Game Award in 2022, which highlights how well a game succeeds on the following qualitative criteria:
- Does the game offer an interesting experience?
- Is it a game you want to play over and over?
- Do you want to introduce the game to others?
- Is it a game that causes the people around you to want to play?
- Does the game have a universal appeal?
- Is it a game that fits with current trends?
They specifically highlight Golden Animal as being a game you want to play over and over, introduce to others, and has universal appeal.
I hope you like it. 💛
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it! James Nathan
I like it. John P, Jim B
Not for me…
I enjoyed this one in my single play… glad to see it becoming available!