Dale Yu: Review of Vivarium


  • Designer: Ferderic Vuagnat
  • Publisher: Studio H
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 10+ 
  • Time: 30 minutes
  • Played with review copy provided by Studio H

Per the publisher: “1898, Siberia, the seismologist Edgar Vuntaf discovers a continent free of any human presence, sheltering a teeming life, in forms never encountered before! Unknown plants, colossal creatures… Faced with this shocking discovery, the world’s scientific elite, gathered in Paris for the Universal exposition, create the Vivarium Syndicate, and decide to send explorers into this new continent.”

The board is placed on the table – there are four rows on the board; the top 2 reserved for Creature cards, the next for Equipment cards and the final row for Contract cards.  Shuffle the different card decks and then place 4 cards of the correct type in each of the rows.  

Creature cards are always worth 1-3 VPs.  They have both a type and a color attribute.

Equipment cards have 4 different types, they generally award you gems when collected, and they have a special ability that is either an instant or an endgame bonus.

Contract cards allow you to score points for the other cards you have collected in the game.

The 9 dominoes are shuffled; each player gets 2 at random and the last one is left face up on the table.  A stack of 6 priority tokens is made and placed in a face down stack and the special blank one is placed on top..  Each player gets a gem and two random starting contracts (one for color, one for type).  A first player is chosen for this efficient and tense card collection game.

The game is played over 7 rounds.  In each round, the visible priority token shows what sort of card will grant a bonus gem if collected that round.  In the first round, there is no priority bonus.  At the end of the round, the player with the most cards matching the priority criteria (collected through the entire game to that point) collects this token – which is worth VPs.

Each turn players use dominoes to create coordinates that allow them to build their card collection.   On a turn, the active player must swap one of his current dominoes with the one available on the table.  Then, using the two new dominoes, a set of coordinates is made, and a card in that position on the board is taken OR the player collects 2 gems instead.  If you have gems, you can use a gem to increase or decrease a number on a domino by 1.  The board is not refilled immediately; but only at the end of the round after which all players have taken 2 turns.  

At the end of the round, give the current Priority token to the player who has the most cards that match the tile; if there is a tie, it goes to the player later in turn order. Then, pass the first player token clockwise.  Refill the board with cards of the appropriate types.  Play another round  

After 7 rounds, the player that has successfully completed their objectives and collected the greatest creatures wins the game.  The points are gained for:

  • VPs from all your creature cards
  • 1VP per gem remaining
  • 2VP per priority token collected
  • VP per each completed contract card.  You may use a single card/attribute for more than one contract card

The player with the most points wins. There is no tiebreaker.

My thoughts on the game

Vivarium is a beautiful set collection game that uses dominos in an inventive way that I have really enjoyed.  I really like the way how you choose your tile.  You must exchange a domino from your hand with the one on the board; thus you determine half of the next player’s coordinate set through your play.  Heck, if you had good enough memory (which I don’t), you might really be able to figure out what their choices will be… I settle for trying to make it difficult for the next player to collect the things I think they want.

Though, there are plenty of times that my own desires are so strong that I don’t care what combination(s) I leave for the next player – I just want to get a particular tile, and the rest doesn’t matter…

There is a little bit of push and pull with what you are trying to collect.  Your contracts will certainly sway your decision, but you should not ignore the round bonuses; those 2VP each can certainly add up.  Additionally, always remember what the priority icon is for the round; the gems are quite powerful as the ability to shift the number of one of your dominoes can be huge.

Also, it is important to remember that the types of cards in each column are fixed; and you should remember this as you keep dominoes.  There can be some interesting decisions on when to take a contract tile – as the tile doesn’t do anything to further your immediate situation, but obviously, you need those contracts in order to score points later.  Can you afford to leave a contract on the table for a later turn?  Will someone else take it?  Or will you even have the right dominoes available to get the desired contract?  As you are at the mercy of the previous player for one of your tiles, it’s hard to guarantee access to all spots… unless you have a fistful of gems, that is.  

Creatures will always score points, though the reward for a fulfilled contract is much more than any single creature can provide.  Trying to find the right balance is key to overall success in this game.  I personally do not feel that many of the equipment cards have been super useful, as the special action they provide usually doesn’t outweigh the simple VP value of a creature card – but sometimes, the dominos give you little choice.  And, the item that acts as a wildcard for a contract can be huge, especially if it gives you a giant bump in points being the 3rd or 4th card to meet a criteria.

Each round only has two actions per player, and the game really moves along pretty quickly.  Though you can’t start planning until your RHO has started their turn (thus showing you which domino you get to work with), it still doesn’t take too long to identify your possible choices from the grid and to determine which tile works best for you.

The artwork is well done and very expressive.  I do appreciate the fact that the game also comes in a small package.  There is very little air in the box when all the components are inside, though there is likely enough space to hold an expansion (if one is ever made) if you’re willing to toss the insert.  The rules are well written with plenty of helpful illustrations/examples, and the reference of the back cover pretty much answers any questions that might come up during game play.

Overall, I have very much enjoyed my games of Vivarium.  This is one of those games that uses simple and familiar mechanisms but wraps them up in a tight package.  The addition of the fairly novel domino system for choosing coordinates pushes this one over the top.  Vivarium is a great super-filler, and one that will stay in the Gaming Basement for quite some time.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y
  • I like it.
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2022, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Dale Yu: Review of Vivarium

  1. TomdaBomb says:

    Good review! Ok, ordering it.

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