Banking on getting home? Best get on the boat!
Ravenous River is a new game from emerging designer Isaac Shalev with artwork by experienced illustrator Felicia Cano and published by AEG. It falls solidly into the microgame category, a relatively new breed of game design which aims to get the maximum play out of a minimal number of components. The poster child for this is Love Letter, available in different versions, but which consists of a mere sixteen cards and some wooden cubes. Here instead we have thirty cards of various types, some tokens and those ubiquitous wooden cubes, so it is ever so slightly larger fare than the most micro of games but hardly anything to cause difficulty in terms of table space or storage, and it could happily fit in your bag, especially as only half the space in the box is used for the components.
The premise of Ravenous River is that players are attempting to get their animal from one side of the river to the other via one of two boats, while trying to ensure that, at the end of the game, they are not in the same area as their predator. If that happens your animal will be eaten and score you no points at all and all your efforts will have been in vain, however if your animal happens to be in the same area as its prey at the end of the round then you will gain points. A final way to score is simply for your animal to be alive at the end of the game, one point for still being at home, two for making it across to the other bank. Players’ animals are always kept hidden from the others in Ravenous River so if a player manages to bring prey for their own animal onto a boat in the search for points they do not know whether they have indirectly helped another player get closer to home. As a result this game really comes alive when players are prepared to bluff and misdirect in order to achieve their aims. With seven players, however, all the animals are in play so the dynamic changes slightly, and perhaps it would have been an idea always to have one more animal in play than the number of players.
How does Ravenous River play? Simplicity itself!
Set up is simple – you place the two boat cards in the centre of the playing area, choosing one side as the “bank”, lay out the animal cards face down, and deal each player a voting token, two action cards and an animal totem card (which tells them which animal is theirs and also acts as a player aid). After that the only thing left to do is to decide who is the hungriest player, as they will start the game. Ravenous River supports up to seven players, and the set up is only marginally different when you are playing in two, in which case players get to choose two of three animals they are dealt.
After you have been dealt your hidden animal play proceeds from player to player over various rounds. On their go a player may take an animal from the face-down row, look at it and place it either on a boat or on the bank, discard an action card from hand to move an animal from the bank to the boat or from the boat to the bank, or play an action card from hand, activating its text ability. If you happen to take the first of the above options and decide you would rather not place the animal you have picked up, then you may discard an action card from your hand and replace the animal card face down. When both boats are full and the current player is out of action cards a vote is taken on whether to end the round, but the result has to be a clear majority for the round to end, as a draw or negative vote means that Ravenous River continues. The voting means that players in strong positions might be drawn out into the open, forcing them to judge which way they think the voting will lean and to balance that with what they might actually desire. It is clever, undoubtedly, but it does not feel strictly necessary for Ravenous River. Instead it is a superfluous fiddle for a game that prides itself on economy.
A boat built for two? Two-player wrinkles.
In the two-player variant voting does not take place and the round ends when both players are out of action cards, this makes Ravenous River feel much more clean and streamlined, even if the game with multiple players is simply more fun to play. This kind of flexibility is to be welcomed and opens up the number of potential players for Ravenous River, especially as the two player option feels like a game in itself rather than just a shoehorned extra. Strangely though (and this feels like a design flaw), a player is not allowed to pass on their turn unless they have no cards in hand and there are none left in the animal row. In my experience this sometimes meant that the endgame came down to players discarding action cards and moving animals from the bank to the boat and back again. Ravenous River might perhaps have been a stronger game if, say, the option to pass had been introduced and two passes in a row would trigger a voting round. As it stands there is a tendency for Ravenous River to drag out without much happening, and dragging, in the hotly contested field of the microgame, needs to be avoided at all costs.
How Ravenous is the River? Follow the chain!
If Ravenous River does not finish after a voting round then it will automatically come to an end once all players are out of action cards. The scoring then proceeds via what is called the “predation chain” as players find out whether they eat or are eaten, beginning with the bank and then each boat individually. An animal scores a point for each unbroken link in the food chain, so if the lion, bull and horse were all to find themselves on the bank at the end of the game the lion would eat the bull which has in turn eaten the horse and therefore score two points. The poor bull and horse score nothing. Any survivors in the boats are then moved “home” and the predation chain is worked out again. Any animal to survive this final feeding frenzy gains extra victory points, one if it is on the bank, two if it has made it home. At the end of scoring if a single player has 6 points or more and is not tied for the lead they automatically win Ravenous River, otherwise another round is played.
Each round plays quickly and easily and a whole game of Ravenous River does not outstay its welcome, but even if it did players could agree to change the number of points needed for a victory. One of the criticisms of Love Letter has been that playing to seven victory points extends it for too much time given what it has to offer, although different editions deal with this issue in different ways, but here the whole game feels just about right and the different choices players face on their turns add a little bit of meat to the bare bones of the rules.
Suspend your disbelief! Here comes the theme…
One of the strangest things about Ravenous River, and a hurdle an interested player will have to jump, is the way the theme is integrated. While the basic premise of eat or be eaten is easy to take on board, you will be asked to stretch the limits of your belief as far as the whole predator and prey thing is concerned, the oddest link being the one that closes the circle, namely that the mighty lion’s predator is…the mouse. At a push one could imagine the lion maybe being slowly gnawed to death over an extended period, so it is not entirely outside the realms of possibility, at least in a parallel universe, but it is an odd leap to have to make. It also has the unfortunate consequence of making Ravenous River awkward to play as players will need to be reminded that the horse, not usually a meat eater, will eat the dog, and that the dog eats the fox, not the cat. While it does not impact upon the mechanics of Ravenous River per se, it does make for some pauses as players try to remember the food chain.
The theme is also likely to be one of the biggest barriers in the way of this game becoming a widespread success, because the lightness of this game, the ease of its play, and the wonderful and endearing art all place it firmly in the “family game” category – devotees of complex Euros need not apply here – and yet to play it with your little ones and to encourage them into Ravenous River you will have to expose them to the whole nature is red in tooth and claw thing. Good though Ravenous River is, it is going to be a hard sell next to something like Love Letter, with which it shares some mechanics and its overall feel.
The art looks the part!
It would be remiss for any reviewer of this game not to mention Felicia Cano’s evocative artwork which brings the characters of the animals to life in a charming way. The fox looks sly, the lion suitably regal, and the mouse timid, although it is clearly attempting to hide its intention to gnaw a lion to death. There are wonderful details on all of the cards, such as flowers, butterflies, leaves, even other animals, which make looking at them a genuine pleasure, and surely something delightfully enticing for younger players, all of which makes the rather realistic theme seem ever more strange. All of these animals seem carefree and could hardly seem less interested in eating each other or, for that matter, crossing a river. The microness of Ravenous River is actually a negative here, as the small size of the cards means that many of the subtle details of the art are lost, which is a genuine shame. Making the cards slightly bigger and packing the box portrait rather than landscape fashion would have been a better option I think, although that could have meant the price may have had to rise as a result.
Should you hunt down this game?
Part of the difficulty of recommending this game is in deciding who it is aimed at. It has the hallmarks of a delightful game to play with children, or maybe a quick filler for grown ups looking for something of interest to begin or end an evening of games, but it is hard to lose the nagging feeling that this is a mechanic in need of a retheme. As it stands it may well be too grisly for younger players, while it may be a little too light for more experienced gamers, and as a result it may well have some trouble finding a niche to inhabit.
Theme aside, and personally I have no problem with it and can happily turn a blind eye to the horse/dog and mouse/lion matchups, this is a light but fun game. The voting mechanism feels a little clunky and perhaps unnecessary, but I feel has been added to include an element of bluff and deception over and above the hidden cards, but overall this has just enough interesting things going on to keep players involved over multiple rounds. It works best with the full complement of seven players, but the two player game is also fun to play as well, even if if presents a different challenge and can degenerate into trying to rid your hand of action cards.
At its price level, which is also suitably micro sized, it offers a decent amount of play and for players wanting to explore this style of game, or players still trying to find the style to which they are drawn, it represents an appealing prospect, especially as it will cater for up to seven players. It may have its flaws, but even if it falls flat with your gaming group, you can at least console yourselves that it was not an expensive mistake.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.