A copy of Hamsters vs. Hippos was provided by the publisher
- Number of Plays: 4
- Game Length: 15 – 40 minutes
- Mechanics: Press your luck, Player Elimination
- Release Year: 2021
- Designer: James Freeman, James Staley, Adam Staley
- Artist: César Ayala Delgado
- Publisher: Tin Robot Games
There are many famous rivalries in the animal kingdom. mongooses vs. cobras, lions vs. hyenas, and hares vs. tortoises are the first examples that spring to mind. Never in my life have I heard of the epic and lifelong battle that exists between hamsters and hippos.
Hamsters Vs. Hippos is a press-your-luck game by designers James Freeman, James Staley, and Adam Staley, with art by César Ayala Delgado and published by Tin Robot Games. The goal of the game is to be the hamster that collects the most lotus flowers while avoiding the hippos lurking deep in the water.
How to Play
To begin, remove two of the hippo tiles from the rest of the tiles and shuffle the remaining tiles up. Lay the tiles out randomly on the table in a grid of 5 x 5 (for 1-4 players) or 7 x 7 (5-6 players). On the centre 9 tiles, place a single pink lotus flower. Each player chooses a hamster, takes the associated player board and you’re ready to play.
Setup for a 2 – 4 player game
On your turn you must move your hamster onto an unflipped tile. When you move onto an unflipped tile you collect any flowers sitting on the tile, then flip the tile and perform the action depicted on the tile.
Anytime after your first turn you may choose to bow out of the round. Remove your tile from the board and place all the lotus tokens you’ve collected onto your player board. These points are now permanently yours and cannot be lost.
If you don’t want to bow out of the round for your second action, you must take another move action, exactly the same way as the first action.
If you move and flip over a tile and reveal a hippo, your turn is immediately over and any points you’ve collected this round are lost. Play continues for the rest of the players until either all players have bowed out or a second hippo is revealed. Once that second hippo has been revealed all players who are still in the round are hippo food.
Once the round is over, you’ll shuffle a third hippo tile into the supply, and set up for another round. And for the third and fourth rounds, you’ll add a fourth hippo tile into the supply. After four rounds the player with the most lotus tokens in their permanent supply is the winner!
I’ll talk about the production first. I received a pre-production review copy of Hamsters Vs. Hippos, so any aspect of this game could change over the course of the Kickstarter campaign.
The first thing that I noticed was the charming art on the cover. A cute hamster blissfully unaware of the looming danger of the hippo. I like how bright, cute, and colourful the art direction is, which encourages me to play with a younger audience. Once inside the box, you’re greeted with some very nice screen printed hamster meeples, and a tall stack of wonderfully thick tiles. While this massive stack is hard to shuffle, the thick cardboard tiles feel good in your hands.
Are they Hamster Meeples, or are they Mamples?
Each player gets a little player board with a hamster on it, holding a bag of their colour. This player board has a linen finish, giving it texture and a nice feel, but is made of very thin cardstock, almost the antithesis of the thick tiles. This isn’t much of an issue, as you’re not interacting with the player board much, just using it as a space to designate the tokens that you’ve cached from round to round. The lotus tiles are also quite small and thin; I found my sausage fingers had some amount of trouble picking them up deftly. Luckily for me, Hamsters vs. Hippos is not a dexterity game.
Hamsters vs. Hippos is a press-your-luck game about trying to collect the most points before choosing to bow out of the game to cache your goods. It may seem obvious that a press-your-luck game is incredibly luck dependent. Every time you choose to play more, you risk all of the progress you’ve made in the round up to this point.
In the case of Hamsters vs. Hippos, the word that comes to mind is ‘arbitrary’. Your first action in every round is to pick a tile to move onto; any tile along the outside will do. You have no information on which to base that decision, so you just end up picking the tile closest to your seat. Your second choice is much like the first – you now have 5 unflipped tiles surrounding your hamster, and you arbitrarily pick one to move onto and flip.
There is some vague feeling of strategy in choosing where you want to move to. Because you cannot move onto an already flipped tile, you try to maneuver your hamster in a way that leaves you with more than one unflipped tile available, while simultaneously trying to pin and corner your opponents. Beyond that consideration, you just choose your destination arbitrarily. Unless one of your tiles provides an option to peek under an adjacent tile, you have no information to base your decisions on. You just end up picking one, and hope there are no hippos in the water.
The Hamsters vs. Hippos tempo settles quickly. Move and flip, move and flip. We found that we stopped moving our hamster meeples in-between our actions. We’d just flip one tile, collect any rewards and/or settle any actions, flip the second tile, then place the hamster on the tile. Once we stopped moving the Hamster meeple, it became clear that the game of Hamsters vs. Hippos is just tile-flipping.
One hamster had to be the decoy…
As tiles get flipped over and players start to accrue lotus flowers, you may be tempted to bow out of the round to ‘save’ all the goods you’ve collected thus far. The trouble that comes with that decision is that it feels bad to choose to stop playing. Further to that, if you’re not already in first place it feels like a losing move. Yes, you could stop early and save the flowers you collected, but if the the leader is still in the round it feels like they’re getting further and further ahead of you. It feels bad when you stop the round with 3 flowers and the person who was already in first place collects 8 before stopping. Not only are you no longer playing the game, but you’ve put yourself into an even worse position.
The mirror opposite to that situation is when you arbitrarily chose a tile to start on, and that tile turns out to be a hippo. You are immediately out of the round before you even began. Again, in press-your-luck games you’re supposed to weigh the odds of getting points versus the odds of losing it all, and sometimes you can just have bad luck and lose right off the bat.
The game is not altogether without tension. In one of my plays I was the player who got the first hippo tile relatively early. I sat and watched as my friends scurried across the pond, snatching up lotus tiles left and right. I willed the tiles to reveal a second hippo, and when the player in the lead loudly postulated “Should I just leave the pond? Ah, I’ll flip over one more tile!” and that tile was the second hippo, I let out an audible gasp. That tension quickly deflated as we realized that because no one else had bowed out, the whole round was basically a wash. Poor decision making on our part I suppose.
“You first!” “No way, you first!”
I can’t help but compare Hamsters vs. Hippos to press-your-luck games that I really enjoy. Can’t Stop (which I’ve already reviewed) and Incan Gold are two great examples that come to mind. In Can’t Stop you roll four die, pair them off, and move trackers up a board. Before you choose to roll you have information available to you, which numbers are still available, how far you’ve gone on each of the tracks, and the probability of rolling one of the three numbers you’ve chosen for the round. If your three numbers are a 2, 11, and 12, you’re probably going to choose to stop playing for the round, just because you know the probability of getting one of those three numbers is low.
Incan Gold asks players to voluntarily choose to stop playing in order to save all the gems they’ve gained thus far in a round, but players have more information available to them when they make that choice. First, as players adventure into the temple and loot gets left on the floor, you can see the reward for choosing to bow out of the game; you’re not JUST choosing to stop playing, but choosing to scoop up all the points that were left behind. Tension builds as you contemplate what others are doing, you weigh the benefits and risks as you try to out-think and out-maneuver your opponents. Incan Gold has some very exciting moments as players choose to leave on the same turn, forcing them to split the crumbs, or as one player is alone in the temple, presses their luck and scores big! When a threat card is drawn, it doesn’t end the game for just one of the players at the table, it signals that the end of the round could be imminent for all players.
Getting back to Hamsters vs. Hippos, I feel there is a element of player agency missing from this game. Because you have no information to base your decisions off of, you’re just flipping tiles and hoping that you don’t get the first hippo. In a 4 player game with a 5×5 grid, half the tiles aren’t in the game. The odds of 2 hippos being in the grid at all feels quite low. In a 5 or 6 player game and a 7×7 grid, nearly all the tiles are included, which does increase the tension a little bit, knowing that the hippos are definitely on the table. The downside of playing with 6 players is that 10 tiles get flipped in between each of your turns, making the odds of two hippos coming up within those 10 tiles not unreasonable.
All in all, Hamsters vs. Hippos is a cute and well produced game. My ‘core’ game group bounced off it, citing the lack of information available to influence their decisions, but I can see it being a fun game to play with younger kids. I’ll be seeing my 6 year old niece in a couple months, so once we play it I’ll update my opinion on it. I imagine she will have a lot of fun with it.