CHENNAI : Tile-laying games are one of board gaming’s biggest genres, right from the classic Carcassonne to more recent entries like Dragon Castle or Between Two Cities. These games are popular for many reasons, but one of the biggest has to be because you always have a sense of having built something by the end of the game — a sense of fulfilment — and that’s certainly the case with Habitats.
In Habitats, 2-5 players will compete to build the best wildlife park over the course of three years. Turns couldn’t be simpler — you choose one of the available tiles from a communal grid and place it into your park. A set number of turns makes up each year, and you’ll be judged by different criteria at the end of each year. A final scoring happens at the end of year 3, and that’s the game in a nutshell.
Like the best games, Habitats sounds simple in theory but reveals its intricacies as you play. Let’s start with the drafting of tiles — because tiles are theoretically accessible to everyone, you’ve got to choose which ones you take carefully because they may not be around later. Also, you’re limited in which tiles you can take — you can only take the tiles ahead or to either side of your player marker — which can really turn the screws. Should you take a suboptimal tile now and set yourself up for a better one next turn, or should you go for the perfect tile that’s in a corner which means you won’t have a choice in what you take next time around? It’s never overwhelming, but it’s always an interesting decision to make.
In comparison, placing the tiles into your park appears to be the more straightforward part of Habitats. However, there’s more going on here than initially apparent as well. Animals won’t score unless you provide them with a sufficiency of their required habitat — grasslands, jungle, drylands or water — and most animals require a combination of those terrain types; meaning that every tile is valuable not just for the scoring opportunity it provides by itself, but also the terrain it could provide to enable something else to score. Additional wrinkles are added with roads, watchtowers and tourists, all of which place additional constraints on how you want to build your park.
Finally, we come to the end-of-year objectives, which elevate Habitat to the next level. Because these are entirely randomized, you might have an objective in the first year that’s completely at odds with one in the third year. Even so, you can’t afford to just ignore them; and the extra level of planning they require really gives Habitats the sort of crunch that makes this type of game so very satisfying.
Every now and then, a game comes along that doesn’t have a wild hook, or attention-catching feature or gimmick, but is just a good, solid game in its own right; and so it is with Habitats, which is one of the finest tile-laying games I’ve ever played. It’s not particularly glamorous, and it’s not going to make people stop in their tracks, but every single person I’ve played it with has had a good time and that’s the sort of guarantee many flashier games just can’t make.