UK Games Expo 2023 was awesome this year, there was so much to see and do, so many new games to try and so many people from the hobby to meet and play games with. But for me the Expo peeked in excitement at about 9.30am on the Friday morning. This was the time when I was playing Kavango.
I was already excited to see the game as the artwork posted online was so vibrant, but what I wasn’t expecting was the game to be so good that it was still buzzing around inside my head as I woke up on the Sunday morning.
I headed back to the stand to meet the lovely designers again on the Sunday afternoon and it felt like I had won the lottery as I was handed a preview copy.
In the 2 weeks since getting back home I have played the game over 15 times, teaching many different people, playing solo, 2, 3 and 4 players (in the final release it will play up to 5 players), and everyone that has played the game has asked when they can get a copy.
So, as you can already tell, I love Kavango and I will be a day 1 backer when it hits Kickstarter in September.
Please read on to find out how you play the game and why you need it in your collection. (Keep in mind all rules and artwork is not yet final and could be subject to change)
I Bought A Conservation Nature Reserve
Kavango is a Tableau / Engine Building / Drafting game which places you in charge of building a Nature Reserve over 3 rounds. Each round you will draft and play 10 cards initially placing producers (grass, trees, fish and invertebrates) that allows you to place small animals such as frogs, birds, mice and lizards which then allows you to place, if you planned correctly, the big animals such as Elephants, Lions and Cobras.
The engine building uses a tag system similar to Terraforming Mars / Ark Nova with each card placed in your tableau providing a continual benefit. There are 11 tags in total in the game and their distinct colours and pictures make it very easy to follow what you have played and what you still need.
The drafting is familiar to anyone that has played 7 Wonders. Everyone has a hand of cards which they choose and play one card simultaneously then pass the remainder to the player on their left. What is so clever about Kavango’s drafting is the way the hands of cards are made up each round. The first round sees all players having cards from the starter deck (made up of mostly producers and smaller animals). In the second round the players have hands of cards that are half the starting deck and half the final deck (the bigger animals such as Zebras, Lions, Honey Badger). Then in the third round the hands of cards are all from the final deck. This gives the game a wonderful feeling of progression as the cards in your hand become more complex but you are often able to play them straight away.
Animals not only require specific tags, they also require the right type of protections. Kavango has 3 different environmental concerns that you must consider which are Poaching, Habitat and Climate. The Poaching and Habitat protections are specific for each player whereas the Climate Protection is a shared goal.
During your turn you have the option to spend your money on these protections. Money is earned by achieving goals set out each round called Research Tasks. 4 tasks are available each round and these range from having a certain amount of producers in your tableau (i.e. 2 or 3 fish), having specific animals played, or having a certain amount of animals between a weight or size range. You may only claim each research task once so careful planning is required if you already have 4 animals that meet a criteria as extra points and money could be yours if you get to 5 animals. When you claim the task you earn money and points according to the level you claimed. Unlike other games with similar goals (think wingspan end of round goals) these are shared goals and when a player claims a certain level it remains open for other players to also claim it.
After 3 rounds of playing 10 cards each players final scores are a culmination of the research points, animal scores, the climate fund action cards, and the three award cards. Once again the award cards are not competitively taken and points are awarded for all players who achieve the tasks. The player with the most points wins.
This Savannah Is Full Of Life
I haven't yet mentioned Action Cards which are included with the players deck of cards. These can be played instead of an animal or producer card and they often allow players to gain more money, play a rewilding card (any producer) for free (saving a considerable amount of money), or even swap a card from your sanctuary (animals ready to be placed in your tableau but you don't yet meet all the requirements) with another players sanctuary animal. Action cards are often overlooked by players as the allure of playing a new animal is very addictive but good players will know when to play an action card to maximise their research task achievements.
The game has a lovely asymmetry to it without being too complicated as each players board has a slightly different set of producers and combined with the fact that players are dealt a unique conservation expert makes each game feel very different. The conservation experts give each player an ongoing power that is both very powerful but not game ruining. My personal favourite is the researcher which allow a player to have an extra research task each round just for them to achieve.
So Beautiful You Could Hang It On A Wall
A special mention to the artwork in the game as it is very special. Every picture is so well crafted with the colour choices and the muted background making every animal, grass, tree, termite and fish pop out of the card. By the end of the game, regardless of whether you have won or lost, you will be so proud of the beautiful tableau you have crafted.
Not only are the cards well designed but also the large player boards have a muted, ‘shimmering in the heat’ look which stands out so well on the table.
Doing It On My Own
Once you have learned and played a few games you can then tackle the Solo mode. I would definitely approach the game as a multiplayer game with a solo mode attached as it adds an extra layer of complexity that took me a few turns to get my head around.
When you play solo you are competing against Oppo and you have to manage their board and special instructions. Thankfully the game includes a couple of cards with Oppo’s preferences written in a clear order. Initially it is a simple process of working out what Oppo wants each turn but by the end of the game it can be quite an undertaking. Oppo is relentless in their placement of animals and it requires you to focus as much on their board as your own if you want to come out victorious.
I didn’t know you could fall in love with a game as quickly as I fell in love with Kavango. From its simultaneous play, amazing artwork, familiar gameplay mechanisms (with special unique twists) and super satisfying gameplay loop this game has lodged a special place in my heart.
Like all loving relationships you can overlook some of the faults. For example you need a lot of space on the table even when playing solo. The player interaction is limited to the drafting however this takes on a very aggressive role as you start to draft cards that you may not need right now but you know your opponents desperately want. There is not a runaway leader problem but you can definitely tell you may not win in the final round if you are still trying to play producer cards whilst your opponents are placing big predators. Finally the solo mode requires a lot of heaving lifting in the brain department.
None of these are really faults with the game and instead show you how I have struggled to review / preview this game objectively as for me it is nearing on a perfect game.
If I have a spare 45 minutes and I want to play a game this is now first on my list. Even better if my wife is free as she loves it as much as me (she beats me about 90% of the time), and at two players this feels like the perfect head to head game.
If you love good artwork, important decisions combined with quick turns, simultaneous play, that dopamine kick every time you play an awesome card, and a brilliant theme then Kavango is the game for you.