Endangered is a 1 to 5 player co-operative dice placement game from Grand Gamers Guild. Designed by Joe Hopkins it’s a game about saving critically endangered species from extinction. With truly stunning cover art and an important and engaging theme, it begs the question... does Endangered play as good as it looks and sounds? I’ve trekked through poacher infested jungles and dove into oil slicked seas to get you the answer. Let’s take a look.
How to save a life
Endangered utilises a modular game system where each scenario introduces a new species with unique challenges and behaviours. These scenarios ‘plug in’ to the core rules of the game and take very little learning after you’ve nailed the original rule set. Each species saga unfolds on the main game board grid. There’s a jungle side for land animals and an ocean side for marine animals. The base game comes with two scenarios, Tigers and Sea Otters. After you've set up the appropriate scenario each player chooses a character and takes their player board. Also choose 1 of 2 speciality cards for that character, take their unique deck, turn token and 3 dice.
The core mechanic in Endangered is worker placement, where your dice are your workers. The game board has 4 action locations printed on it but players will add to this by playing action cards from their deck into the tableau. Anyone can then play their dice onto these new locations but there is one all important placement rule: all dice placed on an action must be higher in value than any other dice already there. Actions include things like moving animals, removing destruction tiles, getting money and influencing ambassadors. Your turn will consist of:
Action Phase, placing all three of your dice and taking those actions.
Offspring phase, roll the dice to see if any mating pairs breed
Destruction Phase, roll the dice to see where to place a destruction tile
Impact Phase, reveal the top card of the impact deck and resolve its effect.
Upkeep phase, draw a card and choose a player who hasn’t taken a turn this round to go next
Winner takes it all
To not lose Endangered you’ve got to ensure the animal population doesn’t drop below 2 individuals and not let the destruction tiles run out. But to win you’ll need 4 ambassadors to pass votes successfully in a voting year. Each ambassador card has an equation on it that determines a yes vote. For example: mating pairs + influence on this card = 7 or higher. Each player count has two specific years (or rounds) at the end of which you’ll check the ambassadors for positive votes to pass the resolution of animal protection.
Achieving 4 yes votes before a voting years gets you nothing, but if you don’t have the votes by the second voting year you’ll lose. An average game lasts an hour and with more players playing fewer rounds the game scales at a similar time for all player counts
The production quality of Endangered is excellent! The animal meeples are perfect, the art is beautiful. In fact the cover art is one of the most striking box covers I’ve ever seen. All materials are high quality and the unusual pastel colour schemes for the individual player components really stand out. The only thing about the aesthetics I was disappointed with was the nature of the grid on the main board. Now I know the grid is needed for the destruction mechanic and practically it works well , but it looks and feels a little like playing wildlife Battleships at times with the dice grid reference symbols at the sides.
For the most part the game has fantastic table presence and is incredibly attractive. Personally though, I think some more detailed and varied art on the map itself and on the destruction tiles would help the board feel a little less bland and make it pop even more. But it’s a small thing and it is completely unrelated to gameplay, and as we all know it’s how it plays that counts.
Dice placement is a mechanism that I’ve enjoyed in many competitive strategy games. This is the first co-op I’ve played that employs it, or any form of worker placement actually, and it works shockingly well. There is an element of action blocking that needs to be worked around together. It provides a nice deep level of strategy and communication where everyone’s turns are important and impactful.
Each species comes with three difficulty levels and unique gameplay traits and challenges. The two modules in the base game effectively double its replayability. With plenty more modules coming in expansion form potential for replayability here is astronomical! Add to that the fact the action tableau is custom built each game from character decks. Don’t forget too that each of the five characters has not one but two special abilities to choose from and you can be sure that no two games of Endangered will play out exactly the same.
The ambassadors are great endgame objectives. I really like the way you can mitigate how hard their requirements are by adding x amount of influence to the card. The game starts with 7 ambassadors face down and you have to add influence to reveal them. Only four votes are needed to win though. It’s a set up that typifies the way Endangered balances strategy, luck and mitigation with aplomb. Another balancing act is the need to work toward these long term goals while constantly paying attention to short term troubleshooting.
The impact deck has two types of cards, instant and persistent. Persistent Impacts can stack up causing absolute mayhem and demand to be dealt with ASAP. The constantly degrading map situation could easily take up all your moves but walking that fine line as the tension mounts is highly satisfying if diabolically hard.
Good co-op, bad co-op
As a rule I don’t usually enjoy co-operative games too much. I’ll tell you why. Firstly there’s usually too much scope for one person to run the show setting out everyone’s moves at the start of the round. Secondly, it’s too easy to spend what feels like the entire game running around handing your cards or resources to other players who get to complete the set or do the thing or whatever. Thirdly it’s frustrating how often winning, or more accurately losing, comes down to luck of the draw from the obligatory ‘bad stuff’ deck.
Endangered is a co-op I enjoy immensely precisely because it breaks this mould. Although pre-planning is possible, dice placement usually depends on the values. Players only roll their dice at the beginning of their turn making it hard for bossy gamers to set others moves out afore time. Theirs no infernal set collection in this game, no churning endlessly through a deck or traipsing round a map looking for something in particular. Every action feels useful and important and works toward a variety of goals. While there’s plenty of ‘bad stuff’ going on with the Destruction and Impact phases, the mitigation of these lucky/unlucky draws feels balanced, strategic and important.
There’s actions to move animals to reduce the risk of destruction rolls as well as increase mating pairs and animal population. There’s actions to remove destruction tiles, cleaning up the board and even remove persistent impact cards. Finding the balance of mitigation actions and furthering your long term goals is seriously tough, but the actions are there. It’s the players jobs to work out the most efficient route through them.
The wonderful thing about tigers
Endangered embraces a serious theme with sensitivity but unrelenting focus. I think it’s so important that this game is not only solid mechanically but raising the profile of the plight of critically endangered animals worldwide too. Fair warning though, this is a tough game to beat, steel yourself to some heartbreaking losses. It could be upsetting for sensitive players to see the habitat degrade and animal populations drop, knowing that this is absolutely a real world problem! Being confronted with the impact humans are having on the planet seems to raise the stakes appreciably, making this a pretty unique game in terms of emotional impact.
Endangered - Final Thoughts
With its fresh take on co-op mechanics and it’s constant balancing act between long and short term objectives Endangered has achieved the unthinkable. It’s converted this unabashedly uncooperative gamer! Not only will I willingly play this co-op, I’ll actively encourage it! If you enjoy Co-operative games then Endangered has so much to offer. If you don’t then it may still surprise you. While maintaining the tension and challenge of most co-ops it manages to avoid the many pitfalls of the genre.
The unique theme of survival of the species does this game credit and is definitely felt in every aspect. From the political manoeuvring to the highly specified Impact decks for each animal, a lot of thought and care has been poured into Endangered. The result is a beautiful game that is probably the most engaging and enjoyable co-operative experience I’ve ever had. Whats more it achieves all this whilst gently prodding its players to think on important real world issues.
Whilst the base game offers decent replayability, the modular design and expansion currently being crowdfunded signify a bright future for Endangered. A future that I hope is just as bright for the beautiful creatures the game champions. Move over Pandemic, there’s a new Co-op in town and it’s here to stay!