Where Our Story Begins
Llamaland is the newest in a series of densely packed bigger box tile laying games from Phil Walker-Harding. Although he has been in the polyominal game for a while now, this latest game shows no evidence of his skills getting any less sharp. In fact, I will put it out there now, for me this is probably the best of the lot, and I liked Barenpark a lot! Llamas are probably as cute as bears, but the gameplay here has more bite to it and I think the complexity of the strategy has been increased whilst the setup and teardown time has been vastly reduced. Both big wins in my opinion.
The aim of the game is to build up your farm estate and collect resources which allow you to feed llamas. The llamas are worth points themselves, and careful placement of your llama meeples will also help you to achieve all the objective cards as well. As you place your llamas though, the available space you have to build upon will change and alter and you will not be able to capitalise on llama feeding without a strong spatial strategy of both upwards and outwards farm building.
Each turn you take a piece from the supply and place it however you like either on the table orthogonally adjacent to extend the base of your estate. Or you can build upwards. This is the best thing to do as if you do this, any icons you cover over give you that resource or action. Building upwards on your estate will not only yield resources, but you will also be able to achieve more of the objectives which require llamas to be placed on certain levels.
The rules for tile placement are simple. You cannot place a piece over a hole, the tile must be completely supported by the base. You also cannot place a tile of the same shape exactly over the last. For example, a T-shape cannot be just stacked upon another T shape. I mean that really would make it too easy. This is the part that reminds me of one of our favourite filler games; NMBR9. The spatial puzzle is made a touch easier by the fact that you can flip the tiles over to try and get the best combination of symbol coverage.
The strategy is over not only which symbols you cover, but also where you leave the open green spaces for your llamas to go and how your shapes are placed together to ensure that you don't build yourself into a corner and remove your next moves. On top of that you also need to be thinking about how best to arrange the symbols so that your subsequent moves are as fruitful as possible. The brain is working overtime!
Once you collect four of a resource; cacao, corn or potatoes then you are able to feed a llama of that type. These llamas are worth points, anything from 5 to 12 points each. The llamas are arranged so that the highest value llamas are available first and then by the end all the low value llamas are available to feed. There is a serious sense of urgency in getting your engine up and running quickly. You don't use all the llamas in each game, you shuffle the llamas and deal out a set amount of each type depending on player count. This can mean that one game your potato llamas are worth big points and your corn llamas are worth a pittance comparatively. This really adds to the replayability for me. I need to survey the options before we start to cement what I am going to go after.
Each game you use 3 purple objectives and 4 blue objectives, in the advanced version you can use the gold objectives. The purple ones are about what kind of llamas you have managed to collect, like a set of 4 potato llamas or two of each type etc. The blue cards are a little easier to achieve oftentimes and are to do with where you place your llamas. Like a group of four llamas all orthogonally adjacent to one another, or having three llamas on level 4 of your estate.
You place your chit out onto these cards as part of your turn if you think you can achieve them which makes it clear to your opponent what you are trying to do so they can try to block you. The objective cards are worth as many points as the llamas, sometimes more, so blocking is definitely important if you want to have a chance of sneaking a victory.
The final stack of cards is the villager market. These guys are able to give you special abilities that you can use once per round by "tapping" them. Things like trading cash for corn, or each time you cover over a villager space you get a coin as well as a new villager to join your ranks. This builds up a diverse engine between you and your fellow players. You become focused on maximising your turns to ensure that you get those llamas fed as quickly as possible. You might build an engine with a penchant for potato llamas which allows you pull away from your opponents in the potato game. But what about when all the potato llamas are fed? You must pivot and manage your engine in a different way to keep grabbing those points.
The artwork here is simple, bright and graphically easy to understand. Each space on the tiles shows either a resource or a green open field (where you are able to place a llama). There is very limited iconography and all the resources are very easily discernible from one another.
The tiles that make up the game are double thickness cardboard. They feel chunky in hand and stack well. The boards are also thick which helps immensely with counting up how high your llamas are and what level you are at. The cards are easy to shuffle and the quality of the printing is good. Graphically both the objective cards and the villager cards are easy to tell apart and simple to understand. I do think they are a bit thin, but they don't see much in the way of shuffling or handling, so I don't think they will wear very quickly. The chits that you use to claim the objective cards are thick and brightly coloured, but they are a touch small compared to everything else.
Also in case it wasn't clear, there are wooden llama meeples. These are simply beautiful to behold. They are chunky painted wood and the shape is just so "llama-tastic". Who doesn't want to play a game with a pile of llamas in the middle of the table? Just try and find me a person!
In each game you stack up the tiles randomly and based on what order these are in, and what your opponent takes, will determine what is available to you on your turn. This will change round to round as well as game to game. If your opponent takes that T-shape that has two potatoes in perfect positions for your master plan then it is back to the drawing board for you. It is also possible that you can completely run out of a particular shape. Having a bunch of U-shape pieces when all you need is a T-shape will also have you scratching your head in bewilderment about how to pull your strategy out the ashes.
You also do not use all the llamas, nor all the objective cards game-to-game. The aims of the game really are driven by which llamas are available and which objectives you are able to claim as your own. For me the reason I scored this game highly on replayability is mostly because of the cards, these really drive the experience for me. Getting a sweet combination of objective cards to focus on will give you direction even from that first llama-feeding. Without that direction, I think that these kinds of games become quite same-y, always just trying to hunt out feeding llamas quickly and first. With the objectives, the race element is still there but careful planning will likely yield you far more points that getting the first few llamas was worth.
Llamaland is a pesky brain burner hiding behind a breezy looking theme and bright graphical art. For me, it was far more than it first appeared and it quickly shot up the rankings to my favourite tile laying game. A heady accolade but in my opinion richly deserved. If you enjoy tile laying and you want a game that has a bit more meat on it's bones than some of the other polyominal games such as Barenpark, Patchwork or My City then why not give Llamaland a go. I was elated with this game from the very first play, we played three times in a row one night and again on the next two game nights too.