Review – Habitats
|Corné van Moorsel
|Filip Gavril, Daniel Profiri, Dominique Ramsey, Steven Tu
|Tile-Laying, Family Game
|2023 (originally 2016)
In the past decade, we have had an explosion of “personal” tile-laying games. They all work essentially the same way: use some sort of mechanism to pick your tile from a group, then use it to build a personal display area. Kingdomino won the Spiel des Jahres in 2017; Azul in 2018; Nova Luna was nominated in 2020, and Cascadia won in 2021. Before all that, there was Habitats in 2016, and in fact, Nova Luna is largely based on Habitats. But now Habitats has a stunning, beautiful new edition from allplay. How does it compare to its descendants in 2023? Let’s take a look!
First off, I have to say that I love the components here, for the most part. Most of the game is just square tiles, and they’re wonderful. They’re thick; they have nice rounded corners, the iconography is abundantly clear, and the art is truly beautiful. It is honestly one of the best-looking tile games I’ve ever seen. I also appreciate the size of the box – until I try to put the game up. The pieces barely fit in the included bag, to the point you can’t really shake it to shuffle them, and the bag won’t fit into the tiny box when full of pieces. So the tiles are just laying loose in the box; I pray that I never drop this sucker while taking it to game night.
The other problem is the rulebook, which is just weird. It’s one of the tersest rulebooks I’ve ever seen, to the point where some rules and clarifications/exceptions are simply implied within examples rather than stated. Yet the entire 3rd page of the 3-page rulebook is an extensively thorough scoring example – which is great, but just being clearer the first time might make that easier. Lastly, the solo rules are not even in the rulebook, but instead presented on a tile with a picture and five words: “Solo / 25 Turns / No Goals”. I guess it’s a testament to the simplicity of the game that I knew what to do.
And the game really is quite simple, yet still clever. Like all of these other games, the game consists of two systems: drafting the tiles and then placing the tiles. The strength of Habitats is the way the personal tile area works, which is brilliantly simple. Each animal tile has a habitat in the background, along with a desired set of adjacent habitats for the animal, corresponding to a certain number of victory points. (It’s easier if you just look at a tile, maybe.) If you surround the animal with other tiles that have the correct habitats (primarily other animals, but also flowers or plain “double terrain” tiles), you put a little “checkmark” token on it and earn the corresponding victory points at the end of the game. There’s a trick to it: habitats of the same terrain that are connected, count together. So if an animal needs two water tiles beside it, and there’s just one beside it, but then another water tile connected to that water tile, it counts!
This system is brilliant for several reasons. First and foremost, simply allowing the animals to be the scoring goal and the item you need for the scoring goal creates a wonderful little puzzle that is as intuitive as it gets. The non-animal tiles that shake things up are very simple, while still maintaining a big impact. Flowers are always worth 1 point with no requirements, but help with terrain. Double terrain tiles count as two different terrain types but have no goals on them. Gates and towers score for how they connect to your grid. There are also goals for each round, although I find them actually somewhat of a distraction from the main puzzle you are creating in front of you. I’m not upset that they are present; I just rarely find myself persuaded to focus on them.
Unfortunately, I’m less impressed with the actual tile drafting. Each player has a little car they drive around a grid of tiles, and they can take the tile in front of the car, or on either side of it (but not behind!). If another car is next to you, you can jump over it (theme…?) and take the tile on the other side of it. What I find is that this makes Habitats even more of a multiplayer solitaire game than something like Cascadia, where players are just all taking from a central set of tiles. Here, when the cars are apart, it’s like you’ve each got your own set of three personal tiles and nothing you do affects your opponents at all. (I assume this was the reason for including the round goals.) Kingdomino and Azul earned their reputations by turning the tile draft into a knife fight; while I don’t need that every time, I actually wish Habitats had used this reprint to steal an idea from Cascadia. Certain tiles could earn you a resource (gas cans?) that you could spend to drive your car across the grid, allowing for a bit more long term planning and also the chance to snatch a tile out from under your opponents. As it stands, though, Habitats is largely a multiplayer-solitaire game, and I’ve kind of had enough of that.
That gets to the bigger problem, which is that Habitats has mostly been eclipsed by other tile-laying games, especially Cascadia, since they both specifically involve creating terrain for animals. The variable scoring and “two-piece draft” of Cascadia are both more interesting than what Habitats has to offer, even though I prefer the spatial puzzle in Habitats. I’ll say, though, that Habitats is a far superior game to Nova Luna, which was an attempt to combine it with Patchwork. I’m happy to play Habitats anytime if someone wants to, but with a slew of better tile-laying games out there, I don’t feel the need to come back to it myself.
The Bottom Line
Habitats is a good game, but it has been eclipsed by great ones over the past seven years.