Posted by: gschloesser | August 11, 2011

Savannah Café

Design by:  Sylvie Barc, Frédéric Bloch, Philippe des Palliéres
Published by:  Euro Games
3 – 4 Players, 20 – 30 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

Editor’s Note:  This review also appears in Moves Magazine #107  

I first had the opportunity to play this new EuroGames release at Alan Moon’s Gathering of Friends (a fantastic gaming get-together) back in April of 2001.  Ron Magin of EuroGames had just arrived and sat several of us down for a game of this new release. 

Truth-be-told, I was completely unimpressed with my first playing. I found the game very plain with little tension or strategy. It’s essentially a race game and I ran away (quite literally!) with the race with a speedy gazelle. We all left feeling that the game was pure children’s fare. 

Shortly thereafter, I was asked to do a review of the game for this magazine. Of course, that meant playing it again several more times. Fortunately, the game is fairly quick (15 – 30 minutes), so even if my impressions remained negative, the time consumed for further playings would at least be minimal.

I’ve since played several more times and have had wildly different experiences on those occasions. Two of the games mirrored the first, with the gazelle speeding away from the rest of the animal pack and winning easily. This was mainly due to lucky draws by the player controlling the lead gazelle. Two other games, however, were much more tense and, truth-be-told, fun. These games saw the lead change many times, with some nice card play involved. If every game played like these two, then I could recommend the game with enthusiasm. However, the potential is clearly present for the game to be a quick runaway, dominated by lucky card draws and little tension. From my experience, this seems to occur frequently enough to present a problem. As such, I find it difficult to recommend a game when, a large percentage of the time, it simply isn’t much fun. 

The theme is quirky: thirsty animals out on the Savannah rushing to be the first to get to the cafe. So, yes … it’s a race game.  However, there are some memory elements involved, as well as some card watching and calculated risks. These aren’t too mentally taxing, however. 

Each player begins with three animals (gazelle, hippo and lion), which are placed on their respective starting locations on the board. The board is a cute design depicting a stretched out zebra hide (if dead animals can be considered cute, that is!), his stripes being the actual movement spaces. At the far end of the zebra is the cafe, the ultimate goal of the thirsty animals. The actual tokens are simple round wooden disks with the images of the animals imprinted upon them. 

Movement and the various activities are dictated by a deck of cards. The cards depict the three animals, with each animal having two different types of cards. 

Gazelle Cards 

0: There are 6 of these cards. The player’s gazelle simply grazes and does not move.

1 – 9: There are 3 of these. These are the ‘run like the wind’ cards. When played, this allows the player to move his gazelle from 1 – 9 spaces.  Since the board has a total of 20 spaces (1 and 2 spaces shorter for the lion and hippo, respectively) before reaching the café, a lucky player can often speed his gazelle to the finish quickly … way too quickly. 

Since the gazelle is so quick and is prone to runaway with the victory, he has no special abilities. 

Lion Cards 

1: There are 6 of these cards, which allow the player’s lion to prance one space forward.

1 – 4
: Three of these cards are in the deck. They allow the player’s lion to rush forward from 1 – 4 spaces. 

The lion’s special ability is the devouring of the tasty gazelles. If a lion ends his turn on a gazelle token, he eats that gazelle and that token is replaced back at the starting space. 

Hippo Cards 

1 – 2: There are 6 of these cards, each of which allow the player to move his slow but steady hippo forward 1 – 2 spaces. 

Roar, -1 – 8
: Three of these cards are present in the deck. When played, the hippo roars, forcing an opponent’s lion token back 1 – 8 spaces. 

The rules of the game are actually quite simple. Each player is initially dealt 3 cards, which they look at and place face down in a row before them. One must attempt to remember the identity of these three cards; a good memory is important! On a turn, a player then picks the top card from the deck and has 2 choices: 

1) Examine the card selected, place it face down in the row of cards before him, then play one of those four cards; OR 

2) Give the card to an opponent WITHOUT looking at it, placing it face down in the opponent’s row of cards. Then, select one of those four cards, look at it, then decide whether to play that card OR one of the other three face-down cards in front of him. 

When a card is played, the appropriate token (lion, gazelle or hippo) is affected and/or moved. Then, it is the next player’s turn.  Play continues in this fashion until one animal reaches the cafe, giving the victory to the controlling player. 

The main tactic of the game is card counting. Keeping a careful eye on how many of each type of card has surfaced, particularly the more valuable of each type, is essential to playing well. That is, of course, provided you don’t simply get lucky, which happens quite often. As mentioned, three of my games have been runaways, with one player getting lucky and drawing the three “1-9” gazelle cards in quick succession. Strangely, this has occurred more frequently than what would seem statistically probable. 

You also want to keep an eye on unplayed cards, particularly if one or more of these ‘valuable’ cards haven’t been played. That means someone has one or more of these cards in front of him. Since the cards bear the picture of the animal on the back, you know which cards are lions, gazelles and hippos. Sometimes, it is a matter of deduction to figure out which player likely possesses the card you need. Other times, it’s an educated guess. Holding cards that others may need can help stall that player from progressing, hopefully long enough for another card to surface which will cause that player to move backwards. 

Since the gazelle card is so speedy and can open large gaps between him and the other animal, it is imperative that players move lion tokens so that they are continually within striking distance (four spaces) of the lead gazelle.  These ‘breakaway’ gazelles should be devoured at the first opportunity, thereby sending them back to start.  The lions always have the threat of the roaring hippo hanging over their heads, so a quick victory by a lion is unlikely. 

Don’t overlook the lumbering hippo. Yes, he’s slow, but nothing can send him backwards. In the more tense games I’ve played, the lions and gazelles keep jostling for the front position, but also keep getting sent backwards. The hippo can slowly progress up the zebra track and can occasionally win. This strategy, however, relies on the absence of the ‘lucky draws’ I mentioned previously. 

When the ‘lucky draw’ problem fails to surface, Savannah Café is quite fun and tense. However, it surfaces far too often for my tastes. Thus, I honestly cannot recommend the game outside of family environments.

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