Updated: Jul 12, 2020
Published by Jumbo Games, Okavango is an animal-themed euro game with an African setting (Okavango is the name of a river in southwest Africa, flowing through Angola, Namibia and Botswana). The game is designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling: prolific designers, both of whom are multiple Spiel des Jahres winners. Okavango has some similarities to a couple of older card games from the same designers: Linko! and Abluxxen, both published by Ravensburger.
Tiles representing 11 different species of animals (plus the rangers, who act as wild cards/jokers) are drawn from a bag and a single tile is placed out in each of six watering holes and on the three sections of the river delta. Each player also draws a starting number of tiles, which are kept concealed behind a screen, and 13 tiles are laid out in the main river, which functions as an always replenished market.
The animal tiles all have a numerical value, giving them a ranking order. To replace tiles in a watering hole, a player needs either to outrank the animals there (ie: place out a similar number of matching animals of higher rank) or place out a greater number of matching animals than the ones they are replacing. So, for example, three flamingos (each with an individual value of 2) could be placed out to replace two lions (each with a value of 11). Animals played to watering holes must always be the same species; those placed on river deltas must all be different (and outnumber and all be different to those they are replacing).
Players are scoring points for filling all the spaces on a watering hole or river delta and the neat mechanic of taking tiles that you are replacing means that players will be seeking not just to make advantageous placements but also to make usable sets they can lay down on a future turn. Players are additionally drafting tiles from the main river. This all gives the game a strategic set collection subtlety that transcends its family game look. Art (by Paco Corachan Iriarte) and appealing animal theme notwithstanding, this is at its heart an abstract strategy game, and it’s actually a rather good one.
Okavango plays as well with 2 as it does with 3 or 4, but it is not so easy to plan your strategy ahead when playing with 3 or 4 because there is a greater likelihood that another player will have pre-empted the action you wanted to take. Although there is some randomness, mainly in the initial draw and set up, Okavango has a high skill:luck ratio; to the extent that it is particularly likely to appeal to those who enjoy mathematical puzzle-solving games. That said, Okavango can still be enjoyed as a lighter family game experience.