Designed by James Freeman, James Staley and Adam Staley, Hamsters vs Hippos is a light filler-length push-your-luck game where the 2–6 players are competing to collect the most lotus flowers from a lily pond while avoiding ending up as a meal for any lurking hippos. The game also incorporates a solo mode.
Hamsters vs Hippos is played on a grid of initially face-down tiles randomly selected from the 52 supplied, except that two of the four hippo tiles are removed for just the first round. With 2–4 players, you lay out a 5 x 5 grid; 7 x 7 when playing with 5 or 6 players. That means that in a 2–4 player game, it’s possible that there might be no hippo titles at all hidden in the first round grid. The central nine tiles all start off with a bonus lotus flower token on them.
On your turn, you will usually expect to take two move actions. You can move to any orthogonally or diagonally adjacent tile, taking any lotus flower that's on it and flipping it to reveal what the tile shows on its reverse side. It may be blank (11/52); it may show various combinations of lotus flowers (17/52), in which case you collect those flowers from the supply; it may show a hamster taking one of several special actions, including those that lose you a flower or let you steal one from another player; or it may show a hippo... If you have the misfortune to stumble on a hippo on your very first turn there's a special rule to compensate you but otherwise if you reveal a hippo, your turn ends and you lose any flowers you’ve collected that round.
If you’ve already collected more flowers than other players then you might prefer to avoid the risk of meeting a hippo and going bust by using your movement to exit the pond, in which case you bank the flowers you’ve collected over the course of that round. Particularly with higher player counts, there’s a chance too that you can find your hamster meeple is left with no legal move (you can never move to a revealed tile, so if you get surrounded by revealed tiles you can find yourself scuppered). That too makes you hippo fodder and loses you your lotus loot, so another reason to make a pre-emptive exit.
There’s no denying the charm of Hamsters vs Hippos, thanks in no small part to Tin Robot Games’ high production values and the appealing art of César Ayala Delgado. It’s a game tho’ with a very high luck factor because players have very little agency beyond the simple decision of whether to keep moving or exit the pond. One of the special action tiles allows players to peek at an adjacent tile. We’d have liked to see more of a peek and memorise element to the game. Indeed, in our plays of the prototype shown here on Board’s Eye View, our team experimented with our own house rules where, for example, we allowed players the option, as an action, to spend one of their lotus flowers to peek at up to three tiles, and not necessarily those adjacent to their hamster meeple. It’s a house rule that Kickstarter backers might want to try as a way of adding more agency, potential for bluffing and a memory element into the game. As it stands, Hamsters vs Hippos is an entertaining and appealing children’s game, but with a relatively simple tweak, you can make it much more.
Hamsters vs Hippos is due to launch on Kickstarter on 20 October. We'll add a link to the campaign when it goes live.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)