Another innovative design from a European designer that was bought up and marketed by Avalon Hill, Tyranno Ex is a 2-4 player game of Evolution. Despite the potential for being a dry or academic subject, this is actually quite a fun game to play, as well as being thought-provoking. The object of the game is to accumulate the most points. This is done by selecting animals and keeping them in play as long as possible, and if possible eliminating other players' animals by either making the environment hostile to them or by direct competition, ie going up against them in a one-on-one fight in an effort to suppress or completely eliminate them.
The game components consist of a folding mapboard, 48 animal cards plus four "Dominant Species" cards, six dice and a large number of counters which are used mainly for the environment and its effects on the animals. Don't be put off by the number of counters, as they are actually quite easy to use. There are also four light cardboard screens to conceal your own environment counters behind, and a reasonably slim and readable rulebook. The mapboard consists of four playing tracks (one for each player) along which your animals hopefully progress until the four merge into one, at which point the animals are quickly shuffled off to the end of the board. At the other end of the board is the all important "Evolution and Environmental Change" section, into which environmental counters are placed in an effort to control the environment to the benefit of one's own creatures and the detriment of others.
The animal cards are very attractive. Each one shows a picture of a historic species on one side and a brief synopsis of its natural history on the other. The animals themselves are a random selection from the Permian era (Dimetrodon) to the present (eg Homo sapiens and the Dodo). Dinosaurs and other prehistoric life are of course well represented, but don't be deceived by the pictures on the cards: all other things being equal, the dodo has a good a chance of doing well as the sabre-toothed tiger or the tyrannosaur (unless you play the optional "King of the Carnosaurs" rule!). The cards are shuffled and placed face upwards in four packs of twelve, so players can decide each turn which one they want to select.
There are 84 environmental counters, 12 each of 7 types: Ultraviolet light (ie the sun's effects are particularly strong), Meat (large amount available to carnivores), Water (wet environment, such as wetlands, swamps), Grasslands (plenty of grazing), Trees (plenty of food for tall or high-browsing creatures), Cherries (not a slot machine but availability of fruit and the like) and Fish (again, plenty of it for the right creature). On each animal's card there are three environmental counter pictures, representing that creature's basic environmental needs: thus the Tyrannosaurus card has two Meat counters and a Fish counter shown on its card, while a turtle might have Fish, Water and Fruit depicted. When picking a card, it is best to look at the creature's environmental needs and see whether the current environment is favourable or hostile to it, or whether you can swing it that way. It's no good picking a huge carnivore, for example, if it doesn't look as if any Meat counters are going to be played in the Environmental column.
I won't go into too many details, but basically each turn the players pick a new animal card and place it at the beginning of their track. In turn they then follow through a series of phases in which they try to influence the environment by placing environmental counters into one of the four columns (not necessarily their own). At the end of the environmental phase, any creature who does not have at least one of its environmental needs met in the Environmental column is eliminated from play: thus a creature needing Ultraviolet, Water or Fruit at the end of a turn in which none of those counters were in play in any of the four boxes in the Environmental column would be removed from the board. Any creature on the other hand which has all of its needs met (ie all three of its Environmental counter types are in play) has its Strength increased by one, from a starting strength of one to a maximum of six. Each player then has the opportunity to set one of his animals against one animal belonging to another player, with the aim of suppressing it (it gets no points that go) or eliminating it from play. The attack and defence capabilities of the two animals are based not only on their relative strengths but also on how many favourable environmental counters are in play (which determines the number of dice each player may roll). Thus an attacking animal might have a strength of six, but if only two of its environmental counters are in play, it only rolls the dice twice, whereas a creature with a strength of two might have no less than twelve favourable counters in play. After all the combats have been settled, surviving creatures are moved forward one space on their track and points are amassed for each surviving animal that has got beyond the first space. The game continues until all the cards have been played and the last creature has shuffled off the board.
This sounds deceptively simple, but actually a great deal of mental torture can be run through in this game, mainly trying to create a favourable environment for one's own animals while adversely tilting against the others. It is in fact quite tricky, and I don't think I've ever won a game. To a certain degree every game is a bit of a white-knuckle ride inasmuch as you are at the mercy of the random drawing of environmental counters and their play by the other players. It is very hard to actually get an animal all the way through the game without having it eliminated, so a degree of detachment is necessary: it's the actual points that count, not individual survivors.
Any criticisms? Well, the slim rulebook could have done with a little more clarification and perhaps some further examples of play. A friend of mine and I have played this game twice, and both times it took a good deal of brow-furrowing to work out the precise order of phases and actions. Two of the animal cards have got each other's natural histories and names on the back, which doesn't affect play but is confusing and a bit of a pity. The game also plays best with four players, since a large part of the pleasure comes from the interpersonal dynamics of play. But overall it's an excellent game and one suitable for people who like boardgames but dislike heavy complexity or the idea of "world domination". Perhaps its strongest point is that it is playable within two hours.
"Evolving Tactics in Tyranno Ex", Michael Anchors, The General Vol 29:6.
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