I was thirteen years old when Minesweeper first showed up on some primitive edition of Windows. I remember, even at that age, staring down the grid and thinking, “Well, Bob, you have to start somewhere. Let’s just hope you don’t blow up.”
I had no idea that the algorithm in place prevented me from triggering a mine on the first click. At that point in my computing life, I was too busy celebrating the fact that I had discarded my DOS boot disks in favor of a hard drive to spend my time analyzing the little minefield.
The beautiful thing about Minesweeper, even to this day, is that once the “guesswork” is removed, logic takes over. There are only so many mines, and there are clues as to the locations of said mines. Granted, it is still possible to reach a tense moment where higher stakes guesswork is required, but the heart of the game is a thinky puzzle.
Jump forward thirty years, replace the mines with river horses, and you have my first play through Hamsters vs. Hippos from James Freeman and Tin Robot Games. I stared down the grid before sending my cute little hamster out on the pond in search of lotus flowers thinking, “Well, Bob, you have to start somewhere. Let’s just hope you’re not eaten right away by a menacing underwater beast.”
Hamsters vs. Hippos differs from Minesweeper in that you certainly can die on your first turn. Or your second. And every turn after. This twisted little grid is like Minesweeper without the numbers. But is it fun?
From the Wheel to the Water
Having each chosen one of the six hamsters as their own, players lay out a grid of lily pad tiles. Based on player count, the grid is either 5×5 or 7×7, with a lotus flower token placed on each of the nine center squares. These lotus flowers represent hamster treasure and are the source of victory points in the game. In the first round, two of the four villainous hippos are removed from the stack before shuffling and creating the pond.
On a given turn, hamsters take two actions. First, they move to a new lily pad tile. If this tile contains one of the nine flower tokens, the player collects that token before flipping the tile to reveal the blessings and curses that lie underneath. These tiles might bestow lotus flowers, which win the player additional tokens—a cause for celebration. The tiles could feature a bonus action, such as peeking at another tile, stealing other hamsters’ lotus flowers, or an accidental slip into the water, leading to the end of the player turn. Lurking beneath other tiles, to devastate hamster hopes, are the hippos.
Revealed hippos eat unfortunate hamsters. Hippos reek of death and disappointment, as players are then forced to drop all the precious lotus flowers earned in the current round and wait without a turn until the next round begins. If a second hippo is revealed in any round by anyone, the whole death and disappointment mess happens to everyone who remains on the pond.
This is where the second action becomes important. Hamsters who have survived the first step toward obliteration may then choose either to jump to an available adjacent tile, or to leave the pond for the round, keeping their acquired lotus flowers and waiting for everyone else to die a horrific—if speedy—death.
The game also comes equipped with a subtle dagger, because players are able to cut off the path of their fellow hamsters, removing available lily pads and condemning their friends and family to the gullet of an oversized predator. As if avoiding the massive troublemakers wasn’t enough! Such a death also results in the loss of the current round’s lotus booty.
Any hamster who successfully pushes their luck and survives banks their lotus tokens and gleefully enters the next round richer for their caution. The pond tiles are then gathered, one additional hippo is added to the mix, and another pond is dealt out to battle highly randomized mortality once again.
After four rounds, flowers tokens are tallied and a survivor—I mean, a winner is declared.
Hamster brains are the size of breath mints
Hamsters vs. Hippos is described as “unapologetically casual.” They mean it. There is almost no player agency in this delightfully illustrated box. Certain lily pad abilities are helpful, but not in any way that creates even the illusion of control. The pond is a continual game of chance.
At the lower counts, we played several exciting games. Perhaps the most interesting 2-player battle saw my daughter’s back-to-the-wall final-round surge after my early demise that left her just shy of victory. Such violent swings and shifts in fortune are a hallmark of this pond.
Playing on the larger grid with 5 or 6 players borders on a broken experience. It is entirely possible for the round to end with a majority of the hamsters never touching a lily pad because two hippos were revealed out of the gate. After shuffling and setting 49 tiles and 9 lotus flowers tokens, I want to take at least one turn! When we played with six players, it was the fourth round before anyone banked a single flower. It’s not that we were foolish, it’s just that the hippos were biting.
The experience is much more manageable on the smaller grid. I believe the ideal player count is three. Setting up 25 tiles sounds much more tolerable if the round ends too quickly.
Overall, the enthusiasm waned on Hamsters with age:
- The 4-year-old requests it daily, and with enthusiasm. She loves flipping tiles, no matter what is waiting to eat her underneath.
- The 8-year-old helps her get the box, but then he remembers that he died on his first tile in consecutive rounds (in the same location on the grid) and reconsiders.
- The 11-year-old will play, but only at lower player counts. Truth be told, the hippos have had her number, and she’s a little frustrated.
- The 13-year-olds will pick up a fantasy book, either to read instead or to read in between rounds whilst dead and waiting for a newly shuffled pond.
- Mom and Dad love spending time with their kids. Dad also kinda likes hacking away at the path and leaving those poor hamsters adrift with nowhere to turn.
Hamsters vs. Hippos is a pure push-your-luck experience—pure because there is almost no mitigation of the luck being pushed. It is beautifully produced with cute art and an absurdly interesting theme. On the table, however, there are a number of hiccups that will likely keep it from being a hit in our household, though I can maybe see us all indulging the youngest one with it at some point.
It’s funny. I just played a 16×16 game of Minesweeper with my older daughter. (What can I say? I’m enjoying the nostalgia trip.) We had cleared all but one mine, and we had two available tiles buried in the upper left-hand corner with no numbers to guide the way. But “they” say the algorithm often adjusts to deposit a mine in the upper left-hand corner when that first impervious click was supposed to be a mine. I clicked on the other square and won. At the end of the day, I guess I prefer playing with at least the illusion of control.