Botswana uses cards, 30 of them, but it’s not really what you might call your typical card game. It also uses 25 cute little plastic animals. But it’s not really a cute little animal game. It’s a strategy game, is what it is. A family strategy game that kids as young as 7 and adults as old as 77 can have great fun playing together. There are remarkably few rules. It takes maybe 5 minutes to learn. It can be played in maybe 10 minutes. And you can play it again and again and over and over, and it will still surprise you.

It was designed by the remarkably prolific, and often brilliant game designer Reiner Knizia. It’s been around since 1994, in several versions. The one we’re looking at is the most recent. It comes to us from Gryphon Games (of Fred Distribution), with theme and development by Rick Soued, art and graphics by Charlie Bink and Pixel Productions, Inc. It’s very well made. The large, linen-finish cards each containing pictures of animals, five different animals, each set of animal cards worth from 0 to 5 points, are beautifully illustrated. There are five molded plastic, painted models of each of five different animals. Nice, sturdy box, bookshelf-like. Elegantly brief, well-written, well-illustrated rule card.

The game? It’s played like this:

Depending on how many players some, or none, are removed from the deck. The cards are then shuffled and divided equally. On your turn, you take any animal, and play any of your cards onto any of 5 different animal card columns. The game continues until one column has 6 cards. The last card in each pile determines how much each animal is worth. Add up the value of each of your animals. And there’s your score. And there’s the game. At least for that round.

You decide what animals to collect. Depending on the cards you have, you decide when to make a particular animal worth what. You can try to exact revenge on the elephant horder by making her entire horde worthless, you can similarly try to make your lovely herd of zebras worth the most – depending on when you play what. Or you can play cannily, increasing the value of the rhinos, perhaps, just a tad; lessening the leopard worth just another tad. Of course, you won’t know what anything is actually worth until the sixth animal card has been played. And therein lies the laughter and the groans.

You can of course play as many rounds as you want. Because the rules are so simple, you can easily change one or two, maybe to make it easier for the kids, or for the adults, or more interesting. What would happen if you didn’t take turns? How about playing two cards at a time? Playing in teams? You know, those kinds of changes.

Botswana is as elegant as it is fun. As easy to learn as it is to play. As fun for kids as it is for adults. It’s exactly what a Major Fun game – one of the thought-provoking variety – should be. It made me very happy. May it do the same for you and yours.

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