How to Play
What Is Savannah Cafe and What Is the Object of the Game?
Savannah Cafe is a 2001 card and board game where the goal of the game is to be the first player to get one of your animal pawns (a gazelle, lion, or hippopotamus) to the cafe at the end of the board. Each animal moves in a different way, the gazelle is fast but very vulnerable to being eaten and sent back to the start, the lion can eat gazelles and moves moderately fast but can be scared away by hippos, and the hippopotamuses are the slow but steady animal of Savannah Cafe (they can only move one or two spaces at a time but they can’t be sent back at all).
Setup in Savannah Cafe is very simple. Each player chooses a color, takes the three pawns (one gazelle, lion, and hippo) of that color, and places them in the correct spot (the gazelle on the furthest back space, then the lion, and finally the hippo). Shuffle the cards and deal three of them to each player. All players take a look at their cards then place them face down (mask side up) in front of them. The remaining cards are placed face down next to the board as a draw pile. The youngest player begins Savannah Cafe and play always continues in a clockwise manner.
Playing Savannah Cafe
On each turn a player has a choice of two different moves to make. Either way they draw the top card from the draw deck but before they look at it, they must make a decision whether to keep it for themselves or trade it for one of their opponent’s cards. Since the back of each card tells players what animal the card is used for and each animal only has two different types of cards, they will know that it is one of two cards before they make their decision. If they decide to keep the card, they look at it and then place it face down next to their other three cards. If they decide to trade the card, without looking at what the card was they give it to another player and take one of that player’s other three cards, look at it, and then place it next to their other three cards.
After one of these two actions have been performed, the player then flips over one of their four cards and moves the correct animal that amount (or in the case of one of the hippo cards, moves another player’s animal back). Except for the time between drawing or trading a card and playing one, players should always have three cards face down in front of them at all times. Once they have moved, play continues in the same way to the next player clockwise.
There are three different animals in the game and each animal has two possible cards. The back of the cards denote which type of animal is moved by the card. The six different cards in the deck are:
- Gazelle 0: The gazelle is grazing so it doesn’t move at all. Basically, this card just takes up space in your hand or forces you to waste your turn.
- Gazelle 1-9: The gazelle sprints forward any amount of spaces from one to nine (player’s choice).
- Lion 1: The lion moves forward one space.
- Lion 1-4: The lion moves forward anywhere from one to four spaces (player’s choice).
- Hippo 1-2: The hippo moves forward either one or two spaces.
- Hippo -1 to -8: The hippo doesn’t get to move but the player who played the card can move another player’s lion backwards from one to eight spaces. A player can use this card no matter where their hippo is (their hippo can be on any space and still use it).
The Animals of Savannah Cafe
As you can see, the gazelle moves the quickest in Savannah Cafe. However, six of their nine cards do nothing (they move them zero spaces) and anytime a lion lands on their space they eat them and send them back to their starting space. Lions are the second quickest animal, all of their cards move them forward at least one space, and they can eat gazelle. Unfortunately, if they get too far ahead a hippo most likely will use their roar to move them back up to eight spaces (and a lion can’t eat a gazelle if they move backwards because of a roar even if they land on the same space as a gazelle). Hippos move extremely slow but they can’t be eaten or sent back at all. If this was “The Tortoise and the Hare,” the hippo would be the tortoise, the gazelle would be the hare (though a hare that actually wins most of the time), and the lion would be the runner who doesn’t stand a chance at winning but just wants to finish the race. Lions technically can win in Savannah Cafe but they definitely seemed to be the weakest animal in the games I played, they are mostly just good at catching gazelles and making sure they don’t get an easy victory (good for defense, not so good for offense).
Winning Savannah Cafe
The winner of Savannah Cafe is the player who gets one of their animals all the way to the end of the board (and reaches the “cafe”).
Savannah Cafe is just about the most average game I’ve ever played. While some elements of the game are pretty good, there are also quite a few things I didn’t like about it. For every good thing about the game, there is an equal amount of negatives.
On the positive side, Savannah Cafe works reasonably well as an easy to learn and play filler type game that non-gamers should easily be able to play. The rules are very easy to explain and the game should only take a few minutes to learn. There aren’t a ton of decisions to make and while there is some strategy, most of it is pretty easy to figure out. Games are also usually pretty quick, though you could sometimes get into an epic struggle that lasts up to thirty minutes. On the other hand, if a player is very lucky they could definitely win in five minutes or less. An average game of Savannah Cafe is probably in the ten to fifteen minute range.
While it is good that Savannah Cafe is easy to learn and play, the lack of strategy is also pretty apparent. There is strategy to the game, it’s just that you are basically stuck with the hand you are dealt. All of the animals have a chance to win but a gazelle won all of our games (and winning as a gazelle is pretty much pure luck of being dealt a lot of gazelle 1-9 cards and no lions being able to catch up to you). Hippos have a chance but they are usually just a bit too slow (and players tend to play their cards right away because they are often traded for since both of their cards are pretty good, making it hard to acquire a lot of them if you are mainly focusing on your hippo). Lions seem to have the least chance (at least in the games we have played) because whenever one of them moves too far forward, a roaring hippo card almost always moves them back. While there is some strategy to Savannah Cafe, there really isn’t as much as I would have liked and way more luck (in terms of card drawing) than I usually prefer.
While the rules offer some strategy suggestions like keeping strong cards in front of you, it sounds great in theory but what usually winds up happening is that all six gazelle 0 cards wind up sitting in players’ hands. If you get one or more of those cards, you either have to waste a turn with no movement or just hold it and use your other cards. Most people aren’t going to want to waste a turn so they wind up sitting in front of players (and no player is going to steal them because they know they are most likely 0 cards). This also has the unfortunate side effect of the gazelle 1-9 cards being the only gazelle cards that can be drawn, giving gazelles an even bigger advantage and adding even more card draw luck to the game (if you keep drawing those good gazelle cards you will likely win). Unless the games I played were unusual, you also have to play your hippo cards right away because otherwise other players will steal them.
For some examples of how much luck there is in Savannah Cafe, I will give you my unfortunate luck in the two games I played. Both times I got my hippopotamus moving pretty well. However, the first time I just had terrible card drawing luck (I couldn’t draw any additional hippo cards and eventually another player passed me to win the game). The second time, a player had amazing luck and their gazelle sprinted right by to win the game in about five minutes. If a player is insanely lucky, they could technically draw all three gazelle 1-9 cards right away and win in three turns. Obviously this would be statistically very unlikely but drawing two of them and getting a huge head start is definitely possible. Savannah Cafe is one of those games that does require some strategic thinking but if you aren’t getting dealt the right cards, you aren’t going to win. Card draw luck generally beats out strategy in this game.
However, even though I personally think the luck to strategy ratio is a little high, it does help make Savannah Cafe a good fit for families with kids (which is almost certainly the game’s target audience). Children as young as six should be able to learn the game and play it with little to no trouble. A higher luck to strategy ratio is usually a good thing for gamers looking for a game to play with their children, since it gives them a more level playing field.
One thing I mostly liked about Savannah Cafe is the art and game design. The art is very well done other than one somewhat disturbing element, the dead zebra (which works as the track you move across) that appears to be so large that it stretches over two different biomes (I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with a zebra that big). While this is just a minor thing, it is a little creepy to have that in an otherwise family-friendly game. The components are high quality, especially the wooden tokens. The card art is great but the only problem is that the game should have included more cards both for convenience and to help the gameplay a bit. With so few cards (just 27), you have to shuffle the deck quite a few times in an average length game and more cards would help keep shuffling to a minimum. More cards would also affect the game strategically, and probably for the better.
While this review may sound pretty negative, Savannah Cafe isn’t a terrible game and in fact it is a very solid game for families and other non-hardcore gamers. As a gamer who loves strategy, I do wish the luck was minimized a bit and that there were a few more mechanics (especially more types of cards and maybe even another animal or two) to add in some more strategy but I still don’t think the game is bad as filler. Since the game is solid but not spectacular and the pros and cons pretty much even out, I am giving Savannah Cafe a perfectly average three out of five.