The Venn diagram of nature-lovers and board game players must have a substantial amount of overlap, based on the last couple of years in board games. There have been a lot of titles featuring animals or zoos in the last couple of years alone. I recently looked at the cooperative Miller Zoo, which has resulted in me spending a bit more time in the genre recently. One of the ones I have gone back to is the much-less cooperative Wild: Serengeti from 2022.
It is a game for 1-4 players, and it takes 1-2 hours to play. The best experience is with 2 players.
The thematic concept here is that you are directors making video documentaries about the wildlife of the Serengeti, and are trying to capture better scenes for your film than your competitors can capture for theirs. Of course, this is all just an excuse to get adorable ani-meeples on the table, but it is a good starting point nonetheless. This is played out over 6 rounds, in which each player takes turns spending resources to perform one action at a time. Each round ends when all players pass in lieu of taking an action (typically due to no longer being able to afford another).
There are 8 actions that you can spend “coin” on during each of your turns. They mostly cost either 1 or 2 coins, and many of them are similar. Ultimately, your objective is to complete various scene cards that will score you points and give you further bonuses. Each of those scene cards requires different animals, often in different positions relative to each other and relative to the terrain types printed on the board. The game starts without any animals on the board, however, so most of the actions involve placing new animals on the board, or manipulating the animals on the board to get them in your desired positions.
As a result, half of the available actions are placing the different categories of animals (Predators, Large Mammals, Scavengers, and Migratory Herbivores) from the supply onto the board. You can also either swap the positions of any two animals on the board, or move any one animal up to three spaces orthogonally.
The purpose here is to get the animals to match up with the Scene cards that you have. You start with 4 of them, and can draw more from the available Scene card pool with an action (and coins) on your turn. You can hold a maximum of 8 Scene cards at once, but if you do get excess you can discard them in pairs to gain more coins to extend your turn. You can complete as many Scene cards on your turn as you wish, if their requirements are met. They require specific types of animals to be in positions relative to one another (in a line, or adjacent) and/or on certain types of terrain (such as water or rocky).
At the end of each round, there is a round resolution. For the most part this is just set up for the next round (getting new coins, moving the round marker, etc.), but in the second half of the game, each round resolution also has a “migration”, which will randomly clear out some of the animals so that it doesn’t get too crowded. Rounds 4 and 6 additionally end with an award that give additional points based on your completed scenes so far (based on different animals, and randomly selected each game).
While the actions you are taking are easy to describe, there is a bit more going on that adds complexity to the proceedings. A number of the Scene cards reward you with Food tokens or VFX tokens when you complete them, and later at the end of each round. These tokens help you ease the requirements of your Scene cards in different ways. The Food tokens can be spent to move an animal one space orthogonally, while the VFX tokens can be spent to allow you to ignore a terrain condition on a Scene card you are completing (e.g., if a lion needs to be in grasslands terrain, you can spend a VFX token to complete that Scene using whatever lion is lyin’ around). They are free actions, and you can spend any number of either or both on your turn. They can be very helpful and give you a greater degree of control when trying to finish off Scene cards, so are very worth pursuing.
That greater degree of control can be very good, because while you are trying to complete your Scenes, your opponents are doing the same for their own, which can easily be in conflict with what you are trying to do. In the early rounds, the animals on the board are fairly limited, so there can be competition to get them into the spaces for your scene. In 3-4 player games, that can mean the board state changing quite a bit between your turns. Getting some early VFX and Food tokens can make that a lot easier. Later on, when animals are more plentiful, they are also a good counter to an observant opponent. Your available Scene cards are public information, so it is possible for opponents to choose to try to interfere with your plans. Saving up the tokens can be useful to circumvent that possibility.
When choosing your actions every turn, you need a bit of careful planning. In addition to needing to account for what your opponents are going to do (will they place an animal that you both need, allowing you to do something else? Do you have a common goal on a card?), you cannot take the same action two turns in a row, so you have to think a bit in advance. Your available turns are limited, but at 6 coins for the first half of the game and 7 for the second, it is not so limited to feel overly constraining. There certainly can be a bit of frustration when the board state is changing in ways you cannot control before your turn rolls around again. The decent amount of actions you have available counteracts that a bit. However, with that flexibility in number of actions, it does lead to the game running a little long at times for what it is. While the actions are not the only culprit, they do play a role. Particularly at 4 players, by the time the last round rolls around, the game feels ready to be over. This is probably the biggest hit against the game: it feels like it could be shorter.
I do not want to give the impression that it is an overly simplistic game. The goals are reasonably straightforward, and the actions are simple, but you do have a lot to consider and a lot of important choices to make. Choosing when to pursue completing scenes, and which Scenes to complete, versus replenishing your Scene tableau is an important tension in the game. Getting new Scene cards doesn’t directly advance your game plan, but you still need to do it, lest you run out. If you have no Scene cards, you have nothing to work towards! Some Scene cards have a lot of points attached to them, but are very difficult to complete and won’t help you much once they are completed. Others are easy to complete and can help you throughout the game if completed early due to a steady flow of the special tokens. There are also Scenes that will vary their score depending on your currently completed Scenes at the time of their completion. Choosing the right time to keep or complete Scenes (or even get rid of them for more actions) is an important part of getting a good score.
I was at times a little concerned with some of the scoring options on Scene cards not feeling entirely balanced (scoring too much for being too easy, and vice versa), but this tends to be mitigated by the fact that there are a lot of them. I believe there are over 100. You can’t depend on getting specific ones that might be stronger. Additionally, what is good is going to vary a bit in every game, both due to players trying to work on different scenes, as well as the round 4 and 6 awards being different every game, providing a different subtle push.
The final element that feels like it helps keep the game interesting are the Specialists. There are a number of Specialists that provide different scoring options or abilities. The mini-expansion has more of these, and most significantly has about half a dozen that give you a unique animal that you can use to score in different and unique ways. It complicates things a bit, but helps make things a bit more interesting after a few plays.
I originally backed Wild: Serengeti two years ago on Kickstarter. Since it arrived at some point last year, it is one that we have gotten to the table more than average. It is certainly a game that has some flaws, but despite those flaws, we have wanted to continue revisiting it. The game can run overlong with a high player count, but this is mitigated once there’s more experience with the game, and is an issue that is entirely non-existent in 2 player games, which usually finish in good time. I think the reason this feels like a larger issue is the game looks like it is very light, while it actually has a lot more going on than you’d expect, especially once you add Specialists (which, if you have the expansion are must… more cute animals).
The potential for imbalanced scoring certainly is there as well, which is another issue. I don’t think it is as large an issue as the 3-4 player run time of the game though. It is something that isn’t always present and there are ways to mitigate throughout the game. It is worth nothing and being aware of, but it isn’t big enough to be a turn off from playing the game at all.
I have been revisiting this more frequently recently due to its “sequel,” Life of the Amazonia, delivering over the summer. Of the two, I would have to say that Amazonia is the better game. The flaws of Wild: Serengeti (in the future, being renamed Life of the Serengeti to match), bring it down a few notches. That’s not to say that Serengeti isn’t fun. It has interesting game play and it has great production values with the ani-meeples. The latter game just feels more refined. Serengeti is fun and worth giving a shot. It has some strong potential if they revisit with further expansions.
Final Score: 3 Stars – A cute and fun game with great ani-meeples that is less ideal at higher player counts.
• The ani-meeples are totally adorable, and they are really chunky and well-made.
• The thematic concept works well and feels on-point.
• The gameplay is simple and fun, with individual turns quick to resolve.
• Expansion is small but helps the game quite a bit (and adds more animals!).
• Can run overlong at 4 players. Feels like it should end a round sooner.
• Some of the Scene cards could have used a bit more balancing.
• The board state can be hard to plan for in 3-4 player games due to the changes between your turns, which is basically surprisingly aggressive player interaction.