Review: Animal Empire, A high player count anthropomorphic card game with a very interesting Vassal mechanic

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a Furry, over the years I have found that I dig many games with anthropomorphic animals in them. The latest anthro games I’ve had the chance to play is Animal Empire, a “take that”, negotiation heavy, empire building, card game from Down Under.

In addition to the unique theme, Animal Empire is also a hobby card game playable with up to eight players. It’s not often you find non-party games that work with a player count that high.

Disclosure: Half-Monster Games was cool enough to provide me with a review copy of Animal Empire. No other compensation was provided. Some links in this post are affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support this blog and podcast. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

What do you get with the card game Animal Empire?

The card game Animal Empire was designed by Jack Ford Morgan and features art by Barend Chamberlain and Craig Lee. It was initially funded on Kickstarter in 2019 and is currently being published by Half-Monster Games. On the box, Animal Empire claims to be for two to eight players, but I would say you need at least three players to fully enjoy this game. The more players the better. Games take up to an hour. 

For a look at what you get with this high player count card game, check out our Animal Empire unboxing video on YouTube

One of the first things you will notice about Animal Empire is a very well designed box. For a small boxed card game, this box features some rather thick cardboard and it flips open like some kind of display case. Next, you will notice the very cool dragon art on the inside cover, a good indication of the quality of artwork you will find throughout this game. 

Inside the box is a two-deck card tray holding a number of cards with a rulebook on top. 

The rules for Animal Empire are fourteen pages long with eleven pages of that explaining how to play the game. The rest of the pages are thanks to friends, family, playtesters, patrons and Kickstarter backers. 

Despite some spelling and grammatical errors the rules are pretty straight forward and don’t take long to get through. I did find a couple of things a bit ambiguous but after passing the book around we were able to come up with answers and when I asked the publisher about these we found that we had come to the right solution each time.  I do know that there’s a second printing of the rulebook in the works that should fix these issues. 

On to the cards. First, you have a number of Kingdom Cards. These are oriented horizontally and feature some really great landscapes. Each Kingdom also has a bit of flavour text and some icons on it to show which army is associated with it. There is a matching army card for each Kingdom, these are oriented vertically and have really sweet looking, mostly anthropomorphic, fantasy armies depicted on them.

Note it’s mostly anthropomorphic, despite being called Aminal Empires the armies here include some fantasy things like demons and golems along with tiger, giraffe and elephant troops. There are sixteen of these Kingdom and Army pairs. 

Then there are eight crown cards in eight different colours. One for each of the potential players. 

Finally, there is the Wilderness deck with fourteen cards. These are event cards, and again what really sticks out here is the artwork. Here we also see some sci-fi elements including what looks like a robot and a fighter jet. So I’m not really sure what this setting is all about, but I will say that the artwork does make it look cool.  

The card quality here is decent but not great. The cards look great but every single card in my box was slightly warped right out of the box.

The cards also lack any finish and are rather glossy which can be a problem depending on the light where you are playing. The design and artwork look great, the colouring, etc is top-notch, however, I would have liked the physical quality of the cards to have been a step higher.

How is Animal Empire Played?

The goal of Animal Empire is to control a majority of the Kingdoms. With each game (no matter the player count) you start with sixteen Kingdoms in play, which means to get a majority you need to collect nine Kingdoms.

Each player starts with one random Wilderness Card, one random Kingdom and the Army Card associated with that Kingdom. The player tucks their player coloured crown card under their starting Kingdom.  

The remaining Kingdoms are placed face down in the centre of the table along with the Wilderness deck. 

Each turn players will take two actions, each which requires that the players have and use one army card. During the first turn of the game, everyone will be limited to one action as they only have one army. Once they’ve managed to gain a second army, players will have two actions each turn.

There are four actions to choose from:

March – Move an army from your hand or from one Kingdom to another Kingdom or the Wilderness. If moving to a Kingdom and it is face down flip it over. If going to the Wilderness, draw the top card and return it and your marching army to your hand. 

Capture – Take control of the Kingdom where your army is. Can only be done if you have more armies there than any other player. The Kingdom is moved to your tableau and you get the matching army card into your hand. 

Battle – Select your army that is in a Kingdom that also has at least one opponent army. Choose one opponent army to return to the owner’s hand. 

Seize Crown – Similar to the capture action but only used on a Kindom with an opponent’s crown under it. You capture their crown but not the Kindom and that player becomes your Vassal (more about that in a bit). 

That’s it for possible actions. To make things more interesting all but one of the armies in the game has one of four special abilities that modify these basic actions. As for that one leftover army, well it’s that dragon that’s on the inside of the box, and it gets all four of the abilities.

The abilities are:

Fleet – At the end of your turn one of your fleet units can take an extra March action.

Attacker – When marching, force one enemy to retreat when moving to a Kingdom (does not work on Defenders)

Defender – This unit is not affected by Attackers.

Raiders – When a raider Captures a Kingdom they may immediately March to a neutral or opponent owned Kingdom. 

Next, we get to the Wilderness cards. Each of the Wilderness cards breaks the rules in some way and all of them are surprisingly powerful.  I would almost say too powerful, but the fact that they are all very powerful actually makes them rather balanced.

The Wilderness cards can be played at any time and do all kinds of things like give units abilities they don’t normally have, return Kingdoms to the centre of the table, allow players to move and re-arrange Kingdoms and units and much more. There are only fourteen of these in the game and players will quickly learn what’s in the deck and what to expect from them, adding a nice somewhat chess-like strategic element to Wilderness card play.

Play continues around the table like this until one side owns nine Kingdoms. 

Note I said one side. This is where that Vassal system I mentioned earlier comes in. If you capture an opponent’s crown that player becomes your vassal. You are now basically on the same team. You get to count all of your kingdoms with theirs to determine victory and if you get to a total of nine you both win. 

Note that it’s possible to have more than one vassal and that your vassal can actually have a vassal of their own. It’s even more important to note that the only way anyone is going to get nine kingdoms in this game, except when playing with only two players, is to make someone else your vassal. 

Now there’s a bit more to it than that. The owner of a vassal can give them general orders but it’s up to the player if they follow them or not. The owner of a vassal gets a new action option and that is to either give their vassal kingdoms or to take them away from a vassal, which is a good way to punish a vassal who isn’t following orders. 

If a player owning one or more vassals somehow manages to lose their own crown card, their vassals become free and the crowns of the freed vassals are returned to their owners. Through this mechanic vassals can work with other players to try to regain their freedom and backstab their lords. 

In the end, the actual winner of a game of Animal Empire will be a coalition of players that will include the winning player and their vassals. 

What did I think of Animal Empire?

The best thing by far about Animal Empire is the very cool fantastical artwork. It features a mix of sci-fi and fantasy elements combined with some really neat looking anthropomorphic creatures. The setting of the game is sometime in the distant future when animals have evolved to be sentient and mostly bipedal. 

It’s interesting to note that the world of Animal Empire is also a setting for an RPG, also published by Half-Monster Games. The RPG was actually created first and this is considered a board game version of that setting. 

Moving past the art onto the gameplay, and you will find a mixed bag. I was impressed by the simplicity of the rules in Animal Empire. The length and detail in the rulebook lead me to think this would be a more complicated game, but it’s really just about taking the same four actions over and over. At first, I liked how simple each of these actions is but then as the game went on I started to find them repetitive.  Thankfully the Wilderness cards keep things interesting. 

I also really liked the way that each Kingdom was tied to one specific army and how ownership of both moved around during play. That seemed neat and reminded me a bit of one of my favourite games, Shogun, where controlling a territory gives you a card for that territory that you can then use to take actions. 

The real highlight of Animal Empire is the Vassal system. It’s a very solid and interesting concept, something that I have enjoyed playing around with. One of the feelings I get from this game is that the designer came up with this vassal system and then built a game around it. 

I especially like that the game is pretty much unwinnable without taking advantage of the vassal system and the emergent play that evolves around that. Each game starts off as a one vs everyone battle royal but evolves into a more diplomatic team-based game. 

There’s a big problem with the vassal system though, it only really works at higher player counts. I would go so far as to say it’s broken at two players.

I don’t recommend anyone play this game with two players, despite what the box says. At three players it’s almost always going to be one player vassals with another and ganging up on the third who will have no chance. It isn’t until you get to four players that it starts to get interesting. Going up from there the game gets more and more interesting as the kingdoms are more split up and you are going to end up with multiple factions at the table, not just one faction versus everyone else. 

The art and setting in Animal Empire is very cool. The vassal system is a very interesting experiment in teamwork, cooperation and backstabbing. But all of this felt like it needed to be on top of something else, something with a bit more depth. When we played, the game seemed to feature a lot of back and forth with little progress until someone did something big with a Wilderness card that changed everything.  

Where Animal Empire really starts to show it’s merit is at higher player counts. There aren’t a lot of games out there that can handle eight players well that aren’t party games, and having a full table is where that vassal system in Animal Empire is going to really shine. 

Overall I enjoyed getting to check out Animal Empire, but I found myself wanting more than it had to offer.

If you often find yourself with a large group of players, say six or more, looking for something more tactical to play than the usual large group fare, you may want to give Animal Empire a look. If you ever buy games just for the artwork this could be a good candidate for you as well.

As for me, I had some fun with Animal Empire, I’m still somewhat fascinated by the Vassal system but I don’t expect this one to see a lot more play in the future. 

Do you take part in game nights with a large number of players? What’s your go-to game for big groups? Does Animal Empire seem like a good fit for you? Do you play a lot of 7 Wonders, or do you have another favourite high player count game? Let us know in the comments!

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