18 November 2019
Always pet the big cat
Playing Honga, a familyorientated worker-placement game, gives the unmistakable feeling of déjà vu. It isn’t that the game isn’t good or fun, but it feels like something you’ve played several times before.
There are spaces on the board that generate resources which can then be exchanged for victory points. Sound familiar? Going to another location on the board rewards players with extra points and there is a spot where players can engage in slightly risky bidding to – that’s right! – earn even more points. Like many worker-placement games, Honga supports multiple strategies of play and is fairly good at making sure all of the places on its board work and reinforce each other.
Despite following a pattern that a lot of other worker-placement games have also adopted, among these very familiar mechanics is one element that strives to make the game distinct. In the case of Honga, it is a titular sabre-toothed kitty that demands constant pets.
Instead of using meeples to activate locations on the board, Honga features discs divided into four sectors, some of which contain handprints. Players orient the handprints on a disc in the direction of the action they want to take and, optionally, Honga, the kitty. As long as Honga has been paid attention to, it will stay in the centre of the board. But if you neglect to give the big kitty even a bit of your attention, Honga will jump on your board and begin to eat your resources until another player fails in their pet duties.
Handprints are located in two or three of the four sectors on the special discs, which only one player can have at a time. This means that unless the player is ready to face the wrath of the sabre-tooth, one of their actions each turn will always be spent on pets, leaving at the most two free actions. This is not a lot – and players will always try to pet Honga, as the fallout from not doing so never makes the reward of the extra action worth it. Therefore, Honga acts less as a risk-reward element and more as an in-built action restriction in order to make the game more challenging.
Indeed, it is fun to rotate discs in your hands, trying to figure out the most effective orientation, while still making sure that one handprinted sector faces Honga. But that comes at the expense of choice and, as discs are dealt at random, players’ decisions end up being more reactionary, rather than pre planned.
Honga’s components are mostly a hit, with one significant miss. Tokens, player boards and, of course, the centrepiece of the game, Honga – a large meeple-like token showing the sabre-tooth – are all really impressive. The biggest letdown is the discs. Made from fairly thick, yet still flimsy, cardboard, they are hard to shuffle and fiddly to place on the board. As these are the components players will be handling most during each game, this misstep in design quality feels significant.
Despite the presence of the attention-seeking sabre-tooth and the rotating discs, Honga follows an overly-familiar worker-placement formula. Even so, its sunny theme and light strategic gameplay will absolutely find fans among the audience the game is aiming for – families. Its approachable level of complexity and engagement along with – mostly – standout components make it very easy to enjoy; just don’t expect groundbreaking gameplay.
PLAY IT? PROBABLY
Designer: Günter Burkhardt
Artist: Stephanie Böhm
This review originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.