Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The inscrutable Devil Bunny

I don't think there is any question that James Ernest is one of the most prolific game designers around, nor is there any question that he has a strange and unusual sense of humor. As the founder of Cheapass Games, he established a business model with such extremely low production costs that he could design and release a lot of games that never would have made it to market as glossy, high end products. Games with interesting and unusual mechanics, and games with themes that were always humorous and sometimes downright bizarre...

Two of the stranger games to come out of Ernest's fertile if somewhat deranged imagination are Devil Bunny Hates the Earth (2001) and Devil Bunny Needs a Ham (1998). Both games feature Devil Bunny, a cartoon character created by Ernest early in his career, and his weird needs and even weirder plans for fulfilling those needs.

In Devil Bunny Hates the Earth, Devil Bunny has decided that he hates the earth, and will make his hatred manifest by releasing a particularly unsatisfying variety of saltwater taffy. The players are sentient taffy machines who will attempt to destroy themselves by luring squirrels into Devil Bunny's taffy factory, thus saving the world from his wrath.

But none of that really matters, other than providing a glimpse into the psyche of a game designer. The strange story of Devil Bunny's salt water taffy factory is just an excuse to present a game about moving pieces around on a board. In turn, each player rolls a die, and the result of the roll gives him a choice of either adding a new counter to the board, or moving counters that are already there. Counters move in a specified pattern, and the player's goal is to eventually move six counters onto the space containing that player's salt water taffy machine.

If it sounds simple that's because it is, and unfortunately in this case the game never really gets particularly interesting. There is too much left to the random roll of the die, and not enough going on to give players much to do or think about.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) There's just not enough going on to hold a player's interest.

Devil Bunny Needs a Ham is a much more interesting racing game. Players are sous-chefs in a race to climb to the top of a tall building. Devil Bunny appears to be laboring under the impression that knocking them off the building will get him the ham he so desperately needs. It's a game about racing and forward movement, so the theme could have been anything (race cars, a marathon, people in an ill-conceived theme park running away from dinosaurs) but sous-chefs climbing a building makes as much sense as anything else.

Each player gets two or three counters (depending on the number of players and the length of game desired), which they move along a 6x21 grid of squares. Die rolls determine how far each counter can move, and on a roll of 6 Devil Bunny jumps on the counter in the lead, dropping it back to the start unless it hits another counter on the way down. The catch is that counters can't move straight forward, only sideways or diagonally, so the route to the top is a circuitous one. Additionally, after the halfway point on the board, counters that fall and aren't caught get removed from play.

The six spaces in the top row are each worth a descending amount of points. The game ends when all six spaces have a counter in them, at which time the owners of those counters total their points to see who won.

There is a lot more strategy here than in the other Devil Bunny game. The limits on forward movement and the need to protect your topmost counter give you more to think about, and while there is a random factor it still gives players choices to make regarding the movement of their pieces.

Rating 3 (out of 5) A fairly interesting light strategy game; something to play between other games or as a warm-up.

Date Played: December 29, 2013

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