If I were to play a word-association game with someone and said “stacking games”, most people’s response would almost certainly be, “Jenga.” That’s not a terrible thing, in and of itself. Jenga is a great game for building dexterity and logic skills.
That being said, over the last few years many new and innovative stacking games have hit the market, each one bringing its own twist to an activity most of us have done since we were able to place one block on top of another. Today, I want to introduce you to four hugely different stacking games that all have one element in common – you win by placing items on top of one another.
Beasts of Balance
Of the four games here, Beasts of Balance is probably the most unique, and certainly the most technologically advanced of the lot. The game is played via a Bluetooth link to a nearby phone or tablet which shows us a strange and magical cartoon world, and unlike many games which claim to combine physical and digital gameplay, this one really does so and in a seamless way. Each of the physical pieces is equipped with a RFID chip that is scanned into the plinth before being added to the tower – the plinth can also tell if a different item is added instead of the one that has been scanned. Once it has been physically added to the tower, the beast or effect appears on the screen.
What’s In The Box?
- Six Beasts (Bear & Warthog – land, Shark & Octopus – sea, Eagle & Toucan – sky)
- Two Miracle Artifacts (Distraction includes challenges such as tapping on every full moon that appears, Haste gives time limits on placing new items on the plinth)
- Three Migrate Artifacts (moves a beast to a different part of the world – for example, Toucan could enter the sea and become Toucean)
- Three Cross Artifacts (crosses two beasts together to create a hybrid)
- Ten Element Artifacts (gives points to land, sea, or sky beasts depending on color, the fire element gives points to whichever creature has the firefly hovering nearby on screen)
There are also two additional creatures available to buy as add-ons to the game: the Omnibeast and the Lalnalion. A new expansion, Beasts of Balance: Battles, launched on Kickstarter this week and funded in just six hours. We’ll be looking at it in much greater depth soon.
Why Should You Play?
By placing items onto the Beasts of Balance plinth you can add beasts to your virtual world, maintain their health, evolve them, and combine them into new creations. The game has a bit of a Pokémon vibe about it as you create new beasts, then combine them to unlock even more. The app also contains an index called the Beastiary where you can scroll through and see everything you have unlocked so far – similar to a Pokedex. My Pokémon-obsessed seven-year-old absolutely loved this element of the game.
Each beast brings points to the game when added, however, if it is not the highest-scoring beast in the world then it will become jealous and lose points. Lose too many points and the beast can become endangered or go extinct, but adding element pieces to the tower gives points bonuses to beats to help prevent this happening.
Beasts of Balance is one of the trickiest stacking games to build with. Unlike the other games on this list, the pieces you are required to balance are strangely shaped and don’t fit together well so some forward planning is required. The game ends either when the tower falls and cannot be rebuilt within a few seconds (a volcano erupts on screen destroying your world), or when all pieces are balanced, something we have never come close to.
The game can be played solo or cooperatively (the new Battles expansion will add head-to-head play) and has a remarkably relaxing, zen-like quality for a game that inevitably ends with the destruction of the world in a fiery inferno. It is, by far, the most expensive game on this list, but if you’re looking to add something utterly unique to your game collection, you won’t go far wrong.
Animal Upon Animal
At the other end of the technological scale comes Animal Upon Animal from HABA. This is a deceptively simple looking game in which each player (from two to four) is given a set of wooden animals and tasked with placing them into a tower. The first player to be rid of all of their animals is the winner. There’s also an element of luck as each player’s move is dictated by rolling a dice. Knock the tower down, and you are required to put up to two of the fallen animals back into your hand.
What’s In The Box?
- 29 Wooden Animals (four each of seven types plus the starter crocodile)
- One Die
There are several versions of the game including a two-player pocket-sized edition for travel, a My Very First Games edition with chunkier animals for small children, and a 10th-anniversary edition in a special tin. There’s also a Swiss-inspired version featuring mountain goats and St Bernards along with a mountain range starter piece, and even a tricker edition where the tower is built upon a rotating base patrolled by a shark!
Why Should You Play?
A game of Animal Upon Animal is started by placing the single wooden crocodile on the table, this is the starting piece for each game. Each player then rolls the dice to determine what they must do. Rolling a one or two allows you to place the corresponding number of wooden animals from your hand onto the tower. Roll the crocodile and you can place an animal beside the croc on the ground, effectively widening the tower base at either end. Rolling the hand allows you to give an animal to an opposing player and have them place it for you while rolling the question mark allows the other players to decide which of your animals you must attempt to place.
On the surface, this seems like a very simple game, and it some ways it is. The age recommendation is from 4 to 99 but any child old enough to understand the concepts of placing things on top of other things without them falling down would be able to play, assuming of course that they have the dexterity to do so. That is where the difficulties lie, along with some introductory strategy. The pieces are awkwardly shaped so choosing which order to place them in is critical, but of course, this is made more difficult by the element of luck introduced by rolling a dice and other players sometimes getting to make decisions for you.
This is one of those games that’s incredibly simple to explain and understand, but not so easy to actually win and it would make a fabulous introduction to dexterity gaming.
Moving on to our next game but sticking with some elements of gameplay seen in Animal Upon Animal, we reach IDW Games’ Cat Tower. In Cat Tower, players attempt to stack their handful of adorable cardboard cats onto a tower before the other players. As with Animal Upon Animal, decisions are dictated to a degree by dice rolling.
What’s In The Box?
- One Die
- 42 Cat Cards
- 12 Cat Tokens
- 12 Catty Fatty Cards
Why Should You Play?
Playing Cat Tower expands upon some of the elements seen in Animal Upon Animal, however, there is very little strategy involved as all your cats are the same shape, so little planning is needed. Players are initially dealt seven cats each and actions on each player’s turn are dictated by rolling a die, but here there are some extra things to consider.
Rolling a single or double cat allows you to place that number of cats on the tower. The cat paw lets you assign another player to stack one of your cats for you, and take any corresponding penalties. The fish makes you stack a single cat upside down, while Catty Fatty gets you to place a Catty Fatty card onto the tower and flip over one of the face-down tokens. The token is also placed on the tower before the action it indicated is performed. These actions include:
- Reversing the playing order
- Forcing the next player to skip their turn
- Allowing the next player to force another to stack one of their cats for them
- Forcing the next player to stack a cat upside down
- Forcing the next player to place a Catty Fatty card of their own & flip a token
- Collecting all cats from players hands and redistributing them evenly across the players
The double random nature of Catty Fatty actions (rolling a dice to get Catty Fatty in the first place, then flipping an unseen token) really adds to the randomness of the game, especially as the tokens can reveal another Catty Fatty action for the next player, causing a chain. A player can, therefore, be down to their final cat and about to win, then suddenly find themselves missing turns or being assigned extra cats to stack.
Cat Tower may well be my favorite out of these four stacking games. The game comes in a tiny, neat box, the pieces are made from cardboard, and everything is covered in adorable cat imagery. What’s not to love? One thing I particularly love about Cat Tower is that because the tower is made of cardboard rather than wooden or plastic pieces, it is much quieter when it inevitably collapses. This allows you to play even when other people are sleeping or doing other activities where you need to keep the noise down – combined with the small box size, it makes the game ideal for camping or caravanning holidays.
The lack of noise can also help people with anxiety issues. I personally struggle to play Jenga because I find the sudden loud noise of the crashing blocks triggering. Cat Tower with its cardboard pieces removes nearly all of this issue and takes away the nerve-jangling element while not removing any of the tension that makes the games fun in the first place.
The final game in our list is Rhino Hero, also from HABA. In Rhino Hero, once again we are using cards to build our tower as high as possible. The difference here is that we have varying types of cards in our hand and we can choose which order to play them in, reintroducing some strategy to our tower building.
What’s In The Box?
- 31 Roof/Action Cards
- 28 Wall Cards
- One Foundation Card
- One Wooden Rhino Hero Piece
There is also a separate Rhino Hero Super Battle Game that introduces battles between four superheroes and introduces Giraffe Boy, Big E, and Batguin as well as the cheeky Spider-Monkeys.
Why Should You Play?
To start a game, the roof tiles are shuffled, each player is given five cards (seven in a two-player game) and the foundation card is placed – this card can be placed on either side for an easy or an expert game. Players take it in turns to add walls from a shared stack as indicated on the previous roof/foundation card, then place a roof tile from their hand on top. These tiles can be blank and only show wall placements for the next player, or they can include a symbol such as:
- Reversing player order (ignored in a two-player game)
- Next player misses a turn
- Next player has to take another roof tile into their hand
- Double roof that allows you to place another roof tile immediately on top of this one
- Next player has to move the wooden Rhino Hero piece onto your roof tile before placing his walls
Considering which roof tiles are in your hand can help you attempt to strategize in order to force other players into harder situations, leaving yourself with easier roof tiles to place when the tower has grown taller. The game ends either when a player successfully places his final roof tile, every wall card has been placed (a cooperative win), or when the tower collapses (the player who made it collapse loses, whoever has the fewest remaining roof tiles is the winner).
Rhino Hero takes some of the easy strategic elements from Animal Upon Animal and adds to it by removing some of the random factor associated with dice-rolling – although naturally your strategy can still be upset by other players. We also found it allowed for the tallest towers of any of the games here – one game on our dining room table was almost scuppered by us hitting the ceiling light and towers over three feet tall can be achieved. Because of this, you might want to give some thought about where you’re playing, our game on the dining table ended with my seven-year-old having to stand on a dining chair and stretch right up to place his cards – not so easy with even younger players.
We particularly loved Rhino Hero as it brought just enough strategy to keep us thinking, but still kept the game quick and easy. It has a great balance between strategy and luck. The tall towers it allowed for were loved by my son who has also played alone on occasion to see just how high he can go.
Which Are The Best Stacking Games?
Deciding which is the “best” of our four stacking games featured here really depends on what you are looking for. For younger players, Animal Upon Animal is a great choice with plenty of opportunity for growth. Travelling? You might consider Rhino Hero or Cat Tower, both of which pack into very small boxes. If you want something completely unique then why not consider Beasts of Balance, or back its new Kickstarter? Whatever you need, the wide variety of stacking games available and their simple rules make them a must-have addition to any games collection.
GeekMom received these items for review purposes.