GTM #222 - Bumuntu!
by WizKids




Get ready for the next staple in your board game collection - Bumuntu

Bumuntu is the perfect blend of theme, strategy, and innovation, sure to be fun for the whole family. Based on the Bakongo tribespeople of central Africa, Bumuntu explores their culture, symbols, and folklore. 

In the heart of Africa live the Bakongo, a Bantu ethnic group defined by their language, Kikongo. The Bakongo are direct descendants of the Kingdom of Kongo and hold tight to many of their traditions and symbols. “Bumuntu” is the Kikongo word for “civilization,” but the term has evolved to symbolize a spiritual ideal of personhood. 

A common theme in African folklore is the idea that animals are wise creatures who guide humans to do good and moral things. In Bumuntu, you are a tribal leader journeying through the jungle, following the guidance of the animals and earning their favor. Favor is important, as the leader with the most at the end of the game will get the blessing of the animals and bring their people to prosperity. 

The first thing you’ll notice about Bumuntu is its beautiful table presence, complemented by the stunning thematic art found on the board and tiles. The lush fauna of the Congolese jungle provides the perfect background to the colorful animal tiles that make up the board. Each animal is carefully stylized in a traditional African fashion and printed on Bakelite pieces, giving Bumuntu a high-quality look and feel that is perfect for a game with such a rich theme and elegant gameplay. The African art style is carried throughout the other pieces, fully immersing players in the Bakongo culture. 

Once you delve into the game itself, however, Bumuntu really shines. With mechanics that can only be described as “elegant, intuitive, and unique,” the game is very easy to learn but has a strategy that will continue to grow with the player. 

The board is set up with 64 Animal Tiles - eight tiles for each of eight animals. These are randomly assigned on an 8x8 grid that represents the Congolese jungle. Players, representing various tribal leaders, will travel around the jungle on these animal tiles. Each animal has a unique chess-like movement, and as a tile is used, the player removes it from the board and collects it. At the end of the game, players will score points, called “favor,” based on the number and types of tiles they’ve collected. Players are challenged to “string together” their movements in intelligent ways, utilizing the tiles’ abilities to keep progressing, which becomes increasingly difficult as the game progresses and fewer tiles remain in play. 

The animals’ movements are inspired by their traits. Some will allow players to move around the board quickly, such as the Zebra, who runs in straight lines, or the Flamingo, who can fly to other spaces. Other animals allow you to “attack” other players, moving their position on the board - beware of the venomous Black Mamba who drives all opponents away, or the charging Rhinoceros who can push you to far off places in the jungle. Lastly, some animals will allow players to perform special actions, such as the defensive Elephant, who can’t be moved, or the tricky Tarantula (based on the African folk tale of Anansi, the trickster spider), who allows players to move tiles around on the board. 

Part of the fun of the game lies in the interactions of players as they move around on the Animal Tiles. As simple as it is to move, the other players on the board must be taken into consideration when taking your turns. Don’t get too close to an opponent on a Crocodile, for example, or you might end up alone in the jungle. Think you’ve got a good attack with your Lion? Wait until your opponent moves onto an Elephant. The dynamic and ever-changing nature of the board makes strategically planning out your moves incredibly important. 

Another fun aspect is the players’ ability to control the amount of interaction on the board during setup. Because Bumuntu comes with ten animals, but players choose eight to play with, there are variable setup options, allowing players to decide how they want to play. There’s lots of fun in planning multiple moves ahead and then executing them in a more programmed game, but there’s also fun in creating (and breaking) alliances with other players through attacks and trickery. 

The game’s primary method of scoring utilizes the “Animal Favor Board.” At the beginning of the game, the in-play animals are randomly arranged on this board, from top to bottom, and their positions determine the amount of favor they will be worth at the end of the game. Animals at the top are worth more favor, while animals toward the bottom are worth less. 

But these positions aren’t set in stone. Distributed throughout the board are 16 “Advancement Tiles” that, when collected, allow players to switch around the positions of animals on the Favor Board. It’s not uncommon to see animals from the bottom make their way to the top and vice versa. This adds more variety to the game, as players compete to ensure that the animals they’re collecting stay up high and their opponents’ animals stay low. 

Because of this, players will often spend their Advancement Tiles playing tug-o-war with the animals. Many players will get attached to one animal, and moving it becomes a matter of principle, not strategy. This will often lead to players rallying behind specific animals, as well as personal victories in raising others up the ranks. 

A bit of mystery also enshrouds the game, as once a tile is collected, it gets placed behind that player’s shield, hidden from all opponents. This is important because the Animal Favor Board gives points only to the players with the most and second-most of each animal. With eight tiles each, will three Lions be enough to score the highest number of points? Or will another player get four and force you to take the second place points? 

Bumuntu, however, goes much deeper than just the animals. In the game, the Animal Tiles have various symbols, such as N’kisi, small spiritual statues that are believed to bring good fortune, and Yowa, religious symbols that represent the four phases of the sun. Each of these symbols comes with bonuses in the form of extra points during the scoring phase or an extra ability that you can use. 

N’kisi Tiles give bonus points at the end of the game. With each one collected offering more points than the last one, they can quickly add up. This means players must be mindful of others collecting N’kisi, as collecting a full set of eight gives 20 points, a potentially game-changing amount, at the end of the game. 

Yowa Tiles also give bonus points at the end of the game. Similar to the Animal Favor Board, Yowa Tiles give points to the players with the most and second-most number of such tiles, meaning that collecting only a few can offer a player six bonus points, which could mean the difference between winning the game or losing heartily. 

You’ll also encounter Food Tiles, which give players a food token when collected. The symbol for these food tokens is the banana, a common food among the Bakongo people. Like the animal tiles, players keep these food tokens hidden behind their shields. When players find themselves stuck on the board, they can use these food tokens to move through it more efficiently. Food tokens are strategically important to the game, as with enough, players can easily run around the board and collect the best animals. They are especially important toward the end of the game, when the tiles become fewer and fewer and players become more likely to become lost in the jungle. 

Once all 16 Advancement Tiles are collected, the game ends. This variable finish means that players could choose to have a long, extended game, or try to collect all 16 up front and hope they collected enough. The player who collects the last tile gets to make one last swap on the Animal Favor Board; that last change is a great moment of tension, often filled with other players trying to influence the decision in order to give themselves an advantage. 

However, the tensest and most exciting part of the game comes when players lift up their shields and reveal the tiles they’ve collected. Everyone looks around the table, quickly counting the tiles that other players have, and hoping that they made the best moves. A formal scoring process then occurs where favor and bonus points are counted. The player with the most favor in the end wins! 

Bumuntu offers a number of viable strategies for players, as well as a board that changes every game, which allows for a very high level of replayability. A player may choose to focus on the Animal Favor Board, but not collect the N’kisi or Yowa tiles. Conversely, a player could choose to try to collect N’kisi, or try to collect Yowa, in the hope that the bonus points give them the edge they need to come out victorious. 

A social aspect often comes into play too, as players make temporary alliances, going after players who seem to be in the lead. But are they really? Bumuntu is filled with lots of fun personal moments during gameplay as well. Little victories, such as getting to a specific tile before another player or using a food tile that an opponent didn’t realize you had, keep the game fun and interesting throughout. 

Because turns are short, and the game includes plenty of player interactions, there is also not a lot of downtime. As players familiarize themselves with the animals’ movements, the game begins to progress more quickly, with the ability to change the Favor Board keeping everyone on their toes. 

The other great aspect of Bumuntu lies in its elegance. It is very simple to learn and to play, making it a great game for kids to play with their parents, as well as for more experienced gamers who want to explore something new. Most players fully understand the game after their first turn; however, with each new playthrough, will find themselves trying different strategies, allowing them to play Bumuntu in new and different ways every time they open the box. 

Bumuntu is a very easy game to pick up, but extremely difficult to put down. Will you earn the animals’ favor, or will you get lost in the jungle?