Highway to Shell: Review

Fairway loved Frogger growing up. There’s something lovable about the idea of a frog trying to cross a road only to drown (?) in a river. Today, Fairway picks up what feels like the board game equivalent of Frogger, Highway to Shell, by Concrete Canoe Games. 

Highway to Shell is a three- to six-player hand-management, take-that, and grid-movement game in which players are trying to get their bale of turtles from a zoo, across a highway, and to the preserve on the other side.

Initial Impressions ^

  1. Stackable turtles crossing a road is an adorably cute theme.
  2. The game requires a good amount of planning if you want to avoid having your turtles “bonked” back to the beginning.
  3. There is a good amount of take-that in the game, but it is balanced against the fact that it’s often to the detriment of everyone at the table.
  4. The turtle art is adorable and the game is family-friendly. No turtles are smushed, just bonked.

Game play ^

In Highway to Shell, you are assigned five like-colored tokens which represent your turtles. The object is to move them across a multi-lane highway formed from a series of cards to the other side.  The highway cards are arranged to form the two three-lane roads separated by the median with a starting position (zoo) on one side and the preserve on the other.

To start, all of the turtles are stuck into a bag together.  Three of the turtles are drawn from the bag at random and placed on the starting zoo card.

Each player is then dealt two action cards.  The action cards reflect a series of things you can do on your turn such as moving turtles, giving turtles protections, blocking the lanes of traffic, and “bonk” turtles from the road.

Starting with a first player and proceeding clockwise, you must play one of the action cards, resolve its effect, and then draw a new action card.  Most of the time, you’re trying to move your turtles from the zoo towards the preserve while trying to do the opposite for your opponents turtles.  As turtles are moved off the zoo, new ones are drawn from the bag and added to the zoo.

Turtles can move forwards, backwards, or side-to-side on spaces designated on each board.  If two turtles land on each other, they’re stacked. You can either move stacked turtles together or by unstacking the topmost turtle.

As turtles move through lanes of traffic are at the risk of being “bonked” back to the bag.  A number of the action cards include such hazards as tanks, drag racing cards, and trucks. These enemies of traveling turtles can remove one or more of turtles from a lane of traffic forcing them to have to be redrawn from the bag and start at the beginning.  The only “safe” location are the three spaces on the median (the fourth card).

The game ends when at least five turtles (of any color) have made it to the preserve.  At that time, players score their points: 10 points for each turtle in the preserve plus each lane scores its lane number of point for each turtle on it.  Turtles on the median, at the zoo, or still in the bag do not score any points.

On the Green ^

Stackable turtles!  The turtles are a super adorable use of these stacking components. We enjoyed moving the turtles around quite a bit.  They were also pretty easy to draw from the bag and weren’t so tippy even with large numbers of turtles stacked up.

Strategy.  The stacking also provides for great opportunities for teamwork and strategy.  In our games, players routinely tried to ride in tall stacks of turtles essentially because it meant mutually assured destruction if one of the players in the stack used a car, tank or truck.

Take That.  Look at that, I put take that into an on the green section. I’ve been pretty down on games with high levels of Take That lately. Mostly because it feels unnecessary or unfair. But Highway to Shell seems to get it right. Players moving your turtles, bonking them with cars and trucks, and otherwise interfering with getting your turtles across the finish feels right on.  What’s more, the actions are predictable (in the sense you know the sorts of things that’s going to happen) and in some ways defensible and the worst that happens is you join the large group of turtles still in the bag.

The art.  The game features art from Alisha Volkman.  The turtles are adorable  And the cards and design feel like cartoon versions of expressway signs.

Easy to learn, relatively quick to play.  Set up and game play are both very reasonable. It didn’t take us very long to learn. Most of the actions are spelled out on the cards themselves. The turtle movement scheme is generally pretty intuitive.

Where it comes up short ^

We were provided the non-final version of the game, and there were a few notes about the game in that state.

Card clarity and strength.  There are a few cards where clarity would be helpful.  For example, whenever cards say “up to” does that include not moving a turtle at all?  If so, it was awkward when a card was played and no turtles were moved.  We ultimately changed it to make it that you always had to move the requisite numbers of turtles at least one space if you can. This had a fun result of forcing players to make terrible choices — kind of like another game of bad options.

Similarly, we felt that some of the effects were awfully short-lived: potholes and traffic cones.  In both cases, one round felt really short. It’s almost like they should continue until either: another player moves or removes them via another pothole or traffic cone card (or they’re “used up”).

Note: Since writing this, but before any official rules were changed, the designer was going to take some of these concerns under advisement.

On the title. I’m not in love with it. It’s obviously a play on words and unlikely to mean anything to most kids–it certainly didn’t mean much to mine. However, I wonder if parents might avoid the game just because of the title. I think parents would be making a mistake, but perceptions matter.

Luck.  There is a lot of luck in this game. Card draws, turtle draws, etc. are all luck based. In large groups of players, the back and forth of the turtles meant that any individual set of moves was likely reversed by the time you got back. For instance, even if you made it to the median on your turn and thought you were safe, there was a very good chance you weren’t going to stay there.

Silver Lining on Luck.  I don’t think the amount of luck seriously detracts from the game in a huge way as it’s relatively short. It also is “true” for all players. At higher player counts some coordination became a necessary and important part of the strategy of getting your turtles to safety.

In the hole ^

Highway to Shell is a cute, little game with nice mechanics. The family-friendly art and theme, plus the added nostalgic appeal, make this a great game to add to gamer-family household. Plus, the adorable stacking turtles!

Highway to Shell is in the hole for a par! ^

Fairway was provided a copy of the game for the review, but was not otherwise compensated. His love of turtles did not influence his opinion either, or, at least, not that he’s aware of.

Bonus pics! ^





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