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The Dusty Dragon #13: Zooloretto (Review)

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In modern board gaming we tend to have a short memory and a long wishlist. Of the top ten games on Board Game Geek, nine have been published since 2012. Kickstarter has us shelling out funds many months (sometimes years) before games are released, and by the time they land on our doorstep, we’ve already moved on to the next thing.

The Dusty Dragon’s goal is to reintroduce games from the past. Games that are at least five years old and are not in the Board Game Geek top 150. Here we offer balance to the “cult of the new” coverage on iSlaytheDragon and elsewhere, by highlighting evergreens that are worth revisiting and might still prove relevant to you today. (To see all posts in this series, click here.)

Breeding pandas is hard.  I mean, incredibly hard.  When Beijing Zoo started their program in 1955, they weren’t successful until Ming Ming was born in 1963 as the first panda ever bred in captivity – eight years later!  The reasons are numerous, daunting and even a little strange.  Like females only have three days to conceive, the creatures may have forgotten how (!) and when a baby panda is born it’s the size of a stick of butter!  Now that’s fragile!  Even with greater success rates in the last decade, there are still less than twenty born every year.  Now, you don’t have to worry about all that, though.  In your zoo you only have to put a couple tiles together and watch the magic happen.  Well, not literally.  That part’s abstracted.  This is a family game!

How To Play

In Zooloretto you are a zoo administrator working to grow and manage a wildlife park as efficiently as possible by collecting sets of animals without taking in ones that you have no room for.

The core “add or take” mechanism is the same principle used in the earlier published Coloretto.  Indeed, today so many card game versions are produced from popular board games.  Yet Schacht seemingly did the reverse (before the cool kids were doing it).  His card game actually predates this board implementation, which adds additional moving parts.

To administer their parks, players collect sets of animals, kiosks and extra money as they come in by truck.  On a turn, you must take one of three possible actions.

If you fill it with animals, they will come.

You may simply draw one tile (from a bag or stack on the table, however you’ve arranged for it).  Most tiles are animals – specifically eleven each of eight different species.  There are also twelve vending stalls to feed your hungry guests.  And twelve tiles are coins, which come in handy for other actions.  After drawing, place the token on a truck.  There are a number of trucks equal to the number of players and each one holds up to three items.  So if all of the current trucks are filled to capacity, then you may not draw a tile.

In that event, or if there is an incomplete truck that you’d like anyway, then you make take a truck as your action.  When you accept a delivery you immediately place the tiles from it in appropriate places on your zoo board.  Animals are placed in enclosures.  But you only begin with three ares, and each exhibit may only house one species.  If you have no room for an animal coming in off a truck, it must be placed in your barn, where it may score negative points if you can’t get rid of it by the end of the game.  Kiosks are placed in designated locations (you start with four) adjacent to your various exhibits and may be worth bonus points.  Coin tiles are simply exchanged for coins.

When you take a truck, you are done for the round and must wait until all other players have finished their actions by also taking trucks.

It’s best not to ask where they got them…

Some animal tiles have the female or male icon.  If you ever accumulate a pair in one of your enclosures, you get a cute little baby offspring tile to add as well.  Each female and male may only be used once in a pair to reproduce – and you don’t enjoy the coin bonus if an enclosure is completed as a result of your little bundle of joy.

The third choice is to take one of three different money actions.  You begin the game with two coins and can earn more by taking them in trucks, filling up enclosures or selling animals from your barn.

The first money action is remodel, which costs one coin.  You may either move one animal from your barn to any empty and legal enclosure space.  Or you may exchange all animals of the one type from one location with all tiles of a type from another, which includes animals in your barn.  Be aware that you also do not receive the bonus coins for completing an enclosure via an exchange.  For two coins, you may purchase or discard an animal.  To buy one, you select an animal in another zoo’s barn (that player may not refuse the sale) and pay one coin to her and another to the bank, and then place it in your zoo.  Or you can expend two coins to the bank and discard one animal from your barn.  Finally, for three coins you may expand your park to add another enclosure, which includes an additional kiosk location.

The game ends in the round in which players have exhausted a determined number of tiles – some extras set aside at the beginning of the game are added to complete the round.  Then players score their parks.

Each enclosure has two numbers.  If you’ve filled that area, then you earn the higher value.  If you are just one shy of completing it, you score the lower number.  Otherwise, you don’t earn anything unless at least one vending stall is adjacent to the enclosure.  In that case you score one point per animal.  Speaking of, you also score two points for each unique kiosk in your zoo.  But then you must pay for any inefficiencies, losing 2 points for each different kind of animal or vending tiles in your barn.

Sorry, Dumbo, the apples are for the guests.

More Than Just 2×2

One of my favorite family outings is a visit to the zoo.  Especially since getting to a really nice, larger park for us involves just a day trip.  It’s a great time to get out of town, see things you don’t normally see and learn something, too.  So a board game about zoos, combing two of my favorite family activities?  Sign me up!

While the cardboard version by no means compares to the real place, the zoological setting is nonetheless appealing and will attract notice from younger and casual players.  There is no conflict to inflict hard feelings, or fantasy to repel non-geeks or things like economics and trading, so it’s actually interesting.  Most people enjoy, if not outright love, animals.  Plus you can get little baby cubs, chicks and joeys.  Of the two core elements – add-or-take and set collection – the latter is near universally recognized by older gamers, as well as any child whose parents are doing parenting right.

The heart of the game is simple, but creates a complex choice with essentially one decision point.  Do I take what’s currently available?  Or do I add to it?  And where does that addition go, based on what I drew versus what is presently on the table?

There are several factors to consider.  What tiles do you want and how badly do you need them?  On the flip side, what do others at the table want and how badly do they them?  Should you play it safe, grabbing an incomplete truck that has at least one or two tokens you need before it gets clogged with other things?  Conversely, do you pass on an optimal move in order to stick a useless token on a truck another player wants?  Maybe there are animals you can take, hoping your competitors will buy off of you?  Is taking kiosks and/or coins worth passing up actual animals one round – or maybe more?  Knowing the number of tiles for animals versus what’s already been claimed, are the odds in your favor of digging out a wanted species?  Should you hold out for a male or female to pair with a potential mate you already own?

Awwwwww…..

So optimizing your actions consists of considering the probabilities of drawing what you need and the risks in getting stuck with animals you have no space for.  And there’s some surprising amount of deduction.  Much of it is obvious, like you know what opponents are collecting.  Some of it is more subtle, like figuring out what others might be willing to buy from your barn or how likely they’re able to gather what they want.  All of that deduction, optimization and risk allow for some strong strategy – as far as set collection designs go – in a manner that’s easy to manage and is not overwhelming.  That’s why Zooloretto is genuinely enjoyable for both adults, kids, social, family and casual gamers to experience together.  That’s a rare breed in the hobby, indeed.

If you just want the distilled add-or-take decision process, then Coloretto is all you need.  The pure card game offers that essence, but without the more complex considerations and fiddly bits.  Yet you also sacrifice the extra elements that really elevate that central mechanism.  Plus that zoo theme really enhances its simple conceit.  Just as extra mechanisms like pick up and deliver significantly enhance deck-building beyond its finite implementation in Dominion (see: Manifest), the basic action selection make the add-or-take concept shine, giving it a sense of broader purpose.

The improvement Zooloretto makes to that core mechanism is adding money and a third action.  This crude economy allows you to manipulate your board and manage tiles above and beyond the rigid structure it borrows from its card predecessor.  Need to change your set collection mid-game? It’ll likely cost a mere coin.  Get rid of tiles you don’t want?  You can hope another buys it off you.  Or you can spend the cash to dispense of it yourself.  Buying another player’s unwanted riff-raff could prove useful in a pinch, too – another method of grabbing a token to build on a set that’s a little more reliable than hoping you just pull it from a bag.

No place to monkey around.

Despite the dearth of interaction, you can still be a little mischievous.  If you see a truck with a tile or two that you know another player wants, you can stick them with something else that will wind up in their barn.  There are times you may opt for that tactic just to be a little snot, and so the design allows for some “take that” element.  Most of the time you’ll be adding unwanted tiles to other trucks just to keep them off of one that you desire.  Either way, since it’s never mean-spirited most kids will take it in stride and even learn to use it to their advantage, too.  Adults will appreciate the focus on efficiency and parents the learning opportunity for their kids.

Also, there is randomness with the blind tile draws, which isn’t much different than the card game Coloretto.  I hesitate to even address it, because it’s inherent to the design, but luck will play a factor.  After the draw, there is a good deal of player agency in determining how tiles are placed.  That’s not to say you won’t get stuck with unwanted tokens, because you will.  For a lightweight family game, it is appropriate.  In my experience, kids have little to zero problem with arbitrariness.  Indeed it can be a leveling agent.  In Zooloretto, even serious gamers with a hearty aversion to luck will find its use here charming and engaging thanks to the unique add-or-take mechanism.

Now having alluded to the take that and luck factors, that’s not to claim that some kids won’t struggle with the byproduct of both those aspects: the negative points for superfluous tiles.  It can be frustrating, sure.  I mean, who likes having their points taken away?  However, there are a few things to alleviate its nature.  You can get rid of some if you can afford to.  Those idle beasts could even prove of benefit if another player buys it off your hands.  Also, it’s not cumulative, so that if you have multiple tokens of identical animals you’re still only docked the two points.  And it’s a condition that generally affects all players, especially if they’re experienced and know when to burden each other with worthless tiles here and there.

All of those interacting parts – the deduction, a little bit of “take that,” the randomness and the tension generated by the add-or-take mechanism – really shine in 4- or 5-players sessions.  There is a 2-player variant in the rules, but it’s not tremendously satisfying.  3-players work well enough, but the more trucks in circulation, the more the drama builds in deciding how to place tokens and which trucks to take.  And there tend to be more options buying and selling animals from barns.

Complete!

Just as zoos are near perfect family outings, Zooloretto is a near perfect family game.  A rare title that both adults and kids can legitimately enjoy together, it is extremely accessible, paces briskly and has an invitingly attractive setting.  Its central concept offers up an intelligent and impactful decision point that is still easy to understand and mentally manage – even, and especially, for younger gamers.  Michael Schacht’s streamlined set collection game is a unique classic and still popular precisely because of its simplicity and approachability.  It won the Spiel Des Jahres for reasons and remains an evergreen for the same ones.

A Jungle Out There

  • Rating 9.5
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 10
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Summary

Pros

Appealing setting
Low rules overhead
Add-or-take mechanism simple but thinky
Ideal family game

Cons

Kids might have trouble with penalty mechanism
No giraffes

9.5 Excellent

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

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