Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 45 mins
Setup Time: 5 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Okay, I’ve committed myself to reviewing all the Spiel Des Jahres winners, which means that I’m going to review Zooloretto. There is nothing massively wrong with Zooloretto. Which might sound like damning with faint praise, and that’s because it is. Its fine, there’s nothing wrong with it, it works as a basic intro tile placer, but it lacks excitement (to say the least). That said, let’s get on with it.
Gameplay is pretty simple, players get a zoo with enclosures. Each round they take turns to either pull a tile and slot it onto a delivery truck, select a truck and place its tiles into their zoo, or spend coins extending their zoo, moving animals around or disposing of unwanted animals. When a certain amount of tiles have been used, it triggers the last round and players score for having full enclosures, concession stands and not too many unhomed animals. That’s about it.
The first big issue with the game is the way it integrates theme with mechanics. This shows up in a few areas, the first being the classic Euro game issue of useless deliveries. Its one thing in Azul when a delivery turns up with tiles I’m not currently wanting to use so I take them and, for some reason, shatter them on the floor in a fit of pique, its quite another when a delivery man apparently turns up with a pair of lions I didn’t order so I just take them and shove them in a barn. That is a thematic moment so bizarre as to simulate an act of almost unforgivable insanity:
“Ah splendid Mr. Delivery Man, have you those flamingoes I ordered last week?”
“Nah, got you two kangaroos and a panda. Basically the same thing guv.”
“Oh, fair enough, shove them in my massive barn then, they’ll get on fine with the lion you derangedly delivered to me against my will last week.”
On top of that, I understand that zoo animals are cute, people like them, particularly small children. Which is why the fact that the game occasionally forces you to pay to ‘dispose’ of them quite sinister. This effect is turned up when you play the two-player version when three trucks arrive each round and one of them simply ‘discards’ its load out of the game. Maybe they’re being taken off to some lovely other zoo somewhere, but its hard not to imagine that truck making a beeline to the nearest dog food factory. The last thematic weirdness is that this is a game about running a zoo that in no way takes into account the idea of zoo visitors. I know its just a tile placement game, but having chosen the theme of a public attraction not including the public is a little surreal.
As for the mechanics themselves, they’re okay, you pull a tile, you place it on the truck in a way that you hope will tempt your opponent away from your preferred beasties and towards their own, but in a fashion that’s not too good for them. You place animals in your zoo, trying to maximize your enclosures and occasionally you almost get to chain things, but not a lot and not often. One of the issues is that taking a truck has to be your last action of the turn, despite it sometimes earning you coins that could be spent. Having to wait until the next turn to spend them when they’re one of the few places in the game where players have a genuine range of choices can feel like hitting a small wall and effectively drops a brick on any plans to actually chain something cool together.
In particular the two-player game isn’t great. While the box proclaims a two-player option on perusing the rules it presents the dreaded ‘alternate rules for two players’ section, usually full of work-arounds for a game that really needs at least three players but is afraid of sticking that on the box. At each player count creature types are pulled out of the game, at two players three are pulled out, leaving five possible species to fill the zoo. Additionally, two players are each given two possible extra enclosures, meaning that they can build a zoo able to accommodate five species. The upshot is that in the two-player game where the duel should be at its most heated its often impossible to place a problematic creature for your enemy, it’s possible for there to simply be no blank species for your opponent, making a number of the truck filling options a waste. It seems that the species pulling choice was made to control the game length, but pulling a number of tiles from each species rather than cutting a whole strategy choice out of the game would have achieved the same aim and maintained the tension. Set-up would have been a little slower, but not significantly more than the current process of sorting all the species into groups just to pull them out that currently takes place.
So, does it make sense as a Spiel Des Jahres winner? That sort of depends. If you mean, best game of the year award winner, probably not. If you mean winner of the SDJ given its peccadillos and tendencies, possibly. Firstly, the SDJ likes a Euro tile layer. Hidden movement has seen one winner, Deck builders despite their massive popularity have been placed once, tile layers of one form or another rack up at least seven wins, possibly more depending on your definitions. The SDJ also has a soft spot for a funny little component or two and the wooden planks that take the part of the delivery truck fulfils that criteria. As such its place as something worth owning probably has a lot to do with if you’re an SDJ completionist or not (hello).
That said it racks up an impressive 41 expansions and 18 versions on BGG, so it certainly has its audience, and as ‘my first tile layer’ it probably does a pretty good job. For a more advanced gamer though it lacks real bite and depth. As anecdotal evidence, one of the main criteria for whether my wife enjoys a game is that the first time we play it she wins. On our first play of Zooloretto she came out ahead, and the first comment was ‘that one can go into loft storage right?’. A few more plays and the answer was, yes, yes it can.