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[Review] Zoo Sim

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tomvasel
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Joined: 03/23/2011

My favorite computer games have always been simulations, such as Roller coaster Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon. I love having total control over something, and building it from the ground level up. Therefore, when I heard that a game called ZooSim (Cwali, 2002 - Corne van Moorsel) was available, I gladly picked it up -wondering how a computer simulation was translated to a board game.

Apparently I was slightly misinformed, as the game really didn’t have anything to with a computer simulation, but was instead an auction game with some domino-like mechanics. Yet despite being one of the tightest auction games I have ever played, the beautiful components and very competitive game play have made ZooSim one of my favorite games. One of my biggest complaints about the game was a component problem, but the latest edition of the game, O Zoo Le Mio, fixed this problem, making the game a definite “must-buy”. The bidding in the game is extremely interesting, and combined with one of the variants, makes it one of the most strategic bidding games I’ve ever played, but still with a “light” feel.

Each player (2-4) gets a zoo entrance that is folded up to become a player shield, as well as a starting tile for each player. Twenty-five zoo tiles (rectangular in shape) are shuffled, and placed in a face-down pile. Thirty-five coins and thirty-five “visitors” (meeples) are placed in the middle of the table, with each player taking eight coins and placing them behind their shield. A flagpole tile is placed on the table, and a flag for each player is randomly placed in order on the flagpole. There are five rounds for the game, and each round follows the exact same pattern.

First, the top five tiles are flipped over. Each tile has two different attractions on it, with a picture of the animal in that attraction, and a number of stars. The stars are color-coded to animal type (blue = sea animal, red = birds, orange = apes, yellow = other mammals, and gray = reptiles), and the amount of stars equals how popular the attraction is (from one to three). There are paths that cross each tile, and exit the tile at different points (out of eight possible). Finally, the tile may have a number of trees on it (from 1 to 3). The first tile in the row of face-up tiles is then auctioned off.

In an auction, players simultaneously put forth a number of coins in their fist, secretly - and the highest bidder wins the tile. In case of a tie, the player in the tie whose flag is higher gets the tile, with their flag subsequently removed to the lowest position. The winning player then places the tile in their zoo. Tiles are placed next to each other, in domino style, but the paths on them must connect - so if one tile has no path at an end, and the other does, they cannot connect. After the tiles are connected, the player checks to see if their zoo attracts any visitors. If they currently have the most or second most stars of a certain color, they get visitors. Only stars in adjacent tiles are counted, however, and only the largest group. The player who has the most places gets two visitors on that attraction (unless they are the only one with that type of animal, in which case they place only one), with the second most player getting one visitor. Also, if the player has the most trees (total) they put two visitors there, with the second most trees getting one visitor. Finally, if the player forms a complete loop with paths, they place a visitor in the center of this loop. Unlike the other guests (who can be lost if someone builds a bigger attraction), these guests cannot be lost.

After all five tiles have been auctioned off, each player gets more coins - one for each tile in their zoo. Points are also totaled (on a separate score sheet). After the first season, each player gets one point per visitor in their zoo. After the second season - two points, third season - three points, etc. After the fifth season, whichever player has the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The Cwali version of the game is in a round tubular container - and while this is pretty cool looking, it’s a pain to fit on my shelf, and I’m kind of glad that I only have one such game. (Don’t get me wrong, if someone offered me another, I’d take it!) However, when I saw the components for O Zoo le Mio, I was slightly annoyed, as not only was the box better for the shelf, but the components were better. One of the biggest problems we had with the game was remembering who had the most stars of each color, and we were often counting them up again. The reason for this was that all the visitors were black, making it sometimes hard to distinguish what they stood for. I fixed this problem by painting three meeples in each color (green for trees), and the game works pretty well now. But the new version already has them colored, and even has little wooden trees for the trees, and park benches for the loops. Ah, well. But the tiles for both games are absolutely gorgeous. If someone told me that a game was going to be a mix of dominoes and auctions, I wouldn’t really be interested. Throw down these beautiful tiles, though, and impressions will change. The flagpole and flags are also a nice addition, as are the wooden coins - which are far superior to cardboard chits. Even with the colored meeple problem, I really love the components for this game - they really lend well to the theme.

2.) Rules: The rules are simple and short, with a page that shows a game halfway through, explaining how scoring works, and how the game should be set up. This was extremely helpful, and better than a FAQ would have been. I found that the game was very easy to teach to people, but that it usually took a turn or two before some people realized the value of the tiles.

3.) Auctions: The auctions in this game are very tight. It is almost imperative that a player win at least one auction per turn, and they must know which tile to do it with. It’s very disheartening to wait until the last tile of a round, bid a large amount, and then only tie - and lose to someone who’s higher on the flagpole. And the rich get slightly richer in this game, since people with no tiles will get no additional income. Seeing how the tile best fits your zoo is also important. Sometimes the path layout fits your zoo perfectly, but the colors won’t help you. Other times the colors are exactly what you want, but the paths are in the most unhelpful of places. The amount of trees is nothing to be scoffed at, either - so every tile is important, and this weighs heavily on the minds of the players as they go to auction each time. Blind bidding is always a risky thing, because if a player bids too much, they can pay too much for a worthless tile (and no one else pays anything). However, after a few rounds, players get more experience, and the blind bidding becomes a cagey match.

4.) Theme and Fun Factor: The game fits the zoo theme perfectly. Now, you certainly don’t control a zoo in the same way as the Zoo Tycoon computer game, but it does look like you have a zoo by the time the game is over. The bidding and tiles really help contribute to this idea, and the game is more fun because of this, I think. I really like blind bidding, so this game was naturally fun for me. I can imagine that people who hate blind bidding wouldn’t like this game, but I think this is perhaps the best in its genre. I find Fist of Dragonstones a little more fun, but ZooSim is perhaps the better game.

5.) Variants: There are several variants in the rules, and even more proposed on the internet. One that I tried was to give each player a set amount of coins each turn, rather than one per tile. This worked okay, but changed the dynamics of the game in a way that didn’t really improve it. Showing every tile face up at the beginning of the game - allowing players a chance for long-term strategy - was, on the other hand, a variant that was fascinating and fun. I enjoyed all the variants I tried, but still found myself coming back to the basic game.

So is ZooSim worth your time? The answer is a resounding yes! It’s an excellent, quick bidding game, but one where the bidding can be very tense and fun. If the game was longer, it could get monotonous, but the bright theme and the quick game play help expedite things; and there is really no downtime for the players. People who like blind bidding, dominoes, or zoos should probably get a kick out of this game. Those who like all three will be in Heaven! I was very impressed with the game play, and have come to respect Corne van Moorsel as a great designer. Try this game out - I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Tom Vasel

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