Reviewed by Frank Hamrick

(Abacus Spiele/Rio Grande Games, 2-5 players, ages 8 and up, 45 minutes; $44.95)

Spiel des Jahres. The coveted German game of the year award conveys several things to a consumer. The components are of good quality. The design is polished. The design is solid. The game will appeal to a broader family market. The game will probably not be a front-line “gamers game,” but will be sufficiently challenging that deeper strategy gamers will at least enjoy playing it. All of these things can be said of the 2007 Spiel des Jahres, Zooloretto. Designed by Michael Schacht, Zooloretto is the board game version of his earlier card game, Coloretto.

Coloretto was a simple, but very interesting game of card placement of and set collecting. Players sought to collect cards in sets of colors – but no more than three different colors. Collecting cards of additional colors counted against you. Zooloretto uses the same basic mechanics, with animal “tiles” replacing the cards, and “trucks” replacing Coloretto’s “columns.” The setting, of course is different. Whereas Coloretto is basically an abstract game, Zooloretto has a nice (even believable) theme. The players are Zoo Keepers.Zooloretto

Each player (2-5 players) is given a player mat depicting his zoo. Each person’s zoo is divided into three sections and a barn. In each section, a player may place from 4 to 8 animals, but each section may only contain one type of animal. Extra animals collected go to the player’s barn, which has no limit on the number of animals it may hold. However, the player will lose victory points for each different type of animal in his barn at the end of the game. The point is to collect enough of three animals to fill each section, but not to collect more animals than is needed to fill the three sections. In addition, a player is given an “expansion” board containing one additional zoo “section” which may be purchased by the player during the game. The expansion section comes in handy when a player is forced to take animals he cannot use.

There are 8 different animal types that are represented by square tiles, with each animal type consisting of exactly 11 tiles. Each set of 11 animal tiles contains two fertile males and two fertile females. There are “coin” tiles and “vendor” tiles too. All the tiles are mixed and placed face down in random stacks (we place ours in an extra draw bag I happen to have) at the beginning of the game. With 3 players, only 6 different animal types are used. With each additional player add one more animal type to the mix. In addition, there are 2 round “baby” tiles of each animal type which can be produced when a fertile male and female are placed in the same section of one’s zoo. These are separated by type and placed face-up in separate stacks to be used as players fertile animals reproduce. Finally, there are 5 “trucks” which are placed in the middle of the table (one truck per player).

If you have played Coloretto, you already know the basic game turn action. A player either draws one of the face-down animal tiles and places it in one of the trucks (each truck holds a maximum of three tiles), or he takes a truck (and ends his turn), or he may do a “money action.”

Once everyone has taken a truck, the trucks are emptied of their cargo and placed in one’s “zoo” (player mat). If it is a money tile, it is kept for later “money actions.” If it is a vendor it is placed in one of the “vendor” sections of a player’s zoo. Animals are placed in one of the sections of a player’s zoo, but each section may only contain one animal type. If a player collected animals that he couldn’t place in a section, they must go in his barn.

After all players have taken a truck, the turn ends, and a new round begins with all empty trucks returned to the center of the board. The second round begins. This continues until all the tiles have been taken. The game ends and victory points are counted. The player with the most points wins the game.

There are many little nuances and strategies that make the game interesting and much more of a “gamers-game” than Coloretto. First, there are the money actions. During a players turn, rather than taking and placing a new tile on a truck, or rather than taking a truck (thus ending one’s turn), a player may take a “money action.” Money actions are so named because they cost coins to take them. For 1 coin a player may move exactly one animal from his barn to any of his sections (provided he follows the rule of one animal type per section). The player may also, for one coin, exchange all the animals in his barn of one animal type for all the animals in any one section of his zoo. Thus, for example, he might move 4 elephants in his barn to a section containing 1 flamingo (moving the flamingo into his barn). For 2 coins a player my discard a single animal tile or vendor in his barn, or a player may purchase an animal from another player’s barn! For 3 coins a player may expand his zoo by adding the expansion section.

Second, there are the vendors. Each section of the zoo contains spaces for 4, 5, or 6 animals. And each section rewards the player with differing numbers of victory points, depending on how many animals are in the section at game’s end. If an animal section is completely filled a player gets the full number of victory points that section is worth. If he is no more than one animal shy of filling a section, he gets a lower amount of victory points at game’s end. If he has two or more spaces not filled in a section, he scores no points for that section, UNLESS he has a vendor in that section. In that case he gets one point for each animal he does have in the section. In addition, the player will score two points, at game’s end, for each different type of vendor in his zoo.

Money is very tight in this game and is necessary for money actions – and is especially important for purchasing a much needed animal type from another player’s barn.zooloretto2

Though the game is light in complexity, it does have a few nuances and tactics that keep one’s interest. For example, a player does best if he/she is the only one collecting an animal type. Since each animal type consists of only 11 specimens, if 3 or 4 people are trying to collect fiver or six of that animal, someone will be left out.

Further, placing an animal in a truck requires attention to what others are collecting. If you notice someone collecting monkeys and camels, you should not place a monkey (just drawn) onto a truck containing a camel. That player is sure to grab that truck when it is his turn and gain two animals he needs and no animal he doesn’t need. Thus, players learn to put “trash” on a truck another player might want. In that sense, Zooloretto can be a “take that” game. But for me, this only adds to the interest in the game.  Sometimes it is good to take a truck with an animal you don’t need, but you know is highly prized by someone else. That person is almost sure to buy the animal from your barn (you have no say in the matter), giving you a prized coin for it.

Of course, fertile male and female animals are important. When you have one of each in a section, you are given a “free” baby of the same type to go in that section (thus helping you fill the section faster).

Finally, using the “exchange” money action toward the end of the game can be an excellent move. One might even switch sections with two types of animals. For example, a player may have 4 elephants in his “middle” section (it is now full), and have an extra elephant in his barn (it will count against him at game’s end). Further, he has only 3 cheetahs in his first section (a five-animal section), thus scoring him no points at game’s end. For one coin, he switches both sections. He now has 4 elephants in his first (5 space) section, and has 3 cheetah’s in his second section. On a later turn he pays another coin and moves his 5th animal from the barn into the new elephant section, now giving him a full section and more victory points. By learning how and when to use money actions, a player can sometimes maneuver himself to victory.

I really enjoy the game – and I’m more of a “hard-core” strategy gamer. This one is certainly no Euphrat & Tigres or Power Grid, but in many ways it provides more fun, at least for me, than the much heavier games, in a much shorter time. I say “fun”, for although this one is not a brain burner, and doesn’t bring me the same satisfaction I get when winning Power Grid or Euphrat & Tigris, it does contain interesting choices and is just light enough and short enough for the whole family to enjoy. I can easily see why it won the Spiel des Jahres. It has been my most played game over the past six months. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Frank Hamrick


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