The board game Zooloretto won the Spiel des Jahres award in 2007, beating out four games I’ve never heard of, although I suppose that’s not automatically a bad thing. It’s a fun game, on the lighter side of the German-style games we’ve played, more at the level of Ticket to Ride than, say, Stone Age or Puerto Rico, but it brings the benefit of being very easy to pick up and quick to play.
Each player in Zooloretto has a small board that represents his zoo, with three separate enclosures containing spaces for four, five, and six animals respectively, as well as a barn and several places for vending stalls. Each turn involves drawing tiles from the pool, with tiles including animals of eight different species, vending stalls, and coins that can be used to purchase the right to move animals or stalls around your board, expand your zoo to add one more enclosure, to discard an animal you can’t place, or to buy an animal from another player’s barn. The goal is to maximize the number of victory points for your zoo at the end of the game, with the biggest bonuses coming for filling any enclosure (with the limit of one animal type per enclosure) and other points coming from placing more animals and stalls, but two-point penalties for animals in your barn, which is where you stash any tile you can’t place until you can either place it somewhere or discard it.
The one major twist is that players do not draw tiles directly, but instead must place them on one of several delivery trucks, each with space for three tiles, placed in the center of the table. There’s one truck per player, but no player owns any single truck, and on your turn, you may choose to take one of the trucks (even if it’s only partially filled) instead of placing another tile. So when placing tiles on trucks, you have to consider whether another player will grab the truck you’ve so carefully filled for your own purposes, and sometimes may draw a tile an opponent doesn’t want and thus choose to place it on a truck to discourage him from taking it (or to screw him if he does). There are also some animal tiles labeled with a gender, and if you get a male and a female of the same animal type in an enclosure … wait for it … you get a baby animal tile, free, so you can fill the enclosure faster. There are also coin bonuses for filling your two smaller enclosures as well as the expansion enclosure, and for a single coin you can swap any two groups of animals, which offers opportunities for more points and to potentially duplicate coin bonuses (making it a nearly zero-risk investment if done correctly).
The game is sold as a 2-5 player game, but the two-player version is explicitly listed as a variant in the rules, and the dynamic changes dramatically. The two players use and fill three trucks instead of two, and so instead of competing with other players for a specific animal type, the only constraint is the fact that in each round, one or more tiles will be removed from the game because they were on the truck that neither player chose. Filling enclosures is much easier, there’s less need to buy an animal from the other player’s barn (I think we’ve done that twice in five games), and just generally less tension because you know in all likelihood you’ll get the tiles you need.
I did manage to play this as a simple matching game with my three-year-old daughter, using four animal types for the two of us, just two trucks, no money or stalls, and using the one-type-per-enclosure rule. She thought it was great and even understood when I switched two of her animal types to make room for her to add another panda* to her zoo. My daughter thinks it’s important for everyone to finish whatever game we play, and she’s not concerned about who finishes first and has no concept of points, so it really boiled down to matching and counting. Heck, even stripped down to these simple rules it’s still a better game than Candyland.
*So for some reason, my daughter was pronouncing panda “ponda,” as if she was English. We have no idea where it came from, and while it cracked us up, we did tell her it was pronounced “panda” and, after a few days, she dropped the British accent. The first time she said it correctly, I told her, “You know, you used to say ‘ponda’ bear.”
Her response? “When I was a baby?”
“No, sweetheart. Yesterday.”
I’d definitely recommend this as a starter game for anyone interested in playing better board games but a little wary of the heavier strategy entrants in the field. Ticket to Ride and Carcassonne are more challenging, but Zooloretto’s concept and look put it ahead of Carcassonne, and the scoring in Zooloretto is more intuitive than Carcassonne’s bizarre yet critical farm scoring scheme. I would also guess that this game would be the easiest of all of the games I’ve reviewed here for a child to learn to play well; Ticket to Ride is just as simple to play, but there’s more advance planning required than there is in Zooloretto. And who doesn’t love panda bears?