Updated: Sep 7, 2021
by Tom Harrod, @buryboardgames
WBG Score: 7/10
Player Count: 2-5 Players
Published by: Unfringed
Designed by: Chris Priscott
Judging a book by its cover is an easy trap. We’ve all done it before in many walks of life, and the same applies for board and card games. Zuuli is the kind of game that might fool a few people, if they judge it on aesthetics, alone. Now before we jump in, I should say: Zuuli is due to hit Kickstarter on 7 September 2021. I was fortunate enough to get a preview copy of the game, direct from Unfringed Things ahead of release.
What’s It All About?
Zuuli is a card-drafting game where you’re building a cute and cuddly zoo. Each player starts with one New Plot enclosure, and a hand of cards. Some might be animals; some could be additional enclosures. Others might be upgrades for enclosures. You’ll perform classic drafting – pick one and pass the rest on – until you have a selection of cards. Then everyone arranges their zoo into a tableau of sorts, for end-of-round scoring.
At the end of the round, more cards get dealt out and the game continues. Not all cards enter the game though, even at different player counts; hand size scales accordingly. Zuuli has a familiar, formulaic structure to it. Once you’ve played the first round, you have a strong grasp of what it is you’re trying to achieve. The game lasts three rounds, with your score ever-accumulating.
So: endearing animals, cheerful cartoon colours, set collection, and drafting. At a glance, I’d forgive you for assuming Zuuli shares some similarities with the likes of Gamewright’s Sushi Go!. I’ll admit they sit within the same genre of games, and claim to have similar target markets, age-wise (suggested at 8+). However, Zuuli sits a rung or two higher up the strategy ladder. Let’s creep forward and observe Zuuli in its natural habitat…
Bit Of Pick-And-Pass Drafting; Pinch Of Memory, Smattering Of Push-Yer-Luck
When it comes to the drafting, you’re not picking a card and then revealing it like you do in Sushi Go!, or Seven Wonders. Here you keep the card face-down; you don’t show it until the entire drafting phases finishes. This keeps other players guessing, so there’s a lot less open information on the table. To some extent, this makes things a little more chaotic. Why? Because players cannot hate-draft in such an obvious manner.
Instead, a whole extra spoonful of memory-based skills get injected into Zuuli. This is all the more prevalent with lower player counts. If playing in a 2- or 3-player game, you’ll receive back your initial hand of cards at least twice. When you get an old hand back, you might recall which cards are missing. The issue is, you cannot tell which opponent has drafted what…
Edit: Tom has since discovered, direct from the designer, that he misinterpreted this rule of total ‘blind’ drafting. Zuuli is, in fact, more akin to Sushi Go!/7 Wonders in the simultaneous draft-then-reveal mechanism. Tom happily accepts he got this rule wrong, but has decided to keep his review as it stands, since he’s basing his analysis upon how he digested this preview copy. And who knows? Maybe Unfringed Things will consider Tom’s accidental interpretation of the rules as a Bury Board Games Variant of Zuuli…?]
This is, at least, the case in the first round. It’s all a total blind pick-and-pass affair in that regard. Nobody at the table knows who’s drafting which exact cards. At the end of the round, everyone reveals their drafted cards. (In a 3-player game, for example, you draft eight cards each in the first round.) Then everyone ‘develops’ their zoo. In other words: you’re arranging your cards to best house animals into enclosures.
What Kind Of Cards Are There?
Enclosure cards state their habitat type (yellow Plains, green Jungle, or blue Water). Some, like your New Plot enclosure, present all three terrain types. Others that you might draft during the game provide a single, or double-terrain. When it comes to the rest of the enclosure’s anatomy layout, there’s a number in the top-left. This determines the space available within that enclosure. A score multiplier sits in the top-right, with any habitat-specific conditions along the bottom.
The animal cards, meanwhile, state whether they’re Fierce (predators) or Friendly (herbivores). You cannot house Fierce animals in the same enclosures as Friendly ones. That’s the first rule of Zoo Club! The Lion and the Sloth cannot hang our together, or else it’s going to end with a chomp, chomp, chomp.
Each animal has a habitat it needs to live in, which is one of Plains, Jungle or Water. (Some aren’t fussy and can live in one of many.) The animal card has a space size that it requires, which goes hand in hand with the enclosure’s space allowance. Animals also have a points value, and some have requirements or set collection bonuses.
A Menagerie Of Multipliers
By now you’ll have worked out that you need to do some mental arithmetic to house all these animals. (Alongside a dollop of pushing your luck during the draft.) You need to keep certain animals apart, while you’ll want to house others together. You need to ensure their collective space doesn’t exceed the size of the enclosure(s). The set collection in this manner, as well as certain enclosure requirements, means you have to spin multiple plates. Providing the animals end up in correct enclosures, you’ll earn the sum of the animal(s)’s points, times by the enclosure’s multiplier.
The third type of cards are the Upgrades, which you can bolt onto enclosures. These, in effect, break all the aforementioned rules! Some let you house Fierce and Friendly animals together (they’re all ‘Well Fed’). Others provide an extra habitat type onto the enclosure, providing flexibility. Some increase the size of the enclosure, so you can house more creatures in it.
The drafting in rounds two and three works in the exact same way as before. The big difference in these later rounds is: now you can see what cards your opponents collected earlier. Now, if you are so inclined, you could hate-draft. But you’re still drafting these cards face-down, so once again, a strong element of memory takes hold.
The interesting factor kicks in at the end of the second round. You get to arrange your new cards… plus the cards you had from last year. You can move animals around – providing you obey all the enclosure prerequisites. The only things you cannot move are the upgrades. Think of it as you can move animals from pen to pen. But once you’ve performed the manual labour on an enclosures, you can’t ‘reverse’ the effects!
You’ll want to move animals into different pens to sneak in extra points here and there. But what if you can’t house an animal (or animals) at the end of the year? You lose that animal’s points. So watch out: poor drafting choices can put a dent in your tally. There’s one interesting plot card, called the Holding Pen. It has a multiplier of x0, which means whatever animal you put in it scores you… zero. Wait – what? But hey, that’s better than having, say, an elephant on the loose, and it costing you -5 points!
The Terrible Tale Of The Overzealous Zookeeper
The crux of Zuuli is trying to house as many animals as possible without being too greedy. In one game, I saw one player only draft one enclosure in the first round. They had a menagerie of animals, but nowhere to keep them. With that many creatures on the loose, they scored zero. Meanwhile, the other two players had snaffled up all the enclosures that round. They had room for all their animals. That other player could never catch up, because the scores in Zuuli increase in a progressive manner. That other player was, in essence, one entire round behind their opponents. Let that be a warning to you!
Sometimes in games there’s a small indicator on cards, telling you how many cards there are of that type in the deck. This isn’t present in Zuuli, which might have helped that player make better decisions. However, it is worth saying again that this is a preview copy of Zuuli. As always, the final product may differ to some extent compared to a prototype. I must say though, this is a mighty fine prototype. The card stock itself is quality, and one of the best-produced preview copies I’ve seen in a while.
There’s ten different types of animals, which feels like enough of a variety. Aat the risk of sounding like a hypocrite though, I’d like to see more! The artwork on the cardbacks shows 28 different silhouettes of animals, so I’m sure the designer has other creatures in mind. But seeing these on the cardbacks felt like a bit of a tease…
Straight Out Of A Pop-Up Picture Book
So now we’ve got to talk about the art style, itself. I’m aware I’m swimming out into oxymoron waters when I say ‘The art in Zuuli is too cute’. How can something be ‘too cute’? Hear me out. The animals look adorable. But they’re not cute like the anthropomorphic food in Sushi Go!, which leans onto its twee Japanese background. These animals are straight out of a kids’ pop up picture book. There’s nothing offensive about that at all, but I would argue it’s misleading. This art style doesn’t sell the true strategical depth behind Zuuli.