SdJ Re-Reviews #29: Zooloretto

  • Designer:  Michael Schacht
  • Publisher:  ABACUSSPIELE, Rio Grande, Z-Man Games, Others
  • Players:  2 – 5
  • Ages:  8 and Up
  • Time:  45 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 5

Zooloretto Cover

Zooloretto: A board game based on a card game…

Michael Schacht started experimenting with game design in the late 1980s, and his first board or card game published (“Taxi”) was as a punch-out sheet in the magazine Spielerei in 1992.  He began designing games with more frequency in the late 1990s, and by the start of the new millennium, he was one of the more well-known designers on the German game scene.  He received SdJ recommendations in 1999 (Kontor), 2000 (Web of Power), and 2002 (Dschunke).  He received three more recommendations in 2003, for Paris Paris, Richelieu, and, most importantly, a card game called Coloretto.

Schacht had begun experimenting with the mechanics behind Coloretto years before the game’s publication.  His goal was to create a game where each card played could completely change the game state, and he wanted the primary decision to be between staying in a round and quitting.  Some of what would become Coloretto was in his game “Mogul,” but after additional development, he came up with Coloretto, which was released by Abacusspiele in 2003.  

Schacht thought the game could be something more than just a card game, and he began thinking of how it could become a board game.  Abacusspiele had the idea at about the same time.  Since Abacusspiele had published Coloretto, they were a natural starting point for publishing Zooloretto, and that is where the game was ultimately printed.

Zooloretto was released a couple of months after Essen 2006.  Even at Essen the game wasn’t in its final form: instead of receiving money as a bonus for completing an enclosure, players were able to immediately take an enclosure management action.  That mechanic would be later used in Zooloretto Mini.

Zooloretto was released to wide critical acclaim.  In giving Zooloretto the 2007 Spiel des Jahres, the jury cited the approachable gameplay and appeal to a broad range of ages.  Schacht learned of his nomination on the web, and he said it felt great to win the award.  Many SdJ winners had been converted into card games, but Zooloretto marked the first time that a Spiel des Jahres winner was based on what was originally a card game.  

Zooloretto would go on to sell between 350,000 to 400,000 copies, and it ranked fifth in 2007 Deutscher Spiele Preis voting.  It is still in print today.  There have been several spinoffs and expansions, most notably Aquaretto, Zooloretto: The Dice Game, and Zooloretto Mini.  Zooloretto has an iOS App, and you can play other Schacht designs at a website he maintains.  He is known to join in on games on the site, so don’t be surprised if he joins you.

For an excellent overview of Schacht’s career, I recommend the Geeklist he created discussing the origins of his games.  Joe Huber wrote an article on Schacht’s games as part of his German Game Authors Revisited series, which can be found on rec.games.board.  

[Author’s Note: I owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Schacht for agreeing to be interviewed for this article.  The game’s history wouldn’t have been nearly as comprehensive without his participation.  Much of the information came from other sources, and any errors are my own.]

The Gameplay

Each player is a zoo owner.  Players score points by attracting as many visitors to their zoo as possible, and the player with the most visitors (i.e. points) at the end of the game wins.

The game comes with 8 animal types.  Two animal types are removed in three-player games, and one animal type is removed in four-player games.  (The game also has a 2-player variant that I’m not going to discuss here.)

Each player takes a zoo board and two coins.  The zoo extensions (which can be purchased) are set aside.  There also as many trucks put out as there are players.  Before the game begins, 15 tiles are set aside, and the end game marker is set on top it.  The game will end after the round in which a player draws a tile from this stack.

Zooloretto

On a player’s turn, he must do exactly one of the following three actions:

  1. Add a tile to a delivery truck.  The player draws a tile and adds it to one of the empty spaces on a delivery truck.  Each truck has space for three tiles.  If all delivery truck spaces are occupied, the player must take a different action.
  2. Take a delivery truck and pass for the rest of the round.  A player takes the truck and puts the tiles in his play area.  Animal tiles must be placed in enclosures or in the barn, and each enclosure can only contain one type of animal.  Vending stalls can be placed in a vending stall space or in the barn.  Coin tiles add to the coins the player has.  
  3. Take a money action.  For one coin, a player may (1) move a single animal from the barn to an empty enclosure space,  or (2) exchange all tiles of one animal type in either his barn or one of his zoo’s enclosures with all tiles of another animal type in another of his zoo’s location.  For two coins a player can purchase an animal or vending stall from an opponent’s barn or discard an animal or vending stall from his own barn.  For three coins, a player can buy the expansion board for his zoo.  

Zooloretto Components

There are two fertile males and females of each animal type.  If a fertile male and fertile female are put in the same enclosure, they immediately produce an offspring.  (If there are no spaces left, the offspring goes to the barn.)

If the last enclosure space is filled, a player receives a coin bonus from the bank as determined by which enclosure.  

A round ends when all players have taken a delivery truck.  The next round starts with the player who took the last delivery truck in the previous round.  

The game ends after the round in which a tile is drawn from the marked stack of 15 tiles.  Scoring then occurs.  Each enclosure has two possible scores: the value for a full enclosure at the end of the game, and the value for an enclosure with only one empty space.  If an enclosure has more than two empty spaces, it only gets points if there is an adjacent vending stall, in which case the player scores one point for each animal therein.  Each vending stall type on the board earns two points.  Each type of stall or animal in the barn loses two points.  

The player with the highest score wins.  

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

For me, the biggest draw of Zooloretto is the theme: who wouldn’t want to build a zoo?  But underneath Zooloretto’s exterior there’s a top-notch game, one with smooth mechanics and well-developed gameplay.  It is easy to see how this won the Spiel des Jahres.

Player interaction is present, and monitoring your opponents is critical, but gameplay is not overly adversarial.  I’ve played with both kids and adults, non-gamers and gamers, and everybody seems to enjoy Zooloretto.  This is the sort of versatile game that works well with a variety of age groups in several different gaming situations.

The game has some fun choices: there’s the strong press-your-luck aspect of whether to draw a tile or take a delivery truck, and the decision of which truck on which to place a tile can be challenging.  The set collection aspects of the game works exceptionally well, and managing your zoo enclosures can be tense.  You want to fill the enclosures, but you don’t want to do it too quickly because you’ll risk taking the dreaded barn penalty.  And there’s never enough money: most players go for the zoo expansion, leaving limited coins to get animals out of the barn.  

Zooloretto is easy to learn, and I’ve never encountered a player that had difficulty understanding the game.  Gameplay itself is generally fast-paced.  I think the only time I’ve had the game go 45 minutes was with five players.  Unlike other set collection and push-your-luck games, Zooloretto doesn’t seem to cause analysis paralysis.  There are interesting choices, but they’re not the sort of choices that can be overthought.

Is this game for everybody?  As is always the case, no.  It is a lighter game, and some gamers may not appreciate the game’s random elements.  But I think Zooloretto has broad appeal, and it has been successful when I’ve pulled it out.  I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t taken off as more of a gateway game.  

I’ve rated Zooloretto as a “like” below.  There’s a similar game called “Aquaretto” which features a bit more depth: there’s more of a tile placement mechanic than in Zooloretto.  For gamers, I recommend Aquaretto, which would earn an “I love it!” rating from me.  I also recommend both Zooloretto: The Dice Game and Coloretto Amazonas.  

Would Zooloretto win the SdJ today?  I think it would have a good chance.  For me, Zooloretto represents a prototypical SdJ winner.  This game is family-friendly, strategic, original, and well-produced, all characteristics that the SdJ jury appreciates.  I’m not saying Zooloretto would be a shoo-in, but I think it would have a decent chance.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: Well it’s the same mechanism as Coloretto only dressed up with a bunch of chrome. While I think it works very well in a 15 minute game, I don’t think the mechanism is interesting enough, or fair enough for that matter, to make a 45 minute version attractive. The game works, nice bits, I’d just rather do other stuff.

Greg S:  I was one of the few who did not particularly care for Coloretto.  I just found it rather bland and soulless.  So, I was dubious to even try Zooloretto since I heard it was derived from that game.  Much to my surprise, I rather enjoy Zooloretto.  Perhaps it is the addition of a theme.  Perhaps it is the collection and assembling of zoo animals (I enjoy zoos!).  Perhaps the mechanism lends itself better to a “board” game setting.  It is probably a combination of all of these.

Is it a great game?  Probably not, but it sure is a nice, lightweight game that is excellent for folks new to the hobby or casual gamers.

Mark Jackson: I’m a huge fan of Zooloretto – even though I didn’t particularly like it the first time I played. It grew on me over time. (I’ve never particularly liked Coloretto – too dry.)

We like it best with the Exotic expansion added… and a couple of times a year I manage to talk my boys into playing Zooloaquaretoopalooza (the two games combined) which is a monster (2 hours or so) for the game system – but we always have fun with it.

Sometimes I’m irritated with the “season to taste” method of expansions… but that works well with Zooloretto so can change audiences depending on the experience and interest of the players.

Matt Carlson: Yet another light-ish game I enjoy that would go well with new gamers.  My problem with games of this sort is simply I have too many of them.  I am more likely to drag out a different beginner game or push players onward to something a bit deeper.  I have to hand it to the game for its excellent theming.  All this article does is remind me I need to get it into play more often.

Larry:  I never cared that much for Coloretto.  For me, the decisions seem obvious and the wild cards feel unbalanced.  It may have taken some of its ideas from Mogul, but I much prefer the latter game.  Zooloretto was an improvement on Coloretto, but it’s still pretty much a take it or leave it game for me.  It’s just too light for my tastes.  I agree with Chris that the game in the family that works best for me is Aquaretto, which is a little more involved (although still far from being a gamer’s game) and features more interesting decisions.  I give it an “I like it” rating, but I can’t go any higher than Neutral for Zooloretto.

One amusing sidebar of the SdJ win for Zooloretto was the speculation of how much the cover art influenced the Jury.  Many people thought that the uber-cute panda on the box had a great deal to do with the win.  It even had an effect on titles from other designers.  One of the games that Zooloretto beat out for the big prize in 2007 was Yspahan, which was designed by Sébastien Pauchon and released by the French publisher Ystari.  As a jocular way of exacting their “revenge”, many of Pauchon’s games following the defeat include a dead panda somewhere in the artwork!  Deceased pandas could also be found in the art of many other games from French publishers after ‘07.  These represent some of my favorite Easter Eggs in gaming.

[From Chris: Here’s another tidbit about the cover, albeit one that is less interesting than Larry’s.  The jury has joked that the panda’s presence on Zooloretto’s box is a sign of how long it takes to develop and print a game.  By the time Zooloretto won, Germany had Knut-mania.  The jury still has a comment on their website about how if the game had been developed and released a few months later, the cover might have featured a polar bear.]

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: Probably one of the games I’ll still playing in the future thanks to the elegance of the mechanics. Schacht was able to upgrade the simple idea of Coloretto (take something now and go out or give other the first choice on something more) into a full boardgame: simple but challenging can be played both by casual games and gamers. One of the best SDJ ever and, unluckily, not anymore available in an Italian edition.

Joe Huber (7 plays): My thoughts largely mirror Greg’s – I’m not fond of Coloretto, but found Zooloretto much more to my taste.  I enjoyed the game when it came out, but it didn’t last for me – I haven’t played since 2011, and don’t miss the game, though I’d still play it if asked.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Mark Jackson, Andrea “Liga” Ligabue
  • I like it. Chris W., Erik Arneson, Greg S., Matt C., Craig V.
  • Neutral. Patrick Brennan, Larry, Joe H.
  • Not for me…
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2 Responses to SdJ Re-Reviews #29: Zooloretto

  1. Here’s a link to what I’ve written over the years about Zooloretto on my blog:
    http://akapastorguy.blogspot.com/search?q=Zooloretto
    The first piece contains an extensive overview of the plethora of expansions.

  2. ianthecool says:

    Okay, I’m glad you like it. There seems to be a movement by a certain sect of gamers that derides all the older, popular games, so its nice to see people still stepping up and defending them.

    I am also glad to see your recommendation for Aquaretto, I’ve been on the fence about that one for a while. Maybe I will pick it up after all.

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