Yeah, keeping on the Oink Games train, let’s check out another recent pickup: I bought all of these at Gen Con (you should always hit up the Oink Games booth at Gen Con, in my opinion), but due to uh, “other reviewing responsibilities” I’m only now getting around to them. Alas. Better late than never.
Anyways, in Zogen, you play as researchers keeping an eye on the developing bacteria under your microscopes. You want to make sure you’re reporting your findings as quickly as possible (and you don’t really care if you’re right). The problem is, you’re really in trouble if someone notices you’re wrong. Will you be able to sneak away without getting caught?
Not much setup. There are a bunch of cards:
Give each player a set in a color and have them shuffle them. Do not look at your cards before the game starts. For players with any sort of color vision deficiency, there are also symbols on the backs of each set of cards (and the corners of the front) to better help you distinguish between them.
You can set the points tokens aside, as well:
You’re ready to start! Choose a player and have them randomly flip a card into the center, face-up.
The game is pretty simple. It’s a real-time game, where all players play simultaneously. Your goal is to get down to three or fewer cards by playing them to the center. To play a card to the center, it must only differ from the card currently in the center by one element (one bacterium must be added or removed), like so:
You then need to say which bacterium was added or removed. Your options are:
If you play incorrectly (or cheat, which is totally legal, btw) and you’re caught, your opponent(s) call call Zogen on you! If they do, you must remove every card of your color from the center and return them to your hand; play then continues.
If you cannot play a card legally and don’t feel like cheating, you may knock once on the table. This means you can’t play a card from your hand until another player does, but if all players knock, the round ends (and you may discard 3 cards from your hand as a bonus for being the first player to knock). If this happens, the player with the fewest cards remaining in their hand wins the round.
Otherwise, the round ends when one player is down to three cards and says “Done!”. When that happens, they take a 3-point token. The other players with the fewest and second-fewest cards remaining in hand take a 2-point and 1-point token, respectively. All players get their cards back and a new round begins. In a two-player game, the first player to finish gets 3 points; the other player gets 0.
The first player to 7 points wins!
If you’d like, you can play with some variants. One particular one the game recommends is that the winner of each round gets to rename one of the symbols to be any other name they want. Try to keep it to one word, for sanity’s sake.
For an even more insidious variant (on my list of game variants called Nightmare Mode); let the winner choose two of the bacteria and swap their names. Moon and Mountain are now Mountain and Moon, respectively.
Additionally, if you’re playing with newer players (or younger players), it helps balance the game if you allow them to discard a certain number of cards from their hand before the game starts (I usually lead with 5 and then adjust based on whether or not they win a given round).
Player Count Differences
Not really any to speak of, other than all players should be kinda equidistant from the center, which becomes a bit less practical as you hit 5 or 6 players.
Just don’t forget that only the winner scores in a 2-player game, as well.
Happy to play this at any player count.
- I mean, you can cheat if you want. Usually the game is moving so quickly that people might not notice if you play a slightly incorrect card. Just try not to play one that’s blatantly wrong (going to a blank from a four-bacteria card, for instance). If you want to try that, at least do it early enough that getting Zogen’ed won’t kill you for the round. It’s amusing, but, if you do it too much it derails the game (it kinda kills the pacing if a player is cheating and gets caught every move), so maybe don’t be a jerk about it.
- It might not be a bad idea to cheat quickly if you couldn’t otherwise play a card. I can’t endorse it, but, otherwise your best bet is to sit around and wait for someone to play a card you can play off of. Whatever you think will help you win, I guess.
- If a card has just been played, find that card in your hand. That usually allows you to play back to it if the next player plays. For instance, if I have Moon / Sun, and then another player plays Moon / Sun / Mountain, you can immediately play Moon / Sun on top of that, legally.
- You can use that logic to set up combos, if you’re fast enough. If you have all the right cards in your hand, you can fly through a bunch of combos. Just make sure your opponents don’t get in there, otherwise it might throw you off (or potentially push you into a Zogen).
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I love real-time games. They’re just a genre of games that I really like, and this is no exception.
- The real-time pattern-matching is also a solid mechanic. It does the same thing for my brain that Eco-Links does, but with a more streamlined experience than, say, Kitty Paw.
- The microbes are adorable. They all look so friendly, even though they’re probably antibiotic-resistant bacteria or something.
- Bright colors make the game stand out. Something I’ve come to expect from Oink, but still appreciated every time it happens.
- Highly portable. Again, a major component of the Oink brand, but still always appreciated.
- Low setup / play time commitment. You can basically keep this round and play it whenever or wherever as long as you have a flat surface. Great for long car rides / airplane rides / waiting in a long line / picnics / whatever. I don’t know where you play games.
- The square cards are definitely a bit annoying. I’m just generally not a fan of square cards, though, so that’s me. On the slight plus side, it means the microbes are all about the same size without too much blank space on the card to disorient players.
- I get why you play to 7 at two players, but it’s still a bit weird since the winner will only ever get 9 points. It’s just, I assume, so they don’t have to make a separate note in the rulebook, which is fine; it can just be mildly confusing for new players to be like, “first to 7 wins”, since the winner will always have 9 points. It’s more of a “best of five rounds” sort-of scenario.
- Definitely going to frustrate new players unless you adjust the starting hand size. Some players might find that a bit condescending, which is unfortunate, but scaling the difficulty of the game so that everyone enjoys it is, I think, a smart bit of game design from Oink. Just make sure you actually do that, otherwise your newer players are not going to enjoy it.
- Again, the game can be derailed pretty easily. If one player (or more) chooses to obviously cheat as much as possible so that they can get Zogen’ed, the pacing of the game is going to get thrown off and become kind of erratic. Personally, if you’re playing with someone who’s doing that, it might be time to make better friends, though??? Undermining the experience of the game for other players is typically uncool.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I’m a big fan of Zogen! It’s a nice twist on Anomia, which has a really similar “recognize the same symbols as quickly as possible” (which I guess puts it in the Set family), but without the “also there’s pseudo-trivia”, which kind of throws people off. I’d say that probably gives it a wider appeal (even though I love Anomia). As far as real-time games go, this is definitely up there for me, as it’s quick, scales to a high player count, doesn’t require much setup or teardown, and is generally a lot of fun. I particularly like how easy it is to scale up or down the difficulty for new players, and I find the two-player mode tense and satisfying, as well. It’s a great little quick game, and a welcome addition to the Oink Games line. It probably has the most in common with Nine Tiles, if I had to pick another Oink that it resembles, so if you’re a fan of that one you might like this one as well. Either way, if you like real-time games and you’re looking for something fast and fun, I’d definitely recommend checking out Zogen!