Full disclosure: A preview copy of Pilfering Pandas was provided by Wren Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game. This review focuses on the cooperative game of Pilfering Pandas, rather than the competitive one.
Our second Kickstarter, this week! This one comes to us from Wren Games, who have also done Assembly and Sensor Ghosts. Pandas are a bit outside of the usual sci-fi spacey games, but a fun and welcome theme nonetheless. I’d say that does it for me for Kickstarter for a while, but I’m 95% sure I agreed to another Kickstarter game in late May, so I better start working on that, as well. The one hazard of asking for a lot of lead time is that if I’m not careful, I sometimes forget what my plans are! This is why I have a schedule spreadsheet. Anyways, let’s get to it.
In Pilfering Pandas, players are challenged to take on the role of pandas who crave freedom from the zoo. Which, yeah, I can get behind that. Unfortunately, they’ll have to trick the zookeeper when they’re looking the other way, which relies on getting help from the local meerkats. You’ll have to trade food and loot if you want to get out in time, so will you be able to escape?
First, give each player a panda:
Then, set out the Escape Track:
Place the orange zookeeper marker on the 0 and the black panda marker on the 8, if you’re playing on standard difficulty:
Place the Timer card and the Raised Suspicion card nearby, as well:
Shuffle the Meerkats and place two vertically below the Escape Track; you’ll want to leave some room to the right to place cards later in the game:
Prepare the Loot deck, based on your player count. You will need to add Key Cards:
- 2 players: Remove the 8s and 9s; add 3 Key Cards.
- 3 players: Remove the 9s; add 3 Key Cards.
- 4 players: Use all cards; add 4 Key Cards.
Once you’ve done that, shuffle the Loot Cards:
If you’re playing with Foiled Plans, split the deck into thirds and combine two of them (meaning you’ll have one set of cards that’s twice the size of the other). Shuffle the Foiled Plans cards you’re using (usually 2) into the larger deck, and place the smaller deck on top. Give each player a hand of 6 cards, and reveal 3 more cards into the center to create the Hideout, splaying those cards so the left side of each card is visible. Once you’ve done that, you should be ready to start!
To win Pilfering Pandas, you have to team up with the local meerkats to escape the zoo! But be careful, the zookeeper is hot on your trail and you can’t leave any pandas behind!
On your turn, you’ll perform a variety of actions that will advance your Panda Token towards the Win Value (determined by your difficulty). Some of those actions will also advance the Zookeeper Token towards your Panda Token. You don’t want them to meet. Let’s discuss each phase of your turn and how that can affect gameplay.
To start your turn, you may either take the top card of the Loot Deck or the rightmost card in the Hideout and add it to your hand. If you do either of these, move on to Perform Actions.
If you would like, you may take more cards from the Hideout, but that comes at a cost. If, instead, you’d like to take two or more cards from the Hideout, you choose a card and take it and every card to the right of that card into your hand. You must use the card you chose this turn. You must also do the following:
- Advance the zookeeper four spaces.
- Take the Raised Suspicion Card, if you do not already have it. If you do already have it, the zookeeper advances an additional two spaces and you flip it to the +4 side. If it’s already on the +4 side, the zookeeper advances an additional four spaces instead and you do not flip it again.
There are a variety of actions you can perform, and each has their own benefit (in advancing your panda) or cost (in advancing the zookeeper). Let’s go through them.
The first action you can do is activate your role’s ability. When you do, discard your role card to the box; you can only do this one time.
The second action you can do is create a new set of cards in the Meerkat Trade Area. You’ll notice that each Meerkat has an area where you can play cards to, and each Meerkat has preferences on which suits they’d like to see. You can make three kinds of sets:
- A set of purely increasing cards
- A set of purely decreasing cards
- A set of cards with the same value
Each set must be at least three cards in order to place it in the Meerkat’s Trade area, and the leftmost card of the set must be one of the three suits in the Meerkat’s preferences. If your number set contains all three of the Meerkat’s preferences, you may move your panda token one space forward. Either way, sum up the total number of panda symbols on the cards you played, and move the panda token forward that many spaces. This does cause the zookeeper to advance, as well, depending on how many cards you’ve played. If a Meerkat has fewer than 6 cards in their Trade Area, playing a new set (of any size) causes the zookeeper to advance by one space. If a Meerkat has more than 6 cards in their Trade Area, playing a new set (of any size) causes the zookeeper to advance by three spaces. It can be helpful to rotate the last card of a set you played if the Meerkat now has more than 6 cards in its Trade Area so you don’t have to count on subsequent turns.
Another action you can do is to create a new set by reusing the rightmost card in the Meerkat’s Trade Area. To do this, play a set as normal, but instead of just counting the panda symbols on the card you played, count the panda symbols on the (previously) rightmost card in the Trade Area, as well. This causes the zookeeper to advance as though you played a new set (either one or three spaces, depending on how many cards were in that Trade Area before you played your set). Note that the new set you create does not have to match the last set that was played, even if you’re using the last card to overlap.
Your last Trade Area action is to extend an existing set by one card. Play it to that Meerkat’s Trade Area and advance the panda token based on the number of panda symbols on the card you played. This also causes the zookeeper to advance as though you played a new set (either one or three spaces, depending on how many cards were in that Trade Area before you played your set).
The last two actions deal with Key Cards. Key Cards are special wild cards that can be used in sets as though they were any card type. If you use a Key Card in a set, however, the zookeeper advances two additional spaces (along with however much they’d normally advance, based on the set played). One action you can do is to swap a Key Card with a card in your hand that would still complete the set. This means that if you have 3-Key-5, you can swap a 4 from your hand with that Key Card.
The other Key Card action you can do is to discard a Key Card back to the box. If you do that, the zookeeper token moves backwards two spaces.
Once you’ve done as many actions as you can or want to, you can move onto the next phase. When you do, advance the zookeeper one space.
Check for Win Conditions
If, at this point in your turn, you have 0 cards, you’re out! You’ve escaped! The problem is, you may not be ready to fully escape the zoo for good, yet. When the first player goes out, they take the timer card, and instead of taking a turn they advance it by 1. If it hits 4, all players lose!
You may also check the Final Win Condition, if you’d like, at this point:
- Has the Panda Token reached the victory space for your difficulty level on the Escape Track?
If so, take all cards left in all players’ hands and count the number of panda symbols and key symbols on them. Advance the Zookeeper Token one space per symbol. If the zookeeper has not caught up with the pandas, you now win!
To end your turn, return one card from your hand (if possible) to the Hideout, making it the new rightmost card. If the Hideout now has fewer than 3 cards, draw additional cards from the Loot Deck to fill the Hideout up to 3 cards.
End of Game
The game ends when either the pandas escape or the pandas get caught! The game can also end if the Timer card hits 4.
Player Count Differences
The main difference I notice at higher player counts is that you can potentially start off in a much better or much worse place, depending on your initial hand. There’s a lot of room for variance when six extra cards are in play, so make sure you ask which player has a decent opening hand so that you can figure out what your starting options are. I’ll usually signal that I can play something if I want to go first or I’ll wait and hope for better cards in the hideout. I wouldn’t say that I have a strong player count preference for this game, though; it’s a bit like Hanabi without the obnoxious bits. You’re still trying to play cards in an ordering, but there are more options to get that ordering right when you can without the harsh penalties for failure. Given that it’s also usually decently easy to play on certain spots, you may be in a spot where you can quickly and easily get a few turns going before you’re in any real danger, which is great. All in all, I enjoy this at two and three, but I wouldn’t say that I would strongly recommend that over four. Just keep an eye on the deck and make sure you’re using the Hideout effectively at higher player counts!
- Focus on where you can make a ton of points. You really want to make big sets, and sometimes that’s worth placing a key or taking extra Zookeeper Points. If you can make big enough plays, then you can get pretty far ahead without getting tripped up.
- Try to use your high-value cards (in terms of Panda points) as overlap cards for multiple sets. As far as I can tell, the highest-possible Panda Point value for a card is 2, but hey, that’s a free 4-point play if you can use the 2 as an overlap between two sets.
- At a certain point, it’s okay to have the zookeeper advance a bunch of spaces if you think you can escape. The critical thing is always making sure the zookeeper stays away from your Panda Token. If you get enough of a head start, you can often take riskier moves without a ton of additional consequences because the zookeeper just won’t be able to catch you in time.
- It’s very much not worth having a player go out before everyone else is ready; they just become dead weight and more stress because of the timer card. You should have them maybe keep hold of a set that they might try to play or use to extend later. Just keep in mind that you always need to return a card to the hideout, so don’t expect that you’ll be able to keep hold of your useful cards forever.
- Use the Hideout to pass cards that players need around. You can always pass one card to the next player by placing it in the Hideout at the end of your turn. If your coplayer needs that card (or you just want to be rid of it so that it’s not junking up your hand), you can always burn one there. Just keep in mind that you might have to take it if you pull multiple cards from the hideout.
- Try to place your biggest sets when you’re as close as possible to the Meerkat Limit (without going over). The game only checks the Meerkat Limit when you’re placing a set, so if you’re at 5 cards in one Meerkat’s Trade Area, you can add another 7 in a single set and only move the Zookeeper forward by 1. It’s useful to play those larger sets towards the end. Similarly, doing overlap sets helps you avoid the Meerkat Limit because the same card ends up being used in more than one set.
- Unless you’re in dire straits, don’t bother extending the set once you’re over the Meerkat Limit. You’re basically trading one Panda Point for three Zookeeper Points, at that point, and that explicitly is a bad trade. It stops being a bad trade if it’s the only thing that you can do to win, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
- Try to keep a general sense of how close folks are to escaping, even if you can’t explicitly discuss it. Really, just keep track of how many cards each player has in their hand so that you know when you’ve got a good shot at escaping. Just don’t wait too long, or the zookeeper might catch up to you!
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art style is great! It’s kind of papercraft-esque, which is really cool! I haven’t seen something like this in games before and I quite like it. If there are more examples of this kind of art in games, please send it my way! I’d love to see it.
- I generally like set collection / hand management combination games. I like how the set creation works in this game; it’s very fun. I do kind of wish the rules around set placement were a bit clearer, but that’s part of a larger rulebook thing. Being able to only extend a set is an interesting problem to have, and I like how that contrasts as an action with creating a new or overlapping set. The overlapping set rules are a bit odd, but I like how they encourage trying to maximize usage of valuable cards.
- The tradeoffs around key cards are pretty good. I particularly like that you can swap them out to basically turn it into a neutral operation later on; that’s good! But they can get you out of a quick bind early on; just make sure that you use them before the game ends!
- I think it’s wise that they let you ignore the communication rules if you don’t want to use them. I’m almost never a huge fan of limited communication in games beyond “don’t tell players the right answer”; I find it often makes the game harder to learn. Here, it’s just a bonus thing that you can choose to add in to make the game more challenging, and I think that’s to the game’s benefit.
- The variable difficulty level is always a good idea, especially for a lighter title. I’m always here for large numbers of difficulty tiers. It allows players to customize the game to their desires (sometimes you just want to win, handily), and it allows the game to grow with the players, which is good. Generally, I think cooperative games benefit a lot from adjustable difficulty, and having more ways to tweak it up or down slightly is useful.
- Cute theme, as well. I like fun games with fun animals, and “pandas try to break out of the zoo” is a bit of both, in that regard. It’s definitely a departure from the space games of Wren’s wheelhouse, but it’s good to see that they can flex their creative muscle in a variety of areas.
- It’s a bummer to have nothing to do on your turn, once you’re out. I went out on the first turn once, as I’ll detail more below, but that basically meant I sat around and watched the game get played while slowly incrementing my timer. Even though the game encourages you not to do this (effectively, since it made me sit out the rest of the game), that doesn’t feel like the best player experience. Even allowing them to coordinate with other players or move the occasional card around with some penalty would be a way to engage them. It essentially penalizes players for having good luck (or being able to see a good turn).
- Not that you necessarily should do this, but it’s possible to go out on your first turn and still win, which is odd. We did this in a two-player game, which was fine, but it definitely struck me as odd that one player was essentially playing the game solo after I just happened to get a huge boost for them on my turn (and then immediately went out). Made for a short game?
- The rulebook needs work. It’s already fairly long for a short game, which is its own problem. That said, the major issue with the rulebook is around flow and examples, given the one I have. They’ve said that they’re planning to work with a rules editor post-Kickstarter, but we did spend about 20 or 30 minutes trying to learn a 20-30 minute game, which is a less-than-ideal time tradeoff. The flow isn’t great, as the rulebook often brings up topics before you, the player, fully understand the consequences of the thing that was brought up. For instance, we took a while figuring out what the Meerkat trade limit was because no example contextualizes the Meerkat card against its trade limit and the sets of cards being used in examples (it’s variable, so the trade limit is only exceeded if, after placing a set, there are more than 6 cards total in that Meerkat’s trade area). This led to a fair number of struggles, especially since the rulebook that we have been sent is out of sync with the most up-to-date rules on their site. While I understand Kickstarter titles are a moving target, as a previewer / reviewer, it’s important to have a stable set of rules that feels like it’s been thoroughly playtested by folks who haven’t played the game yet, otherwise I end up feeling like a playtester more than a reviewer, which is pretty explicitly a non-goal. Updated: I’ve had a chance to look at the latest version of the rules, and it’s improved, so I’m hoping the rules editor they’re using will lead to a solid learning experience when y’all get the game.
- The game often feels like steps were taken to address edge cases without restoring the overall cohesion of the experience. There are a number of places where it seems like pivots were made without taking a step back and asking if that makes the game more difficult to learn. For instance, given an action, the Zookeeper can move 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, or 8 spaces, depending on which action you take, which cards you use, and what cards are being held. Depending on how you place sets, you can have a trade area with as few as 6 or as many as 12 cards in it before you start taking a +3 penalty per set. There are also three different types of possible sets (increasing, decreasing, multiple of the same number) and three different ways to play sets (new set, extending a set by a card, and overlapping a set). This, as you might guess, means that the decision space and the subsequent result space are very large for an otherwise small game. This leads to tables and examples that end up snarling the flow of play in a way that makes it very difficult for new players to learn, and that disjointedness ends up not serving the game very well. Once you have a good sense of it all, you can keep track of it with the right references, but the variability of what happens based on your player action means that you’re very likely to make rules mistakes and you can’t always be sure that you’re playing correctly, which again, adds more complexity than I think a game of this weight necessarily needs?
Overall: 6 / 10
Overall, I’m a bit conflicted about Pilfering Pandas, but I definitely learn more positive than negative. On its face, I’ve actually enjoyed the games that I’ve gotten to play of it, even the game where I personally only played one turn because I had an incredible hand of cards and just tore through it and immediately escaped. That was a good turn. Would recommend. The place where this gets bogged down for me is kind of around the fundamental risk of Kickstarter games. Right now, the game’s not easy to learn. The rulebook is still being iterated on as of my writing, and there’s no clear flow to it. It’s enough that, frankly, I’m only mostly confident we played correctly, and that’s frustrating as a reviewer. That’s probably the first thing that needs addressed. They’ve already told me that they plan on addressing it, so, on one hand that is good that they’re already aware it needs addressed, but on the other hand I haven’t gotten many rulebooks that I’ve been as vexed by, especially relative to the game’s length. That said, once you get into the game, I think it’s pretty fun, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it smooth. Part of that is, again, the flow of the game is somewhat moderated by the rulebook, and given that wasn’t smooth, our first few games weren’t smooth, either. The game picks up as you get used to it, but the sheer number of edge cases you encounter in gameplay will keep sending you back as you need to look various things up, which doesn’t feel smooth. A game feels smoothest as players learn and memorize some of the basic parts of the flow. You don’t need to check how many cards you draw to start your turn in Love Letter; it’s always one. That consistency is key, as it helps players build expectations and then focus on strategy over learning. With Pilfering Pandas, you end up having to routinely check tables to see how many steps you’ve made the zookeeper move based on a variety of different factors, meaning you’ve essentially got to check a flow chart after every action until you memorize them. It ends up being what you often hear as “clunky”, in the gaming space. It’s an action or a mechanic that doesn’t flow well, so you notice it every time you have to use it, like a squeaky wheel on a shopping cart. It doesn’t make the shopping cart unusable, but it’s something you constantly notice and it may make the experience feel more disjointed. This may sound doom and gloom for a 6 / 10, but I did have fun with the game and I enjoyed my plays of it. I generally like games that require making runs or sets of cards; it rewards planning and luck in a way that I find exciting, and playing a particularly large set or set of sets is extremely satisfying, for instance. I played a run of 7 cards; it was amazing. The game also has great art! It looks almost papercrafty, which is an aesthetic I don’t see much in board games but is almost immediately eye-catching. I haven’t had a chance to try the competitive mode, but I do like cooperative play, and working with another player to generate sets or place cards in the Hideout that the other person needs is satisfying without being as annoying as Hanabi can be, from a “play cards in this order” standpoint. I suspect the game will improve as we approach the final product, but even then, given what I’ve seen, I think there are a fair number things to enjoy in Pilfering Pandas; I’ll be curious to see what changes they make for the final.