Full disclosure: A preview copy of Zoo Vadis was provided by Bitewing 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 has been a most interesting month, or, at least, it looks like it’s going to be, as of writing. It’s currently 1AM on January 1st, so, happy new year! Thanks for reading. But this is going to be a busy month between reviews, writing, travel, and all kinds of things. I should be able to keep on top of it, but boy howdy is it going to be b u s y. On the plus side, it’ll be OrcaCon soon, and I’m very excited about that. In the meantime, we’ve got a great many crowdfunding projects launching this month, so, it’s happening. Let’s check out Zoo Vadis, from Bitewing Games!
In Zoo Vadis, you’re trying to make a name for yourself in a zoo that the animals have taken over. They have intelligence, scholarship, and, most importantly, fancy clothes. Only one of you can be the zoo’s new mascot, so, naturally, you’ll have to use your charisma to become the latest star of the zoo. Whether it’s bribing peacocks, cleverly negotiating, or making friends with the old Zoo Keeper, all your tricks will need to work perfectly if you’re going to become the new mascot of this zoo. Do you have what it takes?
Place the game board in the middle of the table, with the correct side up for the current player count:
Next, place peacocks on the indicated spaces on the board, again based on your player count:
The I laurel tokens get placed next to the board, and every player gets two:
The other values of laurel tokens get placed into the bag:
The Zoo Keeper Token gets placed on the laurel token space directly below the Star Exhibit. Each player then takes a player screen, six animal tokens, and two ability tiles of the animal of their choice:
You should be ready to get started!
Zoo Vadis takes place over several rounds as players endeavor to be the most popular animal in the zoo, and, subsequently, the zoo’s new mascot! Each turn, you can take one of four actions; let’s go through them.
Add an Animal to the Zoo
This one’s pretty simple; you just take one of your animal tokens and add it to any open exhibit along the bottom row of the game board. If they’re all already full, you can’t do this action.
Advance Your Animal
This action lets you move one of your animals from its current exhibit up the board. Unfortunately, you cannot do this action unless:
- The Zoo Keeper token is along the path you want to advance on, or
- You have the majority support of the animals in the exhibit that you’re trying to exit.
This is a pretty interesting business, because it’s done by voting! Each animal in the exhibit gets one vote (including the peacocks). In order to advance, you need a majority vote (based on the number of seats). In a one-space exhibit, you can advance for free. At other exhibits, you either need to bribe the peacocks (they each take a laurel token of value II or higher) or get other players to vote in your favor. This requires negotiation!
You can offer just about anything that can be redeemed within the game. Laurels, promises of votes or moves or abilities or current or future turn actions. That said, promises that can be redeemed within the current turn must be followed up on and kept. Any other promises are yours to break, but you have to live with the consequences. Note that while each animal has a unique ability, it cannot be used to benefit you. You can only use it to benefit other players. For any vote another player gives you, that player earns a I laurel token; this does mean that a player can earn more than one.
When you move an animal, it must move towards the Star Exhibit along the path. It cannot move into a full exhibit, but if there are multiple paths up, you can choose either path. If you enter the Star Exhibit, place your animal token on the lowest-numbered space. Some spaces will have you pass over a laurel space. If the Zoo Keeper token is not on that space as well, you may collect the laurel token and then replace it with a new one. Some have instant effects, like refreshing your animal ability, moving the peacock, or moving the Zoo Keeper; those must be performed immediately.
Advance a Peacock
You may move a Peacock up towards the Star Exhibit following the same rules as any other animal. That said, they do not need any majority support to leave the exhibit. They’re just fancy. Peacocks may move into the Star Exhibit and, by doing so, block other players.
When you take this action on your turn, collect a I laurel token.
Move the Zoo Keeper
Move the Zoo Keeper to any other laurel space on the board, stacking it on top of the laurel token there. This allows an animal to exit that exhibit without the majority vote, but they do not get the laurel token below the Zoo Keeper.
End of Game
Once all the Star Exhibit spaces are filled, the game ends! All players who have at least one animal token in the Star Exhibit count their laurel tokens. The player with the most wins! If there’s a tie, the player who reached the Star Exhibit first wins!
Player Count Differences
The main thing you’ll notice with more players is, functionally, more negotiation and more deals to be made. You’ll have to spend more to buy votes, and the commodification of the entire business of leaving an exhibit is going to be much higher. This means you’ll be needing to move the Zookeeper to help yourself get places, for sure. You might even find yourself staying in a high-traffic exhibit so that you can make the most off of your vote to get players out, if you’re planning for the long-term. At lower player counts, you’ll be needing to work the players individually a lot more, which might drive up the value of any given vote (or encourage you to consider bribing and moving the peacocks more). The game will, naturally, take more time at a higher player count, just because players will be making more deals and negotiations within a larger population. More players means more time spent pitching your case to all of them, which is fair, I suppose. It’s a bit less dynamic at a lower player count, which is to be expected; the peacocks help a lot, but it’s still not as exciting with three as it would be with five or seven. It’s significantly less volatile, though; you can quickly see the game turn against you at higher player counts in a way that’s almost unrecoverable if nobody wants to help you, whereas with three, you can usually make something work, albeit much slower. I’d probably most recommend this above three, though, if you really want to focus on the negotiation aspect, since that’s the core of the game.
- You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, as they say. I find that being nice is a very useful way to get things that you want. If you’re a jerk or you don’t participate in deals, you’ll find that players start to stop asking you for your input on things. If that happens enough, you’re out of the running. Be nice to other players and they will likely be nice to you in the future, especially if you ask them to remember your kindness.
- Moving the peacocks to shut out your opponents from the Star Exhibit is petty, but effective. If they notice what you’re doing, they’ll move against you very quickly, so you may want to wait until another couple players are in the Star Exhibit. Then, the ones who see what you’re doing might actually help you shut other players out. On the other hand, if you’re not yet in the Star Exhibit when this is happening, you should start scrambling, especially if you’re the player with the most money. The other players will happily lock you out of the game.
- Generally speaking, you want to be part of every deal that happens, if you can. Practically, that’s not going to happen (especially if you’re obviously in the lead), but you can try and offer players increasingly good things and get something in return. If you’re part of a deal with every player, and you’re giving them something, that means that you’re giving out one thing and you’re benefitting from a number of things that is certainly more than one thing. You come out ahead. A rising tide lifts all boats, right?
- You can renege on deals, if you want, but doing things that make you explicitly unpopular may make it hard to be part of deals in the future. Even if you’re not winning, you still have the capacity to make everyone mad at you if you tell them you’re going to do things and then … don’t. I don’t think it’s particularly smart. In particular, players know that you’re under no obligation to follow through on some deal outcomes, so the effective value of those offers will generally be lower, as a result.
- Try lying about how much money you have on hand; as long as you’re somewhat consistent and nobody’s keeping track, you might be able to make deals for a bit cheaper. This is, I think, generally a very good idea. It’s very difficult for players to be keeping perfect track of how many laurel tokens you’ve obtained, and, in particular, the II / III / IV / V tokens are all the same size and shape (so are the Is), so it’s very possible with some sleight-of-hand to make it very unclear how many tokens (and the types of tokens) that you’re pulling behind your player screen. If players don’t think you have enough money, they may take less as a result in order for a deal to go through. It’s not the politest move, but you just need to make sure you’re consistent. I usually just set aside a V if I can get one.
- You’ll probably want to use one of your abilities early on, just so you can take advantage of the II that lets you get your animal ability back. Using your ability tiles lets you get some good negotiating done, and if you use one early, then you can reap the benefits that that will have for you and then maybe get a refill, giving you another use. If you end up not using it then you’re sitting on a fairly useful bargaining chip that you could be using to your benefit.
- The abilities are not created equal; some will give you one or two laurels for using them, so make sure to figure that into your negotiations. One of the most particularly-useful ones is the armadillo, who will let you effectively tunnel out of an exhibit into another one. That’s worth a lot more than just getting to skip over a size-1 exhibit or getting to move into an already-full exhibit, for instance. Make sure you’re considering the effective weight of these abilities relative to each other, not just treating every ability as 1:1.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- This is far and away one of the best-looking games I’ve ever played. I’m a huge fan of Kwanchai Moriya’s work and Brigette Indelicato’s work, and I think this is one of the best productions I’ve seen from both of them. The board is beautiful, the tokens are impressive, and the box is just striking. It’s got a fantastic color scheme and just, end-to-end, is one of the most striking games I’ve seen in some time. Very impressive. It looks great in the box and looks great to play.
- The component quality is equally stellar; Bitewing is trying to make a name for themselves with high-quality components in every game and that’s never a bad goal to shoot for. Everything is very well-made. The animal tokens are particularly thick, the laurel tokens are small but have a good weight to them, the player screens are great, and the storage bags are very fancy, as well. I’ve been playing a few of the Bitewing titles, lately, and I’ve been pretty consistently impressed by the overall quality of the games. Lots of nice pieces, fancy components, and it’s just a very casual part of the game. A high standard to hold yourself to straight out of the gate, but hey, as a gamer, it’s pleasant.
- Plays surprisingly quickly. For a game that comes in a box like this and weighs as much as it does, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly it played. The turns are pretty simple, so that helps keep the game moving at a good clip.
- I appreciate the avenues for letting players engage with the game without negotiations. It’s not every player’s forte, so giving players other routes for playing that don’t explicitly require making deals and negotiations seems like a genuine kindness. I don’t think you can actually win without doing some negotiation, but that also just seems fair for the game itself.
- The player powers are interesting! I really like that you can’t use them to benefit yourself. The latter bit is my favorite part. Everyone has a useful power? Great. Been there before, though. Only being able to use your player powers as a bargaining chip to explicitly benefit someone else? I love it. It forces you to think about when you should offer or ask for that ability and explicitly judge what it’s worth to you. Thankfully, the abilities are written on the inside of the player screens, so you don’t have to memorize what everyone else can do.
- I appreciate that some parts of the negotiations are binding (the ones that can happen during your turn). I always worry about negotiations where players are allowed to renege, so I’m glad Zoo Vadis forces anything that you’ve agreed to do during your turn to be binding. It seems like a reasonable way to make sure players aren’t just getting bluffed and then bamboozled.
- The actual negotiation itself is quite fun; I enjoy haggling with other players and trying to give them something useful (but not as useful as what I’m getting). It’s an interesting puzzle to solve! How do you make sure that you’re getting the best end of all the deals being made? It’s hard to do, as if you start advancing, other players may start trying to bring you down (or at least not accepting deals from you as much). I like the psychology of negotiation, and there’s a lot of that in play, here.
- That 3 – 7 player count is ambitious for me, especially when I haven’t been able to get my game groups back together in a while. I just have no real way to get a seven-player game in at any point in the near future. I’m working on it, but I think the odds of it happening before I move later this year is probably fairly remote.
- This is likely best at higher player counts (more opportunities for negotiation and play). I do feel, to some degree, that I didn’t get the fullest possible experience since I didn’t have a ton of folks to play Zoo Vadis with at scale that would allow for a ton of communication and negotiation. Thankfully, this is a preview, so I still feel like I got a pretty good sense of it all.
- You might want to add in some kind of house limit to player proposals and negotiation, just so you don’t have a player delaying the game until someone agrees to make a deal with them. This is a general issue with a lot of trading and negotiation games; you can have a player just cross their arms and refuse to end their turn until someone makes a deal with them. This has happened to me in Catan, so I’m a bit sensitive to the thing. Moonrakers, for instance, limits players to attempt to negotiate twice. Zoo Vadis doesn’t have any restrictions like that, so if you see a player just trying to make increasingly doomed negotiation attempts, you might just want to tell them to stop.
- Pure negotiation games are a particularly tricky genre to navigate, especially when players can renege on deals. Just a lot of opportunity for irritated players and hurt feelings. Be careful. That’s just the name of the game, but I think it’s worth emphasizing to the group what’s allowed, to better avoid an outcome where another player is pretty upset because they got tricked into a deal of some kind. At the end of the day, some players can effectively con other ones, but that can make for a very aggressive game.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I’ve found Zoo Vadis to be a lot of fun! A pure negotiation game is definitely an interesting game, and not one I’ve tried in a while. I think the last time I did any real negotiation in a board game was probably Moonrakers, which is a bit more structured than Zoo Vadis is? I was surprised, pleasantly, by how easy and fluid the negotiation can be in Zoo Vadis. If players are interested in working together, then the game moves pretty quickly. Naturally, if players don’t want to play collaboratively, the game has some stuttering, but I think the development of Zoo Vadis nicely accommodates that with peacocks that can be bribed or the Zoo Keeper that can help animals move up without a vote. But I think if you try to win that way, you’re missing out on what makes Zoo Vadis so fun. You truly are attempting to be a people person; you want to give everyone something that they want so that they all, collectively, give you many things that you want. It’s a game of subtle manipulations and deals, and that can be pretty fun because the game gives you so many things to give away. You have special abilities, votes, money, and breakable promises of future favors, all of which double as effective currency within the game. I like having to figure out what other people want and what I can get in return for meeting that need. That said, I’m talking a lot about the game when the art is, quite possibly, its most striking feature. Kwanchai Moriya and Brigitte Indelicato did an incredible job on this one. I know it doesn’t mean much as of writing, but this is easily the best-looking game I’ve seen this year. The animals look impeccable, the colors are amazing, and some of the animals wear a top hat, the ultimate in refined wear. It’s extremely endearing and looks great on the table. Come for the art, stay for the negotiation. I do think that this game will most likely appeal to a very specific kind of player, though, and that might not be you. There’s a requirement for active engagement in Zoo Vadis, because you want to be in on deals and negotiations, and if you’re not feeling that kind of gameplay, you may want to consider trying a different game. If you’re excited about negotiation and politicking, you’re a fan of cutting deals that benefit yourself, or you just really want to see animals in fancy outfits, I think Zoo Vadis might be up your alley! I’ve been enjoying it.
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