Base price: $40.
2 – 6 players.
Play time: 30 – 45 minutes.
BGG | Board Game Atlas
Buy on Amazon (via What’s Eric Playing?)
Logged plays: 3
Full disclosure: A review copy of KuZOOka was provided by Pegasus Spiele.
This has been a hell of a week! I’ve been back on the review train in rare form and essentially cleaned up and actualized four weeks of reviews, putting me almost a month ahead on content. That hasn’t happened in an age, so I’m pretty hyped about it. It helps that I’m writing a number of smaller reviews (shout-out to the micro reviews; they’re great), but I hope that y’all are still getting a good sense of how I feel about the games I’ve been playing from that. Either way, I’m hoping to make a pretty considerable level of progress before The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom comes out and I become entirely useless, and I’ve got some big plans in June that I need to get reviews settled for. More on that later. In the meantime, though, let’s check out another game! This time it’s KuZOOka, from Pegasus Spiele!
In KuZOOka, you’re in a bad way. The zoo you live in kind of sucks, and the visitors literally throw garbage at you. You’ve maybe retaliated a bit, so you’re getting moved to an even smaller zoo eight days from now. That means, you reason, that you have seven days to escape! You might even be able to use some of the trash; after all, one man’s such and such. Unfortunately, you’re not really aligned on language, so the other animals may not be the most communicative. There’s a lot to figure out. There’s also not a lot of time to figure it out! Will you be able to escape the zoo?
First, choose a side of the board to play on. One side is more difficult, so maybe get a few games under your belt, first?
Then, each player gets an Animal Card. Keep in mind that not all Animal Cards can be used at every player count; keep an eye on that.
Give players their corresponding Animal Tokens, setting a token of the unused color on the “1” on the board’s Round Tracker:
Now, the Experience Deck! There are 10 level cards; they should all go face-down with the 1 face-up on top. At 5 players, don’t use the 1 (just flip the 2 face-up), and at 6 players, remove the 1 and 2 and flip the 3 face-up.
This also requires that you choose a difficulty level! The lower the number, the easier it is to level up. More on that later.
Once you’ve done that, set the Experience Stars nearby:
Now, prep the item cards. The Universal Tool cards can be played nearby; you’ll use them later:
Shuffle the other item cards:
Now, give the megaphone token to the starting player and you should be ready to go! You’ll start by dealing out cards from the item deck to all players. Note that you deal the number on the face-up Experience Card, so different players may end up with different numbers of cards. That’s okay!
Your goal is simple: the zoo is a prison and you must be free. Over seven rounds, you’re going to do your best to make sure that happens! Just one problem: you can’t discuss the cards in your hand. Each round has three phases, so let’s go over each!
During this phase, you deal out cards and handle any Universal Tools. Like in setup, the topmost face-up Experience Card tells you how many cards to deal out. Start dealing with the starting player and deal out the indicated number of cards. With each level gained, you’ll either get more cards dealt or, starting with level 2, cards played face-up next to the board. So that’s fun.
Now, players take turns starting with the player with the Megaphone. You can use your animal’s ability once per round, but then you must take an action: either Suggest Escape Plan or Suspend the Escape.
Suggest Escape Plan
To suggest the escape plan, you place one of your animal tokens on the board! There are a few rules with this, though. The path on the board is divided into Zones of alternating colors, and each zone has spaces with colors matching the colors on the Item Cards in your hand.
- To start, the first Animal Token must be placed in the first zone, next to the Start sign.
- All subsequent tokens must be placed on spaces after the furthest-ahead Animal Token, but you cannot place a token more than one full zone ahead of the leading Animal Token. You cannot skip zones.
Suspend the Escape
If you’re good, you can just choose to end the round and move straight to Evaluation. That’s this option. You also get the Megaphone and become the next starting player!
Now, check to see how well you did! Reveal all cards in all players’ hands. The space with the leading Animal Token has a color and a number. The color will be your Escape Color, and the value will be your Escape Value. Count your collective cards in your Escape Color (including face-up cards and Universal Tools that are in your hands or face-up; they match every color). Three possible outcomes!
- You have at least as many cards in the Escape Color as the Escape Value: You gain Experience Stars! Collect the number of Experience Stars specified on the space with the Leading Animal Token. This may let you level up!
- You have exactly as many cards in the Escape Color as the Escape Value: You gain Experience Stars as usual but also gain a Universal Tool! It will be shuffled into the deck next round. Nice work!
- You have fewer cards in the Escape Color than the Escape Value: You don’t get anything. Better luck next time.
You can now spend Experience Stars to level up! The cost of leveling up is on the Difficulty Card you picked at the start of the game, so every time you level up, reveal a new card from the Experience Deck, making that the top face-up card. You can unlock more than one Experience Card per round.
If you haven’t met the end game conditions, start a new round! Don’t forget to flip your Animal Cards face-up.
End of Game
The game can end a few ways. If your leading Animal Token is in the final zone (the Escape Zone) and you have at least as many cards in the Escape Color as the Escape Value, you win! Otherwise, after seven rounds, if you haven’t made it out, you lose!
Player Count Differences
The major thing you’ll notice as player count increases is that your hand becomes increasingly distributed among players. This means that you, individually, have less information available and more turns happen between yours, so you need to pay attention to what’s happening on the board. The game attempts to compensate for this by allowing you to have more cards face-up and visible to all players at higher player counts, but I’d still reckon that it gets increasingly difficult as the player count increases, to some degree. There are also animals that can only be used at higher player counts, so keep an eye out for those. For me, I think there’s a certain level of interplay that’s funnest at two players, here; I don’t mind that the game feels a bit easier (whether or not that’s true would likely require more testing), but I enjoy not knowing whether my co-player is picking up what I’m putting down or if they’re telling me what they have, and with larger hands, there’s not always a good way to tell. It’s a bit of a thrill, being real, and with more players you’re just not as likely to get that. This really tilts KuZOOka towards the lower end of the player count spectrum, for me, as a result. Personal preference is at two players.
- It seems wise to try and avoid jumping ahead as much as you can, without providing any information that is pure speculation. The more Animal Tokens you collectively place early, the better of a sense other players have about what’s in your hand. Now, granted, you might want to jump ahead so that you can make a case that you have, say, four Yellows, but you’ve got to balance that against the table’s collective need for more information. If you move too fast, you’ll be too far ahead without enough known to actually make a concrete plan as a group. Slow and steady makes the escape; just don’t put town an Animal Token willy-nilly; you might otherwise give bad information to the group.
- At some point, you’re going to have to make the switch from knowledge to speculation / deduction based on what cards other players have played. I mean, it’s possible to have enough red cards that you don’t need literally any other player and you can just escape on your own, but that’s incredibly unlikely without either being extremely high level, having a ton of Universal Tool Cards, or just being unbelievably lucky. In lieu of that, you’re going to have to start guessing what might work for the group based on what tokens other players have placed. Feel free to try and push forward your own agenda, but if other players have better cards than you, you might be overruled.
- It might be worth trying to get other players to settle on a color quickly. If everyone can agree on a color, that likely means that you’ve got a lot of cards of that color collectively. Otherwise, you might be collectively in an awkward place. That said, if you’re alternating between two colors for a while, that might be pretty good, as well! Might mean you have a lot of both. But which one do you have enough of to escape? Worth trying to figure that out.
- It’s worth going for the exact match, but it’s better to stop early than it is to overshoot. If you stop early, you still at least get Experience. Granted, this means that you need to press on ahead at least enough to get Experience, but if you can get at least 8 – 12 per round (depending on your Difficulty Level) that should be a good start. Later rounds, you probably want to get at least 16+ so you can earn your way to Level 8 or 9.
- In rounds 5 – 7, you’re better off going for the victory, I think. Towards the end of the game, you need to think about more than just leveling up; you need to start focusing on winning the actual game! Push a little farther, and don’t be afraid to end up with no Experience for overshooting. Hopefully, by this point, you’re already sufficiently high-level.
- Don’t forget to use your abilities once per round! They can be pretty useful. Particularly, think about who would benefit from certain abilities the most. Everyone’s got a mostly-asymmetric set of information (except for the face-up cards), so your abilities often allow you to transfer information from one player (usually you) to another player (usually someone else). Try to think of which player would most benefit. Who goes after you? Who goes after them? Do you want a player to Suggest an Escape Plan or Suspend the Escape? How will the information you present, ideally, sway them? It’s worth thinking about.
- You will need some Universal Tool cards if you’re going to try and win with certain colors. You can’t escape with Yellow without a Universal Tool; there aren’t enough Yellow cards in the deck. Keep that in mind as you’re planning your escape; you’ll have to hit the nail on the head a couple times (and generally should, as Universal Tool cards are pretty much across-the-board beneficial).
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Love the art style on this one. It’s very fun! Lots of color work happening here that I like, and I really enjoy how the various Tool Cards show what the plans are for escape. The animals are really making garbage work for them. The board is fun, too.
- I also appreciate that there are multiple difficulty levels, including an increased-difficulty board. I like games that allow players to configure their preferred difficulty level. I do wish there were an even easier setting, just to introduce the game for folks, but you can usually do pretty well with the 8 setting on the easier side of the board. For serious players, the difficulty can ramp up pretty intensely, which is pretty cool. To win on the harder side of the board, you’ll almost certainly need Universal Tools. Makes me think the game would benefit from more rounds on that side.
- Each round plays pretty quickly. It’s pretty smooth since your decision space is somewhat constrained. You really can only play on maybe ten spaces ahead of you, for instance, so thinking much more about what you want to do probably won’t get you anywhere productive. As a result, players generally take pretty quick turns, which makes for fast rounds.
- There’s a nice bit of individual player agency, deduction, and guesswork, which I enjoy. You really do have to figure out a fair bit of what players are trying to imply and tell you, which can be pretty entertaining. Add in your ability and you’ve got a unique way to interact with the game. Sometimes there’s no way to know, so you just have to be confident in your convictions and see if it pays off.
- It’s difficult to tell when you’re deducing and when you’re just gassing another player up, which is entertaining. You and another player may be completely aligned on one color, only to find out that you misjudged how many they had and they thought you had enough and you miss the boat entirely. It’s a bit comical, but that’s also how the game goes, sometimes.
- The game’s theme is also fun; who hasn’t wanted to assist with a zoo breakout? I want to help these animals escape from animal jail, so this is a pretty good motivator. I’d probably be more motivated if there were penguins, here, but we can’t all get our favorite animals.
- I really like how players provide clues about what’s in their hands. This whole gradual suggestion of information is really interesting! As mentioned, I like how it walks the line between deduction and guesswork where you’re never 100% sure about what you’re doing. It’s fun and mildly unnerving at the same time.
- I appreciate that getting an exact match on the number of cards in players’ hands earns you a special bonus. It feels great when it happens, but also getting a Universal Tool is a huge bonus. It really incentivizes players to try and align on the same outcome, so they really need to try and understand how everyone else is playing the game. It’s great.
- While I enjoy the limited communication, I like that the rulebook specifically states “play in a way that allows you to enjoy the game”. It goes back to the oldest rule of all time, “it’s not cheating if we’re playing a cooperative game”. You may want to try and come up with communication styles that work for newer players so that they can enjoy the game in their own way, and that’s totally fine! I love that the book specifically calls it out; it’s very much like Spirit Island‘s ethos that if you make a mistake, it happens, and you should just move on as best as you can.
- If Animal Cards shouldn’t be used at certain player counts, the cards should indicate which player counts they can’t be used at. We messed this up once, which was pretty annoying. Specifically, the Seal can’t be used with four or fewer players, and it doesn’t note that anywhere on the card; just in a note in the rulebook under the Animal Card explanations. It’s not always guaranteed that players are going to read those clarifications, so if the information is critical, it should go on the card itself.
- I’d love to see more Animal Cards, especially ones that allow you to manipulate your hand or the deck a bit more. Seems like an opportunity for experimenting a bit with ways to help players in a cooperative deduction game. There are a few different ones that I can think of offhand, but balancing them is probably tricky. I’d love to see what an expansion to this would look like, though.
- This does seem like one of those games where players can get annoying about “correct play styles”, which, granted, is more about the players than the game. I’d direct them back to the rulebook’s “play in a way that allows you to enjoy the game”, but, personally, this can have similar results to people who are way too intense about Hanabi. I don’t get it.
- You can be in the last round and just not have the cards to win, which can feel a bit crummy. It gets somewhat progressively less likely as you level up, but it’s still possible: at the highest level, you have 34 cards between you, and you could still theoretically have 44 cards between all players and have no color that allows the group to escape. It’s probably about as likely as having the tile you need to win a cooperative game on the bottom of the deck, but it’s still possible, which isn’t great. You’ll notice relatively early in the game that there are plenty of rounds where you don’t have the cards to get out, though; your goal should be to level up and improve your chances, especially with Universal Tools.
- It does feel like the game is significantly harder with more players? There are just significantly fewer cards per player in hand, which can be kind of intense. Plus, more players means more Animal Tokens on the board, which means that there will likely be larger gaps between the pieces of information that you can give your partners. Sure, you start at a higher level, so you’ve got some cards face-up, but it still seems like a pretty significant tilt against you.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I like KuZOOka a lot! There’s a really interesting tension around when you stop giving information to other players and you have to start guessing based on information provided, and the deduction / guesswork around that is great. I find that a lot of the abilities help with that in different ways (one lets you sift, one lets you trade, one lets you ask, things like that), though I’d love to see more abilities that let you interact with cards in different ways. The challenge, at some level, is that since you’re getting dealt random cards each round, there will be some rounds where you could have won if you had pushed it (which I think is funny, albeit sad), and some rounds where you had no chance of winning from the start (which can be the final round, and sucks). Your goal, functionally is to try and determine the difference between those before it’s too late, I suppose. One thing that I didn’t quite understand is that the game seems significantly more challenge with more players, to the point that I can’t imagine playing with six? Like, with two players, you can get a sense of each others’ hand pretty quickly. Three is challenging, but not unreasonably. At higher player counts, you’re getting a bunch of information from other players, yes, but you have very few cards in hand. That seems less ideal (though you start with more cards and some face-up, which helps). I’m probably sticking to the two-player space with this one, as mentioned above. Complaints aside, though, KuZOOka is a beautiful game with a fun conceit; seems like a great way to get friends introduced to the deduction space cooperatively, which I like (I love competitive deduction, but that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea). Quick rounds, a fun challenge, and an engaging experience all come together for a good time, even though you can’t communicate that much. If you’re a fan of deduction, you enjoy cooperation, or you just want to break out of the zoo, I’d recommend giving KuZOOka a try! I’ve had a lot of fun with it.
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