Q&Play: Kung-Fu Zoo

The Inquisitive Meeple chats with designer Charlie Price about his WizKids’s dexterity game, Kung-Fu Zoo, and then reviews the game.

The rundown ^

From BGG:

Kung Fu Zoo is a dice-flicking dexterity game for 2-4 players. You control a team of highly-trained animals, from crocodiles to zebras, in a Kung Fu battle against your rivals. Who will be tonight’s champions of the zoo? Grab some dice and find out!

In Kung Fu Zoo, players use six-sided animal dice to do battle in an enclosed arena. There are two gameplay variants: Cage Battle and Points Match. In either variant, players start with a team of dice-animals. But the similarities stop there. In a Cage Battle, players take turns flicking their animals into the arena. Your goal is to knock your opponent’s animals onto their backs (stunning them) or through holes on the board (the “cages”). You win the match when all of your opponent’s animals are stunned or in cages. The first player to win three matches wins! In a Points Match, players take turns flicking their animals into the arena. Your goal is to score 21 points before your opponent. Points are awarded at the end of each round, based upon the position of your dice that are left on the board.”

The Q’s ^

Hey Charlie, thanks for joining us. How would you describe your game Kung-Fu Zoo to someone that has never played it?

Charlie: Kung-Fu Zoo is a dice-flicking dexterity game for everyone. It’s a cross between marbles and billiards, but with awesome, one-of-a-kind animal dice. Games are fast-paced, fun to watch, and highly competitive, making it an ideal game for tournaments. And the artwork is amazing, thanks to the talented husband-wife team known as Mr. Cuddington.

The premise is that after hours, every zoo becomes a sort of fight club. Each night, after everyone leaves, the animals have Kung-Fu tournaments to pass the time. Then, just before the zoo opens the next morning, the animals go back into their cages and rest up for the next night. There are two variants, Cage Battle and Points Battle.

In a Cage Battle, players control a team of dice-animals and take turns flicking their dice off the rails and into the arena. Your goal is to knock your opponent’s animals into cages or onto their backs, stunning them. The position of your animals in the arena determines whether you can flick an animal and, if so, from where on the rail. “Feet up” animals, for instance, are stunned and can’t be flicked at all. But “face up” animals can be flicked from anywhere on any rail (as opposed to the midpoint of any rail, which is the default launching spot). Finally, like in billiards, if you sink an opponent’s animal, you get an extra turn.

A Points Battle is similar in that you take turns flicking your animal team into the arena. But the goal to score more points than your opponent. Points are awarded at the end of each round (a round is both players flicking all four dice into the arena) based on the position dice left on the board. For instance, the animal’s face is worth five points while its feet and butt are only worth two points. Each team has its own reference card to make calculating scores easy.

Could you share with us the story behind the creation of the game?

Charlie: I started working on Kung-Fu Zoo in 2015. I had just finished developing Clankball Legends, a large game, and learned that, during the course of development, shipping costs for that game had basically doubled. So I started thinking about creating a smaller dexterity game that would be easier to ship. I wanted it to be a flicking game because flicking things is awesome. Because the board had to be relatively small, I knew that flicking discs probably wouldn’t work (discs are too precise for a small board). Then I thought about how flicking dice was predictable but not perfect. Dice do funny things when flicked. You can guide them in the right direction but they still have a mind of their own.

Then I thought of the board itself. After trying a bunch of designs, I decided on a square board with holes at the corners. And I knew I need rails to keep the dice from going all over the place. After some testing, I found that the rails didn’t even need to be very high to keep the dice contained. And I found that flicking the dice off the rails was a good way to maximize the usable space on the board. Players wouldn’t have to worry about bumping other dice when taking their shots.

As I playtested the game, I became convinced it needed a theme. At first, I thought about an old-time carnival setting, where the dice were bumper cars. Then I toyed with the idea of Greek gods doing battle, which was sort of a snoozer. Then I thought of using zoo animals and things fell into place.

I decided to call it Kung-Fu Zoo because it sounds sort of dumb and because the idea of zoo animals having Kung-Fu fights is funny. It evokes the notion that they are trained, martial artists. That would explain why, for instance, a zebra might beat up some cheetahs. In the wild, the zebra would get slaughtered. But if the animals were all using Kung-Fu, the fight might be much closer. Finally, Kung-Fu fighting suggests that the battles are more sporting than if they were just trying to kill each other in the wild. Kung-Fu Zoo, after all, is a refined sport. No one is trying to kill anyone. They’re just super-bored zoo animals that enjoy controlled, sanctioned, after-hours Kung-Fu fights.

The game is published by a pretty major publisher, WizKids. What is the tale behind how you ended up getting hooked up with them?

Charlie: As is often the case with success, it was the result of hard work, some luck, and the generosity of other people. I had held several playtesting sessions at this really cool game café near my house called The Malted Meeple. They were kind enough to invite me to show off Kung-Fu Zoo, which I intended to Kickstart, at their booth at 2016 Origins Game Fair. While at Origins, BGG and the Dice Tower recorded demos for the game. Zev, from WizKids, saw the videos and asked if I’d be interested in working with his group. (Of course, I was interested!). The rest, as they say, is history.

For those that check out the game on BGG, they see that there are actually other animals, you have made for your prototype of Kung-Fu Zoo, from crocodiles to kangaroos. Will any of these other animals be made available in the future for those that have the published game?

Charlie: I got a little carried away with the dice–it was so fun working with Mr. Cuddington on the designs. Anyway, I have designs for crocodiles, kangaroos, monkeys, and flamingos. Right now, however, there is no expansion planned. But it’s possible there could be down the road.

Do you have a personal favorite animal to play with?

Charlie: I like the gorilla design best. But the zebra’s “Dust Up” power is probably my favorite–i.e., you force your opponent to flick with his eyes closed.

You have had a lot of experiences with Kung-Fu Zoo from its initial design, to holding competitions at GenCon to it getting picked up by a major publisher. When you look back, what has been your favorite experience so far in Kung-Fu Zoo’s journey?

Charlie: I love the tournaments, which are always fun. And competitive–while the game rewards skill, it still has random elements to it, which keeps things competitive for players of varying ages and skill levels. We recently held a 20-player tournament with players from age 8 to 73. Our first place winner was 14 years old. The second and third-place winners were age 51 and 12, respectively. That’s probably my favorite thing about the game. An 8-year-old can kick my butt fair-and-square. We just added the 2018 Kung-Fu Zoo World Championship to the Gen Con event list. That will be our third Gen Con tournament. So sign up!

You seem to have a thing for dexterity games, not only have you designed Kung-Fu Zoo, but you’re also working on another dexterity game, the aforementioned, Clankball Legends. What do you think draws you to designing these games?

Charlie: I’m a sports fan and, if you think about it, dexterity games are just super-compact sports. Except they can be super weird or fantastical sports–as is the case with Clankball Legends, a futuristic hockey game. Also, I like designing simpler games–which dexterity games often are–because I’m not smart enough to design the more complicated ones. Haha.

As we come to a close, do you have any advice out there for anyone trying to design a dexterity game?

Charlie: I only have one published game under my belt, so I don’t know that I’m the best person to give advice. Notwithstanding, what worked for me is asking for help when I needed it (my brother gave me tons of help with Kung-Fu Zoo), listening to feedback (especially criticism), and pursuing your passion. Oh, and I’d say to check out the Indie Game Alliance, which is an amazing resource for fledgling game designers.

The play ^

Note: A few small parts of this review are from my old review in 2016 of the wooden prototype. Though this has been updated to reflect the final plastic production from Wizkids. Also, I talk a lot about this as a family game, that is because almost all my plays over the years of Kung-Fu Zoo has been with my kids. There are adult groups that play this game, I am just writing from my experience.

If you follow The Inquisitive Meeple on Twitter for any length of time, you may know that I’ve championed Kung-Fu Zoo since January of 2016 when I was sent a preview prototype copy from the designer, Charlie Price, and my family quickly fell in love with it. Fast forward to 2018, where the game was put out by WizKids, though the final version of the game uses a plastic and cardboard smaller arena. Does it still stand up? Let’s take a look.

First off, let me say when I talk about Kung-Fu Zoo to me the game is the cage battle. I don’t even bother with the points battle, and highly recommend you too just go straight to the cage rules. Kung- Fu Zoo originally was designed to be a 2-player game and has some 3 to 4 player variant rules. While 2-player is solid, I actually really like the game with more players. In 3- or 4-player game, you play pretty much the same way, with a few twists. You only get 2 dice at a time. Once you lose (via being pocketed) your two dice – you get your other two dice. After you lose those two, you are eliminated from the game.  In this version, players may pick up stunned/feet up die but must either flick them with their non-dominant hand or with their pinky finger. Which, by the way, is a way to handicap if playing with young kids, just play all your shots with both your non-dominant hand and/or pinky.

WizKids has actually done a great job with how the arena works. It stays in the box, the plastic rails are thick, and the arena top pops open and then sets back down super easy. Dice slide down the hole with ease, thanks to sloped plastic. When you’re down, dice and animal cards are stored under the arena board. The WizKids version also adds variable player powers that are unique to each animal and can be played only once per round. I would like to say, unlike the old prototype version of Kung-Fu Zoo, playing does not require the use of a “Lazy Susan.” However, I feel the game actually works better with such. It’s easier to turn the board to get to the side you want to shoot your dice from without shaking any dice that are skirting the holes into the holes.

Kung-Fu Zoo is pretty close to a perfect dexterity game to play with your family. The gameplay is certainly easy for just about all-ages to understand. The WizKids’ version of the game says 10+ on the box, kids even as young as 4 or 5 can understand the concept of the game with a little help from a watchful adult.  Any magic to be had with Kung-Fu Zoo comes from the craziest things that can happen in this game; things that will make lasting memories with the kids or your adult gaming group beyond most “normal” board games. For example, things like pocketing your own die, as it knocks your opponent’s dice that was hanging on by a thread over the corner hole to safety. In fact, this game can have a lot of hooting and hollering, and “ahhh!” moments.

Kung-Fu Zoo is perhaps the best flicking dexterity game I’ve played (outside of Crokinole) even inching out Ice Cool. Also let me add, flicking dice doesn’t hurt like some of the other things you flick in dexterity games. If I am, to be honest, I enjoy the bigger wooden board prototype board more than the final plastic and cardboard version (I mean who wouldn’t?). However, that is not available to the general public. Almost 2 ½ years later,  I find myself having to be in the mood to play Kung- Fu Zoo. I am not quite as excited as I once, I don’t know if that was due to playing on the plastic board, or that I am used to a bigger arena size, or something else. However, when talking gameplay, my children (out of those that have played the game), are pretty much always in the mood to play Kung-Fu Zoo (even my tween son who’s much more into his Nintendo Switch these days than board games). For them, there is still a visible excitement around getting to play a game of Kung-Fu Zoo, and they have such a love for it, even after almost 2 ½ years later and I cannot ever seeing it leaving our game collection.

The game is priced at a pretty great deal, being found around the web for $21 to $24. Even factoring in buying a cheap “Lazy Susan” to play on, it’s still worth the price as perhaps one of the best dexterity games on the market.

Meeple-Sized Summary

Kung-Fu Zoo isn’t just a game that would make a good family game night game, but it’s one that could possibly help make specific good memories on Family Game Night. Memories of laughing out loud, of exuberant cheering, and of the insane things that happened as the dice were flicked left and right.

The last word ^

Thank you to Charlie Price for doing the interview with me. Also, huge thank you to Charlie for originally sending me a copy of the wooden prototype for review for an honest opinion back in 2016. It has brought fun times to my family. Then Charlie goes out of his way to send me a free copy of the final version of the game, just because – he didn’t expect me to review that too. But I did.

If you like to talk with Charlie you can find him on Twitter: @Clankball or at @TrustyLampGames

The official WizKids page for Kung-Fu Zoo can be found by clicking here.

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