Zoomaka: Review

Today, Fairway is a budding zoo entrepreneur trying to complete the most amazing zoo. That’s right! Step right up and see how Fairway does in this review of Zoomaka.

Zoomaka is a two- to five-player set-collection, card game in which players attempt to collect the right combination of animals to complete their zoo.

Initial Impressions ^

  1. The game shoots for minimalism and I think misses its mark. The muted color scheme doesn’t scream fun, kids game or exciting zoo-builder. The cards are mostly white, relying heavily on the borders and flat icons.  We were sometimes confused about whether the actual colors mattered on some of the action cards (entrances in particular).
  2. The rules amount to the common play cards, draw cards so teaching the game was easy and quick. Most players picked up the game pretty quickly.
  3. Outside the set collection (trying to complete “sections” of a zoo), the theme isn’t a great fit for the game. Why am I paying in zebra meat to go to someone else’s zoo? More about that below.

How to play ^

Zoomaka is a pretty standard card game which is played over a series of turns. The object of the game is to be the first player to complete four sections of your zoo.

At the start of the game, the deck of cards is shuffled and each player is dealt six cards.  There are essentially three types of cards: animal cards, action cards and setting cards. In common, each type of card also has a value. This value represents the value of the card itself when added to a zoo or when used to pay another player.

A bulk of the game is centered around the animal cards. Animal cards each assigned a category (or in some cases multiple categories) indicated by a little paw print in the upper right. There are a lot of different categories: Australian, reptile, bird, ape, magical, etc.  In addition, the number of icons shown on the card indicates the number of those cards needed to complete the section. The more icons, the more cards you’ll need to play.

The cards. The action cards come in a number of variations: action, reaction, and entrance. The action and reaction cards let you take special actions or stop someone from taking them. They’re played once and their effect is immediately resolved. For instance, some action cards let you see your opponent’s hand, take an animal from their zoo, draw more cards, etc.  The reaction cards are typically played in response to an action card (and out of turn) and allow the player to cancel an action or not pay a fee or something similar.  The entrance cards are played on player’s zoo section and cause other players to “pay” that player an amount equal to the total value of that zoo section.

Finally, the setting cards set a special universal rule that applies until it’s replaced. It could be that every players get extra actions or that certain animals can be played for free.

The game play. Play starts with a first player and continues clockwise until a player completes their fourth zoo section.  On a turn, a player typically plays three cards. Cards can be played either to the table or to your bank.

Animal and entrance cards played to the table are played face up in front of the player. Animals of the same category are played to the same section and their sum total values represent the value of that section of your zoo. A zoo section is complete when the section has the number of animals equal to the number of icons matching that section. For example, three forest animals played to a players section will complete the zoo section.

When a player plays an entrance card, the card is played on a section and the payment rule is performed.  In most cases, this means that other players must “pay” the total value of that section, that is the entrance cost. Other players must pay at least that amount from cards either in their own zoo (ah!) or from amounts they’ve played face down into their bank (discussed below).

Beyond animal cards, players play other action and response cards to the discard pile. These cards apply special rule. Action cards allow players to draw additional cards, poach animals from other zoos, etc. The reaction cards are typically played out of turn and do things like stop entrance fee payments, capture an animal just played by another player, etc.

Finally, the setting cards are played into a pile in the middle of the table.  The top card directs a special game-affecting rule.

One last point, each card has a value. If a player wants, they can play any of the cards to a player’s bank. These cards can then be used to pay off entrance fees instead of drawing from the cards in a zoo.

On the green ^

Set collection.  Zoomaka draws heavily on its theme and manages to introduce a large number of unique animal cards and divides them among a huge range of classes. There are more than 12 different “sections” that you can build. Adding those animals to your zoo to flesh out a section is definitely the heart of this game and it does it well. I mention the large number of suits below.

Player interaction.  This game doesn’t hide its strong take that features: they’re omnipresent. There were times in a few games where players had more action and reaction cards in their hands than actual animal cards. That said, the assortment of actions definitely hit the other players but never felt unfair or destructive.

Choices. The game actually does a good job of making every card and turn feel useful. Even if you can’t do anything “constructive” with the cards (like adding into your zoo), you can always play the card to your bank and save for the inevitable: having to pay another player. And while this is the case, we did feel like not enough of the game actually did the zoo-building (see below).

Play time & teaching time.  The game was pretty straight forward. Anyone who’s played any kind of family-oriented, take-that card games will get the gist pretty quickly. The only quirky mechanism was explaining why players should play cards to the bank — mostly to avoid having to sell of their zoo when someone played an entrance.

Where it comes up short ^

Frequency and suits.  In some ways, the sheer number of different sections is a bit daunting for new players. There’s lots of them. So when a players starts down one collection path, it’s not clear whether those cards will ever show up.  Consider that a good number of cards also get played face down into other player’s banks. Once they’re there, there’s no real chance to get a missing card out. Also, no player aid is provided to indicate the number of cards in each suit are in the deck.

So long as animal cards weren’t buried in banks, the game did provide ample opportunity to fetch cards from other players

So many non-animal cards.  On our first few games, players would repeatedly get hands full of everything but animal cards. When we separated out the cards, it became apparent why: more than half the cards are dedicated to things other than animals. And it wasn’t just a little more, it was appreciably more than half the cards. In some cases, you could go a few hands and not see an animal card. For a game about building a zoo, not getting animal cards to play is not a great feeling.

Let’s talk about minimalism & design.  I honestly didn’t know what to do with this feature. Some players found the minimalism as a non-issue, but most others noted that the overall design felt flat, boring. There’s always some room for debate about aesthetics, but for a number of reasons, I don’t think this design pulls off the minimalism. For instance, the borders of the cards were in a large rainbow of colors some of which played a role, but in other cases didn’t. The icons were flat, in a portion of the card covered by the fanning out of cards, and probably too small for their purpose. The animals didn’t feel “real” and were mere silhouettes and, oddly, a different color than their matching border. Finally, the font choice was confusing: a script font that was hard to read, not kid-friendly, and unthematic.

Beyond the aesthetic, the graphic design is completely unhelpful.  For example, circles around the values on some of the cards. We weren’t sure what the colors were intended to indicate. Similarly, the “wild” card animals had almost garish borders and coloring.

Last point: to the extent this is intended as a kids game, the washed out and muted palette wasn’t screaming kid-friendly game.

Confusing mechanics?  There were a few places the rules didn’t actually explain. For example, can you have more than one entrance on a section? Just one? If you play one that has icons for payment for various section types, do you only count the one that it was played on — the words on the card suggest otherwise?

Thematically confusing?  One thing that more than one player found odd was the whole payment mechanism.  Why am I, another competing zoo owner, paying another player when they play an entrance to a zoo section? And, more importantly, why do I have to sell off my animals to that player when they do?  It seems weird that I sell (or mortgage, I guess) my zebra card just to have the privilege of going to the other player’s woodland section.

In the hole ^

Zoomaka is a light take-that, set collection game about building a zoo filled with animals. Depending on player count, most games end well under 30 minutes and the game is easily taught. In some ways, this game is under-produced and could have benefited from a graphic design overhaul. For someone looking a card game to play with kids to replace old standbys, like Uno or Go Fish!, then Zoomaka is worth a look.

Zoomaka is in the hole for One Over Par. ^

Fairway was provided a copy of the game to write a fair review. He was not otherwise compensated for this review.

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