What's It About?
ZooSim is an attractive and fun game of zoo management.
The players take the roles of zoo directors and compete with each
other for the most visitors. Each turn you bid for additions to
your zoo, then adjust visitors based on various factors. After 25
turns the one who has attracted the most people wins the game.
The components are largely attractive: 25 tiles (48 by 96 cm -
almost 2" by 4") with various animals, trees, paths, etc., shown
on them, little zoo entrance houses with a couple of initial paths
placed for you, 35 wooden person-shaped visitors, 35 wooden coins,
a flagpole with four moveable flags. The rules are in English,
Dutch, French and German, and include four variants for play. The
game is relatively inexpensive, considering the quality of the
Course of the Game
Each player starts with one of four zoo entrance houses and starting
tiles. Each player also gets eight coins, which are kept hidden
behind the entrance houses. The four flags (one for each zoo) are
randomly placed on the flagpole, top to bottom. The players set
up their zoo entrances a healthy distance from each other: as you
win tiles, you add them to your own zoo. The players' zoos should
have enough room not to interfere with each other.
The 25 tiles are shuffled and five of them dealt out in a row, face
up. The remaining twenty are kept face down in a pile.
After examining the five face-up tiles, the players bid on the
first tile. This is a secret bid: each player puts zero to eight
coins in his fist and holds it out. When all have made their bid,
players open their fists. The one who bid the most pays the coins
to the bank and takes the first tile. The others keep their money.
In case of a tie bid, the tied player whose flag is higher on the
flagpole wins the tie, but his flag now drops to the bottom of the
The player who won the bid now adds the tile to his zoo. Paths
must line up with paths, and grass with grass. The player now
collects visitors based on the tile he bought.
Each tile is twice as long as it is wide, so can be considered to
have two halves, each a square. Thus they resemble dominoes in
this regard (but they never stand on edge). Each of the two halves
shows a different animal. There will also be paths, which will
exit the tile in anywhere from three to six places, always in the
center of the half, so they'll fit together geomorphically. Some
tiles also show trees.
There are five general types of animals, color coded, though a
zoologist might cringe at the classifications. Aquatic animals
have a blue background, apes (primates, really) have an orange
background, mammals not in those first two groups have a
yellow background, birds have a red background, and creepy-crawly
things (reptiles, amphibians, arthropods) have a gray background.
In addition, each animal is rated for visitor appeal with a number
of stars, anywhere from one to three stars.
So if I win the bid for a tile with zebra and a baboon, I place it
so it joins onto my start tile by my zoo entrance. This particular
tile has three paths, two trees, and each of the animals have two
stars. If this is the first tile in the game, I now clearly have
the lead in yellow and orange: I have two stars in each, while no
one else has any. For having the only tile with a given animal
type, I attract one visitor for each animal, so I take one visitor
and place it on my zebra, and one visitor and place it on my
In addition, I now have the most trees: two to everyone else's
zero. So I take one more visitor and place it on my starting tile
to show I have most trees. The turn is now over, and all players
place their bids on the next tile showing, starting turn two.
Let's say the next tile has a panda (two stars) and an ostrich (two
stars). It also has one tree and four path edges. If you win this
tile, you pay your winning bid to the bank (a winning bid may be
zero, by the way, if everyone bids zero - top flag wins ties and
drops to the bottom). You then place it on your zoo and we adjust
visitors. We only have to look at mammals (yellow), birds (red),
and trees - the status of all other creatures cannot be affected
by this tile.
You have the only bird exhibit, so you get one visitor. Looking
at mammals, however, we each have two stars. Since people like
novelty, when someone ties someone else for the lead in a given
area, they take over first place! (This is the opposite of the
"Longest Road" rule in Settlers of Catan.) So you
now have first place in yellow. Once two or more zoos have a given
type of animal, there are always three visitors associated with
that color: two on the first-place zoo, and one on the second-place
zoo. So I keep my one visitor on yellow (my zebra), but you gain
two visitors for your Panda. We also have to look at trees: the
shadiest zoo gets more visitors. I still have the lead in trees
(two to your one), but there should now be three visitors for trees
since two of us have them. So I gain a second visitor to show my
first place in most trees, and you gain one visitor for second
Turn three begins with another bid, and so on - bid, place tile,
check for most visitors.
Adjacent Collections and Loops
If I want to try to take back the lead in yellow, I have two options:
Orthogonally adjacent - not diagonally - is important. It doesn't
have to be connected by a path (grass to grass is a valid connection),
but it must share an edge with an existing animal of the same color
background. If I can do that, I can add their stars together.
And if I can add a third tile orthogonally adjacent to at least
one of the first two, I can add all three collections of stars
- I can win and place a tile with a two- or three-star mammal
(two stars would work because the latest tied animal wins ties,
- I can win a tile with even a one-star mammal and place it
orthogonally adjacent to my zebra.
Thus, you have to consider not only the type of animal and number
of stars and trees when bidding on a tile, but also the configuration:
can I fit it into my existing zoo in such a way that it increases
Another way to bring visitors to your zoo is by creating loops.
If you don't make a loop, visitors have to walk back along the path
they just took, looking at the same exhibits over again. Visitors
would much rather walk a circuit of some sort, seeing new things
all the way.
So for every loop you make, regardless of how many tiles it takes
to connect it, you get one extra visitor that can never be taken
away from you. (Play these lying down so as not to confuse them
with the exhibit visitors.)
So configuration is important not only for getting tiles with
similar animals adjacent to each other, but also for creating loops.
Lots to think about each turn!
Scoring and Income
When all five face-up tiles have been resolved, it's time for a
scoring round. Each visitor is worth one point: each player counts
total visitors and one player records the amounts. All visitors
are equal in value: a figure representing second place in birds is
worth one point, and one representing a looped path is worth one
Each player also receives income during a scoring round: you get
one coin for each tile you have in your zoo. So a tile bought
early will pay you four times over the course of the game - something
to think about.
Turn over the next five tiles and play five more turns. You then
have another scoring round, but this time every visitor is worth
two points each. At the third scoring round, each visitor is worth
three points each, and so on. The game ends after the fifth round:
add up the scores for all five rounds and the winner is the one
with the highest total score.
Why Is It a Good Game?
There's lots to like here. The theme is a good one, and it doesn't
feel abstract. The theme is also appealing to a lot of people:
lots of folk like animals, and the game should be enjoyable by
children age 10 and up as well as by adults. It's not dry at all
- a nice, engaging game.
It's a thinking game, but not an overly cerebral one. It's fairly
short - about 45 minutes - so you don't burn out on it. But you
have to weigh lots of factors every turn when thinking about your
A turn is so short that you can have 25 of them and still have a
short game. So if you don't get a tile now, you will soon - no
one feel left out for very long, and you all partake in each bid.
- Who is most helped by the tile? The current victory point leader?
- If someone else gets the tile, will you lose the lead in anything?
- If you get the tile, can you steal the lead in anything?
- If you get the tile, can you place it advantageously, or would its placement actually block
the growth of one of your exhibits?
- Can you make a loop - or two! - with this tile? Or at least set yourself up for an easy
loop next tile?
- Speaking of the next tile, what's coming up in the near future? If it's something more
valuable to you than the current tile, you don't want to exhaust your money on this one ...
- Is it a scoring round after this tile?
Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?
Some people don't like blind bidding games, but that's not an issue
with me. I enjoy such games, in fact, at least those in which only
the winner pays, as in this game.
I do have some problems with the game, but - surprise, surprise!
- I have a variant rule that I like which addresses them.
The boards get a bit muddled and confused - hard to tell who's
leading in what, as the figures all look the same and obscure stars
when you place them on the collections. Not as bad as I just made
it sound, but it can get confusing. See below for a fix for this.
The colors of the birds (red) and apes (orange) are too close -
they're easily confused. The fix for the above helps a little
here, but simply focusing on the animals as opposed to the colors
will get you by this one. It's hard to mistake a ostrich for a
Runaway leader: the rich tend to get richer in this game, and our
first five games all had a runaway leader problem. Others claim
they've solved this problem simply by bidding a lot for early tiles,
but that didn't work for us. I have a variant that fixes this,
too, if you're interested ...
Some people don't like the cylindrical game container - doesn't
fit well on shelves. Put it in a box, then, is my response.
A fine game, one of those that nicely balance lightness and thinking
with an engaging theme. Recommended.
Variants and Tips
The game comes with four variants, which you can mix-and-match.
The first is, I've been told, the original rules during playtest.
It's an appealing rule, and we tried it quite a few times before
reluctantly giving it up. It's very real world, but alas, it
intensifies the rich-get-richer problem. The game becomes one of
Wal-Mart versus a Mom-and-Pop store, and while realistic, isn't
much fun to game.
At any rate, that variant is simply this: there are no scoring
rounds, only an income round every five tiles. Scoring is done
only once, at game end. Each income round you collect one coin
for each visitor you have minus
one coin for each tile you have: income minus expenses. Very
logical and realistic, but didn't work for my group.
There are also variants included for variable scoring rounds (when
three tiles with trees are placed as opposed to every five tiles)
and for ways to reveal the tiles (either one at a time - works well
with the trees-determine-scoring-rounds variant - or show all 25
tiles at once. The latter is way too cerebral for me, and bogs
the game down as we try to plan too far ahead.)
None of those really worked for me, though we tried them all.
Instead, we now play:
Non-Profit variant to do away with the runaway
The premise is simple: each zoo is a non-profit organization with
a grant that will last the next five seasons. Grants are identical
- every zoo starts with eight coins and will get the same income
each season. But only one zoo will get the grant renewed, the one
with the best record of visitors over the five seasons, with the
final seasons being more important (as consumers have short memories).
Basically, the grant foundation wants more people to see and remember
the prominent signs, "This zoo funded by a grant from the Cwali
So we play by the basic rules with only one change: after each
scoring round, the income is set for each zoo. The formula is 7-N,
where N is the number of players, or, if you prefer:
Number of coins left at game end is a tiebreaker, which gives some
slight reason not to slap all your coins down for the last tile.
Otherwise, play is identical to the basic game: five scoring rounds,
a visitor is worth (round number) of points, etc.
- With four players, each player gets 3 coins each scoring round.
- With three players, each player gets 4 coins each scoring round.
- With two players, each player gets 5 coins each scoring round.
Variant: Advertising. This is a simple one: if you
lose a bid, and had bid at least one coin, you may place one coin
(never more in a single turn) from your losing bid on your start
tile. This is money spent on advertising, and will not be available
to you the rest of the game. You may add up to one coin to this
each time you lose a bid, having bid at least one coin. When you
have accumulated three coins spent on advertising, you may turn
them in and replace them with a visitor. Like the loop visitors,
this one can never be taken away - lay it down on the start tile
so you know what it represents. Most advertising spent is the
first tiebreaker in this variant, with each person enticed via
advertising worth three coins.
Variant: Tile revealing. Reveal two tiles at once,
the one being bid on and the next tile. Good for children (though
I like it, too!): less skill required than showing five tiles at
once, but teaches them to think a little ahead by showing the next
tile, giving them one little extra choice to make each turn.
Tip: Tree visitors are best designated by placing
them standing up on the start tile. They don't get mixed up with
the other visitors that way. But even better ...
Tip: Painted visitors! I got this idea from Michael Green:
paint three visitors in each of six colors: red, yellow, blue,
orange, gray, and green. Since there are at most three visitors
for each type of exhibit, it's easy now to see who has the lead in
yellow: who has two yellow figures? You don't need to stand them
on top of the animals, obscuring the number of stars - you can put
them by the side of the board, not too far away. Works like magic!
The green ones are for the trees, of course. The remaining 17
visitors are left black, to represent loop visitors (or advertising,
if you use that variant). Since the red and orange look so much
alike, I actually took an ultra-fine permanent marker and marked
bird watchers with a "B" on their chests, and ape watchers with an
"A." (No, I didn't use scarlet ink for the "A" ...)
Tip: Draw-string Bags, large enough to put your hand
in easily, are essential for ease in play. (I use the ones from
Die Händler.) It's awkward to use the cute
little zoo entrances to hide your money - put them in a drawstring
bag and rattle it importantly every now and then. Makes it much
easier to pull out zero or four without giving a clue to your
opponents which it really is.
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