A game for 2-4 players designed by Corné van Moorsel, published by Cwali (Netherlands)
These comments copyright 2002 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated November 30, 2002

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 components.

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 pole.

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 baboon.

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 place.

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:

  1. 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, remember), or
  2. I can win a tile with even a one-star mammal and place it orthogonally adjacent to my zebra.
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 together.

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 my collections?

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 point.

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 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?
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.

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 gorilla.

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.

Summing Up

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 leader.

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 Foundation."

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:

  • 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.
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.

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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