If you’ve ever been to the zoo before, you’ve no doubt watched in amusement as the monkeys picked through each other’s fur in search of tasty morsels, or stood in awe of the majestic lion as he let loose with a stirring roar. What you haven’t witnessed, though, is what goes on after the gates have closed and the visitors and zoo staff have gone home. The zoo isn’t just home to a bunch of dumb animals that stand around all day eating food and looking cute. Behind the scenes bubbles a political cauldron and it’s about to overflow.
In Zoocracy, the players take on the roles of political factions in the zoo hierarchy as they try to wield the most political influence to push through their various agendas. The different political parties bribe their constituents with food to earn their votes, collude with one another to push through their proposals, and work to undermine the existing power structure so that they can take the reins. This political scheming and maneuvering comes to an end once one party manages to achieve all of their political goals and that player wins the game.
If you’ve already got a decent idea of how Zoocracy is played and just want to see what we think of the game, feel free to skip ahead to the Final Thoughts section. For everyone else…
At the beginning of the game, each player is provided a pool of food tokens, a Political Goal marker, a Seat marker, and a Vote marker. Ten of their food tokens are set in front of them as their Party Funds and the rest are set aside in the general supply. Each person then places their Political marker in the entry area of the zoo board and their Seat marker next to the Parliament track of the zoo board. The Round, Parliamentary Election, and Presidential Election markers are set on top of the first tree of the Round track and the Majority marker is placed next to the Parliament track as well.
The Event cards are shuffled into a deck with the “Game End” card added in towards the bottom of the deck. This is placed close by along with the shuffled Action card deck. Each player is summarily dealt 2 cards from the Action card deck. The Political Office cards are also set nearby in a display. Then, after selecting a starting player, you’re ready to begin playing Zoocracy.
Acquiescence, Bribery, Collusion, Deceit. The A,B,Cs of Politics.
Zoocracy is played over a succession of rounds, which are divided into several phases, until one of two end conditions is met: a.) one party manages to realize all of their political goals or b.) the “End of Game” card is revealed. Not every phase will be played in every round. Some will only come into play every few rounds. Here’s a list of the different phases, what happens in each one, and how often they occur:
- Presidential Election: each player secretly bids food from their Party Funds. The player that bids the most becomes the President for the remainder of the round. This comes with some benefits – the ability to instantly implement a political goal, the ability to play extra food during the Parliamentary Election Campaign phase, and the ability to break ties. This phase occurs every two rounds.
- Parliamentary Election Campaign: In player order (determined by Seat marker position on the Parliament track) the players will take turns distributing up to 5 food tokens from their Party Funds among the different animal factions printed on the game board. When placing tokens, the player must always maintain a majority and a maximum of 3 tokens can be played in any single area. If placing tokens would not give the player the majority in an area, the tokens cannot be placed there. This phase occurs in every round of the game.
- Parliamentary Election: The current seats on the Parliament track are reset. Then, beginning with the Elephants and moving clockwise around the board, the food tokens in each area are counted up to determine who has the majority in each one. The player with the majority will earn a certain number of seats and their Seat marker is adjusted accordingly. There might even be a reward for coming in second place. After determining the majority and adjusting the Seat markers, the food tokens are removed to the general supply. This phase occurs every 3 rounds.
- Formation of Government: Players take turns proposing a coalition with the other players in an attempt to form a government. These propositions must include the distribution of the Political Office cards as well as an agreement as to who will get to implement their Political goals and when. Then the proposition is put to a vote. If enough people are in agreement and possess enough Seats to form a majority, the proposition passes. Anybody that voted against becomes part of the minority government and one of them will be given the Opposition Leader card. Then the players are given the opportunity to draw new Actions cards. This phase occurs immediately after each Parliamentary Election phase.
- Vote of No Confidence: The Opposition Leader may decide to try to overthrow the current government by proposing a new Formation of Government with new Political Office card distributions and new promises of Political goal implementations. If the proposal is accepted, a new government is formed. This phase can never occur in the same turn that a Parliamentary Election occurred.
- Event: The top card of the Event deck is turned face up and the depicted event is carried out. These events will typically target a specific Political Office card holder and will allow them to either earn extra food tokens, immediately implement a political goal, or will cause them to have to skip the Implement Political Goal phase (which is the next phase after this one). This phase occurs every round of the game.
- Implement Political Goal: The person holding the Prime Minister card will declare which party gets to implement one of its political goals this round. Ideally, they will abide by the promises made during the Formation of Government phase, but they are not required to. This phase occurs every round of the game.
- End of Round: The Round marker advances one step and the next round begins.
In the first round of the game, the only phase that doesn’t occur is the “Vote of No Confidence” phase. Since nobody will have any seats on the Parliament track, the person holding the position of President will be the one that goes first during the Campaign phase. In general, if a player is holding an Action card with a symbol matching the current phase printed on it, they may use that card at any time during the appropriate phase.
Using your Action cards wisely is critical to doing well in Zoocracy. Generally the Action cards will feature the image of a different type of animal on it, the actual action being performed, and an icon indicating in which phase the Action card may be used. So, if you’re holding the card shown below in your hand…
… it means that during the Parliamentary Election Campaign phase, if you’ve placed food tokens on the polar bears, then you can keep up to 2 of your food tokens on the animal at the end of the phase instead of returning them to the general supply as you normally would. Other types of actions include swapping food tokens, receiving free food tokens, or even fast forwarding the game to different phases to rounds in which they normally would not occur.
The first thing that most people are going to notice about Zoocracy are the visually striking illustrations by The Mico. There was an episode of The Simpsons once where Bart put a can of beer into a paint shaking machine before turning it on. When the can was removed, it vibrated from the pressure that had built up inside of it. When he placed it into the refrigerator to prank Homer, the can sat there visually shaking with potential energy. The Mico’s illustrations are like that can of beer; virtually trembling with the promise of action and thrills. His fantastic artwork really brings Zoocracy to life and transports the player into this world of anthropomorphic intrigue.
While the theme of Zoocracy is one of political turmoil, I appreciate that it’s largely an area control game. You could imagine these animals trying to draw a gerrymander, if only they had opposable thumbs. Controlling areas of the board via food tokens is not only easy to grasp, but also thematic, as animals (and yes people) tend to be driven by their stomachs. The tokens here are small, but well designed and colorful.
When playing Zoocracy, players can’t discount the action cards as they’re one of the primary movers of the game. Clever use of these cards will allow players to really advance their agenda. As mentioned previously you not only need to play them in a timely manner, as they’ll provide valuable benefits.
Political divisiveness has been around for as long as there’s been something to argue about. It’s a complex and ever-changing melange of personal opinions, promises, and secrets; but Haas Games have streamlined the process of a game of less than two hours. Zoocracy is on Kickstarter now, go give it a look. After all you’re probably better qualified for office than a bunch of animals.
Disclosure: Meeple Mountain received a free copy of this product in exchange for an honest, unbiased review. This review is not intended to be an endorsement.
Disclosure: Meeple Mountain was provided a pre-production copy of the game. It is this copy of the game that this review is based upon. As such, this review is not necessarily representative of the final product. All photographs, components, and rules described herein are subject to change.