Board Game Review: New York Zoo
LIONS, TIGERS, AND BEARS... OH MY!
First things first, when you’re going into anything with a zoo/animal theme, you’re almost guaranteed to see the classic lions, tigers, or bears make an appearance. This isn’t the case with the puzzly, tile-laying game New York Zoo. Full credit to designer Uwe Rosenberg for not using this old trope in his latest polyomino-driven game. Instead, we have been challenged with the unique task of building a zoo featuring tuxedo-wearing penguins, shimmering Arctic foxes, sly meerkats, vibrant flamingoes, and a few happy, hopping Kangaroos for good measure. Being somewhat of a novice to the boardgame community, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this game. I’m by no means a ‘boardgamer’ and find myself playing them when it’s my husband’s turn to pick an activity for us to do together. My board game experience lies with the lighter fare card games like Point Salad or are more experiential like the Exit or Unlock! series of escape room games. A strategy game featuring tile placement, drafting, and resource generation? Doesn’t sound like something I’d bring to the table as my first choice. But hey, an animal can change its spots, right?
This game has great table presence, with colourful tiles and animal pieces combining for sensory delight.
THE POWER OF THE POLYOMINO
Many famous tile placing games have been created by Uwe Rosenberg with some being the highest-rated and beloved games in history. Most of these are much heavier games than I’m interested in, but I can appreciate the love for games like Agricola, A Feast for Odin and La Havre. His other, lighter, polyomino games like Patchwork and Cottage Garden have been enjoyable. New York Zoo falls somewhere in between, limiting the length of analysis paralysis (woohoo!) on each turn that tends to plague me in more complex games. No need to worry about counting victory points, planning for epic scoring combos, or thinking twelve steps ahead to build up enough resources for that elusive L-shaped polyomino. The goal of New York Zoo is simple and straightforward, fill every space on your player board with Tetris-like pieces, representing animal enclosures and attractions, before anyone else.
At this point I'm wishing I spent more of my youth playing Tetris...
The final wrinkle to the game is the idea of animal breeding. Yes, those cute fur babies are going to make their own cute fur babies. Each animal type has a breeding space on the center board, which, when crossed, triggers animal breeding. Let’s say during my turn I pass over the fox breeding space, now all players with enclosures containing at least one Arctic fox get to add an additional fox to that enclosure. Do this a few times and these frisky friends will produce enough foxes to fill your enclosure and earn you an attraction tile. This adds more weight to your decision each turn; will you go for animals to ensure you have enough in each enclosure to complete the circle of life with each breeding opportunity? If not, you’re unlikely to reap the rewards of those precious attraction tiles. Have a lonely flamingo in an enclosure by itself? Well, that feathery avifauna can’t reproduce on its own. (Despite the numerous discussions that have been had at our table on how asexual reproduction works.) What other game can you say has your mother-in-law trying to sell you on the idea that her flamingo is an evolutionary anomaly that can asexually reproduce?
One is the loneliest number... especially when you're trying to breed!
A STRATEGIC SHIFT
New York Zoo begins to shine like the Saharan sun after a few turns have passed, with each player’s board featuring varying numbers of cute critters in their handful of enclosures. At this point in the reproductive race, strategic gameplay starts to kick in. This game is all about efficiency, so I found myself questioning every move. How many spaces do I move to breed the animals or collect the tiles I need, while also being mindful of the other players and what they need? Do I focus on sabotaging them, or focus on advancing my own game? When I pick up a tile, do I focus on the large tiles that fill up the board quickly, but are more difficult to fill with animals? Or do I aim to grab small tiles that are easier for breeding which lead to more attraction tiles? When I place a tile, where do I put it to ensure I don’t have too many nooks and crannies to fill at the end of the game? You want to reduce the number of turns needed to fill your board, since one single turn can make or break your chances of gaining mini menagerie master status!
These glorious tiles are worth more than their weight in gold...
A game with this many questions darting through your head can easily result in analysis paralysis. New York Zoo manages to avoid this by making the decision simple (enclosure or animal). You can also (somewhat easily) plan for your next turn as the elephant’s limited movements help you plan for the best, and worst case scenario. The ‘take that’ elements of selecting the polyomino pieces from a shared supply in the center of the table also provide a comfortable level of player interaction. You just took the piece I could have slotted perfectly onto my board! Forget meerkats, you should be building a zoo filled with weasels or jackals! The more prevalent element of player interaction comes with the breeding activity. When breeding is triggered for an animal, all players get to take the action - not just the active player. If there was ever a time to play Elton John’s ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight?’ during a board game session, this is it.
ARE THESE FUZZY FRIENDS FRAME-WORTHY?
Being a creative content professional, I always pay close attention to the visual aesthetics in the games I play. I deeply appreciate cover art and quality game components as a part of my overall game experience. New York Zoo consists of a central board, individual zoo boards and of course, zoo animals. The kangaroo, penguin, meerkat, and Arctic fox pieces are made of wood and cut in appealing ways that make each very distinct. Filling your enclosures and zoo with these colourful pieces feels very satisfying as the game carries on. The tiles are double sided and decent quality, but the shades of green that differentiate each tile size are so close to each other, that it can result in a less than ideal setup time. Quick tip: organize your tiles into coloured piles before putting your game away so it’s easier to get to the table next time. The central track looks great, and doesn’t take up a lot of space, providing flexibility in a variety of spaces for game setup. However, the individual zoo boards left me longing for more. They ultimately do the trick, but they’re a bit thin and flimsy. Overall, it’s still a very nice looking game. Despite the player boards, the rest of the components are solid, earning a solid 7/10.
Bonus points for these gorgeous wooden animal pieces, they look like delicious little candies!
ROAM FREE OR CAGED FOR GOOD?
New York Zoo uses a surprising selection of species, cute artwork and simple yet crunchy gameplay to lure you into this fun, fast-paced tile placement game. This game incorporates different mechanisms that work well together to create an interesting experience that’s more in-depth than Uwe Rosenberg’s lighter games, but not as heavy as some of his larger economic games. The theme is cute, the components are nice, the rules are simple to learn (and teach), within a few minutes. Players can quickly grasp what is required to win and the careful planning needed to do so. The balance in the game is well done, as each time I’ve played determining the winner has come down to the last one or two turns, making it enjoyable for both novice and advanced gamers. The simple, yet strategic decisions that players make each turn add just enough variability to the game so that your destiny doesn’t feel predetermined. The attraction tiles and community breeding offer players enough chances to recover from being forced to take a piece that didn’t fit into their original plan. This natural way of preventing a runaway leader that can’t be caught is the mark of a great game for players of all experience levels. I can confidently say this game will roam cage-free for the foreseeable future. I plan to bring it to the table as often as I can, as I try to build up my overwhelming army of well-dressed Penguins and their fashionable offspring.
Think this game is worthy of adding to your collection? Buy New York Zoo online now!