Go Cuckoo is a golden egg

Go Cuckoo box and can. On it a cartoon crazy Mama Bird on a nest surrounded by eggs.

When I first heard of Go Cuckoo I thought it was Twister with sticks, and was wondering where the sexual tension would come from. To my surprise it’s more like Pick Up Sticks with sticks. I’m doing a horrible job at selling this, so just read my review – it can only go up from here.

Go Cuckoo is a 2-5 player dexterity game where players take on the role of cuckoo birds. These birds are known as brood parasites – meaning they’re jerks. They plant their eggs in other birds’ nests, leaving the host bird to raise the chick. Which is what you’re trying to do in this game. The winner is the first player to lay all their eggs in a stranger’s nest, and leave before paying any child support.

Lid open, and sticks showing, all eggs and Mama Bird in front.
Proud Mama Bird and her eggs

How to Play

First split the eggs evenly between all players and then drop all the sticks into the opened cylinder case. Setup is done, and the game is now ready to play.

A turn consists of a player drawing sticks until they have either drawn three sticks, or drawn a stick that has the same colour on both ends.

The player then places all the drawn sticks, in and around the nest, so long as they don’t touch the table and are horizontal-ish, the sky is the limit. If they picked up a stick with two ends the same colour, they then get a chance to place one of their eggs in the nest – again, not a euphemism for sex.

There are a few minute rules about what happens when a player’s stick or eggs fall from the nest. However, what it boils down to is a harsh feeling of shame prolonged by having to replace all the sticks back in the nest, before forfeiting the remainder of their turn.

Once you have no eggs left to place, you bypass the stick drawing phase and get the honour of placing Kiki Cuckoo herself. Do that successfully, and you win the game proving that are the worst parent of them all. Because, let’s face it, you did just leave 4-5 newborns at some weirdo’s place – no offence to Kiki Cuckoo, I’m sure she’s lovely.

A nest has been built using the sticks of the game. Through the branches Mama Bird is seen.
After a game of Go Cukoo

The Good

The setup takes seconds, along with a reasonably short rule explanation, letting you get to the game – and the fun – quicker. It also means that I can have the game setup and ready to play before you can say, Dave we don’t want to play anymore board games.

Go Cuckoo doesn’t just look good, it looks great. It’s the only game I’ve played where non-gamers walk over to the table and ask what’s that? A nest on top of a tin on top of a table is such an intricate and interesting structure to look at. It also tells you everything you need to know about how the game is played at a glance, making it a great spectator sport.

The key moments happen instantly, and are identifiable to all players and spectators. Situations like she placed an egg and it stayed, or he tried to place a stick and ended up dropping several, are instinctively good and bad actions. Because of this understanding it leads to you being interested when someone else is playing. This sets off a vicious cycle whereby your interest of the current player puts more pressure on them, and the more frantic they become from the pressure, the more interesting it is to watch. This ends up playing like a scene out of Blazing Saddles. People around the table looking at your shaking hand and say, “That isn’t so bad”. To which you reply: “Yeah, but I pull out sticks with this one.” Showing your dominant hand that’s twitching faster than Michael J Fox using a shake-a-weight.

The way the nest is created is integral to the amount of fun there is to be had. It takes a while to understand that, even though you’re all contributing, you’re not building a nest together. Every stick you place in a stable position helps your opposition more than it helps you. Once everyone knows this, the game changes. Players no longer attempt to build China’s Olympic stadium but instead try to make the nest as unstable as possible. Exacerbating this unstableness is each stick is layered on another, any weight on the nest is felt throughout, leading to moments where someone gently places an egg, and the whole nest wobbles.

This creates those epic and tense moments where everything is unbalanced and the player forgoes their egg laying skills and instead relies on praying to the God of Sticks. When they pull it off, you cheer for them for overcoming the adversity while under your breath curse because you’re next. When they fail though, you also feel some schadenfreude especially if it was stick that you previously placed.

Lastly, when played correctly the game keeps a level tension throughout. From the very first chance to drop an egg, to the end of the game where sticks that are supporting the whole structure must be pulled out. The only time it eases is when you’re out of contention for winning, but with a decent catch up mechanism in place, this doesn’t happen as often as you’d think.

A birds eye view of a completed nest. Mama Bird is very happy.
Mama Bird is going to sleep easy tonight

The Bad

If you look closely in all the pictures of my version of the game, you’ll see that I’ve marked the sticks. The reason being is that one of my friends is blue-green colour blind, to him blue and green are both seen as grey. You’d think we’d go easy on him because of this, but no, we exploited it whenever the chance arose. As far as he is aware, he always had to draw the worse stick because of bad luck.

The game gets substantially better once everyone understands the meta game. However, it leaves the first couple of games a bit bland. In the current board game climate this is extremely dangerous, as one bad game is all it takes for some of us to move onto the next big thing.

The reason that the first games aren’t great is that no one’s experimenting by going outside the nest. This leads to the inner nest becoming too structured, allowing players to throw their eggs into the nest without worry. This removes all stress and tension that the game relies on, so instead of the game getting more and more intense leading to a final climax. It inside fizzles out. While this is most prevalent in the first games, it still happens occasionally afterwards.

From a competitive side, how well you do is dependent on who you sit next to. If you’re next to the lead level designer from Uncharted, who’s fantastic at placing temperamental sticks, you’re in a worse position then if you were sitting beside someone who only shores up the nest.

Another situation the game doesn’t cope well with is if one player falls drastically behind. Once someone is out of winning contention there’s no pressure on them. At this point they can take excessive risks without penalty, dropping sticks and eggs as their objective changes from winning, to screwing everyone else over.

The rule book doesn’t define what inside the nest is. This confuses me and has significant ramifications, as when a stick is dropped it needs to be “…placed back inside the nest”. How I ended up playing it was that if a player dropped any sticks, they had to place all the sticks back onto the nest in any position they wanted. Meaning that players spent extra-long turns placing sticks in the most precarious positions without fear of knocking off more sticks – often doing so, and then placing those sticks in awful positions. In our games, some players took full advantage of this, abducting the pace of the game and holding it hostage long enough for other players to lose interest.

However, if inside the nest means that the stick must be:

  1. Placed on top of all other sticks.
  2. Placed so that the stick crosses the rim of the container twice.

Then I take it all back. While I’ll still blame the rulebook for its ambiguity, I’ll take half the blame for my folly. For now, there isn’t a definitive ruling in the book or on Board Game Geek.

Finally, this is a skill based game and comes with all the baggage of the game type. For some people this means frustration about their own inadequacy. Where the mind considers placing a stick a simple task, but their body can’t do as desired. Personally, I can’t even cut a straight line with a pair of scissors, but still have a good time with this game.

Oh! One last quibble. Eggs are ridiculously hard to keep stationary on a table. Nothing awful, but if I’m being thorough I need to make mention of it somewhere.

Looking down on the sticks which have dropped and rotated creating an artistic pattern.
This game was joy to photograph

The Verdict

This game knocks it out of the park. It’s quick to play, to set up, to teach and provides some innovative mechanics. Its cute theme is unneeded but welcomed. Equipped with whimsical personality it allows the game to be approachable for all types of players. On top of that it’s both fun to play and to watch. My only real gripes are the learning curve of being a brood parasite, and the ambiguous ruling on dropped sticks. Otherwise, this is a great game that I’m happy to award it my Critical Hit status. Now, to put the perfect capstone on this review you’ll have to excuse me as I throw this water fountain through a window, and run off into the night.

Thanks for reading my review, I’m currently ranking all my board games in one easy to balance list. You can see Go Cuckoo’s initial ranking below.

Initial Rank: 10

It’s really nice that we have dexterity games that aren’t Jenga. What’s even nicer is when someone follows my blog. Hint, hint.

David Norris

Lover of dogs, books, comics, movies, anime, television, video games and most importantly board games. My site is all about the latter, and my journey through the glorious hobby.

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