Fair warning, Zoo Vadis contains a faction of boat-hat-wearing marmosets, and they are the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in a board game. Sorry Flamecraft and Calico but these little guys are adorable beyond measure – and equally likely to sell you an extended car warranty.
That’s because Zoo Vadis is a game of negotiation and deal-making. Where money talks, and so do animals. One of these dapper creatures will be yours to control, as you try to convince everyone else that they should be the zoo’s next mascot.
Most of your turns will be spent moving your animal tokens one space across the board, from the entrance of the zoo to the star exhibit at the far end. Only players who make it to this star exhibit by the end are in the running to win. Of those who make it, whoever has the most laurels (old english gold coins) becomes the next mascot.
However, moving from space to space requires a poll from all players in the same space as you. Each animal token on your space is worth one vote and you must have a majority of votes before proceeding with your movement. How you get those votes though, is entirely up to you.
You can try offering laurels to players for their votes. Or promise to give them a returning vote in the future. Or you could offer up the use of your animal’s faction power. Or give up your left kidney.
One of the exciting features of Zoo Vadis is that you can get real creative with your deal-making. The only caveat is that anything that can be fulfilled this round must be, while anything promised for the future does not have to be fulfilled. So there is an element of risk in accepting a future promise.
So maybe you won’t get that kidney after all.
Outside of whatever trades you make, any players who provided a yes vote get one laurel from the bank for each vote they provide. Meanwhile, the player moving up the board picks up any laurels they find along the pathway.
If you’re not moving you can take another action, such as:
- Move the zookeeper – who lets animal tokens move up the board without a poll, but stops them from collecting laurels as they go.
- Move a peacock – these NPPs (non-playable peacocks) can be bribed for a vote, although they are expensive.
- Add a new animal token to the board – it starts at the entrance to the zoo.
Once the star exhibit is full, and it fills up quickly, then the game immediately ends. Whoever has the most money, and an animal token in the star exhibit, wins.
Whoever went through Reiner Knizia’s 500+ game backlog and scouted the original Quo Vadis deserves a raise. As well as whoever picked the theme, whoever hired Kwanchai Moriya, and whoever came up with the new improvements to the original game.
Zoo Vadis is one of those rare board games where everything came together perfectly. From the gameplay, to the art, to the production. This is board game perfection. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.
From the design philosophy, Zoo Vadis reminds me of another Reiner Knizia game, Blue Lagoon. Both games only have a few rules, which then stay out of the way. Letting players interact with each other how they want, not worrying about the legality of what you’re doing, but rather if it’s a good move. This allows for endless creativity, which when paired with negotiations, means things get out of hand quickly and in the best way possible.
I’ve seen players set up a toll booths along the pathway to the star exhibit, forcing players to pay to advance. Other players have rushed to the star exhibit and promptly started auctioning off what they do on their turn to the highest bidder. Even I dabbled in some light extortion, threatening to place the zoo keeper over a five-laurel spot unless I saw a couple of laurels appear in my hand.
With all of these possibilities, Zoo Vadis gleefully eggs you on by making almost every trade beneficial to both parties. If you give someone your vote, you gain a laurel from the bank. If you give away your faction powers, you gain more laurels from the bank. So it always pays to go into negotions stating that you’re happy to trade, before discussing the terms.
As a result, every game we played felt like a new expedition into Wonderland. As each game brought a new experience filled with surprises.
The people problem of Zoo Vadis
Unfortunately, due to the nature of negotiation games, Zoo Vadis is inherently fragile. One bad actor can easily ruin the game for everyone. Because, unlike other games where the focus is on trying to be efficient or work within a complex system. Here, the puzzle you’re trying to solve sits around the table.
This was all too evident in my plays.
Especially because Zoo Vadis is only the second negotiation game my group has played. The first game went so badly that it now gets the Voldemort treatment. Becoming the game that shall not be named.
So we are a bunch of newbies, and that impacted how the game was played. For example, our group struggled in understanding the strength of their trades. We put more emphasis on moving up the board than the laurels you get for doing so. Resulting in players who moved up the board getting five laurels from their pathway paying the exact same amount as someone moving up the board and only getting two.
Now this can be avoided with more experience, but it turned our games from being negotiation and deal-driven to luck-based. Where whoever got the best path forward often went on to win the game.
We also ran into issues with players stonewalling, where they wouldn’t come to the table to make trades. Even when it benefited them greatly. While other players were the complete opposite. Non-confrontational to the point they were happy to give you everything you wanted, so long as they moved closer to that star exhibit.
So in hindsight, I really should have asked about that kidney…
Now, Zoo Vadis isn’t the reason my gaming group is an eclectic group of lovable goofballs, however, it did surface these behaviours. Meaning it’s worth thinking about the dynamics of your gaming group and how they would react when playing.
But even if you’re on the fence, it’s worth the risk. As when everyone is willing to trade and negotiate, Zoo Vadis is sublime. With deals only limited by your creativity, there is an endless amount of shenanigans you, or someone else, can pull off. Either way, it’s a riot.
Designer: Reiner Knizia
Publisher: Bitewing Games
See how Zoo Vadis compares to all of the other board games I’ve reviewed.