Zuuli – Review

A copy of Zuuli was supplied by Unfringed Games for a fair an honest review. I have previously interviewed Chris for Meeting of Minds.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s something underrated in the world of tabletop games. The first impression a game makes can determine its longevity in our collections, or if it even gets there. I’ve written first impressions of games myself, as an example as to what a game looks like to a first time player. I want to give you the reader a feel for what that first experience will be like. 

Critics are beholden to get a handle on a game. We play it to the point where we think we know enough to pass judgement on it. There is a larger conversation to be had about how many times a game should be played but the answer is actually this: enough times. Zuuli, the first game from designer Chris Prsicott, who is also the artist for the product, and studio Unfringed Games, left me with the following first impression: more complicated Sushi Go. 

If you aren’t familiar, Sushi Go is a simple drafting game where you pick cards with cartoon sushi on them and then score points based on sets and various other rules. Zuuli has a core drafting mechanism, cartoon art, and you score points based on sets and various other rules. It would be easy to right a dismissive assessment of the game as merely a derivative of Sushi Go. That would be doing this little box a great disservice. 

A zoo at the end of a year filled with animals and empty plots.
Some of my zoo

Drafting is one of those mechanisms that makes us responsible not only for the triumphs and failures of our opponents, but also ourselves. Past us makes mistakes that current us curses, or plays that make current us thank them for their wisdom. I love that about this mechanism, even when I am terrible at it. 

Zuuli doubles down on this aspect of drafting by making us plan for the longer term. In Zuuli we are building a zoo and to do that we need two main things: animals and places to put them. Animals are our point scorers and over the 3 rounds of the game, we get 3 opportunities to wring as many as we can out of them. Each animal has its own little puzzle to solve in terms of where it can be housed, who else it is happy to live with, and how to maximise its points. 

That is all for nought without some cosy accommodations. This is where Zuuli pulls its best trick, giving a simple drafting game a bit of strategic bite. The habitats you draft have types that correspond to where animals like to live, no hippo wants to live in the savannah. They also have a size showing how big, or how many, animals this particular pen can take. 

Animals without homes are frowned upon and rightly so, deducting points when it comes to scoring. Take too many pens and you’ll find yourself with little to show for when it comes to getting point. Too many animals and the animal welfare folk will be knocking on your door asking why a giraffe is wandering down the street. 

Zuuli does not make you simultaneously plan what you are drafting and how your zoo is going to look. In order to not overload the players you do your drafting first, going round and round till their are no cards left. Throwing that last Ant eater at a player who can’t use it like the monster you are, you assess your options. Only once the draft is done to you set about actually building your zoo, giving you a chance to mitigate the problems other players, and past you, have left you.

Another finished zoo
Alright I like Jellyfish

Throw in some possible upgrades to your pens and you have a nice sharp edge to what initially seems like a gently themed small box drafting game. It isn’t perfect by any means. There is a risk with the drafting mechanism here that the deck will just be stacked in an unfortunate way. This is mitigated by a short play time. The scoring can be a little intricate but that is a very minor issue. 

I am a fan of laser focused games done well and Zuuli is just that. It is an impressive debut from a new designer and studio. Even more impressive is that the game is printed and distributed in the UK, something that is quite a rarity. There is even a small expansion in the works on Gamefound right now and it certainly seems like a game that Unfringed are thinking about in terms of a longer support than you might normally see.

My first impression of Zuuli was of something, light, incidental, a copy of a game I admired. I’m glad my role as a critic made me come back to it. What I found was a game that has a slightly thicker layer of puzzle that really makes me want to introduce it to other folk, and advocate for it. Give this new studio a chance, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. 

Come and chat about this or any other of the games we’ve reviewed over in our Discord.

Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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