Zoocracy Kickstarter Review

Zoocracy Kickstarter Review

I must admit, I’ve always been a bit turned off by politics, a communist in a red tie and a fascist is a blue dress, shouting at each other from opposite sides of a room, while a group of people behind them to do their best Lord Melchett impression. I think it comes from always living in a constituency when the current MP is winning by such a huge majority that my vote feels like a waste of time. But this board game review shouldn’t be about real world politics, or should it?

Zoocracy simulates all the fun of parliament; voting for a president, parliamentary elections, bribing the voters, playing the odd dirty trick and, of course, making back room deals. The aim of the game is to have the most policies in place by the end of the game. These policies are merely a victory points tally, and are evident of how the designers have managed to avoid any real world politics within Zoocracy. This lack of link to anything controversial, also means that throughout the majority of the game, you end up calling them Victory Points, because that’s what they are, and trying to address the process as “implementing a policy” gets in the way of a game already full of jargon and unnecessary complexity.

This complexity is Zoocracy’s first hurdle. Each round is split into stages where you will vote in a new president, bribe your voters, hold an election, form a government, try and overthrow the government, and gain victory points, sorry “implement policies”. The problem is that every round is different, as different kinds of elections happen on different rounds and, especially when learning the game for the first time, this can be very difficult to keep track of.

Image result for zoocracy

This is made even more complex by the addition of action cards, each of which can only be played at certain parts of the game, which of course, don’t come up in every round. Although the action cards have tried to keep to language independent iconography, the names of the actions are all laden with parliamentary jargon. The whole thing isn’t helped by a rule book that reads like an instruction manual for a Russian nuclear submarine.
The main thrust of the game is attempting to bribe your constituents—who also happen to be animals in a zoo—in order to gain seats in parliament. Each zoo enclosure has a different number of seats up for grabs and players will attempt to bribe these voters by offering food. There are strict rules on how food bribes can be placed and each species of animal controls a different number of seats in parliament, some even giving seats to the party in second place.

Once all the votes are tallied up, seats in parliament are assigned, and the negotiations begin. There’s a good chance that no single player has enough seats to hold a majority, so some of the players are going to have to join up to form a coalition. Incentives can be handed out in the form of promised victory points and role cards.

Role cards are odd. The leader of the coalition, gets to dish out the roles of prime minister, foreign secretary and minister for defence. There’s also a president that gets voted in via other means and the first runner up gets to be leader of the opposition. These cards do very little in the game, their only effect being the odd event card, which themselves seem rather random and unbalanced, the worst offender being a card that simply awards those already in power with a free victory point.

Which is something that emphasises the real problem with this game; Zoocracy is a game that heavily rewards those in front and severely limits those players that are behind. Food, the resource in the game used to bid on the presidency and bribe voters, is rewarded based on the number of seats each player has in parliament. Therefore, if you are doing well you have more resources to gain more seats, if you are doing badly, you find that you cannot bribe as well as the other players and are effectively powerless.

The game, unfortunately, is easily broken. On my most recent play through of Zoocracy, the two most powerful players formed a coalition, effectively blocking the rest of the players out of the game. I had lost before the first round had finished. Due to the number of seats I had, I couldn’t gain the resources I needed to gain more seats. I didn’t even have enough seats to tip the balance and be attractive to the other parties forming a coalition. I was out of the game before it had even begun. This is not fun. It wasn’t even fun for those players in the lead, they had trounced me so far into the ground that they realised there was no longer any competition.

It made me realise that Zoocracy is actually a rather good simulation of a parliamentary system. Political parties can form coalitions to ensure they remain in power and make dodgy deals throughout. Most importantly however, it illustrates how those who are in power have access to the resources to remain in power and how the smaller independent parties struggle to get a leg up.

But I don’t want to be educated about how parliamentary systems don’t work. I’m fully aware of that thanks, and I play board games to have fun and get away from the utter mess that is our current political climate, not to hope the game ends soon because I fell at the first hurdle. Zoocracy is unnecessarily complicated, unfair and broken, which makes it a perfect simulation of real world politics.

This Kickstarter preview is based on a prototype version of the game provided by the publisher; the final product may look, play or smell different to that used in this preview.
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