Rumble in the Literal Jungle
Zoo Ball isn’t my favorite dexterity game — that honor remains with Catacombs — but when it comes to my favorite fast, easy, and super silly dexterity game with only like three rules? Then, sure, Zoo Ball is the clear frontrunner.
The rules of Zoo Ball are so simple that they can be told and retold like the story beats of an oral history. There are only three, maybe four if you slip up and split one of them in half. Rule the first: you shall flick either your scorer or all three of your blockers. Rule the second: you shall only score when your scorer is fully enveloped by the end zone on the opposite side of the field. Rule the third: when knocked out of bounds, you will either be placed directly where you went out, or — if you left the table on the other end — you will be returned to your native side.
There you go. You can play Zoo Ball. Not even kidding.
Here, I’ll prove it. This past weekend we put on a big birthday party for someone very handsome and smart and still young named Dan. We had a goodly number of guests, which meant a lot of divided attention. Rather than putting out a more complicated game, we decided to put up a table just for Zoo Ball.
For the first half of the evening, it sat untouched. Oh, some kids touched it, and their parents scolded them, probably because they were mistaking Zoo Ball for a fragile game. But it wasn’t until I rounded up three other players and explained the rules that it came alive.
I played one game. It lasted maybe ten minutes. From that moment, that table wasn’t unattended for the next three hours. Not until it got too dark to tell apart the blue and black pieces — which was a silly production decision, honestly — did all the Zoo Balling come to a stop. And in all that time, do you know how many times I was required to clarify the rules, even though it must have gone through sixteen different players? Once. And that was only because the people playing that match wanted a clear ruling on whether a certain shot counted as a score.
There’s a particular magic to a simple game, especially one like Zoo Ball. If anything, it looks almost too simple at first. Score a touchdown? That’s it? Well, yes. But it also means you’re constantly taking long shots, playing defense on somebody else’s end zone, and laughing uproariously whenever one of the mat’s creases sends a piece soaring over its intended target and clattering onto the floor. Only in a game like Zoo Ball could the ridges in the fabric mat be claimed as a feature rather than a bug. When a game only lasts five minutes, it’s easy to keep from getting upset about the little things.
Its shortness also lends each flick an unexpected sense of weightiness. Doing that thing where you almost flick a piece but instead only tap it forward a centimeter? In Zoo Ball, that’s as devastating as watching a soccer player miss the ball entirely and fall on his rump. By the same token, a single well-considered shot just might be enough to win you the game. There’s no telling in Zoo Ball.
Mostly, I just like saying Zoo Ball. Zoo Ball Zoo Ball Zoo Ball.
There does happen to be a fourth rule to Zoo Ball: thou shalt not play with two. Robbed of its group, Zoo Ball becomes far too dull, a mere race to bounce past your opponent’s blockers and swipe a goal.
In order to transform this bout into a true game of jungle ball, you need the possibility of three full people mulling over whether to mess up your shots. When your scorer is squatting an inch away from their opposing end zone, there’s nothing like watching an army of nine blockers all turning their tusks on you. Even better when shot after shot fails to connect.
With that caveat, however, Zoo Ball almost never fails to provide a lively time. It isn’t the sort of game that’s going to get your neurons firing, and it certainly isn’t going to be replacing my favorite dexterity games anytime soon. But when you need something fun and easy, Zoo Ball makes itself an easy choice.