Quo Vadis, Zoo Vadis?
I’ve never played Quo Vadis?, Reiner Knizia’s long out-of-print cult title that, to my great surprise, is not actually about Jesus appearing to Peter on the Appian Way to egg him into martyrdom. Instead, it’s a catty perspective on the Roman cursus honorum. Way to commingle your Latin references, Doc.
Here’s the thing. I might have teased Quo Vadis? back in the ’90s. I might have even chuckled at the game’s new setting. But this remake is so pristinely crafted, so sharp in its social undertaking, that I really can’t do anything other than bask in its warmth. I love it when a good game gets a second chance. Even better when its second go-round is superior to the first. To commingle some references of my own: It is risen.
Let’s not dwell on the implications of the animals running the zoo. Nor of the niggling detail that they’ve left a sole zookeeper around — alive? — to sweep their scat into the bin. Downshift the contrast and Zoo Vadis could have been a horror story. Instead, Kwanchai Moriya’s illustrations leave it vibrant and ready to be explored.
The gist takes all of one minute to explain. You, as one of the resident species of this institution, want to progress from the far end of the zoo to the star exhibit. The problem is that animals are natural democrats. Chew on that for a moment, Thomas Hobbes. Nasty, brutish, and short? Ha! This is an orderly affair. Rather than clawing and biting and scratching your way to preeminence, you’ll promise and cajole and wheedle and lie. You are civilized beasts, not ignoble brutes.
Thus the core concept. Every space on the zoo’s many paths to the star exhibit can hold somewhere between one and seven creatures. To progress from one space to the next, you require majority permission. If there’s only room for one creature in your current pen, well, you grant yourself your vote. Easy. If there are five slots, you’ll need three votes. Seven slots? Yeah, you get it.
But understanding that you need votes isn’t the same as getting them. For that, you’ll need to make some deals.
This is where it really starts to shine. Like many of Knizia’s classics, Zoo Vadis doesn’t overload you with a half-dozen currencies, components for building an engine, or competing priorities. Sidereal Confluence, amazing though it is, this is not. Victory is as simple as holding the most points after (and if) you reach the star exhibit. Your bargaining chips, in addition to being literal bargaining chips, are those very same points. You start with two, both 1-value chips, enough to rub together but not much else. As you trample forward, you’ll earn higher-value chips. Their relative value is rarely firm for long.
Rather than talking about the rules, it’s easier to give an example. In our most recent play, the first few negotiations proceeded much as you’d expect. “If you let me move forward now, I’ll vote you forward on your next turn.” This is a good staple early on, especially before anybody has outed themselves as untrustworthy. Since you also earn a bonus 1-point chip for each vote you give in somebody else’s favor, you’re earning points for cooperating. How nice.
Before long, however, the stakes are raised. There are only so many slots in the star exhibit. Maybe somebody seems to be doing too well. Sometimes the chips on the path are so high-value that it would be wrong to just give them away to somebody. So you start gouging a little bit. “Sure, I’ll give you my votes. But only if you hand me that chip when you claim it.” Or: “Three points per vote.” Or: “That’ll be ten points. Hey, I’m getting you into the star exhibit! I might as well give it to Geoff if you don’t pay.” Or: “Fine, but you’ll let me use your special power on my next turn.”
That last part needs some explanation. Among the many polishes Knizia has bestowed on Zoo Vadis, foremost among them is that each animal now comes with its own special ability. The Hyenas can nip at the zookeeper until he moves into a desirable intersection, letting you move forward without any votes at all. The Marmosets let you collect any chip rather than the one you just passed over. The Armadillos let you burrow along unique subterranean paths. These are all valuable in their own right. The rub, however, is that you can never use your own ability. As a social animal, you can only use your unique traits to benefit somebody else.
There are a few other twists, but just enough to toss some uncertainty into the mix without ever shifting the spotlight from the game’s relentless negotiations. I already mentioned the zookeeper. Moving him from one path to another earns you a point. If you have nothing better to do, why not play the provocateur by nudging him into a spot that gives you an advantage? Then sit back and watch the rest of the table fret over how to prevent you from moving without having to pay somebody. There are also peacocks, neutral pieces that can be bribed for their votes — or moved into exhibits, where they’ll take up space. It’s even possible to have a peacock hog room in the star exhibit, preventing somebody from scoring at all. Of the many worthwhile plays I’ve witnessed in Zoo Vadis, none beats locking Geoff out of the star exhibit when he was clearly holding the most points. Mwah.
I’ve heard it noted that Zoo Vadis — like Quo Vadis? before it — feels uncharacteristic of a Knizia title. I have to disagree. It inhabits a similar headspace to many of his most enduring contributions, largely thanks to its absolute economy of play. There are no wasted moves. Every alteration touches the board in a way that bears examination. Like the overlapping interests in Tigris & Euphrates, your fellow players are possibilities and risks rolled into one, additional votes that could propel you forward or wet socks that threaten to clog your escape from a crowded exhibit. Much like the currencies in High Society, you can never make change; instead, you’re tasked with assessing awkward swaps and exchanges of favor. When evaluating the merit of any given offer, there’s a parallel to be found in the mutable valuations of Modern Art. Points are worth everything or nothing or something in between. The game itself resides in how well you can parse those offers. Or at least in how well you can persuade everybody else at the table to buy what you’re selling.
Crucially, though, it’s the game’s elegance that recommends it. Although there are warring concepts at play, it never edges away from its twin races to completion, one to the star exhibit and another to hold the most points. It’s dead simple without ever being simplistic, complex without for one moment seeming complicated. This is hardly the first time Knizia has produced something that seems straightforward until it unfolds layer after layer. To some degree the game’s brevity makes it tough to witness that unfurling, but the layers are there. The more we play, the more minutes we add to the game’s back half. It only takes one half-hour loss to realize that you could be charging a lot more for votes. Like Babylonia, this is one of those rare games I want to play more than a handful of times. I want to play until I reach something like mastery.
In the context of a negotiation game, mastery has an unusual but not-uncompelling definition, revealing Zoo Vadis as the sort of game that begs to be played twice in a sitting. The first play is for calibration and testing the waters. The second is for putting those waters under pressure till they boil. There’s nothing quite like hopping into a second session when you know the gist of what everybody will be angling for, the general tone of their overtures. All the better that two sessions will take maybe an hour and a half to complete.
Quo Vadis Zoo Vadis? Onward, friend, onward. As board games grow ever more complicated, this serves as an essential reminder that many of our greatest exemplars are lean and unburdened. Zoo Vadis updates an overlooked Knizia that might have otherwise been lost beneath the avalanche. It’s exceptional.
A prototype copy was temporarily provided.