Review: Zooloretto game app turns your iPhone into a cute little zoo, with brains

When Zooloretto hit the board game scene in 2007, it pretty much became an immediate hit. It won the Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year) that year, after all. Sure, there was a lot of love for the basic game mechanics thanks to the elegant and popular card game Coloretto that came out in 2003, but gamers enjoyed the colorful animal graphics, the new decisions that needed to be made and, as time went on, plenty of expansions (14 small and large ones, plus the standalone game Aquaretto that can also be combined with Zooloretto.

The Zooloretto iPhone and iPod touch app (US $4.99) includes just one of those expansions – the polar bear – but it's a great introduction to the series. Serious board gamers who think that Zooloretto is a too-fancy version of Coloretto might find the app winning them over, because the play time is much shorter than the tabletop version (around 10-15 minutes, which is just a little bit longer than Coloretto takes, instead of 45). Gamers new to the 'retto series will find lots to like in this strategy game. The app is not a perfect representation of the board game, but it is a heck of a lot of fun. Read on to learn more about Zooloretto.


The Game

The main challenge of Zooloretto lies in how to place animals on the delivery trucks. Each turn, you are presented with the option to either place a tile (which can be an animal, a concession stand or a coin) on a truck or take a truck with at least one tile on it. The trick is that you can't do both in the same round, so you need to place tiles in such a way that the truck works with your zoo and not for anyone else. This is the basic mechanic from Coloretto, and Zooloretto makes it more complicated by needing to have places to put your animals in your zoo, trying to attract customers with the animals and the concession stands and using the coins to buy additions for your zoo. For the full ruleset, download this PDF.

The App

Let's start by talking animations and sound effects. SpinBottle Games and Chillingo have made sure they're cute and they certainly make the game a tad bit more inviting for someone making the transition from video games, but a tabletop gamer (like me) doesn't need them. While the animations certainly aren't a problem in and of themselves, they do show that this game could have been so much more had the designers focused on making sure the tough decisions were are clear in the app as they are in the board game. In fact, if there was a way to play the entire game with the drop-down overview screen (pictured at right) instead of just seeing your own animated farm, that'd be preferred. Pretty the app up all you want – and we like beautifully designed game bits as much as anyone - but the real beauty lies in the seeing what other people are collecting and trying to set up the trucks for yourself and not your opponents. The way the app flows, it's just too much of a hassle to do this accurately each time, and that's too bad.

The app does a fine job or warning you when the end of the game is coming. The end is triggered when the tiles are about to run out and the number of tiles scales with the number of players. There are eight types of animals and 11 tiles for each. With five players, there are 112 tiles, including the stands and coins. In a three-player game, you take out two animals. With four, you remove one. In the app, you start the game by only being able to play the three-player game and need to "buy" more opponents by playing and winning a few games and rack up some money. When a round starts and there are fewer than 15 tiles, the number signifying how many tiles are left to draw from turns red. Sadly, the included game manual doesn't explain this. It's obvious that the app writers just cut and pasted the rules from the board game version. Why else would the app say that the end-of-game state is determined "when a player draws and reveals the first tile from the stack covered by the wooden disc"? There is no wooden disc in the app.

Another difference from the board game version is that a points collection system between games has been built in. Each game you play earns you points based on how well you did and how many players were in the game. When you start the game, only the three-player option is available and collecting these points allows you to "buy" the fourth and fifth computer opponents as well as the polar bear expansion. Having the polar bear in the mix means that the first player to fill up their six-space enclosure will get to cut their negative points in half for having animals in their barn (i.e., collecting too many animal types). Another the main difference is that you are always the first player in the app. Considering how differently each round can play out depending on if you're going first or last, having the first player be picked randomly would be a good thing.

Oh, and you can listen to iTunes while playing a game. An undo button? Sadly, no. Still, as imperfect as it is, Zooloretto is one of the better iPhone app translations of a tabletop board game. Thinking ahead, Zooloretto is a perfect candidate to make a really good iPad app. Since it is a game of perfect information (i.e., nothing is hidden), playing on the iPad's large screen will be a treat. Almost.

The lack of an overview in the iPhone version – a problem that could easily be fixed for the iPad's larger screen – is that the game designers focused too much on showing off each player's individual zoo. Each time a new player is up, their zoo flashes by on the screen. As we described above, it's pretty to see the zoos, but that's not really what this game is about. Here's hoping we get an iPad version that fixes these shortcomings.

Another mobile version of Zooloretto was also released with some of the same graphics for other platforms as the game "Animal Tycoon." A video of the iPhone version awaits you below: