Zany Penguins is a new family-oriented card game from Bruno Cathala, a quick-playing and very light title that uses a common card-drafting mechanic but tweaks the scoring in a way that allows players to engage in a little strategy—and rewards those who pay attention to what other players are doing, too.
The theme of Zany Penguins is … well, it’s Madagascar, obviously, although that’s never made explicit. Penguins are mad about climate change—who isn’t?—so they decide to take over the planet in five different areas, represented by five colors in the deck of ninety cards, with point values on each card from 1 to 9. Each player begins the game with a hand of 18 cards, drawing two on each turn, and then passing two of those cards to other players, one to his/her left and one to the right. After all card passing is done, every player plays one card to his/her table area simultaneously, stacking cards of like color, with the goal of achieving a majority in one or more colors at the end of the game, which occurs when players have exhausted their initial decks of 18.
The cards on the table aren’t the ones you score, however; you only get points for cards in your hand at game-end. If you have the most points in cards on the table in a specific color, then you score all cards of that color remaining in your hand. If you don’t have the most points in a specific color but have played at least one card in that color, you only score the card in your hand with the lowest value. If you don’t play any cards in a color, you score nothing even if you have cards in that color remaining in your hand. Thus, each decision of what to play revolves around balancing the need to get a majority with the desire to max out your scoring, while decisions on what to pass involve guessing what colors your opponents are targeting and which cards might be useless to them.
There are also three special cards in the deck that slightly impact game play, although we’ve found their value is somewhat limited. The cards with point value 1 are “ninja twins,” allowing the player who plays that card to the table to play two cards on his/her next turn instead of one. The cards with point value 2 are “kamikazes,” and any opposing cards of value 7 or higher played on that turn are destroyed rather than placed on the table. The cards with point value 3 are “spotters,” allowing the player to delay placement on the next turn until after all other players have played their cards. The twins card is certainly the most valuable of the specials, especially late in the game when you can make a big move to grab one or two majorities on the final turn.
The scoring is the only tricky part of Zany Penguins, since it’s counterintuitive to place cards on the table and then only score the ones in your hand, but I’d compare that to the similarly counterintuitive scoring of games like Tigris & Euphrates, where you’re judged on your lowest points total in four color categories. My daughter, now nearly ten, understood the scoring and how to plan for it after our first family game. A full game takes maybe twenty minutes if everyone’s engaged, and it plays well for three to five, with an included two-player variant losing the spontaneity of the card-passing. As a lightweight, filler game that you can play with the single-digit portion of your family, however, Zany Penguins hits the mark.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.