Those poor pandas, stuck in the zoo when they want to be out and in the wild. Who wouldn’t prefer their natural habitat to a zoological park where everyone just stares at you all the time? Fortunately, these pandas are savvy and have cut a deal with the sneaky meerkats just over the wall; it’s a zoo break! In Pilftering Pandas from Wren Games, it’s your job to help your panda collect sets of food and slip them to the meerkats: Give the meerkats enough treats and they’ll get you everything you need to escape and regain your freedom. The problem is that pesky zookeeper. You’re pretty sure he’s on to your schemes and if you act too hastily, he’ll rush and grab you, foiling your escape completely.
That’s the delightful premise of the latest game from UK developer Wren Games. If you’ve ever played Gin Rummy, you’ll immediately understand this game as it’s based on a rummy variant, though with quite a bit added to make things a bit more modern and engaging. It’s 1-4 players, with competitive, cooperative, and solo rules. I have been trying out the solo rules and as a long-time rummy player found the game quick and easy to learn.
Let me just start with the most obvious comment: The artwork by Gianfranco Giordano is fantastic. There’s a great sense of whimsy about the game, as you can see in the box art illustration and throughout the closeups. The card design, and especially the Escape Track are going to be updated, but the overall style is just great fun.
The game has a lot of different types of cards but you can ignore some of them for the solo game. Let’s start with the pandas. Of course!
There are five panda cards and each has two sides: The side of the cards with the bamboo shoots icon on the top left (as shown) are for coop or solo play, while bamboo stalks on the obverse side indicate the side more suitable for competitive multiplayer. Notice that each panda has a distinct capability too. For example, Sulin the Nimble offers “swap 1 card from your hand with any 1 card in your hideout.” Very helpful for building up a great hand, of course.
Working in tandem with the pandas are the meerkats:
They’re key to your escape plan and in solo play, you randomly choose two meerkats for your game. Again, the bamboo shoot on the top left indicates the side for coop and solo play, while the bamboo stalk icons on the obverse denote the meerkats for competitive play. There are five types of food (suits) in the loot cards and each meerkat has a few favorite foods. For example, Aya & Cai like yellow (cherries), red (rabbit) and blue (wildgrass). Feed them all of those three suits and you’ll get a +1 bonus.
PILFERING PANDAS INITIAL SETUP
I’ll get back to the loot cards in a moment, though, because I want to show you the escape track:
This is the component that will change the most in the final game, actually. Check the Kickstarter page and you’ll see a far more advanced illustration. The basic outer track is all that’s important, however: The blue is the zookeeper and the white is our panda, trying to escape! For multiple players, everyone’s panda appears on the track. For an easy game, your goal is to race to spot 29 before the zookeeper reaches or overtakes you, and for a regular game, get to 35 without being captured.
Like rummy, Pilfering Pandas has a deck from which you can choose a card, sight unseen and a stack of available discards. Unlike rummy, however, sets must be built on one or the other meerkat. Solo play also includes a Secret Stash of 3 cards that acts somewhat like a second player in the game. Here’s my initial starting position so you can see what I mean:
The three cards on the top left are that secret stash, I’m playing Viaan & Rhul and the two meerkats in the game are Nehal & Aria and Aya & Cai. To Aya’s left is the draw deck, called the Loot Deck. To its left are the three cards that form the beginning of the Hideout, the lowest of the three being a “key” card (which I’ll explain in a bit). My starting hand of six cards demonstrates both the suits (color/food icon) and ranks (the numbers). Far more importantly, each card has a tiny panda silhouette too: When played, each counts as one step along the escape track for your panda token!
PILFERING PANDAS SOLO GAMEPLAY
In the solo game, turns consist of draw, play, discard, play secret stash card, advance zookeeper token one step. You can draw one card sight unseen from the Loot Deck or one or more cards from the Hideout (the discard pile). Draw just the top card from the Hideout and nothing happens, but if you draw more than just one, you must immediately play the lowest card of the pile and the zookeeper gets suspicious from all the activity and jumps forward four spaces. A scary proposition since you must ensure that the ‘keeper never reaches your square on the escape track. This is somewhat mitigated by the secret power of my particular panda: the multi-card pickup penalty is cut in half. Still, two spaces forward and then another at the end of the turn is a big dash forward for the zookeeper.
Notice the top card on the Hideout is a purple 2. Since I’m already holding the green and red 2, that’d give me a set of three and allow me to play my first set on one of the meerkats and move forward. So that’s just what I do: Pick the purple 2, then play all three 2’s on Nehal & Aria:
There are three tiny black panda icons on the cards of my set, but check out the lower right of the meerkat card: red, purple, green also match Nehal & Aria’s favorite foods, which gives me a +1 panda bonus. Nice. Three cards played and I get to move forward 4. However, playing a set also moves the zookeeper forward one (the lower left: Play cards that are value 1-6 and the zookeeper strolls forward 1 square, but play 7’s or higher and the keeper sprints forward 3, not 1).
I must discard a card on the Hideout stack (without running out of cards: You must start each round with at least 2 cards in your hand), then play a card from the Secret Stash on the Hideout (discard pile). To do that I can either match the suit (color) or the rank (number) of the topmost Hideout card. If neither matches, it’s player’s choice which stash card is played, which means an important tactic in the game is to discard cards that force the play of a specific additional card from the stash.
A bit further along in the game…
You can see that the zookeeper has moved forward to 7, while we’re up at 17. A nice lead. The three 2’s have been played on the top meerkat, while the bottom set is interesting: I played three 4’s that match the favorite suits of Aya & Cai. Then a purple 4 came up, so I drew and immediately played it for two pandas movement (look closely at the card).
Yet further in the game here’s what I have in my hand (you can never exceed 12 cards):
Here’s the dilemma: If I play the 1’s and the 7’s, I get a terrific 8 pandas of forward motion, but I can’t because I’d have to discard one of the remaining 3’s, leaving me with 1 card. You can never have less than 2 cards in the solitaire game, so I ended up having to stagger this play, putting down the 1’s, then the 7’s a bit later when I had more cards in my hand.
Finally, here’s how it went:
I had played one key card by discarding it (which moves the zookeeper two steps backward), and played another on the lower stack as a red 5 (which moved the keeper forward two steps as an additional penalty). It all added up to the zookeeper finishing up at 24 while I blasted past 35 to end with 36 points. Escape! Viaana & Rhul have departed the zoo for greener pastures, thanks to my efforts. Nice!
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS ON PILFERING PANDAS
I’m a big fan of Wren Games and have previously reviewed Assembly from the company. It’s another fun solitaire game featuring a quick setup and interesting puzzle. Pilfering Pandas is a bit more complex, supporting 1-4 players and three different modes of play, solitaire, cooperative, and competitive. I have only played solitaire but it’s a winner, a fun and simple game that will immediately make sense to anyone who has played even a few hands of a rummy variant. The game can be fairly easy as a solitaire, however, so it includes Foiled Plan cards that you can shuffle into the Loot Deck to make things more challenging. Here are a few example cards:
Overall, this is another winner from this great little game company and one well worth backing on Kickstarter. It’s not hundreds of dollars, doesn’t include miniatures and thirty-six expansions, but it’s fun, straightforward and very family friendly. I’m also anticipating the final box will be small and highly portable too, so this is also a great game for family outings and anywhere you can find sufficient surface space for a quick solo game. Recommended.
Pilfering Pandas by Wren Games. £17 (about $25) on Kickstarter (price may vary as the campaign progresses, final retail will be higher). Check out Pilfering Pandas on Kickstarter, or go to Wren Games to learn more about their modest but terrific lineup.
Disclosure: Wren Games sent me a prototype copy of the game in return for this review. Thanks, Team Wren!