I need to talk about “Take That” as a concept before I can talk about Zimby Mojo in depth.
Take That is a borderline pejorative in today’s board gaming landscape, but its definition is unclear. A game that allows for aggressive play, be it by blocking, limited resources, or direct attack is not necessarily labelled as “take that” by default. Instead it seems to be used to describe a game in which you hit people because you can rather than for a benefit. A game in which your attacks are less pinpoint accurate and more of a shotgun spread, affecting players unevenly. A game in which, in order to have fun, you have to like hurting other people.
Well I’ve never cared much for public opinion so I’ll admit it: I like hurting other people. I especially like when a game actively rewards and incentivizes you for doing so, but I’m not above a bit of spite from time to time. Moreover, I’m an entertainment masochist. Someone landing a great hit on me is just as entertaining as it would be if the tables were turned. It’s about the other people around the table. Interaction is a massive part of what makes games great.
Now I can talk about Zimby Mojo. Specifically, how it incentivizes and pushes its players towards violence at all times and why that’s a great thing.
The game takes place over two acts. Act one is a collaborative effort to defeat the cannibal king, who resides in his ziggurat at the center of the board. From the first turn (especially if you use the “fast start” setup which I would recommend) you’re making alliances, forming columns with the other players’ zimbies in order to amplify their collective strength. You’re playing incantations to buff yourself and possibly even others. You’re picking fights with the king’s thugs so that another squad can unlock a door to the king’s chambers for the aforementioned murder. Everything you do during this phase is gearing up towards one massive, bloody brawl with the man in the middle. Eventually he goes down, and the table celebrates! Now begins act two – murdering your friends in a bloody game of capture the flag.
The true win condition of ZM is to take the cannibal king’s crown back to your home, and he’s only got the one crown. As soon as the king drops dead and the initial celebrations die down everyone’s zimbies start dying too. A popular turn of phrase for games in which you can’t escape conflict is “knife fight in a phone booth”. Act two of ZM is more like a rocket launcher duel in a washing machine. You will get messy, you won’t always understand what’s happening, everyone in the vicinity is going to get very severely hurt, and it’s an incredible spectacle for everyone involved.
Combat is simple. Compare the brutality values of the two parties involved, add a D6 roll, done. Where the game’s violence truly comes alive is in its gigantic scroll deck. The three types of spells function in three distinct ways: rituals target players, witcheries use line of sight to affect units on the board, and incantations that require a zimby sit on them and chant to maintain a persistent boost or penalty until you call them home. The vast majority of these are quite powerful and the effects vary from simple fireballs, to path-blocking vines that spread out randomly, to teleporting stacks of enemy zimbies to the great beyond. Making matters more difficult is the fact that the deck is also filled with Nix cards that serve as a universal counterspell which, of course, can be Nixed by a Nix allowing the first spell to go off, and so on and so forth. Playing off-turn is more of a matter of course in ZM than a rare surprise. Anything can happen at any given moment if your opponents have cards and the mojo to fuel them.
I suppose after all this zimby talk I should talk about mojo, because it’s the gasoline you’ll use to fuel your cannibalistic engine. Your shamanic home contains 4 mojo tokens that you can flip over for mojo points, which you will spend to do basically everything the game allows for. Any zimbies on your board can also be “depleted” for mojo utilization purposes, or in a pinch you can just devour one of your children for a quick burst of energy. You can also eat zimbies to draw extra cards or have them eat each other on the main board to gain temporary benefits, usually a big boost in brutality. Players have a tremendous amount of flexibility as long as you can keep the zimbies and mojo flowing.
Thus far my review has been a bit more mechanically-focused than I normally like, so now that I’ve established the bones of the game let me delve into what ZM is like to actually play. It’s a cacophony of chaos in the best possible way. Players have nearly complete control over their turns with the exception of the die rolls, but die rolls always occur on a player’s terms (fights, cards, teleporting around the map, etc.). The king and thugs move around the board semi-randomly, but always predictably. The true source of the chaos is the other humans around the board. It’s reminiscent of Wiz-War or Cosmic Encounter, where alliances are made against perceived leaders only to immediately be torn apart when that player is taken down a peg or five. It’s a beautiful bloody ballet in motion and I’ve not played another game that’s quite as evocative in its shameless celebration of violence.
The initial challenge is getting there. The stories of Zimby Mojo’s rulebook have been somewhat exaggerated, but only somewhat. It’s formatted in a rather anachronistic layout, dividing each game feature into sections and only bothering to show you how it all comes together about halfway through the book. It’s initially confusing to say the least and that will likely scare off some folks who have mostly learned off of more modern rulebooks. Credit where credit’s due, the layout makes it a very effective rules reference, but as a teaching tool it is lacking. I recommend reading it through twice and just moving pieces around on the board (in the solo mode or with some forgiving friends) until it makes sense.
However, once you do understand Zimby Mojo it lodges in your brain like a jagged cleaver. Everything just makes sense. The turn to turn flow is very simple and teaching it to newbies is shockingly easy after one play. Here’s how you win, here’s how you use mojo, here’s how cards work, when in doubt remember to eat yourself, done. Moreover, everyone I’ve introduced it to has completely understood what they want to do and how to do it after two rounds of play. That isn’t an exaggeration. Thanks to the co-op first half it’s incredibly easy to help players who were too busy looking at their phones or struggle retaining spoken rules. By the time they’re in a position where backstabbing is a valid option they’ll be fully autonomous and chomping at the bit to sink the knife into you. For me there isn’t a prouder moment as a teacher than that.
And my god is the effort worth it. When I said that Zimby Mojo was unlike anything else I’ve played I meant it. The experience this game provides is unparalleled. It’s tense from the first turn to the last. It’s fraught with tough decisions, but without optimization stress because there’s almost always some way to make progress towards your current goal. The fluid alliances feel organic. When you decide to shut down the red player because they have the crown, it only makes sense that your zimbies should actually co-habitate spaces until the deed is done. And in the end, when one of you stands as the new cannibal king, I guarantee you’ll want to get it back to the table sooner rather than later. This is the kind of game that leaves your groups with stories that you’ll talk about for ages afterwards.
It’s hard to recommend a game like this when it’s so unapologetically divisive. Some people who read this are going to be repulsed by what I’ve described. But if any part of you is tempted by a return to a bygone era of open hostility and glorious gore, or perhaps wants to experience the joys of gaming violence at its absolute best, you owe it to yourself to play Zimby Mojo. It’s going on my forever-shelf. But as I said, I like hurting other people.
Disclosure: this game was provided for review by the publisher.