Something about pandas as animals is naturally charming and endearing. Big, lazy oaf like bears that lay about eating bamboo and sleeping. If you’re lucky, you’ll even catch them in some sort of funny scenario where they jump at a baby’s sneeze – or am I showing my age and nostalgia for historic funny videos? Either way, they’re the epitome of wild innocence… right? Wrong. In reality, they’re the most devious and sly creatures around. Mischief’s the name of the game, and they’re wild champs. Pilfering Pandas by Wren Games is a game designed to highlight these sneaks’ underhanded activities! It’s a competitive and cooperative game for 2-4 player game, with solo a variant, that took us about 30 minutes to play.
To start a competitive game of Pilfering Pandas, all players are dealt player reference cards, player tokens and a starting hand of six. They are then dealt a Panda card and a Meerkat card, both placed on the competitive sides, as indicated by the bamboo icon. This icon appears on the player references also and should not be confused with the cooperative leaves icon. The board should be placed somewhere all players can see it and the deck within reach of all players. The board is used to track players’ scores for that round and all players start on zero at the start of a round. Finally, the “stash” is created by dealing three cards face up on top of each other so the suit and numbers can be seen. What is in the Stash is public knowledge and should always be on show.
Taking a Turn
In Pilfering Pandas’ competitive mode, players compete to earn the most Panda Points by playing sets of cards from their hands. On a turn, players can take one card from the stash or from the deck without consequence. Alternatively, players can take multiple cards from the visible stash at a cost. They can then play a card set from their hand if they have one. Sets consist of matching numbered cards across sets or a straight across a set. They must connect to any sets already in the trade area. Key cards act as wilds in this game mode and can be swapped out mid turn and replaced for other cards.
Should they choose to take multiple cards from the run, they must use the left most card in a set this turn and also take the suspicion card. This stops that player taking multiple cards from the run until either after 8 turns or until another player does so. If, after this, there are less than three cards in the stash it is replenished to three. Players then end their turn by adding a card from their hand to the stash.
The round ends when any player has either played 10 cards in set totals, or if any player has no cards at the end of their turn. At that point, players count their Panda Points in their sets and deduct their points in hand. Whomever has the most points then wins the round. This continues for a recommended three rounds, after which whomever has won the most wins.
How It Handles
Pilfering Pandas is a pleasantly surprising little game! Don’t get me wrong, I love the theme and aesthetic and that’s not what surprised me! I was surprised to be wrong in my initial judgement about one element… set collection. Set collection isn’t a mechanic I particularly choose myself; needing specific cards and never seeing them is a downer for me. However, this delightfully charming card game has the right number of twists to that mechanic to make it not only bearable, but enjoyable!
Negotiating With Meetkats
The aim of the competitive game is to get the best sets out before your opponent does. How you do so is based on how well you can manage your hand, which is important in any card game… Where does this game get spicy? Well, meerkats are fickle and picky creatures. They prefer specific snacks and are more likely to help based on these demands being met. Like the ruthless dictator they really are, they can (and have) declared the winner based on whom could best appear their meerkat’s needs.
It’s interesting the way Pilfering Pandas force players to think dynamically with their hands. For one, you can’t lay the cards down at random in sets as they must link to the previous set’s last card’s suit or number. That for a start makes the game ten times more tactical as it prevents the game being a free for all. Secondly, some the meerkats want certain things and will give bonuses based on them. Not playing the game with this in mind will mean you’re going to be stuck with great cards and no way to lay them.
Carrying Too Much Bamboo!
The clever hand management come set collection element is what really got me hooked on this game. It’s impressive how easily the game lulls you into a false sense of routine. Get big numbers, throw some food to some rodents, bask in glory, job done. Right? Wrong. No. Bad. Stop it. You need to start as you mean to go on, with a plan. Focussing on having the right numbers at the right time, and knowing when to abandon a decent card to start a new set, means you need to be wise.
However! And this is contrary to this style of hand management… You also need to ensure you don’t have too many cards in hand at round end. Panda points make prizes! But panda points also cause penalties. Saving the perfect set in hand but not getting to play it will be a sure fire loss. Those positives immediately become negatives and actually subtract from your score, meaning that those of us who stock cards for the right moment are totally vulnerable. It works though! Being forced to manage your hand beyond sets and having to make rash decisions on how you’ll maintain a low impact loss in hand is tricky, but clever.
No dressing it up, Pilfering Pandas is beautiful. There’s no beating around the bamboo on this one, it’s gorgeous. The art style is this wonderful combination of geometric shapes with what could be origami creatures. The game pops off the table and has some beautiful aesthetics to accompany it. I can’t find fault in how the game looks or is presented, it’s surreal. I’m disappointed to say I can’t find any issues with the beauty of it. Genuinely. It’s lovely.
Pandas Playing Pleasantly
The cooperative mode has differences in how it is conducted and set up. For starters, it’s cooperative. No prizes for figuring that one out! Secondly, you’re competing against an automated opponent: the zookeeper. To set up this mode, you need to place two meerkats below the board, alongside the Raised Suspicion and flipped multi pick up card. This one has a big You Lose on it, so you know it means business. Then deal cards and create a stash as normal, and allow players to choose pandas. All cards for this mode should show the leaf symbol to show you’re working cooperatively, as opposed to the malicious bamboo symbol.
Meerkats have a limit to the amount of food they can hold. If you exceed that in a set, you rotate the last card in that set to indicate you exceeded the limit. The card numbers indicate the amount of food, and placing a set comprised of card values above the limit is a breach of it. Placing a set raises suspicion in the first place, but exceeding the limit really puts you under the spotlight! This is why you have two meerkats to go to to trade with, and why the limit changes based on difficulty. You can even spice it up further with some foiled plan cards which make turn the zookeeper into Sherlock Holmes with the speed he sniffs out your panda plans!
In this mode of Pilfering Pandas, communication is key. Paramount even. It’s make or break! The order cards are laid are important, but so is when sets are placed. Like Usain Bolt at the olympics, the zookeeper closes the gap between his competitors and will eventually get them. Always. In fact, we’ve only ever won once. It’s a brutally difficult challenge and one I didn’t mind, but it wasn’t my favourite across Wren Games’ repertoire of challenging cooperative experiences. Maybe my current group of two wasn’t up for the task, but even solo it just dominated me and was so, so difficult. I can see how it could be done, but it wasn’t something I had the knack for. But those are just my thoughts.
Pilfering Pandas is a game that we found to be delightful. Visually, mechanically and in how it engaged us. The art really popped off the cards and was impressively beautiful. Combine that with how the hand management works throughout play and you’ve got a game that you can’t put down! The game’s superbly balanced in allowing players to push their luck with holding cards, but punishing if you don’t cash in (or jump ship) when necessary. It’s not one I expected to enjoy, but after playing it routinely nearly every day, it’s rightfully earned its place as one of the best lightweight competitive Kickstarters we’ve previewed.