Author – Doug Levandowski (@DougLevandowski) & Matt Gaby
Where to Buy – https://douglevandowski.itch.io/arcane-zoo
“Arcane Zoo” is a solo journaling RPG in which the player takes on the role of a new mage who has been put in charge of (you guessed it!) an arcane zoo. I know, I know. Yawn. The theme is played out. I mean, who hasn’t played in an RPG in which your only goal was managing a fantastical menagerie in order to please some powerful benefactor?
I’ll drop the pretense. “Arcane Zoo” is unique, charming, and effective with only a few minor flaws that detract from the overall experience.
The game takes place over the first week of the zoo’s existence, with players purchasing attractions, monitoring visitors/income, and (ideally) generating renown. The primary goal of the game is for the player to earn 1,500 renown over the course of the game. The player also gets a secondary goal that changes depending on which of the five patrons they chose at the start of the game. For example, with a patron who’s concerned with profit, you must sell your starting creature and use the gold to buy a big, flashy animal at the end of the game. These patrons also give certain unique abilities which help change how players approach each playthrough. With five different patrons, this game has inherent replay value that many solo RPGs lack.
Each day, players will roll a number of dice for each creature based on how risky the creature is, with higher results gaining them renown and lower results potentially losing renown. These results, along with daily prompts unique to each patron, shape the journaling part of “Arcane Zoo”. The prompts do an excellent job making each patron’s zoo feel distinct from one another, and the randomness of the dice make it so the zoo feels like a living, everchanging place. At times, the mechanics can feel a bit like fantasy accounting, however this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the game. If anything, it helped with my overall immersion as I had to carefully monitor the number of visitors, the gold they spent at my zoo, and how I could turn those funds into new attractions.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of the game, the creators put significant attention to player safety. The book is full of content warnings and suggestions on how to avoid certain triggers. For example, if the subject of abuse is particularly troubling, players are warned to avoid the Control patron. With this level of well-thought-out sensitivity, I was surprised to see “animals” in the zoo that were actually sentient humanoids. With so many animalistic/monstrous options common to the fantasy genre, it seemed an odd (distasteful?) choice to have over half (9/15) of the available creatures be…people. Owlbears, griffins, ascomoids, etc., would have been less problematic inclusions compared to the provided centaurs and leprechauns. If I play this game again, I’ll likely homebrew some new creature options to replace the ones provided.
I had fun with “Arcane Zoo” and, after modifying the bestiary, I’d recommend it without hesitation.
DISCLAIMER: I do not know anyone involved with this book, nor did I receive anything for free in exchange for this review. Also, this game is normally $7.00, which basic math tells me is slightly above my $5.00 cutoff. Before you throw me in the pillory, I bought it as part of a fantastic sale of 87 games for $10 so it totally counts.