Pilfering Pandas Preview

Disclaimer: The version of Pilfering Pandas I played for this preview is a prototype, and the components, artwork and rules are subject to change.

Holy alliteration Batman, it’s a Pilfering Pandas preview! It’s the third game from the husband and wife publishing duo, Wren Games, and it’s on Kickstarter as I type these very words. The cheeky pandas are trying to escape the zoo, with the zookeeper in hot pursuit. Our monochromatic friends have to pinch provisions from the other animals, to bribe the meerkats to keep quiet, lest the insurance-selling vermin snitch on us.

Something like that anyway, its a pretty convoluted plot for a bunch of bamboo-munchers trying to Steve McQueen their way out of panda prison.

On your marks, get set…

Pilfering Pandas is a set-collection game, and a very classic feeling one at that. The meerkats have setup an area for you to drop-off your collected sets of food i.e. the cards you’re collecting. As well as gross extortion for their silence (I assume they’ll make noise about anyone not feeding them, I don’t see how else they help with the escape), each of the fussy gits only want certain food types. Who exactly do they think they are? Jumped-up weasel wannabes…

meerkat card art
The meerkats. The bottom of the cards shows what they want for co-op on the blue side, and what triggers the penalties on the magenta, competitive side

Along with the meerkats’ trade area, the other main place you’ll be concentrating on during the game is the hideout. The hideout is where you panda folk are stashing your stolen food. It’s an ever-growing spread of cards that acts as a stack rather than a queue – the difference being with a stack, the last thing added is the first thing to get removed. This is important when you play.

On your turn you’ll take a card from the the draw pile, or the rightmost card in the hideout. Then you can play a set to the meerkat trade area, use your panda’s special ability, and finally have to add a card to the hideout. Your panda scoots around the score track like a hefty ninja, then the zookeeper moves along a space too. It sounds easy, but oh, my sweet summer child, if only that were so.

Strategic stacking

Success in Pilfering Pandas revolves around being able to use the hideout properly. Instead of taking a single card from the hideout at the start of your turn, you can take as many cards as you like, starting from the the one one the right. So if there are some good cards in that handful, you can start laying down some seriously impressive sets. The trade-off? Good old mister zookeeper advances at least four spaces every time you do this. In a game where you’re trying to get to space 35 on the score track, that’s a big chunk taken out of your lead.

panda cards
The stars of the the show, the pandas! Bad guys for planning a jailbreak, or good guys for escaping captivity – you decide

But that’s easy right? Just tell the other players which cards you want, then they can add them to the hideout, so you can grab them and make a killer set worthy of Iron Maiden. Hah, no! Wrong! There are strict rules around communication, and the rule book has examples of them, but the quick and dirty version is “Talk about what’s on the table, but not what you’ve got in your hands”. That means figuring out what you should put in the hideout and what cards to play involves a lot of intuition, and definitely no staring at cards, nodding at things, or making sharp intakes of breath when someone reaches for something you want. Nooo, definitely none of that.

Bamboo battles

If co-op isn’t your thing, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a competitive mode in the box. You’ll be even happier to know it’s not tacked-on – it’s really good. It doesn’t mess with the core feeling of the game, and there’s a great feeling of continually trying to just eke ahead of the others. As if two modes isn’t enough, Wren Games go and spoil us like they’re bringing an elaborate pyramid of Ferrero Rocher to the table, by adding a solo mode. A good solo mode.

No matter which way you want to play Pilfering Pandas, it seems to work. I’ve managed to play a few games of co-op, one of competitive, and a couple of solo efforts, and I’ve enjoyed all of them. The artwork – which is absolutely beautiful, and full of colour – makes it look like a cute little matching game. But that appearance belies a really tight game. I’ve won and lost in my plays, and in every game it’s been so close. The important thing to understand right from the outset though, is that this game is pretty difficult to win. Either that or I’m just not very good at it, but my ego isn’t going to let me admit that.

A look at the box contents. Just bear in mind that the final thing might look different. The board, for example, is much more colourful.

After a play of game, you’ll get it. It clicks, and you know what you should be doing. You get that great moment in a game, where you refuse to let the rest of the players leave. “No! we’re not done! I know what we should do now, let’s play it again immediately”. I love it when a game does that to me. Those are the games I’m thinking about that night while I’m lying in bed, trying to make my brain switch off.

Final thoughts

I’ve really enjoyed my time with Pilfering Pandas. When I first saw the pictures plastered all over social media, I thought it would be a much simpler game, but this is a tight, tough little game. It’s feels like it’s a much older game than it is, but I think a lot of that is because of it being built around set collection. I grew up playing Rummy, so it’s a natural fit for me. I can imagine playing a version of this with a standard deck of cards and a cribbage board to peg the scores. It’s that sort of game.

I’m still not sure I get the theme. I’ve read the rules, I know what’s going on, and I still don’t get it. The meerkats seem like real dicks. If I were a panda, working as a team with the rest of my panda brethren, I’d hold onto the fuzzy little narcs and we’d give them a darn good going-over. Unfortunately, that’s not an option. Kung-fu Panda got it wrong, these bears have no combat skills. That aside, it’s an unbearably cute game, and there’s no way on Earth anyone can’t help but fall in love with the octopus or elephants.

pilfering pandas loot cards
Look at the beautiful loot cards. Artist Gianfranco Giordano has done some outstanding work with the art in Pilfering Pandas

Pilfering Pandas has clearly had a ton of playtesting. Balancing the game can’t have been easy, but Wren Games have done exactly that. In the co-operative mode there’s variable setup to make it easier at first – which I recommend with non-gamers – or harder if you’re some kind of masochist. It’s a lovely game, it only takes about 20 minutes to play, and it’s cheap. The Kickstarter is currently going for £17. At that price I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending Pilfering Pandas.

pilfering pandas box art

Pilfering Pandas (2022)

Designers: Janice Turner, Stu Turner
Publisher: Wren Games
Art: Gianfranco Giordano
Players: 1-4
Playing time: 20-30 mins

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