It might seem cute and simple, but Reiner Knizia's Penguin Party is a killer whale of a time.
Could you kill a penguin? It’s not a question I thought I’d ever ask myself, but in recent years I’ve been responsible for more flipper-based butchery than any pod of orcas could lay claim to. No, I haven’t been running rampage at local zoos or racking up air miles to the Antarctic; I’ve been enjoying Reiner Knizia’s Penguin Party.
Ostensibly a lighthearted affair about creating the ultimate feather-free soiree, Penguin Party is secretly a game about death and hard choices. The rules are as simple as they come. A full deck of colored penguin cards is dealt between all players, who then take turns placing penguins from their hand on a collaborative pyramid. Any penguin can be placed on the bottom layer, but to build upwards you’ll need to match one of the two penguins below. Each player is aiming to rid their hand of cards, but there are only so many spaces at the bottom, which means it won’t be long before penguins of each color are battling for survival.
It all comes down to early placement. Penguins in the middle of the pyramid? They’re living it large. Climbing the party’s social ladder upwards from the center provides ample opportunities to spread, often at the expense of others. You see, life on the edge of the party is a dangerous place for a penguin. Build up the side of the pyramid and your color of choice is liable to be snuffed out at a moment’s notice, blocked from glory by the greedy advancement of another (though your friend will assure you it was absolutely the only move they had).
What happens to those who fail to make it past the bouncer? Negative points are dished out for unplayed cards in the form of orca tokens. Yep, that’s right, any penguin who fails to join the bash is left to face the waiting jaws of a killer whale. The parties may be wild, but it’s a cruel world out there on the ice.
Your first few games of Penguin Party will start amicably, as everyone does their best to keep all the penguins alive. However, it won’t be long before the killer inside awakens, and you develop into a seasoned slayer. In time you might even relish the chance to kill off a color, along with your friend’s hopes of emptying their hand. Eventually, Penguin Slaughter, ahem, Party evolves into a tense bout of card counting and reading your opponents.
Only three reds have been played, leaving four left in hands around the table. Surely no one would dare block off the color at this stage of the game? You play a purple instead. Oh dear. A maniacal grin creeps across your friend’s usually taciturn face as they consign another wave of birds to the court of orcas.
I’ll admit, a chunk of Penguin Party’s charm comes from the glorious art of the Japanese version. Each color of penguin is brimming with character, and it wasn’t long before names and personalities for each began to arise in our group: green, the meek yet lovable Melvin; blue, the erudite and sophisticated Sebastian; and best of all yellow, the boisterous party lad Chad. Look closer and you’ll even note that no two cards are the same, changing out shirt patterns, hats and decorations to add a touch of individual flair to each. The Western release’s art sorely lacks that same unique style, but thankfully the core rules remain the same in both.
I picked up Penguin Party on a whim when visiting a small store in Nagoya, Japan, but it’s quickly become our go-to title to kick off most game nights. In fact, playing it with friends and family proved so popular that we ended up snagging two more copies as gifts on a return holiday. There’s little lasting depth or challenge here, but through a combination of superb art, entertaining theme, and simple rules, Penguin Party has earned a place in my collection and heart as a superb little package and brilliant entry point to board gaming.