Saturday, September 8, 2018

Board Game Review: The Fox in the Forest

A game of The Fox in the Forest in progress. The box, with cover art depicting a fox sitting proudly atop a stone surrounded by flowering plants, stands near the draw pile, discard pile, and currently played cards. An array of cards, which are tricks taken by one of the players, sits nearby, along with a scoring summary and a pile of victory point tiles in 1, 3, and 6 point denominations.

I recently got to play an amazing game. It's called The Fox in the Forest, and although it's technically a card game instead of a board game, I'm going to review it here.

Wait, I just started out my review by offering my opinion, didn't I? I'm sorry. Please try to forget that I did that. I'm going to offer a completely impartial review.

Really.

Ok, seriously, let's take a look at this game. It's a surprisingly enjoyable little two player trick-taking game. So let's start with some numbers:
Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 3
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 1
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 20 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Low

An Overview of The Fox in the Forest

The game consists mainly of a deck of thirty-three cards, with eleven cards each in three suits (bells, keys, and moons). Twenty six of these cards are dealt, thirteen to each player, then the top card of the deck is turned over to determine the 'decree.' Players then play these cards in tricks, just as you would in standard games like Hearts or Spades.

Tricks are as you'd expect: one player leads, the other player must follow suit if possible, and if the other player doesn't follow suit, then the player who led takes the trick unless the other player played the suit on the decree card. The player who takes the trick leads the next one.

But here's the thing: unlike most trick-taking card games, the objective is not to have more tricks than the other player(s), nor to reach a certain number of tricks, but to take a number of tricks that falls into specific ranges. The maximum number of points you can get from tricks (there are bonus points you can get from specific cards, but the points you get from tricks alone) is six. But you can only get six points if you get less than four tricks or if you get seven, eight, or nine tricks. Get between these numbers, and you get three or fewer; get more than this, and you get no points at all.

Here's the scoring chart:


Tricks Points Description
0-3 6 Humble
4 1 Defeated
5 2
6 3
7-9 6 Victorious
10-13 0 Greedy

What's particularly genius about this is that it is perfectly balanced between the players. If one player gets 6 points from the 'Humble' category, that means the other player has ended up in the 'Greedy' category. Likewise, if one player gets the six points from the 'Victorious' category, the other player is going to be in the 'Defeated' category.

But because there's that area in the middle, it gives the game that much more suspense. In the first few tricks, you're wondering if maybe you should go for the 'Humble' category, until you find yourself taking that fourth trick, and then you have to scramble to get at least three more tricks without painting yourself into a corner by taking ten or more tricks...

So there's a fascinating balance dynamic in this game.

The first player to 21 points is the winner.

Permutations in The Fox in the Forest

But that's not all there is to this game! Because the odd-numbered cards in each suit have special abilities.
  • 1 (the swan): If you lose the trick in which you played this card, you lead the next trick.
  • 3 (the fox): Exchange the decree card with a card in your hand.
  • 5 (the woodcutter): Draw one card, then discard a card from your hand to the bottom of the deck.
  • 7 (the treasure): When you play this card, you earn one bonus point for each 7 card in the trick.
  • 9 (the witch): If there's only one 9 card in this trick, treat it as if it were the decree suit.
  • 11 (the monarch): If you lead with this card, and your opponent can follow suit, your opponent must play either the 1 card or the highest card in hand.
So there are ways to suddenly turn things in your favour.

Final Thoughts on The Fox in the Forest

I should point out that this game is based on a short story by Alana Joli Abbot called 'The Queen's Butterflies.' The artwork and the names of the cards are based on that story. And the artwork is beautiful indeed.

But it's really the gameplay that I find so compelling about this game. The dynamics of the points system, the balance it creates between the players, and the ability to upset things with the special ability cards makes this game really well suited to a two-player setting. It's seldom that I find two-player games that work as well as this one. If chess is too cerebral for you, but you don't want something that is completely void of strategy, I think this game has a perfect blend of the suspense of a game of chance and the thinky-thinky-ness of a more strategic game.

And it's got a short play time, usually lasting around half an hour or so. Thus, it's good for times when you have a limited time frame, or between bigger games. In fact, the last time I played it, I was able to squeeze in a quick game whilst waiting for the other people in the river house to finish getting ready to leave.

And of course, we don't want to forget the Six Characteristics of a Good Game:
  • It's fun to lose.
  • It has no player elimination.
  • It ends decisively.
  • It's relatively simple.
  • It allows for upsets.
  •  It mostly relies on player agency, but the luck of the draw is a big factor in the game as well.
So with that caveat for the last item regarding player agency, it scores five out of six. Not bad!

Obviously, it's not going to be for everyone. But hopefully, you'll be able to decide whether this game is worth a shot. And whatever you decide, I hope you remember to

Game on!

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