That’s a pretty momentous statement, right? Well, now we’re going to lose all of that momentum as I plunge this review-car up to its axles in mud, because Fox in the Forest is a trick-taking game.
The board gaming scene has a habit of not explaining what “trick-taking” is, probably because it’s a huge pain in the ass to teach. But we’re going to do it, here and now, in SU&SD’s famous spirit of accessibility. We can through this mud together, reader! You get in the driver’s seat, I’ll get out and push. Just stick with me! Now, feather the accelerator! The ACCELERATOR! That’s what we call the gas pedal in England do it oh god the mud is in my shoes
In a trick-taking game each player holds a hand of cards. To play, one player first “leads” the trick by playing a card from their hand. The other player must then play a card of the same suit from their own hand.
So in the 2 player game Fox in the Forest, if I played a 6 of Moons, you’d have to play a Moon too, if you have one. The person who played the higher Moon “takes the trick”, meaning they take the cards you both played and put them in a little pile.
In Fox in the Forest this is a good thing, because at the end of the round you get points depending on how many tricks you won. Winning a trick also lets you lead the next trick, forcing your opponent to play something else.
Think of it like fishing. You examine the scene in front of you, throw out some bait, and try to catch your opponent.
And here’s a tip! By laddering the tricks you’ve won (pictured above) you’ll look like a stony pro even if you have no idea what you’re doing.
Since you’re both dealt 13 cards at the start of a round and you don’t draw new ones, this results in a narrowing possibility space as you play cards back and forth until the 13th “trick” is you both just dropping your 13th card on the table and seeing who takes it.
Since Fox in the Forest only has 33 cards in total, you’re partly playing a simple gambling game where you’re guesstimating what cards your opponent is holding.
Where things get crafty is if you can’t follow a trick, like if I led the trick with the 6 of Moons but you aren’t holding any Moons. You can then play any card you want, with varying results.
In Fox in the Forest, one final card is dealt face-up in the centre of the table at the start of the round. In the above picture it’s the 10 of Keys. This is the trump suit, and it always wins. So in the above pic, if I lead a trick with the 6 of Moons and you couldn’t follow it and played a 1 of Keys, you’d win the trick.
But maybe you don’t want to! Because now, finally, I can do my magician-like reveal of the rule that powers Fox in the Forest and makes this back-and-forth so exciting. Remember I said that you get more points if you win more tricks? That’s true… unless you win 10 or more of the 13 tricks, at which point you become “Greedy” in this fairytale, you get 0 points, and your humble loser of an opponent gets the maximum of 6 points.
So each round of Fox in the Forest starts with an awesome question: Look at your hand. Are you going to play to lose? Suddenly, even the act of following a trick that you know you can’t win becomes interesting, because you could ditch a low or high card, depending on whether you’re going to put up a fight or collapse like a wet paper bag. And what makes this even more fun is that the game’s probabilities are so tricky and the penalties for missing your goal are so severe that players will switch their goal all the time.
You might both start off trying to lose, then both switch to trying to win, only for one of you to bail and go back to losing. And never mind your own plan, you’re also trying to figure out what your opponent is doing since that dictates how you should be playing. Every decision in Fox in the Forest is as sweet and chewy as so much fudge. Everything is in your control, but nothing is truly knowable, and this kittenish struggle perfectly fits the intrinsic coyness of holding and playing cards.
As an object, Fox in the Forest is a perfectly pleasant game to go through the motions of. Spiritually, it’s a disrespectful slap fight where rounds will often end in a player utterly embarrassing themselves, but where they have to laugh, because it was always their fault.
Players have this sense of control over their destiny because 6 of the 11 numbered cards ever-so-slightly tweak the game state. Vitally, none of these powers are particularly aggressive; there’s nothing that’s going to spoil the laid-back atmosphere. Instead, the powers let you play.
The number 7 cards are my favourite, the “Treasure”. Winning a trick with a 7 in it just straight-up gives you a permanent point, but 7 is such a deliciously low number that it’s hard to lead a trick with a 7 and win. So you might want to hold them back until the end of a match when players have used all of their high numbers, but the longer you hold them, the more likely it is that it’ll be forced out of your hand by an opponent leading the trick.
Or what about the Fox, little number 3? They let you swap the Trump suit card with a card from your hand, a powerful ability, one with more depth than I first imagined. In “swapping” the cards you need to consider the card you’re picking up. And while having a lot of, say, Bells, and changing the Trump suit to a Bell is a nice play, in putting a Bell down there you now have one less Bell to play with. Are you sure your opponent doesn’t have more?
But I don’t want to make this sound overly complicated. Figuring out the good plays in Fox in the Forest isn’t so hard. What’s hard is figuring out precisely when to play each card in this 13 step dance you’re doing together. When do you throw out the treasure? When do you change the trump?
Perhaps too often Shut Up & Sit Down praises games that play like soldiers in the service of simulation or innovation. Games that come stomping into our review stack and make everything else look like toys. THIS is the next big thing! Pay attention to ME!
Fox in the Forest is something so much more subtle. It’s not trying to be big, or clever. It’s trying to be nice. And while that’s common, the level of success here is not.
Mind if we take a little diversion?
There was a micro-backlash two years ago when I reviewed Archaeology: The New Expedition (pictured above). A few people bought it only to discover, to their horror, that whether they won or finished last was down to luck. Like the titular excavator, these people dug their hands in the sand and came up with nothing of value. There was no control. No game. Or rather, the game in Archaeology is often little more than gambling.
But that was precisely the point!
Take a stroll through Pagat.com’s list of the most popular card games sometime. You might be shocked at how many of them are inane exercises in random chance. But if you actually work your way through that list, there’s no denying the quiet alchemy in each of them. There’s an ineffable yet gentle tension. They leave room for conversation. Mistakes and victories might be down to random chance, but they feel human. For want of a better word, I’m going to summarise all of these little pleasures as “card gameiness”, and I’m going to point out that some games are rich in this comfortable magic, and others aren’t.
In other words, some games are just nice to sit down with and see what happens. Do you get me?
Fox in the Forest is anything but inane. It’s a witty, taut little contest that you can pour thought into, if you so choose. But it also has the supreme ease and cosiness that unites so many classic card games, a trait I only now recognise in the supreme Mundus Novus, which we reviewed in 2012 and I still play to this day.
This has been a rambling, challenging review for me. Fox in the Forest is an inscrutable game to try and pick apart. The question as to whether you should buy it, though, doesn’t have to be so complicated.
You should buy The Fox in the Forest if you love the quiet moments in table gaming as much as the loud ones. You should buy it if you think you know why, for 500 years, humans have been inseparable from playing cards.
And maybe you should buy it if you just like pretty foxes and handsome woodcutters. As I said, it’s a gentle game. You can put as much thought into it as you wish.
Paul: Welcome to another tub-thumping edition of Games News, the only board games news anywhere that features FIREWORKS and PYROTECHNICS and a ten meter CATHERINE WHEEL-
Quinns: paul you’re on fire
Paul: ON FIRE WITH EXCITEMENT about CASTELL and LOWLANDS and even HARRY POTTER.
Quinns: Paul you’ve never been excited about Harry Potter. What you should care about is human towers!
Did you know that there’s a Catalan tradition of building human towers, no kidding, that are multiple people high? Now you can recreate those in Castell, travelling from festival to festival and growing a team of expert tower-humans, your mission to create the ultimate people pile.
That’s pretty terrific, right, both as a concept for a game but also as something that actually happens?!
Paul: I’ve actually been in the middle bit of a three-layer human pyramid and that was more than enough for me. Everything wobbled the whole time so, as far as I’m concerned, these people are GODS.
In a combination of worker-placement and detective work, one to four players together try to recover the missing memories of a man who seems to be terminally ill, gradually revealing his mysterious past and the story of how he got to where he is now. It’s like board game designers never, ever run out of amazing new concepts.
Interestingly, Holding On is also the next project from Rory O’Connor, of the ubiquitous Rory’s Story Cubes.
He’s gone a lot darker for his second project, eh? Rory’s Gory Story.
Or do your tastes run a bit more traditional? This week I was ogling Lowlands, a pretty-looking game of sheep, floods and fencing announced this week by Z-Man.
I always liked the fenced farm animals you get in Agricola, but breeding animals in that game was like a single breezy spot in a gruelling two hour hike. I’m thrilled to see the same idea getting some TLC in Lowlands, with players deciding how best to shape their paddocks before adding tiles like Feeding Troughs, Orchards and Breeding Farms.
There’s also this line in the description: “Adding expansions to your farm will unlock new options and score you victory points, but helping to build the dike that collectively protects all players is also rewarded. No matter what, the tide will rise and, if the dike isn’t high enough, it could rush in and sweep away your hard-earned profits.”
Does that mean your sheep will get swept out to sea like little cotton balls? The horror!
Paul: You want something even more familiar? Let’s talk about the new HARRY POTTER MINIATURES GAME! Announced a month before a Kickstarter campaign next month, this elaborate wand-wiggler has players running around famous Potter locations as they cast spells and complete quests.
Naturally, it features all your favourite characters, like Luna Lovegood, Sirius Black and Dwight Eisenhower, and it looks nothing if not fancy and filigree. It’s also from Knight Models, publishers of the excellent Batman Miniatures Game, so it stands a chance of being a strong one.
Quinns: Paul, I’m picking up that you don’t really care about Harry Potter.
Paul: I don’t all that much, but I like Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith. Is Maggie Smith in this? Can she be in more board games?
Quinns: I’ll tell you what games she’s not in–
Quinns: And that’s Coimbria and Reef. These are two games from Plan B that I’ve been ogling in the Games News this year, and The Dice Tower only went and posted first impressions of them both this week.
Quinns: I don’t know about anyone else but now I know more about these games I feel both Releefed and Coimforted.
MOVING ON to some Kickstarters this week, Aeon’s End: Legacy is the third in the deckbuilding series and, as you’d guess from the name, indulges in the now familiar legacy format. You can build a character over a campaign, make enemies, grab gear and do your best to defend Gravehold from THE NAMELESS.
But if they’re called THE NAMELESS, they still have a na- You know what? I think a deckbuilder could be a strong format for a legacy game and a great way to watch both a campaign and a character grow, gradually revealing more plot, enemies and items, while also giving you the opportunity to buff yourself until you’re blue in the face. I don’t know much about the world of Aeon’s End but I can absolutely see all the potential in a game like this and wait am I getting excited?
Quinns: Last time you asked me that it was a rumble from a passing lorry. This time? Perhaps not so much.
I talked a bit about Aeon’s End in my 2016 Corner Awards, describing it as a “Greatest Hits” album of deckbuilding. I’ll give it this- Clank! gets all the attention as a fantasy deckbuilder, but I preferred Aeon’s End and I think you might too.
Paul, you put Blinks into the Games News document this week, but… what exactly is it? Is it an actual game, or a framework for a bunch of games? It looks like tiny digital hexes which you have to buy more of if you want a bigger and better experience.
Paul: I… am not entirely sure the answer to either of your questions now! I thought this was unusual because all these little gadgets clearly click together to make a game, but, like playing cards, can also be used to play a bunch of different games. The more you have, the more you can play except WHOA this gets expensive quickly.
Still, I think I wanted to mention it because it reminded me of something called the ePawn Arena, a failed Kickstarter we covered three years ago. Like that one, Blinks look like it might not do hugely well, and I think while I think it’s terrific when people have ideas for these inventions that can serve as the foundation of something, if you forget to show people something they can actually do with it, they don’t really know what they’re buying. Does that make sense?
Quinns: It does, Paul. It does. The number of Blinks pictured in the above photo would cost me more than $200. At that price I’d like to know a little more about what I’m getting.
Quinns: Books! They’re like very long board game manuals without a game.
Now I’ve got a good 23 years’ distance from the bullies at my school, I’m freely able to say that I think books are nice, and today on the site I want to recommend the board gaming books that I’ve had the most fun with. There’s fiction and non-fiction, controversy and aliens, a Go master at the end of his life and a 21st century designer at the peak of his powers.
But best of all, each one has helped me to understand this ancient hobby a little better.
Matt and I both fell in love with this sci-fi novel when we read it as teenagers and it more than holds up today. The protagonist, lifelong game player Jernau Gurgeh, agrees to travel to an alien system where a fabulously complicated board game determines your place in society. Jernau’s mission? To compete in the tournament as a foreigner and perhaps spare the galaxy an ugly war.
The “game” in the novel is probably most similar to Diplomacy or Civilization, but the real delight comes from Banks’ ability to exaggerate contemporary games. To this day I’m still in love with the image of a desperate Jernau cradling an organic playing piece, trying to somehow “know” it. Though secretly, the games Jernau plays are just part of a larger contest…
If you enjoy Player of Games (and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t), the author’s early works are all treasures. Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons are stellar sci-fi, and The Wasp Factory is a great place to start with his contemporary fiction.
There’s no word for it in English, but The Master of Go is “fiction-ish”?
In 1938 author Kawabata was a reporter present at the final game of an aging Go master. It took a staggering six months for the game to end and the master died soon after. The Master of Go is a gently fictionalised account of that game, even including occasional diagrams of the board state (which mostly serve to show how hellaciously inscrutable Go is).
The Player of Games is fun to a modern gamer because it’s evocative and recognisable. The Master of Go is almost the opposite- the Go board depicted in this book is a dark, old, bottomless abyss with no parallel in gaming today. Compared to Player of Games, the Master of Go is literally stranger than fiction. The 2,500 years that Go has been around for have allowed the culture of the game to evolve into something almost unknowable.
None of which means that this is a hard book to read, mind you. It’s a short, sweet little novel. Consider it required reading if you’re interested in board games, not because you can see the contemporary hobby in it, but because you can’t.
Or I can’t, anyway. Maybe your favourite board games involve more death and anguish than mine.
Ah, the perfect gift for that special poindexter in your life!
Geoff Engelstein might be best known as the designer of whimsical games like Space Cadets and Pit Crew, but he’s also a professor of board game design at New York University and a true fountain of wisdom. Don’t be misled by this book’s phlegmatic title. I was giggling aloud as I popped each new page into my brain like so much candy.
From why games need good endings, to the mathematics behind card shuffling, to how chess players are ranked (and why that’s a problem), every page of GameTek has a new secret it wants to share with you. It’s half pop science book, half incorrigible gossip, and I love it. If Geoff writes another book I’ll be buying it on day one.
GameTek also has a fun appendix of recommended reading, which led me to…
Engelstein lists a few “catalogue of games”-type books in the back of GameTek, but this collection of dice games by Reiner Knizia (the designer of Ra, Tigris & Euphrates and more than 600 other games) is far and away the best.
It’s not just that Knizia showcases these games in a manner that’s concise, yet colourful, with all sorts of little remarks as to strategy, history or what makes the game fun. What makes Dice Games Properly Explained so exciting is that this is a whole genre of games that nobody plays anymore. When I got to a bluffing game called Little Max I was laughing out loud just reading the rules. When I got to the section of betting games, the book had me fantasising about a game that might let me turn my living room into a casino.
If you’re an amateur designer there’s no time to waste. Buy this book and rip one of these games off immediately. We can’t let all of these ideas fall by the wayside!
An order of magnitude longer than any book on this list, Playing at the World is a heroic document on how wargaming in 1780 evolved into Dungeons & Dragons and the dawn of roleplaying in 1977.
The book can be quite academic so you might have to skim-read sections that don’t interest you, but I found myself interested in pretty much all of it. From the chapter on how the medieval fantasy genre came about (which is book-length just by itself), to the history of Diplomacy and “playing roles”, to the struggles companies had in trying to sell Dungeons & Dragons, I found myself continually charmed by the people Pererson depicts.
This book also made me realise that D&D can be found in the DNA of most modern games, which makes all of the missteps and weird evolutions that the game went through particularly juicy. Our nerdy world could have been so different if that had taken off instead, or they’d stuck with that idea instead of this one!
Incidentally, if you’re interested in a similarly good book about the early history of video games, Replay by Tristan Donovan is my favourite. I had so much fun reading it.
Finally, here’s a curiosity written by none other than Matt Thrower, a freelance reviewer for this very site!
Haynes is a UK publisher of hardback “general interest manuals” for everything from cars, to pigs, to the Millenium Falcon, to nuclear weapons. This year they commissioned one for Tabletop Gaming and Thrower did some sterling work.
In 183 full-colour pages the book takes you on a tour of the entire hobby. The first couple of chapters are a breakneck sprint through the history of games, and after that the chapters cover everything from where to play games online, to how to store games or paint miniatures, to how mathematics fit into the hobby or how small publishers make ends meet.
If you needed to explain this entire hobby to aliens, or perhaps your parents, this is the book to get. Although I think the final line of this manual could have sufficed as the entire book: “So long as you’re having fun, you’re doing it right.”
What are your favourite board game books, everybody? As tangential as you please.