Review: The Fox in the Forest
If like me you grew up in a world before modern hobby boardgame's were around, or rather, before you knew they were around, then you likely grew up on a steady diet of Monopoly, Risk (boooo), and games that can be played with a single deck of cards. The humble 52 card deck was the gateway to hours and hours of fun, from the original solo mode game, Solitaire, to almost anything else you can think of. Rummy, Sevens, Crazy Eights, Hearts, 52 Card Pick Up, the little pack of joy could do it all. But the one style of game that I would spend hours playing with my family more than any other, was trick taking games. There was a flow to the way they worked that just clicked with me, a simple mechanic that was in multiple games and a couple of different variations, all of which were easy to play and fun for me, parents, grandparents, and friends alike.
The Fox In the Forest is a modern take on a simple trick taking game - that was designed by Joshua Buergel and published by Renegade Games - for just 2 players to battle it out over 13 tricks at a time to see who can score the most points. If you aren't familiar with the trick taking concept it's pretty simple (to show, not as much to explain in text...) and it is present in many classic card games, so you might not know that you already know, ya know. One player will lead and play a card in a suit, the next player will then have to play a card of the same suit if they have one, and the person with the higher number card wins. If the non-lead player cannot play a card of the same suit then they can play a card from another suit, which usually means they will lose the trick, this is where the trump suit comes in however, which is referred to as the Decree card in The Fox in the Forest. This is a card at the beginning of the round that is flipped from the top of the deck of remaining cards and shows which suit currently trumps all the others, and if a trump card of any value is played against a non-trump card, then the player who played the trump card wins. So even low value trump cards have a purpose for winning tricks, and a lot of the strategy in a game revolves around when to play these, when to empty your hand of a suit so you can play more, and other hand management techniques.
The Fox In the Forest introduces a couple of interesting twists to the standard formula though, all of which I have to say upfront, I really enjoyed. Firstly, there are only 3 suits instead of 4, which might not seem like a big change but after a couple of plays you realise is something that probably took a lot of play-testing to come down to. As this is only a 2 player game, only having only 3 suits limits the times where a player has to play out of suit cards and lose a trick due to not having the right suit, always a bad feeling. They can follow suit or play a trump card a lot more of the time and this keeps the game flow going, and means there are more meaningful decisions more often. Secondly, and with a more modern flavour, every odd numbered card in the game has a special power when played, further mixing up the gameplay. These cards are depicted with Fairy Tale characters such as the Woodcutter or the Swan, and are the same across the suits, so all the 11's Monarchs with the same power for example, so there's not too many to learn, but they definitely change things up. They allow players to do things like swap the Decree Card with a card in their hand, even mid-trick (devastating...), draw a card from the pile and then discard one, gain extra points, force the opponent to play specific numbers, and other impactful powers. These are the biggest change to the minute to minute gameplay and really change up how the standard trick taking game is played. There's an added layer of strategy then to not only when to play which suit but when is the best time to commit these powers to win, or to deliberately lose, a trick.
"Why would you deliberately lose, you fool!" I pretend to hear you cry at the screen. That's because of one final interesting element of the gameplay, and that is the round scoring. Each round you play 13 tricks, and players will get points depending on how many they win, BUT! - it isn't a linear progression where more is better. Oh no, if you get 'Greedy' and win every trick, you actually get 0, and your opponent gets points for being the 'Humble' hero of the Fairy Tale. This means the real battleground for points is to try and get 7 to 9 tricks, a few more than your opponent, but not so many that you over commit and lose everything. You now have to be careful not to rush too far ahead, as your opponent can easily flip their strategy to making sure you win the rest of the tricks, with a smug look on their face as they play crap card after crap card feeding you tricks that will ultimately lead you to your demise. It's an amazingly clever balance change to the game and one that keeps things interesting, whether you and your opponent are currently close on tricks, vying for that sweet spot in the middle ground, or if someone is storming ahead, risking it all.
The game is a small box game, as it's contents are essentially a deck of cards and some score tokens to keep track between rounds, and even then you could decant it down to just the 33 cards for travel if needed. The card quality is good but another one of the highlights for me is the individual and wonderful art on the cards. Each odd numbered card in each suit has a unique watercolour looking painting on it and really brings the game to life. The Swans look majestic, the Fox's look cute but conniving, the Woodcutters look like Hero's and the Monarchs look like villains. It's quite incredible how much character the artist - Jennifer L. Meyer - has managed to pack on to such small cards. The consistent theming even helps with the gameplay, as cards like the Swan and the Treasure are instantly recognisable across each suit once, so you learn the powers you stop needing to read the cards after one game and know instantly what is going on. They really do fit the theme of the game and give the whole presentation, from the box through to the components, a real aesthetic cohesion and style.
The Fox in the Forest then, is at it's heart a simple trick taking game, familiar to anyone who had a deck of cards and a childhood, but with more modern trappings like card abilities and scoring methods that keep things fresh. The gameplay is fast paced with each trick being only 2 cards, and the whole game moves and flows incredibly well as there is a constant back and forth between yourself, and your adversary. The presentation and art is sublime and shows that real care went into the whole package. It is a great little box for game nights between big meaty stuff, perfect for travelling with your partner, and fantastic for a quick game in the evening after dinner with a glass of wine. I'd recommend picking it up if a small, simple, but repeatably interesting, game is what you're after.