One persistent problem in the board game hobby is perseverance. We don’t often stick with a game longer than but a few plays, if that, before it’s relegated to the shelf, collecting dust, as we move on to the newest shiny baubles. I don’t suspect this is unique to our hobby. Nonetheless, it can be tricky to create a design that entices players back for more and more plays. Just how is a designer to create something that fosters replayability and lures you back to the table for more?
(Ed. Note: The following images may contain “spoilers.” If you don’t want to know what later locations in the deck allow, but discover them for yourself, then don’t look at the pictures!)
How To Play
Hopefully you’re very thirsty or really dig the latest health drink craze, because the goal in Fabled Fruit is to collect sets of fruit to mix into particular juices. Innovative designer Friedemann Friese combines worker placement and set collection, but that’s not the game’s central conceit. Rather he has worked those two familiar mechanics into his inventive Fable System – a sort of minimalist campaign-style twist and/or legacy element. Except you don’t permanently alter anything like most legacy games, so you can start over any time. And it’s not a campaign as in a contained story, but more an ongoing evolution of game play. That’s the design’s draw.
To concoct delicious juices players will visit location cards. There are fifty-nine different locales. Don’t worry…they’re not all out at once! Indeed you’ll play with but a handful each game. The locations deck is stacked in descending numerical order. Each spot (except #59) has four copies. Your very first game begins with all of the first six locations stacked together by number. These are places you may visit.
On a turn you must visit a new location, placing your animal token to indicate your move. If any player(s) already occupy that spot, you give each one a fruit from your hand if you have any. Then you may perform one of two actions. Most of the time you will resolve the location’s ability, taking advantage of the unique critter’s help to draw, exchange and/or steal fruits. Alternatively, each location also specifies a recipe of mixed fruits required to make delicious juice. Should you have the matching cards, you may turn them in and take the location. Flip it over. You have now made one juice. Then take the top card from the locations deck and play it to the table. If that location is already out, add it to its stack. If it hasn’t been brought into play, yet, then start a pile for that number and the new locale is now available for players to visit.
That is the core of the game. It’s really that simple. The meat of play is discovering and experiencing the variety of ways you can interact with the locations and how they relate to each other. Since mixed juices are always replaced with new location cards, there will always be twenty-four total on the table. How many different locales comprise that number depends entirely on which recipes players make. The first to five, four or three juices depending on the number of players wins.
That happens pretty quickly for the most part and so it’s easy to haphazardly label the design as a filler. But there is more to Fabled Fruit – the aforementioned Fable System. Since you only use around a dozen to fifteen spots each game, this quasi-legacy creation lets you get to all of those high numbered locations. Eventually. When one game is over, you either keep or record the locations you ended with to begin the next, keeping the giant locations deck as is so that you may continue where you left off. Over time, you’ll make your way through the massive stack of fifty-nine cards, each session unveiling something fresh with new ways to gather the fruits you need to squeeze your way to victory!
Freshly squeezed? Or Made From Concentrate?
I’m always on the lookout for unique games. Fabled Fruit certainly qualifies, but in a different manner than one might first expect. It doesn’t provide any new rule or groundbreaking mechanism. Rather its evolving game play creates an intangible fun that’s difficult to critique analytically, but definitely offers a uniquely good time.
The reason I struggle with an analytical critique is that, technically, there’s nothing new with the design. It’s essentially a stripped down worker placement game in that you have one decision to resolve from among a number of locations. That minimalist action selection immediately sets the title up as accessible to any number of demographics…provided they are of reading age. Albeit, reading is pretty much required here, because other than how to perform your action, the cards contain all of the game’s rules.
Those individual actions, while clever, will still feel largely familiar. At every location you can draw fruits, steal them or exchange cards between the market, deck and/or other players. In some cases where you might not meet the locale’s condition, you simply draw a compensatory fruit. It’s not an original mechanism and every location follows this formula. Sure some are wild and crazy and a few even add new elements and components, but nonetheless are about further manipulating your collection of fruit. This frugal and agreeable rules structure ventures into filler territory. But while one play alone seemingly would fit the category, the Fable System paces the title ahead of the pack with its sheer variety of ever-changing options and a deliciously emergent gameplay.
That’s the design’s central appeal. Players look forward to new locations surprising them with fancier options, interesting twists and crafty combinations. At the same time you will collectively bemoan the passing of favorite and/or powerful locations as they are turned into juices and forever removed from your ongoing game – or at least until you reset things. Like few other titles before it – and not labeled “party game” – Fabled Fruit isn’t about strategy or tactics. Of course you can and will play smart and make informed decisions. However, the game’s volatile fluidity in which locations are routinely exhausted, hands often pilfered and cards randomly drawn make planning problematic.
Ironically that all fosters the prospect of upsetting others’ schemes. There’s a greater amount of interaction in Fabled Fruit than it would first seem based on its light rules and cartoony illustrations. Aside from the outright stealing and exchanging of cards, there are other sly moves that depend on your ability to gauge and deduce an opponent’s plan. If you’ve noted the types of fruits another is collecting, there are locations that let you target wrecking a specific one from their hand. Or if you guess what juice they’re going after next, you can move there to exact payment or maybe even prevent it temporarily. And only a temporary stay may prove the difference as games tend to be very close. Every little delay can make a difference.
One aspect the design’s quasi-legacy character cannot address is randomness. In the end, it’s a card game. Gathering the right ingredients at the right time for the right recipe happens just as arbitrarily as it can through adept set collection. There are generally ten, eleven or sometimes even more juice selections on the table at any given moment. That’s not as interesting to those who prefer craftier set collection. On the flip side, the variety lightens the burden of focusing on a particular set – because you don’t necessarily need to – which alleviates the uncertainty wrought by player meddlings and natural card draws.
Still, don’t let the frivolous chaos frighten you off. Individual sessions are typically light and fast enough to shake off the bad aftertaste from any luck or spite – if it leaves any at all. Since Fabled Fruit’s distinctiveness flows from its emergent play, you won’t necessarily visit this one because you enjoy worker placement games, or really dig set collection, or have a need for light and quick fillers. You’ll come for the unique adventure of discovery with a game that encourages and rewards repeated plays. It’s rare that a game gives you a sense of purpose to pulling it off the shelf again and again. Or perhaps a reason to not box it back up in the first place!
By and large – we’ve not yet quite made it through the entire stack – Freise has admirably created locations that logically follow and build on previous revelations to create a nice flow. Of course, any synergy depends on which cards players collectively mix into juices and remove from the board. We did experience one clunker of a game that really dragged because the combination of locales didn’t compliment well with each other, offered very little interesting to do and made it difficult to collect fruits. Other than that, sessions offer enough interesting experimentation…or a lot.
Fabled Fruit is indubitably a very good game. It’s light and moves nimbly and is utterly approachable. It won’t blow anyone away with its depth, nor its strategic or tactical refinement, because there really isn’t any. Sure, there are fun combinations, clever moves and ways to manipulate people, but they’re fairly superficial and wholly familiar. All of these elements create a wonderful filler design – but one that would be forgettable after some time. Yet what’s impressive here is the how the Fable System asserts itself over and above any mechanisms or elements to create a remarkably entertaining sense of discovery as players look forward to each new location and how it will evolve the game. It’s as if it demands a regular rotation in your gaming repertoire by rewarding people who stick with it to flesh out the design’s intent. Thankfully to encourage that investment, its whimsical ease and generally quick session times help make Fabled Fruit ripe for multiple plays in one sitting with the right group. And by right group I mean pretty much any group.
Stronghold Games provided a copy of Fabled Fruit for this review.