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Review: Morels

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One does not simply stumble upon a Morel. You must search deep in the woods, making sure that it is not one of many false morels first. Then it should be handled and prepared with the utmost care so that you preserve its unique flavor. Only then can you play this game. Come back when you are ready to take mushroom foraging more seriously.

How It Works

Morels is a set collection, hand management card game for 2 players about gathering and cooking mushrooms. The game is set up to represent a walk in the woods as you search for delicious mushrooms amidst fellow (and competing) mushroom enthusiasts.

The main deck that is used during the game, or Day deck, is mostly composed of several varieties of mushrooms. There are also baskets for holding additional mushrooms and pans for cooking them as well as butter and cider for added flavor. At the start of the game each player is dealt 3 cards and another 8 are dealt face up on the table in a line called the Forest. The rest of the Day deck is placed at one end of the Forest indicating where new cards will come into play. On the other end of the Forest is a spot for cards in the Decay, a sort of temporary discard pile. Each turn after an action is taken by a player the card closest to the Decay is moved into the Decay. The Decay can have at most 4 cards in it so if there are already 4 cards present they are removed from the game first to make room. After this the remaining cards in the Forest shifts down to fill the empty slots and new cards are drawn from the Day deck to fill back up to 8 cards.

Game setup from left to right: Day & Night decks, The Forest, and The Decay

Now that the Forest is set up and both players have some supplies to start the game with they will alternate taking turns until the Day deck has been depleted and the Forest is empty. On your turn you can perform one of a variety of options: gather mushrooms and various supplies, cook some of your mushrooms, sell your mushrooms, or prepare a pan for cooking.

As the cards represent the mushrooms and supplies, the first option is to take cards and add them to your hand. This can only be done as long as it doesn’t put you over the hand limit of 8 cards. Baskets allow you to carry more mushrooms and thus increase your hand limit by 2 each. Drawing cards may be done in two different ways, either one card may be taken from the Forest or all the cards are taken from the Decay. When taking a card from the Forest, the two cards closest to the Decay are considered “at your feet” meaning they are always available to take. The rest of the cards require trekking into the woods to get and will cost one foraging stick (Morel’s currency) for each card past the first two. Taking from the Decay always requires all the cards in the Decay to be taken which may include some mushrooms you weren’t collecting or even the deadly Destroying Angel, a mushroom you should best avoid.

Now that you’ve gathered some mushrooms from the Forest what are you going to do with them? Well, the most obvious thing is to cook them up for a tasty treat! In order to cook mushrooms you need to have a pan and at least three mushrooms of the same type. As mentioned earlier, there is also Butter and Cider that can be cooked along with your mushrooms for even more delicious feast. However, Butter can only be added with at least 4 mushrooms of the same type and Cider with at least 5. The pan and all ingredients are then set aside to be admired for the rest of the game and cannot be added to with more mushrooms or butter and cider. If you have a pan but don’t wish to cook any mushrooms yet you may simply take a pan and put it into play, freeing up space in your hand for valuable mushrooms.

Cooking some Porcini with Butter!

The other option for what to do with your mushrooms is to sell them for Foraging Sticks so you can gather cards deeper in the Forest. You can sell as many of one type of mushroom as you want but must have at least two mushrooms to do so, nobody wants to buy one lousy mushroom thank you very much. Each type of mushroom has an indicated sell value showing how many sticks are collected per mushroom sold in this way. Sold cards are discarded from the game.

There are two additional card types that represent further opportunities and challenges that you’ll face in your mushroom gathering. The first are Moon cards which represent the delightful opportunity to gather mushrooms uninhibited by hikers and fellow mushroom enthusiasts by the light of the moon. When a moon card is taken it is immediately discarded and the top card from a special Night deck is drawn. The Night deck is made up of one of each of the standard mushrooms except for the super rare Morel. However the versions found in the Night deck represent two mushrooms instead of one making it easier and more beneficial to cook or sell mushrooms of that type.

Where’d the bear go? The Day and Night cards have fun differences, can you spot them all?

There is also a dangerous mushroom, the Destroying Angel, which will make you very sick. When a Destroying Angel is taken it will be put into play right away and decreases your hand limit to 4 cards as long as it remains in play. The length that it will stick around is based on the number of cooked sets of mushrooms that you have, one turn for each set. If this causes you to have too many cards in hand then you must discard until you are at your new hand limit.

Once the forest has been depleted the game is over and all cooked mushrooms are scored (in Mushroom Varietal Points or MVPs). Each mushroom type has an MVP value and a cooked set of mushrooms is worth the sum of all MVPs in the set plus any bonuses from butter or cider. All cooked sets are totaled and the player with the most MVPs is the winner.  1-up!

Cook Some Morels Or Forage For More

When I first opened up Morels I was sitting at the table with my 20 month old daughter. She looked over at what I was doing with jealousy and asked enthusiastically “play da game?”  Well, the box says that it’s for 10 years and older so I told her it was a grown up game and proceeded to look through the cards, admiring the artwork. She wasn’t having any part of that and insisted that she wanted to play too. We spent the next half hour flipping through the cards, I would show her one and she would excitedly tell me what was on the card before demanding the next one. These are wonderfully illustrated cards and my daughter requests to play it every single day, grabbing it off the shelf to look through the colorful and fun cards. There’s a bear eating honey alongside the Honey Fungus, pigs grazing behind a pile of Hen of the Woods, Shitakes growing in a beautiful garden. Each mushroom has a unique setting that makes them easy to identify on the table and in your hand. The Night deck also provides an alternate nighttime scene based on their daytime counterpart, a very nice touch. The design of the cards is clean and emphasizes the great artwork as the main distinguishing factor with minimal text in place to show cooking and selling values along with the mushroom’s name. There is a quick reference card that shows how many of each card type there are in the Day deck but I wish they had put that information on the card as well so I didn’t have to check it so often. Not a big deal but I think it would have put all the information you needed right there and still kept the design minimal and clean.

The quick reference card is handy for looking up how many of each card there are

The game does an excellent job of creating a simple and easy to remember set of rules that plays well with the theme. The goal of gathering and cooking rare (and delicious) mushrooms is straightforward and the different card types all play into this concept. Baskets let you hold more cards, Pans let you cook your mushrooms, Butter and Cider are cooked along with mushrooms for additional flavor, and gathering by Moonlight lets you take your time and collect more mushrooms. Only the slightly clunky Destroying Angels need extended explanation but even they make some sense thematically so players will know to avoid them under most conditions. At its core Morels is a set collection game and the reason for collecting the sets of lucrative mushrooms is very clear, for a delicious feast!

The rules themselves are quite elegant in such a way to create a very seamless and tense game experience. A number of elements both create a variety of options to the players and give an interesting level of control over hand and time management. First of all is the Foraging Sticks mechanic. This very simple option opens up many strategic avenues at the same time. Players have a tough decision of giving up mushrooms that they may have wanted to cook in order to give them more control over gathering even more valuable cards later. Particularly when you have exactly 2 copies of a mushroom, you can either hold out for the third (and fourth) or you can sell them off immediately. The highest point mushrooms only have 3 or 4 copies each and being able to grab them before your opponent can be very important when that third copy shows up. The other option that selling provides is being able to grab a couple of mushroom that you know your opponent is collecting and then later sell them off for a strategic advantage. Once you have some sticks the tension comes in knowing when to use them, you can play it safe and grab that key card now or wait a turn and see if you can get it for less.

Selling some Tree Ears for foraging sticks

The hand management aspect of Morels is where the game really shines. The tension between holding onto your sets so that you can cook them for maximum points or simply using them now (cooking or selling) to make room for something valuable that just showed up is a constant tactical decision. There is an incentive to collect larger sets both with the limited number of pans as well as Butter and Cider which require more than the bare minimum 3 mushrooms to use. Baskets also provide a nice bonus in flexibility but are both highly sought after early and require you to give up the option of collecting other valuable cards in the process.

The Decay in particular makes the hand management element extremely important. The option to add multiple cards to your hand at once is huge but often it’s the unwanted common mushrooms that will just clutter up your hand. However, players have direct control over what ends up in the Decay so loading it with some goodies that may not appeal to your opponent or when your opponent is near their hand limit can be extremely advantageous. Just like proper hand management is critical to success, properly managing the Decay and knowing when to grab it or let it go is crucial. Time management also plays an interesting role in board manipulation. Stalling tactics like playing an empty Pan can bring a key card one position closer or fill up the Decay exactly how you wanted without adding something unwanted to your hand.

Beware the Destroying Angel!

The design of the Decay is an excellent answer to dealing with cards that neither player cares about. Rather than have them sit around clogging up the Forest, the Decay keeps things moving along in an elegant way while also creating a tough choice of saving on actions but having to take junk along with it. The Destroying Angel in particular adds to this tension as you would almost only ever acquire one through the Decay. Even though it adds nice depth to the game the Destroying Angel does seem a bit out of place in the very straightforward and elegant rules. It’s not a tough concept to understand, it just doesn’t seem to be as instantly intuitive as the rest of the game and may require you to look up the rules when you actually acquire one because it doesn’t happen very often. Along with that, the process of constantly sliding cards down the table is a bit tedious and without a doubt the least elegant aspect of Morels design.

The card variety and scarcity of more valuable cards keeps the layout of the Forest varied throughout the game and emphasizes the importance of foraging sticks and board manipulation. A string of valuable cards could load the Decay up with great cards but if you didn’t plan ahead and free up room in your hand you may have to pass them up. Likewise a Forest filled with less useful cards could require some stalling until something useful shows up. Being able to read the board and adapt encourages tactical play. Perhaps the most interesting card is the game’s namesake, the Morel. There are only three copies in the game, all of which are needed in order to cook them for a huge 18 points (most sets cook for 8-15). It’s a big investment to grab a pair of Morels and then hold onto them until the third one shows up, especially when you could sell two for 8 sticks (that’s a lot). In either the case of one player having two copies or both player having one each, when the third one finally shows up it’s an exciting moment and worth emptying out your stick collection for.

Getting a full set of Morels to cook is very challenging but rewarding!

There is definitely a memory aspect to Morels that could be a bit of a turn off to the casual crowd that would certainly find this game appealing. Particularly tracking cards that get discarded through the Decay early in the game and cards that your opponent is collecting can be the difference between holding two copies of a mushroom while waiting for the third to show up or knowing you can sell them off because there isn’t a third copy left in the deck. The starting hands and Night deck both create elements of uncertainty and the random way that the Forest is populated prevents this from being a perfect information game and keep things lighter but card counting presents a clear advantage.

This brings me to the one aspect of the game that I personally did not like and that is the Night deck. I’m not saying that it’s a bad design, it just tended to be a bit to swingy for my taste. I had games where I grabbed the early Moon cards only to be stuck with some of the worst mushrooms in the Night deck. Yeah, you know there’s a chance that you’ll get one of the lesser mushrooms when you take a Moon card but it’s just too important to ignore because the valuable mushrooms in the Moon deck are absolutely necessary to win. Not only do they give you a lot of points but they let you complete sets of rare mushrooms (particularly those with only 4 copies) with only 1 or 2 copies from the Day deck. Perhaps I haven’t played enough to know when it is worth ignoring the Moon cards, specifically early in the game when it seems like a no brainer. Having them be an extremely valuable card is not the main thing that bugs me though, it’s having them vary so widely in how valuable they are. I know there are some variants in how to play with the Night deck to reduce this variance but I do think that the original design is ultimately the best option that I’ve heard so far.

The Moon card and Night deck, love it or hate it

Morels is an excellent, fast-playing, and light card game that takes full advantage of hand management. The artwork is fantastic, nicely varied, and guaranteed to keep your young ones entertained for (apparently) hours on end. You can feel comfortable keeping it out in plain sight at home or work and play a game to pretty much anyone that asks “What’s a Morels?”

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Game Salute and Two Lantern Games for providing a review copy of Morels.

Summary

  • Rating 7.5
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Summary

Pros

  • Original theme
  • Great artwork makes identifying cards easy
  • Elegant and simple rules
  • Great use of hand management
  • Varied options create tension for the whole game

Cons:

  • Night deck can be swingy
  • Sliding mechanic is a bit fiddly
  • Memory element can create player imbalance
7.5 Good

I love optimization and engine games with tableau builders and card driven ones being my favorite. This usually means medium-heavy euros and medium-light card games.

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