“Hey, so I have this idea for a card game. It’s actually going to be a trick taking game.”
“Oh yeah? Well, I was just drawing some pictures of a fox and fairy tale stuff. Do you want to use it?”
“Oh, it’s nice! I guess so. I mean it’s just a card game, but some eye candy wouldn’t hurt.”
And they lived happily ever after … that’s how games are made, right?
How it Plays
The Fox in the Forest is a trick taking game made for two players. The deck of cards consists of 3 different suits with values ranging from 1 to 11. Each player is dealt a hand of 13 cards and the remaining cards are set aside to make the draw deck. The top card of the draw deck is turned face up and establishes the trump suit.
The starting player leads the trick and the other player must play a card of the same suit. If they have no cards in their hand of the same suit, they may play any card in their hand. Whoever played the highest valued card in the lead suit wins the trick, unless a card in the trump suit was played. The winner of the trick leads the next and play continues until all 13 cards are depleted from the players’ hands. The number of tricks you won that hand determines the number of points you earn. Multiple hands are played until one player reaches 21 points which signals the last hand of the game. Whoever has the most points at the end of the game is, strangely enough, declared the winner.
I previously reviewed Anansi and the Box of Stories and chastised it for its poor rulebook and inability to explain a major concept of trick taking games. I was a card game newbie at the time and I’ve since brushed up on my card game knowledge with the help of a guide and by playing a multitude of other card games. Seeing how varied a simple deck of cards can be manipulated by designers to make all sorts of different games has been enlightening. As much as the games, especially trick takers, tread in the same waters and hit similar notes, it’s the unique spins that the designer puts on the game that makes it sing its own song. I’m sure there are other trick taking games that work or are even explicitly designed for two player, but The Fox in the Forest is a first for me.
I won’t claim to have a great handle on advanced card game strategery, but I do know that keeping track of cards played and piecing together which cards might be played by which players goes a long way towards not only winning, but actually understanding what’s going on. It wasn’t until I started tracking cards and keeping mental notes did I begin to recognize a good play from a bad one. In all the trick taking games I’ve played, every card is dealt so you can keep track of every card in play, just not exactly who has what. It’s the unknown variable that makes it a game and not merely a puzzle for you to ruminate. In a two player game, having complete information would make the puzzle fairly trivial. Luckily, The Fox in the Forest adds some chaos into the mix in two distinct ways: not dealing out every card and a bunch of card powers.
Setting aside a small draw deck that isn’t dealt to the players introduces a bit of uncertainty into the equation. Where you might ordinarily hesitate to play a 10 card when you know an 11 card will beat it, now you can gamble and hope that any card that would beat yours isn’t in play. It’s the replacement to the uncertainty that multiple opponents ordinarily introduces, but it isn’t the only trick this Fox has up its sleeves.
Every odd card in the game has an associated power that activates when played. The 5 card, for example, allows you to draw the top card from the draw deck and then return any card from your hand to the bottom of the deck. When you lose with a 1 card you lead the next trick, dulling the sting of getting dealt the lowest card in the game. More than half of the cards in the game have an ability and each one is a tool that helps you manipulate the game state in your favor. Taking a card from the draw pile gives you more information and allows you to hide a weak card. Leading the next trick means you dictate the flow of play. All the typical trick taking tropes work in concert with a more hobby-centric, combo style game making creating something that resembles a classic card game with more modern sensibilities.
One thing that doesn’t quite match the classic mold is the card quality. During my descent into the card game cavern, I started picking up nice looking playing cards (check out Steve Minty cards for some truly gorgeous ones) and I’ve been spoiled by the feel of a high quality card in my hand. The springy action and velvet finish of a nice set of cards can make the very act of shuffling and handling the cards an act of joy. The cards in The Fox in the Forest don’t live up to the standards and feel more like high quality paper than high quality playing cards. The art on the cards is fantastic, but I wish they handled as beautifully as they looked. I would have gladly paid more for a higher quality set of cards.
A discussion of The Fox in the Forest wouldn’t be complete without talking about the scoring system. At the end of each hand, points are given according to the number of tricks you collected. Win 4 tricks, earn 1 point. Win 5 tricks, earn 2 points. Win 6 tricks, earn 3 points. Win 7-9 tricks, earn 6 points. Where things get interesting is when a player wins 10 or more tricks. If you win that many tricks, you are considered greedy and gain no points. Instead, your opponent earns 6 points for the hand. This, coupled with the various card powers, works to alleviate the spiral that comes from being dealt a poor hand.
The nature of card games means that sometimes you won’t get the cards you want. Games have tried all sorts of things to try and give the player options out of a bad hand and The Fox in the Forest does and admirable job on this front. You can turn the table with a well played 9 card that acts as if it were trump suit even if it isn’t. Playing a well timed 1 card can snatch control from a steam rolling opponent. And if things are really going sideways, intentionally throwing the hand actually ends up working in your favor. In practice, I found it harder to make your opponent play a greedy round than it sounded. I figured that I’m generally pretty good at losing games when I try so it must be easier to lose if I’m really trying. But keep in mind, your opponent knows the consequences of winning too many hands so they’re walking that fine line between winning just enough and winning too much.
The Fox in the Forest isn’t a grandiose game and it isn’t revolutionary. It’s a card game in the most classic sense. It’s meant to occupy just enough of your mind to keep you sharp but not so engrossed that you can’t get a conversation going. If you have memories of sitting around a table, slinging cards, laughing and telling stories, then The Fox in the Forest can occupy that space in your collection when it’s just a duo.