There are games that will test your intellectual mettle and take you to the edge of your mental capacity. There are games that pit you against your opponents in a battle of wits and only the most nimble thinker will emerge victorious. Games can challenge your problem-solving abilities, spatial reasoning and long term thinking. Victory hinges on outwitting, outsmarting and outplaying your opponents. There are games that leave you mentally exhausted after a three hour session of non-stop churning.
And then there’s Happy Salmon.
How it Plays
Every player has a deck of cards in their chosen color. Your goal is to get rid of all of your cards before everyone else. The game is played in real time with all players acting simultaneously. You will take your deck in the palm of your hand and call out the action of the topmost card of your deck. If someone else calls out a matching action, you can perform the stated action together after which both players will discard that card and move on to the next. You can, at any time, take the topmost card and move it to the back of the deck in order to reveal the next card.
There are 12 cards in each deck consisting of 4 different actions. There is High 5 in which both players raise their hands and move towards each other until contact is made. It’s done with enough force to create a clapping sound. Apparently it’s a popular fad amongst the kids. Next is Pound It. Both players will form fists and lightly punch each other’s knuckles. It’s also known as the official presidential greeting. There’s also Switcheroo in which players will switch physical locations with each other. Lastly, there’s the Happy Salmon which is so ubiquitous that it requires no explanation.
What’s that? You’ve never heard of a Happy Salmon? I find that hard to believe, as I can’t recall a single business meeting that didn’t begin with a furious session of Happy Salmoning. Luckily it’s pretty easy to understand. Both participants will extend their hands towards each other and lightly slap their palms on the inside of the other person’s forearm 3 times.
Silly Salmon Slapping
Happy Salmon isn’t smart or clever. It’s downright silly. It’s a flurry of slapping, yelling and flying fists. It’s an exercise in making a fool of yourself in as short a time as possible. It’s also a ton of fun.
I’m fairly certain that most people will have already made up their minds about Happy Salmon after learning how it plays. And in this case, that would be fair. From its ridiculously cute salmon-shaped pouch to its slender yet thick cards that are meant to fit easily in your hand while taking abuse, Happy Salmon doesn’t shy away from its silliness. It wears it proudly on its sleeve. If you’re put off by its inherent irreverence, I doubt there’s anything I can say to change your mind, but I can at least delve into why I enjoy it.
In general, my gaming tastes lean towards the heavier, more involved end of the spectrum. Some of my favorite games include Archipelago, Three Kingdoms Redux and Le Havre. I have my limits for sure, but I tend to stay away from lighter, family oriented games. There isn’t enough meat on the bones of a game like Ticket to Ride to keep me engaged long-term. So it might be surprising to hear that I really enjoy this game. But Happy Salmon offers me something that very few games do: permission to act a fool.
I’m a pretty reserved person in day-to-day life. I’m generally quiet and keep to myself. I’m not a recluse by any means and I’m easy enough to get along with, but I’m not the most expressive person you’ll meet. But then comes along a game like Happy Salmon, where being loud isn’t only tolerated, but just about required if you want any chance at winning. Demonstrative gesturing and running around in circles are not things that I do in my everyday life. But I can have fun letting loose every once in a while. Since a game of Happy Salmon lasts no more than 5 minutes, I can get it out my system in a short burst. The action is frantic and it doesn’t last long enough for me to grow self conscious about how ridiculous I look.
A large reason I can get into Happy Salmon is because every action requires the participation of another player. You’re not being ridiculous alone. These events of micro-cooperation are an illustration of what makes gaming in general so great. When a player comes to the table to play a board game, there’s a silent agreement to buy into the world the game presents. When viewed from afar, all games are pretty silly. Moving cardboard and plastic bits while make believing that you are a robber baron or dashing adventurer is a wild concept. Yes, it’s silly, but it’s also magic. To get people to enter a world where the rules of the game supersede the rules of reality, that is what play is all about. It can be easy to dismiss a group of people playing Happy Salmon as a flash of mindless energy, but it’s play in its purest form.
For all of its irreverence, Happy Salmon isn’t a free for all. There are rules to follow, decisions to be made. Do you hold out and hope someone else will give you a high five soon? Or do move on to the next card? How long will you wait? Seeing people around you switching places and slapping forearms while you’re stuck on that one card can make time crawl. You just know that as soon as you move on to the next card someone is going to yell, “High Five!” Why didn’t you just wait a little longer?! It’s a small decision, but it’s real and you feel the consequences. The franticness of the experience and the real time pressure elevate this small decision above and beyond what you would expect.
Happy Salmon won’t win any awards and it won’t be listed on any top games lists, but it’s still worth highlighting. If you can get past your own self image and buy into the admittedly ridiculous premise of Happy Salmon, you’ll be rewarded with rush of fun and laughter. If you can’t buy in, there’s really nothing for you here. But if you’re even the least bit interested, I’d implore you to take 5 minutes and give it a try. You might be surprised how much fun you’ll have.