Preview: Salmon Run


I interviewed Jesse Catron last Friday about his game currently up on Kickstarter, Salmon Run. Jesse was gracious enough to send me a prototype of the game (originally called “Pond Farr”) to preview. So what did I think of the game? Check out my comments below!

(Please note: Since I was sent a pre-art copy of the prototype, the pictures won’t be that helpful. Check out the game’s Kickstarter page for up-to-date pictures of the art. The rules and gameplay are the same.)

How It Works

Salmon Run is a deck-building racing game for two to four players. The game ends after the round in which at least one player reaches the spawning pond.

Each player begins the game with an eleven card deck corresponding to their salmon’s color. This deck contains mostly basic swim cards (swim left, swim right, swim forward), a wild card, and a bear card (which moves the bear pawns). Players begin the game by drawing four cards.

On a player’s turn, he may play up to three cards. The cards in the game are of three basic types: swim cards, special cards (bears, eagles, current, rapids), and fatigue cards. If a player plays a swim card, the player moves his pawn in the direction indicated on the card, and if he lands on a special hex, he does what the hex says (usually this involves adding a card to his discard pile to be included in his deck). This is how players move toward the spawning pond to win the game. Players must carefully navigate the board and must pace themselves, because if a player plays three swim cards in a turn, the player must add a fatigue card to his discard pile. Fatigue cards are dead cards: they have no action and only clog a player’s deck.

The special cards also help in the race. The bear card allows a player to move one of the bear pawns on the board. If a bear and salmon are in the same space, the player who controls that salmon must add a fatigue card to his deck. Current cards force players to flow backward along the current. Rapids and eagle cards can force players to discard cards. Players must also contend with waterfalls and other obstacles on the course.

After a player has played up to three cards, he refills his hand to four cards and play passes to the left. Play continues until at least one player reaches the spawning pond. Each player should have the same number of turns. If there is only one player in the spawning pond, that player wins outright. If there is more than one salmon in the pond, players compare how many fatigue cards are in their decks. The player with the fewest fatigue cards wins.

@FarmerLenny’s take:

Salmon Run is an excellent game, but it will probably not be for everyone.

First, let me talk about what Salmon Run is not: Salmon Run is not a brain-burning game that your Caylus- and Agricola-playing friends are going to clamor for at your next board game night. It also may not fit the bill for a couples game after the kids go to bed if your significant other is a fan of meatier fare. Salmon Run is very much a family-style game (as evidenced by its positioning within Gryphon’s family line), and it will probably be best received within that context.

But this is not meant to be a criticism of the game. Salmon Run is a great game with a very sleek design. It is simple to explain and understand, and the theme of salmon swimming upstream is borne out in every design decision, which reinforces the rules of the game.

Salmon Run is a deck-building racing game, but it doesn’t feel much like a deck-building game to me. I think the main reason for this is the inclusion of a game board. Players have a tangible goal that is beyond acquiring good cards for their decks: they are trying to win the race. But this does not make the deck-building aspect feel superfluous or tacked on. Similar to the item boxes in Mario Kart, the river’s special hexes encourage players to take a more considered route upriver, adding valuable special cards to their decks. In fact, Salmon Run is one of the first games I’ve played that I think successfully uses deck-building as an aspect of a larger game without making the game feel like a Dominion rehash.

Along the deck-building lines, I love the way fatigue works in the game. Players can push their salmon to the point of exhaustion to get a boost in the race, but they are punished for this by having to take a fatigue card, which will slow them down later. (It reminds me of the horse racing in the Legend of Zelda: poor Epona would get too many smacks in a row, and then I’d have to wait for her carrot meter to recharge. But did I learn my lesson? I digress…) Fatigue cards, like curse cards in Dominion, only load a player’s hand down. And unlike Dominion, where players refresh their hands at the end of every turn, in Salmon Run players must hold over cards they didn’t play from round to round. This makes fatigue cards even more undesirable (though a player may “trash” one fatigue card if all he plays on his turn is fatigue cards).

One of the most fun aspects of the game is moving the bear around and trying to catch your opponents’ salmon in its gaping maw. Unfortunately, with few bear spaces on the board (which add new bear cards to players’ decks), the number of times the bear can move is limited based on the number of players. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I think chaos could ensue with too many bear movements.) The bummer of this, though, is that the two-player game does not have the excitement that I would expect from a racing game. My wife doesn’t usually care for heavy games, but after playing a few rounds of Salmon Run with just the two of us, she asked if we could play something a little meatier.

And that’s okay. I mentioned at the beginning that Salmon Run is not a game for all contexts or all gamers. However, it is a game that knows what it wants to be, and for families, I’m hard pressed to come up with a better recommendation. Salmon Run offers a seamless play experience that’s fast and fun, all in a package with simple rules, clever play choices (especially for younger players), and a novel theme. The board is also modular and can be lengthened or shortened, depending on the whims of the group, so it seems like a lot of replayability is packed into the game’s box. I may not be anxious to play this game when it’s just me and my wife, but I can’t wait to play it with my niece and nephew (and my son, when he’s old enough–in eight years or so). I have a feeling they’re going to love it.

Salmon Run is currently on Kickstarter and has surpassed its initial funding goals. Check it out!

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Jesse Catron for the prototype of Salmon Run for this review.

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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