What's Eric Playing? #186: The Fox in the Forest
Instead of looking at Kickstarters for a bit, I wanted to take a look at a company that usually does Kickstarters but occasionally does some straight-to-retail stuff, as well, Foxtrot Games. I’ve played a number of their games in the past (and heard good things), so I wanted to give The Fox in the Forest a try.
In the Fox in the Forest, you play as characters in a (new, surprisingly) fairy tale about … foxes in forests and hey I review games not stories let’s stay on task. You’ll compete in a two-player trick-taking extravaganza over several rounds to see who emerges victorious. Will your humility lead you to victory? Or will greed be your downfall?
Setup is pretty straightforward. You can set aside the scoring tokens, for now:
Shuffle the cards — there should be 1 – 11 of each of three suits (Bells, Keys, Moons):
Deal 13 to each player and then set the other 7 cards aside as a deck. Flip the top card of that deck and place it next to the deck — that’s known as the Decree.
The suit of this card is important and will become relevant later in Gameplay. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to start!
So, The Fox in the Forest is a two-player trick-taking game. We should expand on that a bit before we go any further.
WHAT’S A TRICK-TAKING GAME?
This is going to be my source of truth for trick-taking games going forward, so I hope I do well, here.
Generally, in a trick-taking game, you play a series of rounds that are themselves composed of a series of turns, called “tricks”. On a player’s turn, they must play a card to the center of the play area, following these rules:
- If you are the first to play, you may generally play any card. This is called “leading” and the suit you lead with is known as the “led suit”.
- If you are not the first to play, you must either follow suit or throw off.
- Following suit means that you play a card of the same suit to the center. Generally, in trick-taking games, if you have a card of the same suit as the led suit, you must play it.
- Throwing off means that you play a card of a different suit. This may have a variety of consequences. Generally, in trick-taking games, you can only throw off if you have no cards in hand of the led suit.
Once everyone’s played, you determine who “takes” the trick. Generally, there is some order of priority to this, but before we can talk about that we should talk about the trump suit. Many trick-taking games (but not all) have some notion of a “trump” suit, which is a suit that beats other suits, when played. In most trick-taking games with trump suits, however, you cannot just play a trump card; you must still follow suit if you can. This means you can only play a trump card if the trump suit was led or if you have the ability to throw off. So in many trick-taking games, the priority is as follows:
- Highest trump card takes the trick;
- Highest card of the led suit takes the trick.
The winner of the trick takes it and then sets it aside, and then a new player (usually either the player who won or lost the trick) continues. The round continues until the final trick, at which point players should play their last card.
That’s trick-taking games, generally! Let’s talk about how The Fox in the Forest changes the rules, somewhat.
GAMEPLAY, FOR REAL.
So, like I said, The Fox in the Forest is a trick-taking game, and thankfully it mostly follows the rules I’ve spoken on previously. There are 13 tricks, and you play a card from your hand and your opponent must follow suit if they are able to do so. The “trump” suit in this case is the Decree suit (the face-up card near the deck), and the player that won the trick leads the next trick. There are a few twists on this game, though. One is scoring — you score each round based on how many tricks you take:
- 0 – 3 tricks taken: 6 points! (Humble)
- 4 tricks taken: 1 point. (Defeated)
- 5 tricks taken: 2 points. (Defeated)
- 6 tricks taken: 3 points. (Defeated)
- 7 – 9 tricks taken: 6 points! (Victorious)
- 10 – 13 tricks taken: 0 points. (Greedy)
Watch out for that one. Also, the odd-numbered cards have special abilities!
- 1 (Swan): Even if you lose, you lead the next trick.
- 3 (Fox): You may swap the Decree card with a card in your hand. This happens as soon as you play the Fox, so you may swap the suit of the Decree and change the outcome of the hand!
- 5 (Woodcutter): Draw the top card of the deck and then place a card from your hand (even the card you just drew) on the bottom of the deck.
- 7 (Treasure): The winner of this trick gains one point for each Treasure card played to the trick. This should really only ever be one point, but, I mean, things happen sometimes.
- 9 (Witch): If only one Witch is played in this trick, the Witch is treated as though it were a card of the Decreed suit. Note that you must follow suit (if possible) in order to play the Witch; the suit-change happens after the card is played.
- 11 (Monarch): If you lead with a Monarch, your opponent must play either a Swan or their highest-valued card. They must still follow suit, as well, so that’s always fun.
Once you’ve finished the round and scored, start a new round. The player who didn’t deal last round becomes the dealer / first lead this round. There are score thresholds depending on how long you’d like to play, too:
- Short game: 16 points!
- Normal game: 21 points!
- Long game: 35 points! You’ll need a pen and paper to keep score.
Play complete rounds until at least one player has that many points. At that point, the player with the most points wins!
PLAYER COUNT DIFFERENCES
It’s not The Friends in the Forest; it’s two-player only.
- The Swan is a terrible card to have at the end, usually. It’s not going to win you any tricks (at least not unless your opponent is trying to lose the trick), so if you’re trying to hold on to them, you should get rid of them before that point. Furthermore, you run the risk of letting your opponent throw off (as previously mentioned) and sticking you with the tricks and potentially pushing you into Greedy.
- The Fox is a great way to get tricky with your opponent. Changing the Decreed suit might not be a bad idea, but it’s also a way for you to potentially pass cards around (and trick your opponent), a way to get rid of low-valued (or high-valued) cards, and a potential way to get rid of your last card in a suit (especially if you want to force them to take every trick). Don’t underestimate it.
- Use the Woodcutter to get rid of cards (or as a potential Hail Mary if you need something). If you’ve got all the 9s and you’re trying to lose every trick, you need to bury them below the deck. The Woodcutter can help. If you haven’t seen any of the Treasures, yet, maybe use the Woodcutters to try and sift through the deck? You might be able to find helpful cards or get rid of unhelpful ones before they mess you up.
- Only play Treasures when you’re sure you can win. A fun thing to do is to play the Monarch if you already have / have seen the Swan / 10 / 9 / 8 of a suit, as it means if your opponent has that suit’s Treasure, they must play it. That doesn’t make you a lot of friends, but I’d be lying if I didn’t at least concede that it’s effective.
- Witches are interesting cards. So, they can beat a sloppy Monarch play (since they count as a card of the Decreed suit if there’s only one 9), which is super useful if you’re trying to take tricks. If you’re not trying to take tricks, 9’s aren’t as helpful, since they generally win. I haven’t yet seen a situation in which two 9s are played against each other, but, I imagine it’s … interesting?
- Monarchs are fun, but not unbeatable. Like I said, they can accidentally force a 9 if you’re unlucky or a 7 if you’re lucky. Forcing a Swan is generally nice since it also means that they lead the next trick. If you’re trying to take tricks, that gives you a shot to take two in a row.
- Commit to a strategy. You either want to take 7 tricks or take 0, and you need to decide basically when you look at your hand. Trying to decide later on means that you’re running the risk of playing into your opponent’s hands and taking too many tricks for either strategy. Usually it helps to see how many Monarchs / Witches / Swans you have; that’s the metric I use.
- Get rid of one suit early. It means you can’t be forced to play that suit. If it’s not the Decreed suit, that means that you can either choose to take the trick (with a Decreed card) or lose the trick (by throwing off with the other suit). Gives you a ton more options.
- Don’t get greedy. I don’t mean “don’t take every trick and get ranked Greedy and get 0 points”, as that’s an obvious bit. I mean more don’t let short-term wins trick you into long-term losses. If your goal is to take 0 tricks (so your opponent is Greedy), that might mean that you have to throw off and let your opponent have the Treasure card that they played. If you can manage to get it and still stay Humble? Wonderful. Generally, though, that’s tough, so make sure you’re keeping your eyes on the prize.
PROS, MEHS, AND CONS
- The art is incredible. It’s spectacular. The orange / blue / purples are very intense and the actual art feels very grounded in the theme of the game. It’s ethereal but familiar in the “these are all common fairy tale characters, just in a new context” way. I hope to see more games with Jennifer L. Meyer‘s art in them in the near future, since this is a very impressive set of work.
- It’s a really good two-player trick-taking game with no dummy player. Most trick-taking games have some sort of “fix” to let them work with two, but The Fox in the Forest is unique in that it’s specifically for two players. It’s much more a game of maintaining balance and then trying to tip the scales in your favor at the opportune time. Tip too early and you risk all the tricks being dumped on you, but tip too late and your opponent already has enough to take the round. It’s a really interesting design and I’d love to see it revisited or more games with this sort of “make it work at two players” mindset.
- Highly portable. Yeah, it’s < 50 cards and some optional tokens. Fits in a Quiver like nobody’s business, or a snack-size Ziploc baggie, if we’re being real. You can take this most places and it’s fast enough that you can pass the time before most things with it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Santorini at two, but it’s an ordeal to set it up and take it down.
- The Treasure cards are a nice touch. I like the strategic value that small incentives can provide, and I appreciate that I’ve lost rounds (and games) going for small points instead of worrying about winning big points. It’s a nice bit of tension for a game, and I’m glad it’s in there.
- The short game is the perfect length, and also a nice addition. I appreciate that they tried some variable length options. It means I can play this with an extra 10 – 15 minutes without getting wrapped up in it for a while. Honestly, I usually just teach it as “first player to 16” and don’t even bother with the full game. I prefer it, that way.
- Box is a bit large for what the game is. It’s not like, a wallet game, but it’s ~40 cards (plus player aids) and some cardboard score tokens? And then there’s not even enough for the “longer game” variant in the rulebook, which is just sort of odd, as well.
- You can just get completely hosed by bad draws in a round. If you have basically only even cards, you’re going to have a pretty bad time. It’s unlikely but possible, depending on how many cards you consider to be “basically only even cards”. I’ve had it happen once or twice and it is kind of a bummer. Thankfully, it’s not a game-wrecker, since it’s only one round.
- An experienced player will likely dunk on a new player during the first round. I’d strongly recommend playing a practice round to let the new player get familiarized with the game and some of the strategy. It’s kind of rude, otherwise, especially if you’re not playing the shorter game (since you get stuck with mistakes for a bit longer).
OVERALL: 8.25 / 10
Overall, The Fox in the Forest is a super neat little game! I like trick-taking games a lot, if I’m being honest (grew up with Euchre) and it’s nice to see a cool innovation in the space (and this is certainly innovative). The art is obviously phenomenal, which I specifically want to call out, but it’s a great game that’s enhanced by its portability. I’m naturally inclined to take a look at what Foxtrot produces (given that Spy Club, Lanterns, and others are super), and it’s clear to me that The Fox in the Forest is no exception within a fantastic lineup. If you’re looking for a super-fun two-player trick-taking game with no dummy player that’s fun, light, and has fantastic art (almost every word in that sentence is great), The Fox in the Forest is an excellent choice and worth checking out! I’ve had a lot of fun with it.