North American cover vs. non-NATen days ahead of Gen Con 2023, I posted a video about my five most anticipated games. During the event, I played three of these five games, so I thought I’d talk about whether those choices panned out. (I bought the other two games — Pollen and Tiger & Dragon — without trying them.)
• My top pick for the show was Forest Shuffle, the second title from Kosch, who debuted in 2022 with FYFE). Publisher Lookout Games does solid development, and I adored 2019’s Mandala (write-up here), and from reading the rules I knew that Forest Shuffle was a card-based game that involved combos and special powers, so everything looked promising.
While in a meeting in the Asmodee business lounge, I happened to mention that I was looking forward to Forest Shuffle, and Alexis, a non-Lookout representative, overheard me and said, “Oh? Do you want to learn? I’d be happy to teach you.” Turns out that Alexis had already played 30+ times, and he was willing to give up his lunch break just to play it again.
Each player in Forest Shuffle builds their own forest from cards, populating it with plants and wildlife to score as many points as possible. Players alternate taking turns until the third winter card is drawn from the bottom third of the deck, at which point the game ends immediately.
Each turn, you take one of two actions:
— Draw two cards, with each card coming from the deck or the clearing. (You can hold at most ten cards in hand.)
— Play a card from your hand, then check the clearing.
When you play a card, you must pay the cost by discarding cards from your hand into the clearing. If the clearing contains at least ten cards at the end of your turn, remove all cards in the clearing from the game.
Each card has a comes-into-play ability or an ongoing ability or an endgame scoring ability or some combination of the three.
Tree cards, of which there are eight types, stand on their own. They’re trees, after all!
The other cards are divided either horizontally or vertically, and each half of the card features different forest dwellers. When you play one of these cards, you pay for the half you want, then tuck the card under a tree, keeping that half visible. Each tree can have at most four cards tucked under it — one from each direction — unless a card tells you otherwise.
Winter has come
Every non-tree card is both an opportunity and a stumbling block. What do you want to collect? How does a deer interact with a butterfly, if at all? Does a mushroom combo well with birds? You can’t do everything, especially since you must pay for cards by discarding other cards. You might be able to pick up these discarded cards on a later turn, but if an opponent knows what you need, they can pick them up, then use them for payment when the clearing is nearing a clearing.
Experience with the cards will obviously make a huge difference in how well you do. Alexis created a herd of deer, then played wolves and other predators that score from deer whereas I had no idea how cards might combo. He discarded bats and other cards that would have earned me many points just ahead of a clearing sweep, and he twice played cards that scored all of the cards in the clearing, tossing them in his cave for 1 point per card. He consistently achieved one-time effects by paying for cards with the matching card type, effects that allowed him to draw more cards, play another deer immediately, or take another turn.
In short, Alexis knew what he was doing and he could also monitor and thwart what I was doing, whereas I was treading water and making somewhat random plays. No surprise then that Alexis doubled my score. (I appreciate when a demo person crushes me in a somewhat random-seeming game as that is evidence the randomness can be tamed and guided.)
Forest Shuffle triggered my Innovation sensors — that being my #1 game of all time — because I was constantly blessed with combo possibilities and the opportunity for smart plays, at least I think I was, but felt like I was squandering it all. I still recall feeling overwhelmed like that in my early games of Innovation, whereas now I’m playing that game based on the cards that might come my way or what I think my opponent is planning, and I’m a decent player.
I have hope for that with Forest Shuffle and bought the game immediately afterwards, Asmodee having five hundred copies on hand to seed the market ahead of the game’s retail debut in October 2023. With luck, I’ll have a better handle on how to play the game by then.
Ensemble landed on my anticipated list as it’s a co-operative game with limited communication, and I’m often a fan of designs that require you to speak to one another via game components.
The challenge of the game is that you’re given a target image, and each player secretly chooses which image in a display most matches that target image. You each lay down a number card, then reveal them at the same time. If everyone played the same number, hooray! Discard the target image, move the guessed image out of the array as it will be the new target image, then add two new image cards to the display. Thus, if you succeed, next round you will have more images from which to guess.
The black marker tells you how many images to lay out (Image: Benoit Mialet)
If you don’t all guess the same number, you flip over a heart token, discard the target image, make the image that was guessed the most the new target image, and don’t put out any new cards. Now you have better odds of guessing the same image — and you’ll never have fewer than two images on display — but if you run out of hearts, you lose the game.
When you all guess an image correctly, you regain a lost heart, so the game has lots of back and forth as you swing from success to failure repeatedly. With more than four players in the game, you have more leeway with mistakes; if all but one player guess the same image, the round is still a success and you add another card to the display, but you don’t recover a heart. (With seven players, the seventh heart that you would lose allows for a success when two people don’t match the group. The game accommodates up to ten players.)
If you succeed when you have nine cards in the display, you win the game. We played Ensemble three times in the BGG Hot Games Room with five, six, and seven players, and I think we never had more than six cards on the display. Tough game!
Winning is often secondary in these types of designs, though — or rather each success is a victory on its own, and you feel pumped from that connection with others.
Then you fail, and you’re like, “No! How could you have chosen that image?!” — and they’re doing the same to you. Ha ha, people are different. Who knew?
One key element to this design is that the most guessed image becomes the new target. Sometimes you’ll have an obvious match, say, a sword sticking in a base and someone pulling a knife out of a purse. You get that correct, no surprise, but now the target image is someone pulling a knife out of a purse…and suddenly different aspects of that image pop: the hand, the purse, the vase in the background, the flowers in the vase, the oval frame around the image, the gray background. What’s important in that image shifts, and ideally you all shift the same way, but that’s probably not going to happen.
(Disclosure: Ares Games had sold out of Ensemble by the time I visited its booth, but when I passed by later, they offered a review copy that had apparently been on display somewhere.)
• Kelp is the debut design from Carl Robinson and the second title from publisher Wonderbow Games, which debuted in 2023 with Hunters of the Lost Creatures. (Kelp is being crowdfunded in 2023 for release in 2024.)
Kelp caught my eye as a two-player asymmetric game akin to ye olde Fox and Geese, that is, a game in which you have the hunter versus the hunted. In Kelp, one player is a common octopus and the other is a pyjama shark. If the shark eats the octopus, it wins, but if the octopus can evade the shark long enough, the shark dies of hunger, then the octopus eats the shark wins.
To set up, the octopus player places their nine starting blocks facing them, then places the shark in one of the four dens at the corner of the 3×3 grid.
In terms of game design, the octopus playing a deck-building game, the shark a dice bag-building game. The octopus starts with the “Fast Learning” card in hand along with three random cards from its starting deck. On a turn, the octopus takes two actions from these options:
— Refill your hand to four cards.
— Play a card, which often involves revealing blocks as a cost.
— Discard a card to hide a block.
When you play one of the “Learning” cards, you add a new card to your deck or a new block to your board. The additional blocks let you set more shark traps, pay for cards more efficiently (as you can reveal the two-shell block to pay a cost of 2 instead of revealing two one-shell blocks), or add octopus food to your board along with a related card; this food gives the octopus player an alternate victory condition: Eat all four pieces of food, and you then have the strength to eat the shark escape immediately.
On its turn, the shark draw three dice from its bag, then rolls them. The bag starts with seven blue dice, two yellow ones, and one red one. The shark must move two spaces (as a shark can never stand still) on the indicated paths that circle the blocks, and by placing a blue die on a line, the shark “rides the current” one additional space. By placing a yellow die of sufficient value next to a block that’s adjacent to the shark, the shark reveals that block. Placing a red die of sufficient value next to a block, whether hidden or revealed, allows the shark to chomp that block.
The shark doesn’t want to chomp randomly because if it bites a shell, it loses the red die, placing it in its “hunger row” that has room for seven dice. More importantly, it’s lost the lone red die and cannot chomp again…or can it?
Dice can also be placed on powers (from left to right), with the first three such dice giving you a re-roll ability for one die, and each subsequent power getting better. (Dice are returned to the bag after acquiring a power.) You can also use the dice to acquire new dice and one-time abilities as shown on the four cards on the shark’s side of the game board. Each card has a cost on it, and the three dice you set aside to buy a card must sum to at least this cost, with a player being able to buy more than one card at a time. When you buy a card, you place one of the used dice in your hunger track, then return the other dice to your bag, along with the new dice.
Two games of Kelp in the First Exposure Playtest Hall at Gen Con 2023
I played one game with Wonderbow co-founder Sönke Schmidt, and he proved to be a very adept shark — a shark shark, if you will — hunting me down and eating me while he had only three or four dice on his hunger track, with two unused effect cards still in reserve.
Playing the octopus seems tough as nearly every card requires you to reveal at least one block to play it, but I think I worried too much about revealing. After all, as long as I had three blocks that were never revealed, the octopus would be among those three, with the trap being another one of those blocks. (Kelp has a memory aspect for both players, with the shark needing to remember what they’ve seen and the octopus needing to remember what they’ve revealed so that they can reveal the same blocks again later.)
Additionally, I bought only one card and removed only one, which probably kept my deck at a lower power than it could have had.
The biggest problem was Schmidt, though, as he found me quickly and I darted away poorly, not giving him too much trouble in finding me again. Kelp also has a last-chance mechanism for the octopus. When you’re bitten, both you and the shark secretly choose and reveal one of three cards. If you both reveal the same cards, the shark finishes eating you; if you choose different cards, then you eat the shark use the power on the card you chose, remove that card from both players’ decks, then continue the game. If you’re bitten again, the shark now has a 50% chance of finishing you off.
After the first bite, Schmidt and I selected the same cards, so that was that. Move after move, it seemed like he could see through my newbie ways and predict exactly how he should counter my action. Maybe I’ll have better luck the next time I’m under the sea…