The Fox in the Forest
Category: Card Game
Designer: Joshua Buergel
Publisher: Foxtrot Games, Renegade Game Studios (2017 English edition)
Year Published: 2017
Playing Time: 30 mins.
To Play or Not To Play: Play
When I was in middle school, my friends and I discovered the joy of classic card games. From tests of dexterity like Speed, Spit, and
Slapjack, to more strategic trick-taking games like Hearts, Spades, Pusoy, and Durak, we spent every recess shuffling and dealing. Over time, we ran into an issue: games like Spades and Durak were more fun than Speed or Spit, but didn't play well with just two players. If some of us were busy and there were just two of, well, we were out of luck. We had to play one of the dexterity games instead. If only this game had existed back then!
The Fox in the Forest resembles a classic trick-taking game, but it was designed for just two players. The deck has just 3 suits of eleven cards, instead of 4 suits of thirteen. This means that after dealing hands of 13 cards to both players, seven are left over to form a "draw deck." This keeps both players from knowing exactly what is in the opponent's hand. Much of the fun of trick-taking games comes from figuring out what each player has in their hand, and accounting for those cards in your strategy. As people play their cards, you can narrow down the options more and more. But even when everyone only has one card left in hand, you probably won’t know for certain who has which card. In a two player game, it’s much easier to guess who has what, so the draw deck retains some level of uncertainty throughout.
After the cards are dealt, the top card of the draw pile is flipped over as the “decree” card, which determines which suit is the trump suit for that game. Then the first player plays a card from their hand, and the second player responds by playing one of their cards. Like other trick-taking games the second player must "follow suit" if possible. If they have no more cards of that suit, they can play "off-suit," which might mean playing a card in the trump suit. The higher number wins the trick, unless one of the cards is from the trump suit, in which case the trump card wins.
What make trick-taking games interesting are the extra rules that get tacked on. In Hearts, only 14 cards are worth points, and getting points is bad, so you generally try not to take those cards. Spades and Bridge are partnered games where you and your partner must bid how many tricks you expect to win, then try to achieve that goal while the opposing team tries to stop you. The Fox in the Forest has two main factors to differentiate it: card abilities and scoring.
Every odd-numbered card in the deck has a special ability. For example, the 5 in each suit is called The Woodcutter, and when you play it you get to draw a card from the draw pile, then place a card from your hand on the bottom of the deck. This can have massive implications in your game. If you were out of cards in the trump suit, it might draw you one. Or if you desperately need to get rid of a useless card, it might give you something better to replace it with.
The 3 of every suit is the eponymous Fox. The Fox lets you swap the “decree” card with another card in your hand, which can completely change both players; strategies in a heartbeat! After a couple games, I had a pretty good handle on how to use the other special cards, but the Fox is the hardest to master of them all.
The most important function of these special cards is to keep the players off-balance. Without them, the game would be a slightly better version of “War,” the worst two-player card game ever made But the gem of this game is the scoring system. You score points based on how many tricks you win. Four tricks net you 1 point. Five gets you 2, and six gets you 3. If you manage to win seven, eight, or nine tricks, you're really doing well, and you get rewarded with 6 points! But if you win ten or more tricks . . . well, now you're just being greedy, and you get 0 points. Conversely, if you're humble, and win three or fewer tricks, then you get 6 points!
The first player to 21 points wins the game. The key to this scoring system is that it's a zero-sum game. If you get nine tricks (6 points!), then your opponent has to have won the other four (1 point.) If you get ten tricks (0 points) then your opponent got three (6 points!). This means you can't just win every trick, you have to find ways to make sure your opponent wins at least 4. But you don't want them to win more than 6, otherwise they'll beat you . . . unless they win 10, in which case you're doing fine again. It’s wonderful! Every trick might change your strategy, where you shift from trying not to win tricks to trying to win as many as you can, then trying to stop again.
Honestly, if that was the entire game, I’d be satisfied. Mechanically, The Fox in the Forest delivers a perfect two-player trick-taking experience. But Foxtrot Games took things one step forward by producing beautiful art to accompany each specialty card. Most traditional decks of cards reserve the fancy art for the twelve face cards, and maybe the Aces. But this game has beautiful art on each of the odd cards in the deck. This not only looks great, but it helps you visually distinguish these cards as special when they’re sitting in your hand. The game also eschews the traditional four suits in favor of three inspired by fairy tales: moons, bells, and keys.
The Fox in the Forest is the complete package. It’s beautiful, mechanically excellent, and always fun to play. I generally avoid buying games before I’ve played them once or twice to make sure I’ll enjoy them, but this is one I picked up based on the description alone. And it has not disappointed. The Fox in the Forest is one of my new favorite two-player games, and it’s a game I look forward to playing for years to come. You should play this game.
This week's review was chosen by . . . well, one of my followers on Twitter. For understandable reasons, not many people responded to my poll. It's almost like there were other, more important things happening in the world. Next week, there won't be a poll as I already have the game picked out. Join me then for a look at a card game that explores plants, taxonomy, and food!