“The man swimming against the current knows the strength of it.” – Woodrow Wilson
As a budding game designer, I’m always trying to expose myself to new games, new game mechanics and I spend a lot of time thinking about design. The more I get into game design, the more I think that the design process often runs on one of a few different engines. It seems to me that you either have a set of mechanics that you strap a theme to (Lords of Waterdeep comes to mind), or you’ve got a theme that you build a game around. It occurs to me that this idea doesn’t really apply to abstract games, but I digress. Salmon Run by Jesse Catron blurs the lines between these two ideas and makes a game that’s part Dominion, part Robo Rally and all theme. Jesse got in touch with Pretty Sneaky, Sis after our preview of Mars Needs Mechanics, so that we could get a hold of Salmon Run and talk about it a little here. Technical difficulties behind the scenes kept me from doing much on ye olde blogge but I did get a chance to play with the prototype.
First, I’ll talk about the basics. Salmon Run is a racing game that accommodates two to four players. Each player navigates a salmon swimming upstream towards a spawning pond at the end of the board. The game uses deck-building in an interesting new capacity. Most deck-building games (and I’ve played a fair number of them, but not all) feature deck-building as the prominent mechanic. In Dominion, you are carefully culling and adding to optimize your odds to buy high Victory Point cards. In Thunderstone, you’re trying to keep your deck lean and trim enough to efficiently be able to dispatch Monsters. Even with Ascension, you’re trying to maximize point buys with some questions regarding what to take and what to leave. Salmon Run’s deck-building, while important, is not the driving force. Clever play of the cards in your deck is the key. One could say the same of the other games listed here, but no one playing those other games are going to win with their starting deck largely untouched. In fact, deck thinning as quickly as possible is crucial to winning those games. Acquiring cards is definitely a good move in Salmon Run, but it is not as critical as it is in these other games.
Each player’s starting deck (color-coded) consists mostly of basic swim cards (Swim Left, Swim Right, Swim Forward), though it also contains a Wild card and a Bear card) which moves Bear pieces to trouble the other players. Players begin with 4 cards in hand.
Each turn, a player may play up to three cards from their hand. In the beginning, players have only their basic cards, but can pick up cards with special abilities (Current, Rapids, Bear, Eagle). When a card is played, the player moves their fish in the direction indicated on the card. If the hex being moved to has a special ability, you follow it. More often than not, these hexes can add or remove cards to/from your deck. If a player plays three swim cards in a turn, they collect a Fatigue card. As you may have guessed, Fatigue is bad. Fatigue cards don’t do anything except take up valuable deck and hand space.
Another interesting departure from common deck-builders here is that your hand doesn’t automatically empty and refresh itself every turn, which increases the impact of Fatigue cards. In order to get it out of your hand, you need to play it, reducing your movement options for the turn. If you play ONLY Fatigue cards, you can remove one from your deck.
The Special cards take just a hair more finesse to play but are definitely worth looking into. The Bear card allows you to move a Bear up to two hexes, and when a Bear occupies the same hex as a Salmon, all Salmon in the Bear’s hex collect a Fatigue card. Which, let’s face facts, is a whole lot better than what one would think happens when the Bear enters your delicious hex. Current cards force players to move backward depending on the hex they are on. It effects all players though, so make sure that if you’re playing one, you aren’t too adversely affected by it. Rapids and Eagles both cause players to discard cards. With the exception of the Bear, all cards act as counters to themselves, meaning that if someone plays a Current card, you can discard a Current card to cancel the effects of theirs.
After a player has played all of the cards they choose to play for the turn, they refill their hand to four cards and play passes to the left. This continues until someone reaches the Spawning Pond, at which point play continues until all players have taken the same number of turns. At that point if there is only one fish in the Spawning Pond, that player wins and is crowned King of Breeding. If two or more have made it to the Spawning Pond, the player in the Spawning Pond with the fewest Fatigue cards is the winner.
That’s basically how the game works. Where the game really shines is a couple of places.
Replay factor is solid. The modular board pieces can be arranged however you like, creating a different obstacle course every time.
Play styles will adjust for each game as well. When I played, I took the bold approach of completely not caring about Fatigue cards and pushing as hard and fast as I could up the stream. I did win this way, but by the time I made it to the Spawning Pond, I was being forced to rely on luck to get me a good hand to choke past my Fatigue laden deck. This only worked because the other players were very cautious about adding Fatigue cards, and I was the target of pretty much every Bear attack. If someone else would have been as reckless as I was, it would have been a much more complicated balancing act.
Simple design, easy to teach, easy to learn. Striking the balance between simple and entertaining is more difficult than a lot of people realize. Successfully creating simple is a task that’s anything but simple. Younger children shouldn’t have a hard time grasping this game, which is good for us nerds what have bred. We’re trying to raise the next generation of nerdlings here, and Chutes and Ladders isn’t doing the trick! It’s a solid choice for a family game.
The two things I like most about Salmon Run is that 1) it takes deck-building in a new direction. The cardinal rules of deck-building didn’t apply here. It didn’t feel like any other deck-builder I’ve played. 2) the game simply oozes theme. It takes its concept, embraces it firmly and never lets go. The mechanics of the game never stand apart so much that you don’t get the feeling of the salmon trying to be the first to the eggs. Not many games can so distinctly separate their mechanics from their theme and I applaud Jesse’s fantastic execution of this concept.
Salmon Run is a great game. Pending your play group, it may or may not be well received, but the same can be said of any game with any group. I’m actually friends with some people who don’t care for Agricola. Yeah, I don’t get it either. The Kickstarter campaign ends on 10/28, and though this is already fully funded, this is the kind of title you definitely want to get behind.
Pretty Sneaky, Sis would like to thank Jesse for providing a prototype for us to tinker with. Stay tuned later for a full review and strategy points.