The Fox in the Forest | Case Study

by Shawn Kays on February 14, 2021

Welcome to my designer journey where I play and constructively critique board games to expand my game design repertoire and improve myself as a game designer. My hope is that this will be beneficial or at least interesting for you as well.

The Fox in the Forest is a 2-player trick-taking game in a category where less than 4-player is unusual, and I can’t blame that statistic—a 2-player trick-taking game without any twists or turns constitutes a game mostly dictated by luck.

Never fear, The Fox in the Forest is a trick-taking game with a twist—if you score too high in a round, you actually lose the round and gain 0 points while the player who scored too low gains the highest amount of points (6). The game describes the objective as such: you score points by winning more tricks than your opponent, but don't get greedy! Win too many tricks, and you will fall like the villain in so many fairy tales….

What Is Trick-Taking?

As a quick recap or if you’ve never heard of trick-taking: one player leads with a card, then the second player plays a card in response, of the lead suit if possible. Whoever played the highest number of the lead suit wins the trick and leads the next trick, unless the second player doesn’t have a card in the lead suit and can play a card in the trump suit. After 13 tricks, the round is over, and points are calculated based on the number of tricks each player won. Rinse and repeat until someone reaches 21 points.

Card Abilities

Additionally in The Fox in the Forest, the odd-numbered cards have abilities that can alter the trick, a summary of which can be found below.

1 – if you lose this trick, lead the next.

3 – you may change the trump suit.

5 – draw a card then discard one from your hand.

7 – if you win a trick containing a 7, score a point for each 7.

9 – if only one 9 was played this trick, this 9 is considered a trump.

11 – if you lead with an 11, your opponent must either play a 1 or the highest card of that lead suit that they hold.

The abilities are an excellent addition that really enhance the strategy, whether you’re flushing out your opponent’s low or high value cards with an 11, drawing and discarding to better your chances at winning or losing tricks this round with a 5, or changing the trump suit to a suit you have plenty of to set yourself up to win tricks using the trump suit with a 3. 

None of the abilities are overpowered either and all have some way to play around if you draw or hold what you need, but even if you don’t have what you need, play continues to the next trick generally without major consequence, so thankfully there’s no noticeable snowball effect.

The 3 may sound too powerful at first since the trump suit beats out the lead suit, but only under very specific conditions can the trump suit be taken advantage of: your opponent must lead and does so with a number that isn’t 9 and a non-trump suit you don’t have in hand. Keep in mind Fox in the Forest only plays with three suits. And even if a player wins by a landslide due to the trump suit, the opponent wins the round if the opponent loses too many tricks.

Luck Mitigation in Not Scoring Too High

At its core, The Fox in the Forest is a fantastic, simple example of how to mitigate luck in a way that actually expands players’ strategic options. Without the “don’t score too high” mechanic, much of the game would come down to luck: whoever draws the highest value cards in the most favorable suits wins. Players must know when to use which card and when, take advantage of the trump suit by removing non-trump suits from their hand, and know when to play certain card abilities to maximize their effectiveness; however, a player’s ability to play high, take advantage of the trump suit, and use card abilities ultimately depends on the underlying luck-of-the-draw system.

The “don’t score too high” mechanism is a classic example of low complexity, high depth. It adds an extra layer to the game where you must pay attention to see if your opponent will or has shifted their strategy to score 3 or less tricks to ultimately win the round. Additionally, the mechanism mitigates the high luck factor since if you end up with a bad or less than ideal hand, you can compensate by purposely losing tricks and the few tricks you do win allows you to get rid of the high cards still plaguing your hand. It’s very much engaging for the player to pay attention in the first half of a round to see what strategy works best given the number of tricks won and what cards remain in their hand. Each round now provides more to think about and strategize, no matter if you’re winning or losing the round.

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