Jeff’s Game Shelf: The Fox in the Forest Duet

Foxtrot and Renegade have produced a truly charming two-person game that could easily be more of a hobby than a diversion.

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped in at OwlCon, a gaming convention held at Rice University. There, I picked up a couple of games I’d been eyeing for a while, and a couple more impulse buys. One of those impulse buys is a game that my wife and I have thoroughly enjoyed: The Fox in the Forest Duet.

Just… how can you not!?

I described it as an impulse buy, and the motivator behind that impulse was this: it looked charming. I mean, look at that adorable fox couple! Look at the calligraphy! The colors were rich without being garish, and the design full without being busy. It seemed out of place that day–everywhere I looked were colorful building games, dark RPGs, and cartoonish parodies. I also bought something in or adjacent to all of those categories that day, so this isn’t to disparage the other forms. Only to say that The Fox in the Forest Duet, by Foxtrot and Renegade, looked like precisely the sort of thing that a lot of people would overlook.

Art is a huge factor in Alli’s enjoyment of games, so whenever I see a game with art I think us up her (ha ha) alley, I definitely give it a second look. But this is not enough to get me to buy it. What tipped me over the edge was its descriptor on the back of the box: “A Cooperative Trick-Taking Game for 2 Players.” Now, I’ll talk more about trick-taking games when I get into the mechanics of this one, but as you may remember from my review of Oregon Trail, I am always intrigued to see how different games implement the cooperative element. But also it was specifically a two-player game. Alli and I are back to entertaining, and having people over for board games (or we were until COVID-19), but the former grad-school reality of not being able to have people over in appreciable numbers nonetheless instilled in us an abiding appreciation of games with a satisfying two-player mechanic. However, we already have several cooperative games that can be played by two players–but a coop specifically designed for two players? That was worth seeing!

If the word “Duet” should seem an odd inclusion in the title, know that this is part of a larger trend in gaming recently: producing two-player versions of larger games. For instance, one of the first games we got when we decided to make a concerted effort to round-out our two-player library was 7 Wonders Duel, a slimmed down version of the epic resource-management 7 Wonders (both are from Repos Productions). There, at least, we had a frame of reference for the mechanics, having some small history with 7 Wonders. But though there is a “fuller” game called Fox in the Forest, I haven’t played it, and I can’t speak to how this game relates to that one in either lore or mechanics.

Out of the Box

In a word, I would describe this game as elegant, both in its aesthetics and in its play (more on that below). The artwork is charming and the cards aren’t overdesigned. Many are patterned after the classic deck of playing cards, but with a unique set of suits and color schemes (yellow roses, green doves, blue stars). Other cards bear bold but idyllic artwork that would not be out of place in a book of classic fairy tales. But even the backs of the cards are notable. Whereas most custom decks are emblazoned with the branding of the game itself (and honestly–why not?), these card backs have the sort of ornate abstractions you would be accustomed to seeing on the back of an antique deck of playing cards. Between this and the classic layout of the numbers and suits on the cards, it makes you feel less like you’re playing a slick new game and more like this is one of the more obscure, classical card games–like whist or pinochle.

But there are more components than just the cards. Like cribbage, you and your partner will keep score on a physical board. But instead of cribbage’s board-and-pegs, here we have the map of a small woodland trail. You and your partner will be sliding your team marker back and forth over this trail given the result of your cards, so you’ll probably spend as much time contemplating this as you do your hand (maybe more). The board is in the same elegant design as the cards and the box–and here, the elegance begins to gesture towards the graceful mechanics themselves–because gentle curlicue of the forest path is not a complex map with arcane turnings and moving pieces, but a simple, pleasant turn of countryside. With both the cards and the board being very simple in their design, even before you glimpse the rules you may well wonder what the mechanics could be here that would make the game, well, a game!

But before I move on to the mechanics, I would like to voice one slight quibble with the artwork here. The game will find you building a collection of gems. The gem tokens… are an afterthought. Their colors are harsher and and their geometry more severe. They look almost like they were printed for another game and shipped with this one as if any old component would do.

Like I said, though–a quibble.

The Mechanics

As I said above, this is a “trick-taking game,” and I suppose I’ve now reached the point in the review where that’s relevant. Trick-taking is a common mechanic in card games like Spades, Hearts, or Bridge. It is not, however, one that gets often reincarnated into a new generation of games.

For those who haven’t played some of those older games, trick-taking means everybody puts down a card in turn, and the person who played the highest ranking card gets to keep all the cards set down on that turn. That small stack of cards is called a trick, and in trick-taking games score is usually determined by how many of these a player or team can take. (There are usually complications, such as how many tricks the players wagered they could take before the hand, but that’s enough for now.) The rank of cards is determined by two things: number and suit. Generally, one suit is the trump suit and a card of that suit will always win the trick–unless a trump of a higher rank is played. But you can’t just spam trumps to win every trick, because most of the time, you have to play the suit that the first player led with if you have a card in that suit.

This is Omar Sharif. You probably know he was the star of Doctor Zhivago and was Oscar-nominated for Lawrence of Arabia. You may even recognize him from his Nielsen turn in Top Secret. But did you know this mammajamma was a friggen bridge expert? Seriously–if you look through some of your old newspapers from when you were growing up (because who doesn’t have a few of those lying around) you’ll see his bridge commentary on the same page as the crossword puzzles and/or funnies!

Trick-taking is the central mechanic of The Fox in the Forest Duet. The deck consists of three ten-card suits and you and your partner take turns leading and following, leading and following. Now, you may be wondering how exactly this works. After all, the whole idea of “taking” tricks is a competitive one, and I said this was a cooperative game. Why then would you compete over the tricks?

Because the winner of the trick determines the movement of our marker–that little orange dot that represents, I assume, the lovely fox couple on the cover as they scamper about collecting gems. If I win the trick, the marker moves toward me. If Alli wins, it moves towards her. How much does it move? Well it depends on the value of the trick itself. All of the cards have a movement value from zero to three, communicated by a set of small paw-prints on the edge of the card’s rank. You add together the paw-prints from both cards in the trick and move the marker that many spots. So if Alli plays a six (two paw-prints) and I play a four (one paw-print), Alli wins the trick and the marker moves three spots toward her.

And here’s where you have to be crafty, because there are only so many spots along the forest trail. If your marker goes beyond the edge, you get penalized–the trail gets shorter, making it even harder to navigate. Over the course of three rounds, you’ve got to keep going back and forth without overextending. It’s not all about the numbers you’re dealt, though–half the cards also have a special ability, such as letting a player change the trump, or letting you swap a card with your partner. Deciding if you want to use that ability, who will use it, and how adds a whole dimension to play, and really ups the replayability and strategy of the game.

Sounds easy, right? After all, the first mechanic of cooperation is communication, I’ll just tell Alli…

Except, according to the rules, you cannot discuss your cards or your strategy. And so, as the cards in your hand dwindle, you constantly have to guess your partner’s hand, anticipate their reactions to your leads, and hope they’re picking up on your strategy. But the winner-takes-all approach that would serve you well in, say, Hungry Hungry Hippos will not lead to a successful conclusion here. You will need to take as well as you give, thinking not only of the rank of the card you play, but its movement value.

As gentle as the artwork is, the game can get intense–especially toward the end of each round, as your hand of cards dwindles to almost nothing and you have to work with the increasingly limited options your earlier choices have left you. Make smart decisions, because the game does not come with a comfortable couch to sleep on should you lose the game despite your partner’s careful machinations.

More Hobby Than Diversion

Gaming in itself is a hobby, but most individual games are diversions–which is to say, singular instances of the practice of your hobby. One evening you might play Elfenland, another evening Trogdor!!, and though each game is a night’s diversion, the hobby you are partaking in is gaming in general. However, The Fox in the Forest Duet could easily be a hobby unto itself.

Let me explain what I mean: Alli’s paternal grandparents play Mexican train dominos ever Saturday night. This is their hobby. Sometimes Grandmother Jackie wins, sometimes Grampa Bill wins. The individual games are an evening’s diversion–they matter less than how Bill and Jackie refine their play, altering tactics based on past experience. And how those play styles change in reaction to each other is, in a way, the narrative of the marriage itself.

Though it perhaps doesn’t have the universality of a set of dominoes or deck of cards, I think The Fox in the Forest Duet could well have that same hobby quality for my wife and me. We won our first game of it last night, picking up thirteen points in the process–but we’ll keep playing, trying to best that score. Eventually, we’ll flip the board over and try one of the more challenging configurations. I don’t know if this is a game we’ll ever be done with.

Verdict: A Must for Gaming Couples

The game is inexpensive–currently floating around fifteen dollars. However, it is so niche in its appeal that I do not think it will remain in print indefinitely. Grab this one up while you can. I especially recommend it for gamers married to or in committed relationships with other gamers as the central mechanic, and the embargo on discussion, force you to be open to the needs of your partner. This will both test and improve your understanding of each other.

Shucks–I wish I’d written this at Valentine’s Day.

The Fox in the Forest Duet can be found on Amazon, but if you are by any means able, please buy it from a local game store. This is especially true right now, as COVID-19 has a lot of small businesses on tenterhooks. We got our copy from Tea and Victory here in Houston, Texas.

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