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Subject: Flying Dutchman Reviews: Salmon and Eagles and Bears -- Oh My! rss

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Introducing: Salmon Run!

Alright, so it seems that the folks at Gryphon Games must really, really love fish! Not so long ago, they released a fantastic little game called Fleet. In Fleet, players took on the role of grizzled sea captains fishing the waters of the newly discovered Ridback Bay in Northern Canada. Now, hot on the heels of Fleet, Gryphon’s back with another fish themed title – Salmon Run. This time, however, you won’t be trying to catch the fish – you’ll be the fish!

In Salmon Run, a two to four player game designed by Jesse Catron, you’ll play a salmon that’s determined to make its way back up stream to the location of its birth in order to spawn. And friends and neighbours, this isn’t going to be an easy journey. You’ll need to power your way upstream against strong currents and raging rapids. You’ll need to navigate round boulders while at the same time trying to avoid becoming a sushi lunch for a hungry eagle. And did I mention the bears?! Yep – that’s right, bears! Bears who are just waiting to smack you right out of the water and into their picnic baskets.

So, do you think that you’ve got what it takes to not only survive this arduous journey but to out swim your competitors and be the first fish to make it back to the spawning pond? If so, read on to find out more about Salmon Run.


Component Overview:

Here’s an inventory of what you’ll find inside the box:

8 Double Sided Game Boards
4 Salmon Pawns
4 Swim Decks (11 cards per deck)
32 Fatigue Cards
48 Supplemental Cards
6 Bear Pawns
1 Standard d6
1 Rule Book

Let’s say a brief word, in terms of quality and function, about each of the game’s components:

Game Boards: There are a couple noteworthy features about the board for Salmon Run. In the first place, it’s modular. There are eight segments, each of which is double-sided. As a result you’ll be able to construct different rivers from game to game – a definite plus in terms of replay value. Secondly, the board is also scalable in terms of both game difficulty and length. With respect to difficulty, each board has been has rated as being either easy, medium, or hard in terms of difficulty and, as such, you can create a game experience that proves as challenging as you desire. Further, you can also make the river as short or long as you like depending on the length of game that you might desire.

In terms of both aesthetics and quality I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about Salmon Run. The boards have been simply, yet appropriately and attractively illustrated. I particularly appreciated the beautifully rendered rocky shoreline – great stuff. As an aside, many of the hexes on the board have been labeled with symbols indicating a particular reward that they’ll yield if you land on them. They’ve also been well constructed out of a thick durable cardboard. Overall, Gryphon, a company known for it’s attention to both quality and detail, has produced some solid components here.



Salmon Pawns: So, this is you – a lean, mean swimming machine. Well, I guess as much as a small, wooden, salmon shaped token can be a swimming machine. Four players, four tokens – you get the idea.



Swim Decks: Salmon Run is a game in the deck-building genre. As such, each player will begin the game with the same deck of cards, referred to as a swim deck. Your swim deck will include the following cards: 3xSwim Forward cards; 3xSwim Right cards; 3xSwim Left Cards; 1xWild Card; 1xBear card. You’ll shuffle these cards together to form your starting deck and draw four cards from that deck in order to form your starting hand. As the game progresses you’ll be adding cards to and removing cards from this deck. As with any deck-building game, the goal is to design a deck that’s as effective and efficient as possible.



Fatigue Cards: All of this swimming, jumping and avoiding being eaten is an exhausting business! As the game progresses, you’ll acquire fatigue cards to represent the energy you expend in your quest to spawn. In terms of function, the fatigue cards are much like curse cards in Dominion or Peaceful Dragon cards in Fantastiqa. Basically, the clog up your hand and deck and restrict your options on your turn. There are ways to get rid of fatigue cards – but more on that later.



Supplemental Cards: Unlike fatigue cards, these are the kind of cards that you’ll want to add to your deck. There are, for instance, double-swim cards that allow you to make faster progress up river. There are also eagle and bear cards – which can be played either as hazards for other players or as a means of protecting yourself against attacks from other players. There are also rapids and current cards which, although they have different specific effects, can be played in the same way as the eagle and bear cards.



Bear Pawns: Travelling up river is a journey beset with various dangers, but none more frightening than the mighty bears that troll the river looking for an easy lunch. These bear pawns can be moved around the board and if you have the misfortune to encounter one of them, you’ll be forced to add a fatigue card to your discard pile.



Rules: The rules have been printed as a kind of fold-out booklet that’s the equivalent of three, double-sided 8.5x11 sheets of paper. It’s been printed in full colour on nice glossy paper. I have to be honest, however, and say that this isn’t amongst my favourite of rule books. First of all, I really wasn’t a fan of the foldout style at all. It should have been printed like a standard booklet. Further, I found the rules rather difficult to navigate from an organizational perspective. Now don’t misunderstand me. Salmon Run isn’t a difficult or rules intensive game. In fact, it plays out quite intuitively in most respects. However, the rule book is, in my opinion, not easy to reference and the information has been presented in a rather scattered way. It took me several read-throughs before I was sure that I had a clear sense of how the game played out and what would happen when I took certain actions. It’s a bit of a nit-picky complaint to be sure, so do with it what you will.



Game Play

Setup:
In terms of setup, you’ll need to begin by locating the start (labeled S1/S2) and finish (labeled F1/F2) boards. From here you’ll need to decide how long and how difficult a game you wish you play, as this will dictate how you’ll construct your river. For your first game, however, the rules suggest that you construct a river that’s five boards in length – that is to say, a river comprised of the starting board, three river boards and the finish board. It’s also recommended that you use the easy-rated boards (marked with an E). As a helpful aid, the centre of the river is marked on each board with a semi-circle on the upper and lower edge – this will help you to line the boards up properly as you setup the board.

Once your river is ready, you’ll need to place a bear pawn on each paw-print hex on the board. Next place the fatigue cards in a pile next to the board. Then make separate, face-up draw piles for the bear, eagle, wild, current, rapids, double-swim and basic swim cards. Each player should then choose a salmon pawn and place that pawn on the start hex. Finally, each player should shuffle their swim deck and draw four cards in order to form their starting hand.

After determining a start player in a mutually agreeable fashion, you’ll be ready to play. Here’s a picture of the recommended setup for your first game:




Flow of Play:
On your turn, you’ll have the opportunity to play up to three cards from your hand, resolving them one at a time in the order that you play them. There are several rules regarding the play of said cards. In the first place, if you choose to play three swim cards then you must add a fatigue card to your discard pile as a result. It’s also important to note that playing non-swim cards doesn’t cause you to take fatigue. Additionally, if you play nothing but fatigue cards you may return one of those fatigue cards to the supply.

Let’s talk for a moment about resolving swim cards. When you play a swim card, you’ll move your salmon pawn in the direction indicated on the card. Here too, there are some restrictions. You may not, for instance, move onto or directly jump over a rock (or any land) hex. Further, although you may jump over a waterfall hex, you may not land on it. (As an aside, you can combine two swim cards together to jump over waterfall spaces – at the cost of adding a fatigue card to your deck.) Finally, if you move onto a hex with an icon on it, you will be allowed to take the corresponding card and add it to your discard pile. As an example, if you swim onto a hex with an eagle icon on it, you will be able to add an eagle card to your discard pile. There are quite a number of icons on the board and the rules provide a handy reference for what occurs for each of these locations. One last comment regarding swim cards. If you play a swim card that would cause you to off the board, or into a waterfall or rock hex, you ignore this movement and discard the card. This still counts as one of your three card play actions – but it’s a good way to empty your hand of unwanted cards and to draw more cards when you refill your hand at the end of the turn.

Once you’ve resolved all your cards, you’ll place the cards you’ve played into your discard pile. Cards that you have not played remain in your hand. Then, you’ll need to either draw up to, or discard down to, your hand limit of four cards. If your deck runs out of cards when you need to draw a card, shuffle your discard pile to form a new draw deck.

Your turn has now ended and the next player in clockwise order becomes the “current” player – pun intended.

Now that you have a general sense of how a turn works we need to say a little more about the play of bear, eagle, current and rapids cards. If you play one of these cards during your turn, you won’t be moving your salmon pawn, but you’ll be affecting the fortunes of your opponents. For instance, if, during your turn, you play the eagle card, you’ll be able to look at another player’s hand and discard any one card from their hand. If you were to play a current card all players (including the player who played the card) who have tokens located on a hex with a current arrow will be forced to move their token to an adjacent square in the direction indicated by the arrow. If you were to play a rapids card, every player must discard a card from their hand for each current arrow exiting the space they occupy. Finally, if you were to play a bear card you may move a bear up to two hexes in any direction and, if the bear encounters a salmon token, that player must add a fatigue card to their discard pile.

Now the good news is that you’ve not been left defenseless in the face of your opponents’ attacks. When your opponents play current, eagle or rapids cards, you may, even though it’s not your turn, respond by discarding a matching card in order to negate the effect of the card played by your fiendish rival. As an example, if your opponent plays an eagle card and asks to look at your hand, you can respond by discarding an eagle card to negate the effect. What’s particularly nifty is that if, on your turn, you play a current or rapids card, you can, if you’re able to, discard a matching card in order to negate the effect on yourself. That’s a sweet play let me tell you! You should know that there is no way to counter a bear card.

End Game:
When a player succeeds in reaching the spawning pool, the game continues until the end of the current round. After the last player has ended their turn, if only one salmon has reached the spawning pool, that player is the winner. If several players have reached the spawning pool, the winner is the player with the fewest fatigue cards in their deck. If this does not decide the matter the game ends in a tie.


Thoughts & Reflections:

Components & Aesthetics: As noted above, Salmon run has been both well and attractively constructed. Both the boards and the cards have been constructed from durable materials that provide for a pleasant play experience and should stand up well over time. It’s a game that looks pretty when it’s all laid out on the table and that really helps its curb appeal in circumstances where you’re trying to introduce it to new players.

Design & Decisions: Let me start by saying that Salmon Run has been very ‘cleanly’ designed. The game plays out smoothly and intuitively and the mechanics make sense. In terms of decisions, I wouldn’t say that Salmon Run proves particularly demanding. Basically, you need to make a decision about which track to follow and how fast to ‘swim’. One specific comment regarding the game’s design. Salmon Run has been billed as a deck-building game and this is true – but in a rather limited sense. To be sure, you have a deck and you can put cards into and take cards out of that deck. But, unless you’re playing a game with a lengthy and difficult river, there probably isn’t going to be much time to really shape that deck. Also, the decisions on whether or not to put a card in or out are also pretty clear cut – almost invariably you are going to want to add the supplemental cards and to remove basic swim and fatigue cards. As an aside, I appreciated the rule that which allows players to ‘run’ themselves into rocks and the riverbank as a means of getting unwanted cards out of their hands.

Theme: I have to say that I really love the theme – in fact, it’s what I appreciated most about the game. There is something quite remarkable about the incredible journey that these salmon make. The extraordinary expenditure of energy, the perils of rapids, rocks and predators, it really is amazing that any of them make it at all. More importantly, however, in Salmon Run you’ll find a remarkable meshing of theme and mechanics. Whether, it’s the bears roaming the river, the need to jump the waterfalls and having to gain a fatigue card as a result, or just being able to remove a card from your deck by resting in the reeds, there’s a remarkable fusion between theme and mechanics. In fact, I don’t think that I have played a game where the mechanics and the theme have meshed so well in quite a while! As a final comment, it’s not just an interesting theme, it’s a palatable one – this is the kind of game that you can play with anyone. My only request to Mr. Catron is that, as his next project, he designs a game where I get to be the bear and I can smack the fish out of the water as they jump over the rocks! Now that’s a game I could get behind!

Accessibility: This is very much a family/gateway style game. In terms of rules and complexity of decisions Salmon Run proves very accessible. We have successfully played this game with our sons (aged eight and ten) and with a little direction and a few reminders of what benefits the various special hexes provided, they were able to play quite competently. If you want to increase the difficulty level (as a means of providing a meatier experience for seasoned gamers) you can construct a longer and more difficult river. However, even in these circumstances Salmon Run doesn’t prove to be a terribly taxing game in terms of complexity or weight.

Players: In terms of number of players, I want to note from the outset that Salmon Run played surprisingly well with two players. With two player I think that you have a little bit more control from a tactical and strategic perspective. By contrast, with three or four players more hazard cards will enter the game and there will be an increased level of interactivity – including more targets for the eagles and bears, which is just good stuff. Obviously, more players also increases the ‘race’ feeling of the game. Overall, however, Salmon Run plays smoothly and well with any number between two and four.


Final Recommendation:

I genuinely enjoyed Salmon Run – enough that it’s going to stay in my collection for the foreseeable future – and that’s getting harder and harder to do as my collection grows. There are two reasons I’ll be hanging on to Salmon Run. The first reason, as I noted above, is how impressed I was with the blending of theme and mechanics. The second reason is how accessible and appealing the game proved to both new and younger gamers. Ultimately, in Salmon Run, you’ve got a fun, accessible, beautifully produced game, with a great theme and mechanics that match. These qualities helped it make the cut and find a place on my shelf.

So, is Salmon Run a game that you’ll want to make room for in your collection? Well not if you’re looking for your next middle-weight euro, or as an alternative to Agricola. However, in my opinion Salmon Run is perfect for families who are looking to introduce younger gamers to the concepts of deck-building and strategic game play. By extension, as an educator, I’m also of the opinion that Salmon Run would really shine in a classroom context. It’s fun and accessible and if I was teacher in a grade five through eight class room – especially a science classroom – this is a title I would want on the classroom shelf. Its quick play-time and low barrier to entry would allow it to be a class room activity that could be worked into the formal curriculum or used as a means of rewarding students with an opportunity for constructive play. In this context Salmon Run really shines and would be well worth your time to consider.




Thanks For Reading & Happy Gaming!

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Luke
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Very nice review. I've had my eye on this and your take pushes me more towards getting it. Thanks!
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Wayne Hansen
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I missed the kickstarter on this. I sure wish I could find a copy with all the kickstarter goodies.
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Jesse Catron
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Thanks for the fantastic review! I appreciate your thoroughness and clarity; it's very well-written. I'm glad you enjoyed the game

A game from the bear's perspective would be interesting and fun to design. I may have to work on that!
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Jesse Catron
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poomchucker wrote:
Very nice review. I've had my eye on this and your take pushes me more towards getting it. Thanks!


This just made my day!
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Jesse Catron
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The Fisherman expansion includes all of the Kickstarter stretch rewards (2 double-sided boards, 5th player Salmeeple and related cards, wooden die, and the Grizzly cards) except the exclusive Bald Eagle card. The preorder that Gryphon is doing has the fisherman expansion bundled with the base game.
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Dustin Schwartz
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Very helpful (and colorful) review.
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Ender Wiggins
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Another good review from the Flying Dutchman.

This looks like a solid family game, with an interesting and unique theme.
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