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Game Overview: Living Forest, or Three Paths to Arboreal Bliss

W. Eric Martin
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Apex
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Board Game: Living Forest
Living Forest, which French publisher Ludonaute debuted at SPIEL '21, is the first title from Danish designer Aske Christiansen.

The heart of this 2-4 player game is similar to John D. Clair's Mystic Vale, with players revealing cards from the top of their decks one by one until they decide to stop or are forced to stop. Typically you want to press your luck as much as possible because the cards feature a variety of stats on them that relate to four possible actions, and if you stop voluntarily, you can take two different actions powered up by the revealed stats.

Here's how your personal player board might look near the beginning of the game:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

I've revealed five guardian animal cards so far and have revealed two black "solitary" symbols (visible in the upper left-hand corner of a card). If I reveal a third solitary symbol, I can take only one action — yet that's not necessarily a disincentive at this point as I have 10 sun (which is fabulous), 1 water (which is useless), 1 tree (same), 1 swirl (which can be used productively, but isn't that great), and 1 sacred blossom (which does nothing other than possibly win you the game — details later).

In other words, I'm pretty much taking only one useful action anyway, so why not flip again? Maybe I'll pump up the water or tree value to something useful, and if I don't, then at least I removed a solitary symbol from what I'll see on future turns.

Introverts already know that solitude (times three) isn't so bad, but you need to have that realization in this game, too. Busting on three solitary cards in a row might be terrible now, but your next turn will (probably) be full powered.

As for what you can do with your elemental stats:

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Sun lets you acquire new guardian animals to (abstractly) help you protect the forest. The cost of each animal is in the lower right of the card, and you can take any combination that sums to at most your sun value. Animals with the white "gregarious" symbol often have negative stats, but a gregarious symbol cancels a solitary symbol, allowing you to flip still more cards at the start of a round, which will ideally more than compensate for that negative.

Tree lets you acquire one new tree tile and place it on your board adjacent to what's already present. Each tree comes with a bonus — 2 sun, 1 water, 1 whirl, 2 sacred blossoms, etc. — and adding trees to your board bumps up your stats each round, regardless of what you flip. What's more, if you complete certain columns or the central row, you receive bonus stats. Finally, placing a tree on a corner spot earns an immediate bonus action.

On top of all this, one of the winning conditions of Living Forest is collecting twelve different trees. You start the game with two — one on your board, and another on a victory tile in your possession — so you need ten more to win, although you are free to purchase duplicate trees should you be focusing on those stats.

Water lets you quench fires. At the end of each round, you place a fire token in the spirit circle for each animal that was acquired during that round. Quenching a fire takes 2-4 water, and you can quench as many fires as you can douse. Collecting twelve fire tokens is another winning condition, and you start with one fire on a victory tile.

Fragment is not a stat on guardian animal cards. Instead, you can simply take a fragment tile from the reserve as an action. When you're revealing cards at the start of a round, you can discard a fragment tile to discard the most recently revealed guardian animal — often the third solitary one — or permanently remove a Varan fire spirit. More on them later.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Swirl lets you move your figure on the shared spirit circle up to the number of swirls revealed, then take the action of the space upon which you land — which means that swirl can give you a fire, tree, water, or double fragment action.

On top of that, if you jump over someone (not counting their space as you do), you claim one victory tile from them. Their tree becomes your tree; their fire your fire; or their sacred blossom yours. This latter bit is important because if you have twelve sacred blossoms on a turn — on some combination of victory tiles, revealed animals, trees, and your player board — then you have met the third winning condition. Even if you're not hitting one of the winning conditions, however, you're working toward it (and impeding them) by taking away a victory tile.

I've played Living Forest only twice so far on a review copy from Ludonaute, both times with four players, and the game is highly tactical at that number because if you go late in the round, you might not be able to quench fire (as early players have done so) or take animals that fit your plans (ditto) or jump others on the spirit circle (because they've moved away), so you can weigh the probabilities of how many cards to flip, but you might find little to do in the #4 spot anyway.

Turn order can be incredibly important since the first player in a round has first crack at everything, so they can plan most effectively, especially if they're loaded with fragments that allow them to push away the solitary animals and keep flipping.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
I need pen and paper to track this turn's stats!

Hitting a winning condition doesn't trigger immediate victory for you. If another player hops you in the spirit circle, they can snatch victory tiles that have pushed you up to twelve, cancelling that victory flag — or they might take actions to hit one of the winning conditions themselves. If they do, then all players who have 12+ trees/fire/sacred blossoms at the end of that round tally their total number of trees, fires, and sacred blossoms to see who has done the best all around.

With fewer players, I can imagine Living Forest being a game that encourages more long-term planning since you'll find it harder to jump others in the spirit circle, and you can possibly damage others through untended fire. At the end of a round, if a player's water total is less than the amount of fire in the spirit circle, then that player takes a Varan card for each fire in the circle — and Varan cards offer nothing more than a solitary circle to squash your stats at the start of a round. In our two games, only two Varan cards were handed out because we often had no fire at round's end (and both games ended with a fire-token trigger), but in a two-player game I can imagine holding off on fire quenching should my opponent be facing multiple Varan cards.

Designer Aske Christiansen has mentioned that "fires are probably the most obvious [victory condition] for new players", so perhaps we're still in that new phase. For more thoughts on the game, more examples of turns, and an aside about the solitary/gregarious symbology, check out this overview video:

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