Ender Wiggins
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Introducing Famous Forehand: The World's Smallest Tennis Game

Microgames are all the rage these days, with the tremendous popularity of Love Letter being a case in point. But while Love Letter was making its way from Japan to the English market, BGGer Rob Bartel, the man behind the Famous Games Company, was hard at work bringing the world of sports to his own brand of microgames.

Famous Forehand: The World's Smallest Tennis Game is the second game in Rob's series entitled The World's Smallest Sports Games. The series currently consists of six titles, with games simulating sports that include golf, baseball, football, tennis, car racing, and yachting. Each entry in the series is a pocket sized card game that consists of only 9 playing cards (later editions also include 2 player aid cards). The world of tennis comes to life in Famous Forehand, which his considered the most accessible game in the series.

The official description of the game is as follows: "Famous Forehand is a fun, fast-playing simulation of the sport of tennis. The game focuses on positional play, with each player receiving four randomly dealt cards prior to every serve. Each card depicts two key positions that you're able reach on your half of the course and the paths along which you'll be returning the ball. A penny tracks the position of the the tennis ball throughout the rally. The first player who's unable to return the ball loses the point." Sounds easy enough, doesn't it?! Let's go head to the court, and check out this clever microgame from the world of sports!



COMPONENTS

Game box

So first of all we get the box - effectively a card sized cardboard sleeve that's the size of a single playing card. It snugly houses the cards, and yet its small size ensures that it fits comfortably in your pocket.



The back of the box gives us some basic information about the game, including the fact that there's an online tutorial to help you learn the game.



Component list

The version of the game I have is the pre-2013 edition, which didn't come with the quickstart cards. Here's what you get:
● 9 cards
● instructions

So if you buy the current retail edition, you'll get an extra two quickstart reference cards. You'll also need to provide a penny (we use a small white disc re-purposed from another game) to use as the tennis ball.



Service card

Of the nine cards, one is a card that the starting player will use to begin each game. It's double sided, with "Serve Left" on one side, and "Serve Right" on the reverse.



Rally cards

Next come the eight rally cards. Each of these shows five available places (marked with black circles) on your side of the tennis court where the ball can land, three in the front row and two in the back row of your court. Two of these are marked with a ball icon, which means that you can use that card to hit the ball from that location on the court. A single arrow will lob the ball just over the net to your opponent's side, while a double arrow will strike the ball to the back of his court. The movement of the ball is also indicated in a handy reference chart on both the lower left and right of the cards - a thoughtful touch, because it gives you an easy way to see at a glance what your options are when you have several cards in hand.



Quick Start cards

These didn't come in my edition of the game, but newer versions of the game come with two double-sided reference cards (downloadable here) that will quickly explain how to play the game.



Instructions

The game is very easy to learn, and the instruction sheet unfolds to tell you everything you need to learn how to play. There's several illustrations, and an online tutorial and quickstart cards certainly help make the learning process even easier. The rule sheet also includes some general trivia about tennis that makes for interesting reading. You can access the rules here:

Famous Forehand Rules
Famous Forehand Online Tutorial



GAME-PLAY

Flow of Play

Famous Forehand is super easy to play. The starting player places the service card with "Serve Left" facing up, with the ball marker (your penny or other token) on it. The remaining eight rally cards are shuffled, and each player gets four each. In turns, players can play one of their cards, to represent hitting the ball. The arrow on your opponent's last played card tells you to which of the five spots he is hitting the ball to, and you must play a card which pictures the ball beginning its movement from that spot. Then your opponent will have to play a card in response, and so on. The rally ends when a player doesn't have a card that enables them to hit the ball, which earns his opponent a point.



Then a new rally begins, with all eight cards again shuffled and dealt out. The same player serves, this time beginning with "Serve Right". Scoring is just like in tennis (i.e. 15, 30, 40, game), and the process is repeated until one player has won the game! You can play just a single game, or have the other player be the server for a second game and continue to an entire set. A game usually won't take you much more than 5 minutes, so a set can be played in about half an hour.

The game also suggests optional rules where you draft cards before a game, but it seems to me this adds some needless complexity for what works best as a simple and quick game.

Example of a Rally

The easiest way to explain the game is to show you an example of play. Here we see the start of a rally, with my opponent starting things off by serving the ball into my back court on the right hand side.



I've got four cards in hand, and two of these allow me to hit the ball from that part of the court. So I can choose between a straight smash back down the line to my opponent's back-court, or a gentle cross-court lob over the net.



I decide to lob my service return gently over the net onto the left hand side.



My opponent responds by thundering a smash straight down the line, to my back court on the left hand side.



At this point I have three cards left, and fortunately two of them allow me to hit the ball from that part of the court. So now I must choose between lobbing the ball over the net to the left or to the right.



If I'm smart I'll try to take into account the cards that I have in my hand and the cards that have already been played to help me make my decision, to try to play a shot to a part of the court where my opponent can't respond. And so the rally continues - it will end when either my opponent or I don't have a card that can legally hit the ball.

CONCLUSIONS

What do I think?

It's small, but it works. The box is small and delightfully portable and pocket-able, and the game itself only consists of 9 cards. That definitely classifies as a microgame! One might be skeptical about the possibility of creating a good tennis game with so few components. But surprisingly, despite this minimalism, Famous Forehand really does feel like a game that actually works. For a game that only has 9 cards, it's impressive what this game actually accomplishes!

It's simple, but you have choices. The game is super easy to learn (the online tutorial is fantastic!), and quick to play, which is exactly what you want in a game of this sort. On your first game you might think the game is entirely luck based, but as you play some more, you'll find yourself looking for carefully at the cards in your own hand, and figuring out what options might be available to your opponent and playing accordingly. For each position on the court there are three different cards with legal plays, and you can use this knowledge to your advantage. For example, if you can find a way to keep hitting to the same corner of the court your opponent may just run out of steam! It's true that your choices are limited to 1, 2 or 3 cards, but just as there's no time for analysis paralysis on a tennis court, so this helps keep game-play quick and casual, and feels just right for a quick pick-up game of tennis.

It's cardboard, but it's got tennis flavour. Despite its small size, Famous Forehand actually does recreate some of the feel of tennis, as you hit the ball back and forth until you find yourself with an unplayable shot. Using regular tennis scoring helps add to the feel. I particularly like the positional nature of the cards, which really helps give the suggestion of a tennis ball flying from one side to the other. The visual artwork and intelligent graphic design helps add to the illusion that the back-and-forth action is happening on a tennis court. It all adds up to a miniature tennis experience, and for just 9 cards, it's really an impressive achievement to evoke as much theme as it does.



Recommendation

So is Famous Forehand: The World's Smallest Tennis Game for you? Most sports fans will appreciate the level of sophistication, elegance, and thematic flavour that Rob has created within the strict limits of microgame minimalism. Certainly it has a significant amount of luck, and in that regard some of the other games in the Famous Games line of sports game are arguably better. But as a simple introductory game, this certainly achieves what it sets out to do, which is create some of the feel of tennis, while providing a fun experience in a relatively short frame. It's not going to be a game with an immense amount of replayability, but for 9 cards, I'm impressed at the level of theme it manages to capture. As a small package, it's perfect for recreating something of a tennis-like sports experience, and the ball movement mechanic is particularly noteworthy and effective. In that regard Famous Forehand would make a great gift for any non-gamer friends who are tennis fans.

I may have come in with moderate expectations, but this clever little game has pleasantly surprised me with its cleverness, and won my heart with its charm. If you enjoy sports games, or microgames, definitely take a look at this and the others in the World's Smallest Sports Games series!

Availability: I was fortunate to get this game as a participation prize in a BGG photo contest (thank you Rob Bartel!). However you can purchase the edition pictured in this review (along with the others in the series) from the BoardGameGeek Store or get the newer edition directly from the publisher Famous Games Co.



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mb The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596

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Tom C.
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Really nice review. I have all but one of these little games in the series, and have only played this one so far. It's very basic, but quick and easy, and I like it. I do use tennis scoring to add flavor. I've looked at rules for a couple others, and I have to say they look very good. The designer seems like a very nice person as well.
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Chris Rogers
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My wife loves tennis, and we both love quick little card games. How did we miss this?

One question: It seems like all of the cards are dealt for each hand, so theoretically, I could look at my cards and know all of my opponents'. Would this create a situation where, if I took the time to sort out all of the possibilities, I could know without playing any cards who will win or lose? Or is the fact that there are multiple options per card mean that the game is less predictable?
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Ender Wiggins
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The Eye wrote:
One question: It seems like all of the cards are dealt for each hand, so theoretically, I could look at my cards and know all of my opponents'. Would this create a situation where, if I took the time to sort out all of the possibilities, I could know without playing any cards who will win or lose? Or is the fact that there are multiple options per card mean that the game is less predictable?

In theory you could calculate all the possibilities, but it would be extremely difficult to do in practice, because it would almost require a photographic memory and a computer-like brain.

Let me illustrate with the rally example I used in the review, which means that the cards are divided between the players as follows (red = server, blue = receiver):



The possible options for playing these cards are as follows:
C-2-D (Receiver wins)
C-4-D-2 (Server wins)
C-3-D (Receiver wins)
C-3-B-4-D-2 (Server wins)
C-3-B-2-A-4-D (Receiver wins)
D-2-C-3-B-4 (Server wins)
D-2-C-4 (Server wins)

With optimal play and perfect knowledge, the Server is guaranteed to win this rally. Returning the serve with D always loses, so the Receiver's only chance of winning the rally is by returning the serve with C. Now the Server can respond with one of three different options: card 2 leads to a win for the Receiver, card 3 could give either player a win, while card 4 leads to a win for the Server and is the right card to play.

However, in order to do this, you would need to have the ball paths on all the cards memorized exactly (which would be very difficult to do, given that each card gives two different possibilities), and be able to calculate and compare all eight different options in your head (which is complicated by needing to mentally rotate half of the cards 180 degrees). This would be a challenging exercise to do even if you had a reference card showing all the cards, but without such a reference card it would be near impossible.

Knowing that each court position is represented on three different cards gives you just enough information to work with in order to make some decisions, without it becoming the calculable but impossibly painful exercise like the one described above.
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Chris Rogers
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EndersGame wrote:

Knowing that each court position is represented on three different cards gives you just enough information to work with in order to make some decisions, without it becoming the calculable but impossibly painful exercise like the one described above.


This soothes my concern - I'm not a computer, so I doubt it will be an issue.

It looks like there are four ways to play from center-front, and three from each other position... and the play-to positions also don't all have the same distribution (i.e. there are only two cards that play to the center-front). Is that right? That would add a bit more complexity to the calculation!
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Ender Wiggins
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The Eye wrote:
It looks like there are four ways to play from center-front, and three from each other position... and the play-to positions also don't all have the same distribution (i.e. there are only two cards that play to the center-front). Is that right? That would add a bit more complexity to the calculation!

Yes that's right, I should have mentioned that. One also needs to bear in mind that cards played by your opponent are rotated 180 degrees.

Here's an image that shows all eight possibilities side by side, so you can compare them:

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Markus Rathgeb
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We ordered a second copy, and out of 16 Cards 4 cards per player are dealt like normal - so it ist unpredictable to know which cards are in play. The used cards will be reshuffled with the unused cards.
 
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