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Subject: Hop to the top! - Bullfrogs Review by meepleonboard rss

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meepleonboard
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This review is available, with pictures, at http://www.gamesquest.co.uk/blog/bullfrogs/
Many thanks to Games Quest for kindly providing a review copy of Bullfrogs.


There’s a war going on out there, fought by frogs and bullfrogs…who carry axes. Ok, that last bit made me wonder a little as well, but let’s just suspend our disbelief for the time being. If you have always pictured yourself as a froggy commander, sending your troops out to take possession of lily pads from opposing amphibians, then Bullfrogs might well be the game for you. In fact, even if you have never had this slightly odd ambition, Bullfrogs may well be something you should consider for your own lily pad.

Bullfrogs is designed by Keith Matejka and is, as far as I can make out, his first published game. You might want to read this interview with him to understand what inspired him to design Bullfrogs, and the thought that went into it, but I was intrigued as soon as he mentioned Battle Line, a game that does a huge amount with a minimum of fuss, and was interested to see what he could do with this.

The box is small and compact, and my second edition has brighter art than the first edition. It is also less threatening, the moody axe-wielding bullfrogs of the original replaced by colourful, mischievous chaps who seem content just to push each other off lily pads. While some might bemoan the demise of the original (and it is a fantastic image), the new design, from the inclusion of a lily pad in the name of the game to the colours, the flowers and the wildlife, all make Bullfrogs more family-friendly. For all that might have been lost in translation, I think that it is a wise decision in terms of reaching a wider audience.

The components are very good indeed – the frog meeples (freeples?) are froggy, and the bullfrogs suitably squat, although I am surely not the only one to wonder why they carry axes when they can be easily differentiated from their lesser brethren without the need for weaponry. The card stock is also good and sturdy, and each player’s ten-card deck has its own symbol on the front and the back of the cards, but, better still, if you deal each of the four decks correctly in two rows of five cards each then you end up with a beautiful and subtly colour-coded top-down view of a lake.

Each of these pictures is different and wonderfully painted, and once I had worked out that each player deck presents its own tableau, I spent a very happy half hour just admiring the artwork. There are also player aids in each colour, detailing the scoring on both sides, although these would have been much more useful with the scoring on one side and the available actions on the other. This is such a strange design decision that I wonder if it is a mistake that has made its way in to the final version. Luckily enough the actions are easy to explain, even though that makes their omission on the player aids even more baffling.

I should mention here that some of my frogs had clearly started fighting in transit before they reached me, but the good folks at Renegade Games replaced my injured warriors in double quick time, so a big thank you to them.

At its heart Bullfrogs is an area control game, where each player is vying to gain the majority on different lily pads. The log card is set up in the centre of the table at the start of the game, with the four 6-value cards around it (make sure you set them up so that they make a proper picture!). Each player takes their fourteen frogs, two bullfrogs and their ten card player deck, shuffles the deck and draws three cards for their starting hand. Each player card has a number of spots for frogs or bullfrogs, a number representing the points the card is worth, and lily pad icons showing how many actions it grants when it is placed.

The actions a player can take in Bullfrogs are simple, even if the choices they open up can become complex. A player always begins their turn by placing one of their cards in a position adjacent to the current arrangement on the board, and then takes a number of actions up to the number indicated on the card.

These actions are split between either placing your own frogs or bullfrogs, or sabotaging any opponent’s frogs. You place your own frogs or bullfrogs on any lily pad cards in the same row or column as the card you originally placed, a maximum of two tokens per card, meaning that you cannot place on to the log card or the card you just placed. If you choose to sabotage then you may move any opponent’s frogs (not bullfrogs) in the same row or column from a lily pad card (so not the log card) onto any orthogonally adjacent card, which can be the log card.

Once a frog or bullfrog has been sabotaged onto the log card, there is no way of moving it off, so it stays there for the rest of the game, but it will earn points in the final scoring, recompensing you slightly for the fact that you can no longer use it. Sabotaging onto the log card should therefore be thought about very carefully. It sounds just a little more complicated than it is, but the rules are clear and after a few turns everything becomes second nature.

Once all a player’s actions have been taken it is time to score any complete (full) lily pad cards, multiple cards being scored in the order chosen by the active player. To work out who has won a card you simply tot up the frogs and bullfrogs on it, worth 1 point and 2 points respectively, and the winning player (the active player if it is a tie) will jump the tokens off the card.

The winning player will need to think carefully, for there is a twist in the rules here – only one token may jump to each orthogonally adjacent card, and they must jump in the following order: losing frogs -> losing bullfrogs -> winning frogs -> winning bullfrogs. Any frogs that cannot jump are returned to their owners, but any surplus bullfrogs are removed from the game. As you only have two of these you need to weigh your options very carefully, for using one to tip the balance in order to win a card is likely to see it removed from the game. This jumping off can then fill other cards, causing a chain reaction in which case they are also be scored and those tokens jumped as well.

The winning player for each card receives it for their scoring pile, while any tied cards are removed from the game. It is entirely possible that players will end up scoring and removing three or more lily pad cards in a single go, leaving some cards adrift from the log card, so the active player slides any loose cards, one by one, until they are part of the main playing area once again.

Finally the active player draws a card from their deck, if they can, and the game continues in this fashion until all cards have been played, at which point scoring takes place. Players tot up the points on all the lily pad cards they have won, adding an extra point for each one in their own player colour. They then add one point for each of their frogs and two points for each of their bullfrogs on the log card, and if there is a player with the majority on the log card they earn a three point bonus. If it is still a tie then the frogs and bullfrogs on the lily pad cards still in play are used as a tie-breaker (again, one and two points respectively). Like the rules, it can sound just a touch convoluted at first, but once you have run it through once you will realise just how simple it is.

Any prospective purchaser needs to bear in mind that, while Bullfrogs is for up to four players, it is with two that it really shines. As with any game in which the state of the board can change radically from turn to turn, all you can really do in Bullfrogs, unless you are some kind of genius, is to play your turn to the very best of your ability and then hope for the best. In three or four players you would be hard pushed to recognise the board when it comes around to your turn again.

If you are the kind of person for whom an overarching assessment of a static game board is critical for your strategy then you should steer well clear of Bullfrogs, but if you are happy to go with the flow and play your cards and frogs as best you can when it is your turn, then this is worthy of consideration. There is also a solo variant for which you will need to buy some components from the publisher or the store at Board Game Geek, in which you play against an amphibian opponent whose actions are determined by two dice.

In terms of components, Bullfrogs is very nearly a microgame, yet it offers a satisfyingly deep and involving experience in a little under half an hour. Commendably economical (a player’s ten-card deck consists of only three types of cards, for example) and very easy to tuck into a pocket, especially for a two-player game, underneath the beguilingly coloured exterior beats the heart of an abstract, but one in fetching disguise. Having played and reviewed Onitama recently, finding it dry and uninspiring despite its stunning production quality, Bullfrogs is exactly the kind of abstract I enjoy, one whose every move opens up many new possibilities, but without weighing its players down by making them try to predict the future. Best of all, as long as I keep quiet about it, I doubt my other half (who does not really enjoy abstracts) will ever suspect it is not just a game with sweet little frog pieces in it.

I approached Bullfrogs with moderate curiosity, and I am glad to report that I and my playing companions have all been very pleasantly surprised by just how much it offers. It is colourful on the table, a real feast for the eyes, but it is also a treat for the old grey cells, as long as you can accept that your choices need to be taken in the here and now, without too much time spent on what the board may or may not look like by the time your turn swings round again. Set yourself up for a chain reaction which nets you three lily pad cards and puts your bullfrogs on the log card in the endgame and you will understand what you need to do to play well, and those moments can be oh so satisfying when you suddenly recognise them on the board.

In conclusion, Bullfrogs has hit many targets very well indeed. It is an area control abstract, but also a family game; it rewards expert play, but even beginners can pull off clever moves; it offers thinky and satisfying gameplay, but is over in half an hour or so. It is also beautifully presented, from the freeples to the wonderful artwork on the player decks. If it has flaws then they are that it is definitely at its best with two players, the player aids could be (slightly) more useful, and the axes are a strange choice, but if none of that puts you off then I would certainly recommend that you seek it out, especially if you can get it for a decent price.
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