Peaceful trick taking for two quickly turns cutthroat
Android, iOS, & Steam
# of Players
Renegade Game Studios
Dire Wolf Digital
The Fox in the Forest is the two player trick-taking game from Renegade Game Studios that Dire Wolf Digital has brought to the digital world. Players are dealt hands from a deck of three suits and play one each turn, with the winning card defined (mostly) by standard trick-taking rules. The game has a few tricks up its sleeve including a risk/reward scoring method where taking too many of the round’s 13 tricks will result in you losing out on points. A round will fly by in just a few minutes and rounds are repeated until one player gains at least 21 points. Digitally, this takes about 10 minutes in total.
Trick-taking is having a bit of a moment between this game (and its co-op sequel) and, probably more notably, The Crew coming out in the last few years. The mechanic is one of the oldest in tabletop gaming and the appeal of forming a game around it is obvious; just about anybody who has experience with 52 card deck games will understand how trick-taking works. Taking a century-old mechanic and adding a unique wrinkle or two to it can be a great way to get people into modern tabletop gaming.
To recap how trick-taking works; the lead player may play any card from their hand. The opposing player must play a card from that suit if they have one. If they don’t, they may play a card from any suit. In the case where two cards of the same suit are played, the highest numbered card wins (in Fox in the Forest cards range from 1 to 11). In cases where the suits don’t match, if one of the cards is the defined “trump” card, it will take the trick regardless of the number value attached to the card, otherwise the card played first will win.
Example time. Bells are the current trump suit (Keys and Moons are the game’s other two suits). Player 1 leads with a 9 of Moons. Player 2 only has one Moon card so they must play it; it is a 3. Player 1 wins the trick by having played the higher value card. If player 2 didn’t have any Moon cards they could have played a 2 of Bells and taken the trick as Bells, being the trump suit, defeats any other suit regardless of number value.
Naturally, any game featuring trick-taking as its primary mechanic must add something to the mix. In The Fox in the Forest that ‘something’ is having every odd numbered card in the deck contain a special ability. These abilities are the same across all three suits so the 5 of Bells has the same ability as the 5 of Moons and Keys, for example. These abilities add simple but important deviations from the basic game rules. The sevens, for example, are Treasures and give a point to every seven in the trick when it is won. This is the only way to score points during a round. The Monarchs, the 11 cards, force opposing players to play their highest card of the matching suit or the 1, if they have it. The Fox allows you to swap out the round’s trump card (which is labeled the ‘decree’ and is dealt face up at the start of the round) with any card in your hand, changing the suit for the rest of the round, or at least until your opponent plays a fox card.
The rules for the cards are so simple that they, quite literally, are not listed in the rulebook that comes with the physical game (they are listed in the digital rulebook). There are some clarifications on the timing of the ability’s effects, but players don’t need to be briefed on them upfront because the sentence long text on the cards is sufficient in fully explaining how they work.
The trick taking continues, 13 being taken in each round, and then scoring occurs. Generally, the more tricks you get, the more points you earn, but The Fox has one last sneaky ace up its sleeve; if you grab ten or more tricks in a round, you’ve essentially “busted” and get zero points for the round. While your opponent, having gained the remaining zero to three tricks, earns a whopping six points. The other way to earn six points is by getting seven to nine. As expected this leads to some tense moments. Jubilation one moment as you cross that seven threshold, then terror the next when you realize your opponent has swapped the decree and you have a slew of that suit in your hand and you can only watch in anguish as they force ten or more tricks to go your way.
Short, simple, familiar, fun. That’s the best way I can come up with to describe The Fox in the Forest. A two player trick-taking game seems kind of silly on the surface for those coming from Spades, Hearts, etc…, but it is pulled off remarkably well here. My biggest caveat about this game, and it’s the sole reason this one was a bit of a miss for me on a physical table, was that players with a large disparity in trick-taking experience probably won’t find a lot of fun while the more unfamiliar player goes through the learning process. That is obviously less of an issue digitally against AI.
Barrier to Entry
The tutorial here does a good job of teaching intro to trick-taking and then adding in the special abilities. It holds your hand through maybe half of a round before saying “finish the round” and then, optionally, “finish the game.” It is over in just a few minutes but it really is more than enough for those familiar with the mechanic but sufficient for those who aren’t.
The game also contains a text rulebook which is quite brief as you might expect. It contains descriptions of all six special ability cards should you need some more clarification on any of those.
Look and Feel
Dire Wolf has put out a lot of games in this space recently. They have all been quite good for a number of reasons but the overriding standout feature on all of them has been the visuals. The Fox in the Forest carries that trend. Most similar to Sagrada where they take a very basic physical component (cards here, dice there) and make something spectacular out of it, the game features an elaborate background where you drag your cards onto a pedestal with the Decree looming over both in the middle. It’s quite cinematic for a trick-taking game, but it is also a joy to look at. There are small flourishes of animations sprinkled all over the place, the muted fall colors somehow manage to pop, and so on. In short; this is another visual triumph from Dire Wolf.
Controls are handled via drag and drop and work well. There is no undo button here, but the game moves so quickly that the next turn has likely already begun by the time you would look for an Undo.
The online system is lobby based. Players wanting to start a new game select the number of points needed to win; 16, 21, or 35. All games are real-time, so there is no asynchronous option. You can optionally password protect your games to setup games with friends. The game does not offer a pass-and-play option. Online games work well, I’m not quite sure what the timeout is, but the games I have played have moved at a quick pace and they have been good fun. The game works well online so if you are interested in real-time play, there is a lot to like here.
There are two single player modes in Fox: vs. AI and Challenges. Playing against AI you select the difficulty from three standard options (Easy/Medium/Hard) and also how many points it takes to win the game (the same 16/21/35 options mentioned earlier). This mode works fine, but it has a familiar complaint; the AI is dreadful if you are at all familiar with trick taking tactics. Playing against Medium, I found myself winning 9 tricks for maximum points every single round. I skipped Easy, but I imagine you will have control over every single trick and have to throttle yourself to avoid the 10+ bust situation. I switched to Hard hoping for something with a bit more bite and found a similar experience. The one thing Hard AI will attempt that others won’t is to stick you with 10+ tricks if they are dealt the cards to do so. This is a nice twist of strategy, but you will quickly learn that if you are dealt good cards, make sure to lose enough tricks early to avoid that situation.
Challenges are a welcome addition. There are quite a few to choose from and it’s a mode that is seemingly setup perfectly to add more down the line. They start out simple; play a short game (16 points) vs. Normal AI. They quickly get more interesting, however, as they start introducing rule changes. One of them swaps out Treasure cards with Gifts from the co-op sequel The Fox in the Forest Duet. These cards require players to swap a card from their hand with their opponent which is very helpful in a co-op game but potentially extremely harmful in a competitive game. Other challenges flip scoring conditions on their head, do some randomizing, and other fun effects. The only downside of this mode is that all of the challenges are against Medium AI which is, as mentioned above, quite poor. The wrinkles that are added to the game are quite fun, it would be great to allow them to be played in online matches where you could get a legitimate opponent instead of the weak AI.
Leading the trick
Nothing of note here. The physical game has no expansions to speak of so all of the Fox content (excluding that co-op sequel) is contained here.
The Wrap Up
The Fox in the Forest is a great two player card game. The digital version jumps off of the screen from the start. The problem here is in the features. Real-time only online play, no local pass-and-play, and abysmal AI leave this app in a bit of a dead zone. Want to play the game offline? You’ll run through the challenges and then get bored with the AI quickly. Want to play online? This works really well...if you want to play real-time games. Want to save yourself from shuffling actual cards to play locally? Sorry, no pass-and-play option.
It’s tough because the implementation is flat out gorgeous and gets just about everything right as far as putting the game on a screen, but it doesn't offer much in the way of replay value for my playing habits. If you want a slick implementation of real-time online play and/or an easy-going AI opponent (with some fun rule twists thrown in!), then there is a lot to love here.