I was excited to play this game and undoubtedly extremely biased. As a science teacher with a penchant for trick takers and games that take up small amounts of space, the small card-deck sized box announcing a family game that was ‘a food chain trick-taking game’ had my name written all over it...
The title FORK relates not to kitchen utensils but to the initial letters of the four organisms Fox, Owl, Rabbit and Kale. This instantly evoked the idea of a simple but elegant educational game. And for 2-6 players taking only 15-20 minutes, it meant a game I could fit into a lunch break at school with children as helpful ‘extra reviewers’. Beautiful but simple cards cascaded out of the box, with bright colours that also spoke of simplicity. So I gathered a group of 10 year olds who were as nerdy as me about science and dived straight in. Or I would have done had the draft rules been as easy to understand as hoped. Instead I scanned the QR code for the rules on the box before the children appeared, impressed by the saving of paper and modern vibe… and then proceeded to stare rather too much at a three-page PDF document which could certainly have been a little more ‘family friendly’. One of the perils of previewing a pre-production prototype. However, I have since browsed Sunrise Tornado Game Studio's website and have discovered a far simpler ‘How to Play and Overview’ video by Jenders Gaming.
Having digested the rules (and yes I made these puns throughout play), we started. The mechanism of play is a simple trick taker, with a suit (the terrain) called by the starting player, forcing players to play that terrain unless they use a wildcard Fox. Instantly this adds to the tactics for younger players, as choosing the terrain wields a good amount of control over the success of a hand. Standard suit rules apply, with players able to play any card if they cannot match the called ‘terrain’.
The top left of each card shows numbers, so it's clear which card wins in the trick, except there are a few caveats, including starred numbers in the bottom left. It took me a while to realise which numbers were to help with who won the trick and which with scoring it. The animals eat their prey sensibly down the food chain with animals higher up the food chain winning in tricks over those lower down (eg: an Owl ‘eats’ a Rabbit). The nice educational part about the winning of a trick is that the animals require a suitable food source. The Fox can only eat if there is an Owl or Rabbit in the correct terrain and is discarded if no correct food source is available. Each card that is able to feed scores separately: highest scorer in turn, or scores zero with no food source available, starting with the highest scorers and working your way through the players/cards. Not only did this appeal educationally but it made for more considered choices about what card to play: is it worth risking playing a higher-up predator if there is maybe no food available underneath it to eat? We really enjoyed the fact that a Fox was useless if there was only Kale available. The simple but slightly strategic nature of this game was quite charming.
Kale cards are the lowest value, at the bottom of the food chain, placed face up, but other cards are face down. A small simple rule that really works well for game play, giving other players a chance to react if played early. If Kale does not get eaten and the card is for the correct terrain, it is kept by the person who played it. And the Kale cards have scoring on them which rises depending on how many Kale cards are in a player’s hand in the end game, so playing multiple Kale cards can provide a decent score.
Additional small twists that add to game play are that two or more Fox cards cancel each other out. While the Fox is a wildcard, it does not have to be played if you cannot match the called terrain, so the timing of playing this valuable card becomes important. A few cards have some varied rules on the bottom, adding to game play.
The game ends when someone has five scoring cards face up. We found this varied the length of the game enough to generate suspense without the game going on for too long. Then the stars in the bottom left corner score for each player.
I've enjoyed FORK, despite the palaver figuring out the rules to the prototype. The artwork by Lili Chin and game designer Ta-Te Wu was appreciated by adults and children alike, with the children particularly noting and caring about details such as the different rabbits being accurately drawn. With the rules sorted, FORK is simple enough and its reinforcement of the concept of a food chain is educational. But even my group of undiscerning non-board gaming pupils questioned if there couldn’t be more content for this, such as facts about the animals and plants on the cards (tho' this sent shivers down my spine at the thought of how this would change the aesthetics). The children even wanted varied plants, not just Kale - but then what would happen to the name of the game? The game was fun, with an undemanding layer of strategy but a few nice quirks, and quick game play that make it very suitable as a family game. Yet I didn’t think it would really captivate the children and make them want to play again...
I was wrong. The following week, the same group of children were thoroughly disappointed that the ‘food chain game’ was no longer in my satchel. So perhaps the real audience is indeed a family looking for a simple game, or a group of 10 year olds wanting to stay in and look at the ‘cute cool rabbit with funny ears’ as one card was described. Those of you with a suitable audience may have to judge for yourself…
FORK is coming to Kickstarter later this month. The finished version promises clearer rules and some further food chain enhancements. We'll add a link to the campaign when it goes live.
(Review by Nicola Bridge)