The 2023 Spiel des Jahres seems to be a recurring theme in my reviews at the moment, so let's go again. This time, tho', it's not a Winner, not even a Nominee, but a 'Recommendation'. This sub-category of the awards is reserved for games the Committee believe deserve attention even if they're not considered quite 'suitable' to be nominated for whatever reason. I'd place Next Station: London (Blue Orange) in the 'bang average roll & write' category, so seeing that it was a Nominee while Sea Salt & Paper was 'only' a Recommendation, could make one think that Bombyx's Sea Salt & Paper is the lesser game. Not so, in my opinion.
First up - and I'm not normally one for artwork and presentation beyond clarity of graphic design - Sea Salt & Paper looks fantastic. It may be just a deck of cards, but the art from Lucien Derainne and Pierre-Yves Gallard, which is photographed (and probably Photoshopped) origami, is stunning. I own a Pipmen playing cards uncut printer's sheet, which is framed on my wall and I think it's great: I'd happily put some of Sea Salt & Paper's art on my wall - and, at just a tenner for the game, that's a distinct possibility! Point is, when you're not looking at the exceptionally clear iconography and colour coding, the card art is something to marvel at.
So, game play... Designed by Bruno Cathala and Théo Riviere, this is a seaside-themed set collection game with a Manta Ray sized sting in the tail. Set up is: shuffle the deck then flip over two cards to make two discard piles - done. On a player's turn, they either take the top card from a discard pile, or draw the top two cards from the deck, choose one to discard and add the other to their hand. If there is now a 'Duo' of cards in their hand they may trigger its power by placing it face up in front of them: Crabs let you search one discard pile to retrieve a card like the bottom feeders they are, Fish let you draw the top card of a deck (Go Fish!), Boats let you set sail again and have another turn, while a Shark eating a Swimmer lets you steal a card at random from another player's hand.
As well as the Duo cards, the deck contains sets of Shells, Octopodes, Penguins and Sailors, which score better the more you have of a set, and single cards that score for having other types of card (for example, the Lighthouse scores 1 point per Ship). This applies whether cards are visible and played or still in hand. The last type of card is the Mermaid, which scores 1 point per card colour you have the most of, or - and this hasn't happened yet in a dozen games - win you the game outright by collecting all four of them.
So far, so doldrums, you might think. Well, I could see that, and I do find the process of playing Sea Salt & Paper pleasantly calming. Disturbing the waters of your zen mindset tho', is how each round ends: when a player has at least 7 points (in hand + on the table), they can either STOP the round and everyone scores what they've currently got; or, they can give the other players a LAST CHANCE to beat their total. If the Chancer wins their bet, everyone else only scores as if they had one Mermaid, while the Chancer scores as normal plus a virtual Mermaid; lose, tho', and everyone else scores normally and the Chancer gets the booby prize.
When teaching Sea Salt & Paper, I normally skip the 'Last Chance' rule for the first round or two, even tho' it is what elevates the game from set collection sopor to a The Good The Bad & The Ugly stand-off of who will blink first or just wuss out and say 'Stop'. While the Mermaids are the obvious catch-up mechanism in the game and mean you could still win (tho' they're extremely unlikely to pay off), a well-timed 'Last Chance' can see you reclaim 5-10 points of deficit in the 30/35/40 point race you're in at 4/3/2 players.
Now, don't think this quite turns the game into a paragon of skilful play rewarding the best player at the table with a win every time. There is plenty of luck in drawing the 'right' card when you need it and that is the game's weakest point: it's not quite like being crippled by bad dice rolls but if an opponent draws fortuitously, the round can be over in three cards and you're sitting there with naught. That does, however, apply to all.
What the game does particularly reward you for is your play around the discard piles. Remembering there's a Sailor in one of them when you draw the Captain, finagling to get the Crab you need, not discarding a card from a set you saw another player collect early in the round, covering a card you know someone wants... these all make a big difference over the course of a game. Does it even out? Maybe. In consecutive plays, I played with two experienced gamers and thought my skill was what saw me to victory; the next play with non-gamers I played as before, but lost despite a 'Last Chance' rally from a becalmed start.
So, overall, I really like Sea Salt & Paper, winkles'n'all: it has quickly become a permanent fixture in my game bags. Being a bit of a care bear, I'd probably prefer it if the Shark/Swimmer combo meant a player chooses a card to give you rather than a blind steal, but it's OK as is. I'm quite looking forward to the mini-expansion Extra Salt which adds a few more ways to interact and score. That does mean I'm going to have to buy more sleeves, tho'; oh, and that's the other unsweet thing about the game: sleeved cards do not fit back in the tiny box :-(
(Review by David Fox)