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The Fox Experiment

I'm not sure nominative determinism is much of a thing in this day and age: a Mr Cooper's son becoming a cooper in the 1600s sounds fair, but there are not so many Mr Influencers around. However, having the surname Fox, as I do, besides suggesting there's a criminal element in my bloodline, has definitely led me to play a disproportionate number of games involving foxes. As such, it was inevitable I would play The Fox Experiment at some point, the latest game designed by Elizabeth Hargrave and Jeff Fraser, published by Pandasaurus and with art by Joe Shawcross. The review copy was not, tho', the first time I heard about the game: I had been tracking it for over a year and was considering pushing the button on Kickstarter. In the end, I did not; cunning choice, or folly?

Elizabeth Hargrave is, of course, best known for Wingspan (Stonemaier Games), the game so beloved by its admirers that it won every award going when it was published - hyperbole, yes, but not by much - a bird-themed engine-building game in which the late-game egg-laying issues were often overlooked due to the gorgeous art by and superb production from Stonemaier Games. Mariposas (AEG) followed, a there-and-back-again race/set collection game about the migration of Monarch butterflies in the Americas, and Tussie Mussie (Button Shy), a cute microgame themed around floriography. I've played them all, owned the last two, and still own the smallest. I've liked them all, too, and can feel the heart behind the integration of theme with mechanisms within each game, whether it's beneficial or not.

To presumptively answer the classic question designers are asked, The Fox Experiment very much feels like a theme-first, mechanics-second design. The weighty rulebook begins each section with a paragraph or two describing how each phase of the game simulates a 1950s Russian experiment to investigate how dogs became domesticated and what evolutionary traits influenced such. To be fair, the theme and mechanisms mesh well and, over the course of game, the five generations of fox pups born exhibit friendliness traits more strongly than their predecessors.

Each round consists of three phases. Phase 1, Selection, is by far the greatest source of tension in the game as players choose which male and female fox to mate and where to place yourself in turn order for the next round. With the foxes' evolution being quite rapid, having first pick of the next generation is a distinct advantage, but whether it's worth the cost of a lesser pick this generation is the choice to weigh. Phase 2, Breeding, is where you get to play a solo roll & write minigame: the dice you roll are collected from the fox pair you breed and are marked with half, full, or one-and-a-half symbols of each of the four Friendliness traits - Waggy Tails, Floppy Ears, Spotty Coats and Yappy Barks. After the roll you arrange these dice, along with some wild dice from your player board, to achieve Studies (recipe cards), each of which have three stages of progression worth 2/5/10 points at the end of the game. If you have more than one pup, more rolls can be made, meaning more Studies can be completed. As well as giving you trait tokens, these pups show the amount of dice they will provide in the next round's Breeding phase. Phase 3, Research, is player administration, resolving Studies and gaining trait tokens to upgrade your player board which can grant you more pups, more Studies, more wild dice, and some Sponsors for end-game scoring. Pups are then judged for their Friendliness and the next round begins, with unfriendly pups getting a consolation prize.

One thing to be said for sure about The Fox Experiment is how much the process of playing the game makes sense. The tension of choosing the best option in Phase 1 versus leaving good options for other players is strong, although there can be situations where one fox is excessively better than all the others and becomes a 'no-brainer' pick. That Phases 2 and 3, Breeding and Research, can be done almost completely simultaneously is a huge plus, as Breeding is by far the slowest part of the game, especially if a 'less decisive' player has multiple pups; were this sequential, the game would bog down enormously. The three phases are logical steps in the scientific process and, as such, translate well to the abstraction of board gaming. Final score tally comes from completed Studies, progress on the player boards, end-game points from Sponsors, and bonuses for making the Friendliest fox each round.

I enjoyed my plays of The Fox Experiment and it is particularly nice to see Roll & Write as a sub-mechanism within a larger game, not the be-all and end-all of an entire game. The production is exceptional, even with the 'standard' components (which look better than the deluxe ones, in my opinion), although the clear rulebook is so spaciously laid out that you often have to flick through several pages to find the one that might answer the occasional query. Much of it is given over to extra rules for two-player and solo games. While the game can go up to five or six players with an expansion, the chances of finding a 'slower soldier' therein is more than most would risk, which leaves the likely player count at three or four, which feels right.

But... I'm content that I did not back The Fox Experiment during its Kickstarter run. Having played a three-handed game to learn the rules and formulate some early thoughts, I was glad to get a four-player game in at a club game day. I suspected that I'd already seen most everything the game had to offer and the four-player game played out as expected, with no surprises or revelations. I honestly don't think there would be more in subsequent plays so that's a caveat for sure. Replayability is a 'lightning in a bottle' quality that some games have and some games don't: the process of play is innately fun and the mechanisms at work provide a novel contest each play. I don't see The Fox Experiment doing the latter and it does not crackle with new and exciting twists each play, like a Hansa Teutonica (Argentum Verlag) or even a Love Letter (AEG). That disappoints me: the prospect of jokes about breeding better offspring with my wife and child at the table was quite enticing but I relinquished the review copy without regret. Take from that what you will, but it does leave one burning question... floppy ears, waggy tails, I can see; but why would anyone want a yappy dog? I have no idea; personally, I'd be happier if canines had all evolved mute buttons.

(Review by David Fox)

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