Fox in Box
Whether it’s a free-for-all like Hearts or Oh Hell, or a team setup like Euchre or Bridge, trick-taking games are family classics for quite a few people, including many who wouldn’t consider themselves “board” or “card” players. Yet it’s a genre I never found myself engaged by. No reason, really. It just wasn’t something my family did, and therefore it wasn’t something that I did.
Joshua Buergel’s The Fox in the Forest has changed that, at least in the short-term. Let me show you why.
If you aren’t sure what these “tricks” are and why you should “take” them, here’s the basic notion. You begin with a fixed hand of cards — in The Fox in the Forest’s case, that’s thirteen — and each round (or trick) you’ll be setting just one of these on the table. Your opponent — just the one pimple-faced rival in this game — will also place a card onto the table. Most of the time they’re required to play a card from the same suit as you. If they’ve run out of that particular suit, then they can play anything, perhaps even the trump suit. What’s a trump suit, you ask? It’s the suit of the card flipped face-up onto the table at the start of the round, and which will be even better than the suit of the card that was first played onto the table. So: highest card wins, unless the second person to place down a card played trump. Then they win.
The beauty of a trick-taking game is that every trick is but one miniature skirmish in a broader grand campaign. Every single play tells you something about what your opponent is holding. Did they follow your suit, or play trump? Did they start out trying to win some tricks with high cards early on? Or are they playing it safe for now, ceding the occasional trick but preparing for a big comeback later?
There’s no scrap of data too small or too insignificant. The cards that have been used up, the ones your opponent might be holding, what’s still in the deck, whether they’re playing it brash or timid — it’s all important.
Why? Well, for one thing, you don’t always want to win. Oh, certainly, you want to win the game. But one of the worst things you can do in The Fox in the Forest is to win all thirteen tricks in a row. In fact, it’s possible to win the game by losing a whole bunch of tricks. If one player loses too many tricks in a single round, they’ll be the one who’s walking away with all the points, while their victorious rival is left holding nothing at all. The whole game is pitched as a tightrope act. You want to win, but not too handily. You want to lose sometimes, but not too often. You want to glean information about your opponent’s hand, but without revealing too much about your own.
You’ve probably heard the saying that a game isn’t complete when there isn’t anything left to add; instead, it’s complete when there isn’t anything left to strip out.
The Fox in the Forest is the living embodiment of that principle. It doesn’t merely emulate a deck of cards — it pares it down. Rather than boasting four suits of thirteen cards, it has three suits of eleven. There are special abilities, naturally — despite being based on timeless classics, this is a very modern game — but only on the odd-numbered cards. You can practically feel Buergel’s design muscles rippling with restraint.
What do the abilities do? Glad you asked. They do a lot, but never so much that they strangle the back and forth between players. The fanciest of them all, the 7, will give the winner of that trick an extra point. Just like that, your ongoing fencing match is secondary to claiming that card. The 5 lets you replace a card with one from the deck. The 3 lets you swap the trump card with something from your hand. The 9 is designed to be nigh-unbeatable. Every one of them offers some glimmer of additional control. But only a glimmer.
In addition to being delightfully subtle, these abilities are also totally essential to what The Fox in the Forest is doing with its tempo. Actually, the whole game can be interpreted as one of carefully-orchestrated pacing. If you start out by winning three tricks in a row, it behooves you to ensure that you lose a trick or two to ensure you aren’t left with nothing to show for all your victories. However, the winner of the previous trick is required to play the first card, which turns more control over to the player who follows. Again, this is only a glimmer of control, but it’s often enough that you may find yourself floundering while your rival chooses who wins which hand.
Cue some of those other abilities. The 1 means that the loser of a trick will lead the next one, swapping their status as follower for some momentary agency over which cards will clash next. Meanwhile, the 11 forces an opponent to play either their highest card of that suit or their 1. Good luck keeping hold of that great card when it’s been pried out of your hand.
Even the game’s downsides are muted. Certain abilities are more desirable than others — I would gladly begin every single round with all three 7s and never feel the slightest pang of regret — but it’s hard to get too ruffled about imbalance in a game that’s constantly shuffling out new opportunities. More problematic is its two-man player count, which tosses it into an incredibly saturated market full of formidable contenders. Even then, however, there’s a lot to recommend this one, especially for fans of trick-taking.
The point is, The Fox in the Forest is a remarkably subtle game, overflowing with interesting moments as players struggle to command the tempo of each round by picking the proper moment for each card. When it gets going, the result is almost symphonic, one play flowing into the next, command swapping back and forth, neither player certain when to win and when to fold. For an entry in a genre that I’ve never engaged with, this one’s a charmer.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. It only takes two to make a trick; claiming it is more difficult. And no, I have no idea what I’m talking about.)