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Subject: A GFBR Review: A Racing Game that Feels Like a Racing Game rss

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GeekInsight
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There are a lot of racing games out there, and frankly, I don’t enjoy most of them. They tend to either rely a good deal on luck and die rolls, or they bog down in a lot of minutia. One thing lacking from most of them is speed. They go on far too long and can even lead to analysis paralysis. But not Salmon Run. Salmon Run uses a deck building mechanism to simulate how tired or speedy your salmon is. And the game feels fast paced and exciting the whole way through.

The Basics. Each player is a salmon attempting to make it back to the spawning grounds. The first salmon back wins the game. Although it doesn’t say so in the rules, I think its safe to assume that all the others are bear food. The board is modular. There are double sided start and finish boards along with a plethora of double sided middle boards. Players can set it up randomly and can play with as few as two middle boards or as many as six. Players each start with an identical deck of cards containing a few moves, a wild, and a bear card.

Each player draws four cards and can play up to three each turn. Movement cards move the salmon ever closer toward the spawning pool. If the salmon passes over a special hex marked with an icon, the player generally gets to add a special card to his deck. Alternatively, the player might land on a fatigue space.

A fatigue is a dead draw in the deck. Fatigue is gained when a salmon jumps (such as over a waterfall), when he gets attacked by a bear, when eagles land on him, or even when all three of his plays are movement cards. The only way to eliminate fatigue is on certain rare tiles on the board or when a player plays three fatigue in one turn. Then he can remove one from his deck.

Between rapids, currents, waterfalls, eagles, and the like, there are many threats facing the players. But, the biggest threat is the bears. Each player starts with a bear card that can move any bear token up to two spaces. Any salmon hit by a bear immediately takes another fatigue card.

When the first player jumps into the spawning pool, the round finishes to the end so that everyone gets equal turns. If more than one player makes it in, ties are broken by the player with the fewest fatigue cards.

The Feel. The best part about this game is that it feels like a race. Too often, racing games bog down with a lot of considerations and a lot of staring at dice or resources. Salmon run keeps things moving by allowing players to plan out their turn in advance. After I draw my four cards, I can strategize as other players take their turns. This keeps the pace brisk and the tension tight.

Better yet, fatigue cards are a wonderful mechanic in this game. When I first read the rules, and noted how easily fatigue enters the deck and yet how rarely it gets removed, I had flashbacks to the worst games of Dominion where everyone was flooded with curses. Wouldn’t all the decks be hopelessly bogged down and lead to a frustrating and (even worse) slow game? Thankfully, not at all. Fatigue doesn’t tend to clog a deck up too brutally – except in the most extreme cases. Often, it creates an interesting decision tree about whether to play the card and get rid of it, or whether to hang on to it for now and use your other cards for forward movement.

And Salmon Run is full of other special cards. The most brutal is the “Current” card. That card moves all salmon, including the one who played it, back one space. Often, it’s a minor delay. But if that caused another player to move down a waterfall, or to move through a bear, it can be much more effective. And, the game allows the players to counter every special card if they have a matching one. So if my opponent plays a current to move me back, I could play a current (out of turn) to avoid any impact on my salmon.

Although you can play with as few as two and as many as six, I’ve found that the perfect number is either three or four depending on number of players and personal preference. I actually prefer a three board setup (five if you count the start and end boards). It keeps the game brief and creates a tension that lasts the entire game. When the race only lasts about 20 minutes, it feels like a race. Players get the sense of jockeying up the river and every play counts. As the board increases, this feeling starts to wane and that’s not always a good thing.

Components: 4.5 of 5. Eagle and Gryphon rarely disappoint in this department and Salmon Run is no exception. All of the pieces are painted wood. The cards are on nice stock and the starting decks have little colored salmon on them for each player making them easy to separate out. The boards are thick and glossy and line up nicely. The game is just solidly put together and reeks of quality.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4 of 5. With the deck-building element, luck certainly plays a role. However, this is quite well balanced around the strategy and tactics from each player. You can play more conservatively to avoid fatigue – and then do a massive push at the end. Or, you can start strong and hope that any fatigue gained doesn’t hurt you late game. In general, the draws serve to provide a nice challenge without dictating the turn.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. The game works wonderfully. The fatigue mechanism really impresses. It’s the sort of thing that could have made the game a real slog. Instead, it is near perfectly balanced to the game and provides only a minor slowdown – a penalty matching the benefit of playing a third movement card. But with a three board game, a minor slowdown can be a big deal. My only problem is that on one of the start boards, the bear starts two spaces away from the start space. Every time, the first player to draw a bear card simply moves his marker out, then moves the bear onto all remaining players. Nothing in the rulebook prohibits this, and it seems almost scripted. Aside from this strange positioning, the game works well.

Replayability: 4.5 of 5. Variable boards and set ups certainly enhance replayability. But that’s not all there is to this metric. Salmon Run goes much farther. The deck draws provide new strategies that must be constantly tailored to the surroundings. Bears move and often remain near many players – ready to strike. Plus, the short play time almost begs for repeat plays.

Spite: 3.5 of 5. The major spite cards here are the bear and the eagle. They can cause players to discard cards or gain fatigue. Other cards, like the current, can feel especially spiteful if played at just the right time to move players into bears or down waterfalls. So, be prepared for some attacks, but it isn’t a spite fest or a “take that” game. And, as I said, gaining a fatigue is not the end of the world so it is easy to take it for good-natured fun.

Overall: 4.5 of 5. I really, really enjoyed this game. And, frankly, after several plays I was surprised at precisely how much I liked it. I was fully set up for a bad time, but I played it and had a great one. Surely that was the result of low expectations. No, a further play confirmed a good time. And, I had a better time on even further plays. If you want to try a racing game, I could not think of a better candidate.

(A special thanks to designer Jesse Catron and Ealge and Gryphon Games for providing a review copy of Salmon Run)

(Originally posted, with pictures, at the Giant Fire Breathing Robot. Check out my GeekList of reviews and subscribe for updates).
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Dustin Schwartz
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Really enjoy your reviews. You're a machine!

Played my first two games of Salmon Run last night, and I have to say that my thoughts afterward mirror what you have written here quite closely.

I really think it felt like a racing game, and didn't overstay its welcome, as RoboRally is wont to do.

My only real complaint is the piss-poor rulebook. But that's what BGG rules forums are for, right?

EDIT: Also, from a graphic design perspective, I didn't understand why the card backs were oriented horizontally, when they are always held vertically.
 
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GeekInsight
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FreedomGunfire wrote:
Really enjoy your reviews. You're a machine!


Thanks!

FreedomGunfire wrote:
EDIT: Also, from a graphic design perspective, I didn't understand why the card backs were oriented horizontally, when they are always held vertically.


You know, I'd never noticed this before. Now it's going to bug me, too!
 
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Tom
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MyParadox wrote:
The only way to eliminate fatigue is on certain rare tiles on the board or when a player plays three fatigue in one turn. Then he can remove one from his deck.


Actually, if a player plays only Fatigue cards during his turn, he can eliminate one. So, if I play a single Fatigue as my entire turn, I can then pitch it. Or play two of them, I can pitch one.
 
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M Hellyer
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Perfectly written summary and review -- thanks! Definitely has me interested.

Do you know if this would compare at all with Kayak Chaos in terms of racing fun?
 
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GeekInsight
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PlayMe1 wrote:
Do you know if this would compare at all with Kayak Chaos in terms of racing fun?


Unfortunately, I've never played Kayak Chaos.
 
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M Hellyer
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MyParadox wrote:
PlayMe1 wrote:
Do you know if this would compare at all with Kayak Chaos in terms of racing fun?


Unfortunately, I've never played Kayak Chaos.


OK, thanks. It sounds like Salmon Run might be a little more fun, but Kayak Chaos is an enjoyable race-down-the-rapids game, too. Modular board pieces that the lead kayaker keeps adding on (setting it in any direction they want) as they advance until the last modular board section is placed. Negotiate water passages through and around rock obstacles with action cards including reversing sections of the modular board. Good fun. Thanks again for your excellent and very helpful review of Salmon Run.
 
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