Quick Look: Tournament Fishing: The Deck Building Game
Designer: Greg Mahler
Artists: Jenny Eickbush & Greg Mahler
Publisher: TGG Games
Year Published: Currently on Kickstarter due to be published in 2022
Fishing is admittedly not that first thing I would think of if you were to ask me what themes I expect from deck building games. The most abundant of such themes in my collection center around dungeons/fantasy/fighting (Thunderstone/ Draconis / Shadowrun / Dark Gothic)and feudal (Dominion).
One week ago, If you were to have asked me if I would have bought a deck building game that is centered around the theme of fishing, I probably would have laughed.
But here I am, writing about a Fishing game…
While I have only been fishing a handful of times in my life, I nevertheless remember what the sport is like quite well. And to be honest, exciting isn’t what comes to mind when I reflect on those memories. I think of the sound of sheer silence, flies buzzing, and long periods of dozing off waiting for something—anything—to happen.
Nevertheless, we do frequent our local Bass Pro shop quite often, and while my wife has never been fishing, the mood of the store creates a certain vibe for her—and exciting isn’t what comes to mind for her, either, a certain brand and mark of dull tranquility is the sense that pervades the fishing section of the store whenever we go there.
Hence, fishing would initially seem a bit of an odd pairing for a tabletop experience.
And yet with this being said, once we played the game…everything made perfect sense. And rather shockingly….the theme actually worked, and not just well, but exceedingly so.
Now these days, deck builders are about a dime a dozen, and one can almost say that if you have played one, you have played them all. Anyone who has read my other reviews certainly knows by now that I have some serious contentions with some of the deck builders that are out there, and one of my major issues with many of them is that they are all too derivative of Dominion and Thunderstone. Even games such as Dark Gothic, Draconis Invasion (which I recently reviewed) and Clank! are somewhat modeled after the “classic” games that started it all, and even though there are great and an especially marked improvement over the original games, they nevertheless follow the same tried-and-true formula, similar to the often overdone James Bond recipes for success.
Consequently, the amount of variation that one can experience from game to game isn’t exactly earth shattering. At this point in time, only a few deck builders in my possession have a strong and distinct enough identity as to require me to educate new players as to what the mechanics and rules are if they are already familiar with how “generic” deck builders work.
Mage Knight and Shadowrun : Crossfire would be the two games in my collection that I would say stand out as models for creativity in eschewing established norms and marking their own territory in the world of deck builders…
…and with Tournament Fishing, there is now a third game that stands out for being different than all the rest.
It is really hard to encompass everything that is so unique about Tournament Fishing in the limited scope of this review with the time I have. Everyone is most probably familiar with “traditional” layouts for deck builders having a central “market place” for players to buy cards, but other than that and the fact that players will constantly draw cards for their hand and reshuffle when they no longer have 6 cards to play, that is pretty much where all similarities to other games ends.
Everything from the aesthetics—the layout , art , text—is totally unlike any other deck builder I have played. I am so used to “dark” visuals for these types of games that it felt like a slap in the face seeing a design that seems so…colorful…in comparison. And it is not that the cards themselves are saturated with a Technicolor sort of flair, but relative to everything else out there, the art and appeal seems quite vibrant, though in an oddly rustic sense that matches up well with the concept of fishing. If you were to look at the art by itself without ever having compared to other games out there, I suppose one might say it looks as placid as a lake you may have fished in, and in a certain sense boring, but this actually matches up perfect with the theme of floating down a lazy river and napping while waiting for your big catch to bite.
I also loved how the game insert has it directly printed what cards go where for storage purposes.
From the standpoint of gameplay, it is so different that rather than describing in high detail what every phase of Tournament Fishing is like, I for once say that this is probably a game that you should experience yourself if what I am saying so far sounds interesting. That is not to say that I will not highlight at all what makes it different, but I do feel that this is something that people who are already familiar with the oversaturated Deck Building genre need to go out and try for themselves if they truly want to see something that innovates.
The Setup : In a nutshell.
Players have a starting deck of 12 cards, two of which are unique to each player (a special fishing rod and boat, each of which are unique and randomly assigned at the start of the game.)
There is a central Bait Shop with 5 cards to buy from.
There are also 5 distinct piles of face-down Lake cards that contain either fish or random events that effect gameplay for one or all players.
So far , all seems like a “standard” setup, right? Now here is what stands out…
—Have you ever played the old children’s game of Memory? If so, Tournament Fishing forces you to remember what fish are in one of 5 distinct pools of fish. Players will generally be able to secretly look at the top card on one of the 5 Lake Location cards on their turn (provided they have all the equipment in hand necessary to make a successful Cast on their turn).
—The ultimate goal is to catch the most fish (in point value) by the end of the game. However, the act of acquiring these points / catching a fish is much more involved than ANY other deck builder than I own. This is because the act of catching a fish is a multi-staged event that requires you have all your ducks in a row before even having a chance of success—and even then, success is NOT guaranteed.
Let me put it this way. In games like Mage Knight, Thunderstone, Dominion, Dark Gothic, Draconis Invasion, etc, you know EXACTLY when you have the cards that are necessary to “make the kill” to acquire the game’s points. You have absolutely certainty by looking at your new hand that when your next turn comes, you can get that one card that will add a substantial amount to your Victory Point trove.
In Tournament Fishing you never have such guarantees of success, and that is part of what makes the game exciting and reflective of the real-life activity of fishing. There will always be “that one big one” that got away for whatever reason, and this is perhaps the best part of the essence of fishing that Tournament Fishing manages to snare.
If you want to net a big one, here is what players will need to do on their turn :
0) Play cards that have a “Search” phase designation. These generally let you use devices such as a fish radar to detect cards in the Lake Deck.
1) Attach a lure—if you ain’t got no bait, you ain’t got no chance. Skip to the buy cards phase that is essentially the end of your turn.
2) You can apply a limited number of “bonus” cards to the lure you just laid out and played prior to casting your rod. These generally increase what is called your Casting Strength.
3) You can now make 2 casting attempts. This involves secretly looking at the top of one of the Lake card piles to see what fish is there. Each fish may have one or more symbols on it that need to be matched up to symbols on the lure. If all of the symbols on the lure and fish match up , you will compare your casting strength to the fish strength on the next step. If not all of the symbols match, you may make a second casting attempt on another Lake card pile. If no fish are attracted to the lure at all, proceed directly to the Buy Cards step.
4) If all the symbols match, you must now see if the fish bites. If your Casting Strength numbers from played cards (and other modifiers) exceeds the Fish Strength, it bites. Proceed to the Reel Phase.
5) Reeling the fish in. This part is a bit more randomized and can use either Fight Cards or dice (players decide what kind of randomness they want at the start of the game)
Play cards (either in your hand or already in play from previous phases) that will again need to be matched up with symbols on the dice or Fight Cards. There are various ways to manipulate the results in your favor, but the tricky part here is that the cards that you have already played cannot be used for matching up symbols, meaning you must have a card or two still remaining in your hand to have a chance to fight and reel the fish in. If you draw or roll a “Pop!” on the dice or cards, the fish immediately breaks away and even takes your lure, swimming away to the bottom of its respective Lake pile. If you manage to match up the symbols and reel it in, you add it to your collection to see who has the most Fish points at the end of the day.
6) Buying Cards. Any unused cards can now be used to purchase new items at the Bait Shop.
This is what happens on each players’ turn (this is still an oversimplification for the purposes of this review, but should give you an idea what each turn is like.
But there are a few more dimensions to gameplay that help make the Tournament Fishing experience what it is…
—Clock cards. The game starts at 6 AM and ends at 6 PM. After all players have taken their turn, a new hour starts, and this brings a new set of conditions that affect gameplay, casting strength. After 6 PM comes and goes, the game is over. While Tournament Fishing is not the first game to offer such a timer, it really does feel like watching the hands on a clock roll by waiting for something to happen.
—Weather Cards. Every hour, the weather changes as well, again affecting the gameplay. A new hour may bring rain , fog, or clear skies, each with their own unique conditions that affect game play.
—Location Cards. Somewhat underneath each Lake Pile, but slightly offset from them are Location Cards, such as weeds, docks, marsh, etc, that create a unique set of conditions for choosing to cast/fish in that location. This is another part of the game that lends to the thematic magic and sense of “being there”.
Summary of our thoughts :
As stated earlier, we really did not think a fishing game had much chance of being anything other than a boring mismatch when paired with deck building, and we could not have been more wrong. The first thing my wife said when summing up her thoughts in the game was that it is shocking how well the theme works for the type of game that Tournament Fishing is.
In fact, I would have to say that thematically speaking, this game does the best job of feeling like what it is trying to represent of all the deck builders that I have.
Whereas something like Thunderstone, Draconis Invasion have a system that represents battle, at the end of the day it does not necessarily feel like you have actively engaged in combat as opposed to a quick number game.
Tournament Fishing, with all of its various stages of day, locations, and casting a rod, makes it feel like you are actually engaging in this activity. A turn does not take a long time per se, but going through all these various motions while keeping your eye on the card clock give the illusion of passing time in such a way that I can almost feel the fisherman’s cap draped over my eyes as I drift into a doze waiting for a bite. Or I can imagine the group of friends popping open a cold one while engaged in lazy banter while passing the time on the game table, fully set in a mood that is quite evocative of the real experience of fishing with the way the game flows.
The other thing I would have to say stood out about my experience with the game is that it was my first time in quite a long where I actually had to think about the various stages of gameplay. Virtually everything else in my deck builder collection is so similar that it really takes no effort to learn the game, and there is virtually no learning curve. Tournament Fishing really got some new synaptic pathways fused in learning a new way to do things, which gave me a pleasant little cerebral jolt. I wish I could get this type of feeling from more games , to tell the truth.
I really can’t think of any negative aspects to our experience with Tournament Fishing.
When asked if I would recommend it, I would have to say yes. My first choice would be to those who thought they have seen everything that deck building has had to offer and want something new that isn’t a rehash of existing content.
Much of what is out there in deck building these days feels like it is the same game with a different skin. Tournament Fishing makes a bold step that could have ended in gameplay disaster with a horrible mismatch between theme and mechanics, but instead they ended up with a winning combination that manages to do something completely new with an otherwise withering (for lack of development) genre. So my advice to board game connoisseurs is to give this game a try. Despite any misgivings you may have about ideas of fishing, it is probably the best thematic match I have yet seen in a deck builder in terms of fully capturing the spirit of what it is trying to portray.
Those who follow me know that my scaling for rating deck builders is usually a bit steep and harsh given my laundry list of issues for the genre, yet know for sure that I would would rank Tournament Fishing somewhere between and 8 and 9 out of 10 for a final score, though I am still unsure where about that final score would fall exactly. I am still having a hard time digesting my experience to tell the truth, as the game is a bit of an oddball and runs counter to just about everything I have ever experienced within the genre. It may still take me a while to mull on things, but while I chew on things, I highly recommend checking out the new Kickstarter for the game, which is currently active. I know for sure I want to keep this game, and will not enjoy sending it back, as it is the type of game I would love to show to anyone who is sick of the genre!
Check out Tournament Fishing: The Deck Building Game and TGG Games on:
Jazz Paladin- Reviewer