Living Forest

Designer: Aske Christiansen

Artist: Apolline Etienne

Publisher: Ludonaute

More generic fantasy art for the forest. Yawn.

If first impressions counts, then Living Forest would most definitely be a hit for some, while getting a fair amount of scorn and eye-rolling from others. Don’t get me wrong, the art work is gorgeous and evocative of a fantastical forest world where woodland creatures fight alongside their forest protectors to oust the dreaded fire demon spirit. Yes, the colors are vibrant and the animals have a “spiritual” aura surrounding them, much like those found in Hayao Miyakazi’s creations in Princess Mononoke. The eye-rolling part will mostly like come from gamers who are tired of yet another fantasy-themed game that has scant connection to the real world. While the theme is probably apt for the game, Living Forest is just another example in a series of games that embrace a made up- and hence safe – theme that neither informs nor educates the masses. Sure, I get it. This is but a game, and hence there should be no expectation of educational value.

But I digress. In actuality, Living Forest is a pretty decent gateway game that does not innovate a whole lot, but is still a solid design where all the moving parts are tightly interwoven into a pretty compact playing experience. My first few plays ended up being a pleasant, “that’s it?” affairs: short and lean without much bloat. Turns are rapid fire with the main card flipping mechanism performed simultaneously by all players being the main draw of the game.

Living Forest is a deck builder, but the push-your-luck card flip mechanism deserves most of the attention. Players are avatars for the seasons of the year, building an army of woodland creatures to help fend of the fire spirits who are trying to burn the world to the ground. This sounds like the prologue of a co-op game, but for some reason, the seasons are competing with each other to best the villain. Seems to make sense that they work together to fight a common enemy, no? Still, the assembled woodland creatures are skillful in different ways. Each animal has a numerical value associated with 1 of 4 skills. By flipping over cards from a face down deck, a player can tally up all the icons to determine how many action points are available for each skill. Of course, you can’t just flip over all cards in your deck to get the points you need. Some animals in your deck are solitary animals and if you flip three of those, you have to stop and will be penalized with having only one action for your turn. In contrast, if you choose to stop at any point before you flip over three of those solitary creatures, then you get two actions in this turn. There are ways to mitigate this luck-fest. First, you can look through your discards to figure out how many solitary creatures you have played and how many are left in the deck to give you a fighting chance to draw what you need. If you own some “fragments”, they can be used to discard the most recent card drawn. Finally, some creatures are gregarious instead of solitary and having those creatures in your line up will count against the solitary beasts.

The four types of actions available are all pretty standard in a Euro game of this genre. we have the sun icon which allows a player to purchase more animal cards to be added straight to the top of your draw pile, the water icon allows you to assign animals to help extinguish flames that threaten the great tree; the sapling icon allows you to plant trees in your backyard (why that helps in fighting the flames is unclear); the spiral icon allows your avatar to dance around the tree to collect some extra benefits or actions – I guess you are trying to appease the spirits. Finally, one can also perform an action to collect a fragment. In all, you can do either one or two of these actions per round depending on the above-mentioned limitations in card flipping.

Now all this dancing and prancing around the tree must lead to somewhere, right? Well, to win the game, one of the competing spirits must either 1) Extinguish 12 flame tokens; 2) Plant 12 different trees OR 3) Collect 12 flower points to awaken the mother of all spirits. I have to admit that victory conditions like these usually make me pay a little more attention instead of just passive collection of victory points. This is a definitely a shout out to all Knizias I have played that doesn’t involve a “most points win the game” victory condition. In any case, the first two win conditions are pretty straight forward. Flames tokens that surround the tree can be snuffed out by a player who chooses the water icon. The more water points you have, the more tokens you can snuff out. Flame tokens range from 2-4 and one most allocate water points to take out individual tokens one at a time. If you have a lot of water points, then you can potentially douse all the flames and snatch all the tokens – much to the dismay to the player on your left which is left with nothing. First come first serve, which makes turn order critical for this action.

The second win condition of planting tree is a more solitary, heads-down effort that doesn’t involve a lot of interplayer competition… at least at first blush. Players need to plant 12 different types of trees on an individual 5×3 player board. The cost of each tree cost is calculated by the sapling icon. The more icons you have, the more expensive a tree you can plant. Trees planted bring benefits, most commonly in the form of more icons to be added to your tally from card play. In addition, we have the usual one time bonus of planting a tree in the corner slots or extra benefits for completing a row or column on the board – all pretty standard tableau building, tile-placing sweeteners for games of this ilk. I mentioned that this is a pretty solitary effort, but there is some tension in planting trees here apart from getting 12 to win the game. There is nothing in the rulebook that say that you can’t plant the same trees. In fact, if you do that, you might actually deprive your opponent of trees that they need to win. There are enough ways to get trees to reach 12, but certainly, if you sop up some low cost trees, it might make it harder for an opponent to reach 12. The best part is, you aren’t playing this defensively. You may actually want to forgo the tree planting victory condition early on and focus on other victory conditions. For example, you could plant only trees that provide only the water or sun icons to boost the value of your other actions. In which case, duplicate trees on your board will help you too. Basically, you don’t need to hate-plant to stymie your opponents going for this strategy.

The third win condition is probably the trickiest, at least by the book. You are trying to collect a total of 12 flower icons during your turn. The flower icons are meant to awaken some super spirit that will crush the demon….. think of it as summoning Bahamut. The flower icons are scattered throughout the game. You can find them in some of the individual trees planted, in one of the benefits you unlock from your board when a row of 5 trees are planted or in the woodland creature cards you play. You need to have showcase a total of 12 of those icons from the cards in play and all other sources to declare victory. It sounds more complex, but it really isn’t.

Now, the odd action here is the spiral icon which allows you to move your avatar around the giant tree. It costs an action to move and wherever you land, you trigger the bonus action which is most usually performing an alternate action. There are also spots where you can pick up a fragment. This will sound puzzling to most since it costs an action to perform the spiral maneuver…. only to regain another action. Why not chose the action you want to begin with? The kicker here – which I think is the unsung design choice of the game – is that for every other avatar you hop over as you move around in the circular track, you can claim a victory condition token from them. No, you don’t steal them from other players, you merely take one of three type of victory tokens that is made available to all players at the start of the game. They essentially count toward your tally of 12 items needed for each type of victory condition. So, if there are 4 players in the game, and you are collecting flame tokens, you can get 3 additional flame tokens from other players to add to your tally of 9 that you collected to declare victory. The tokens that you start with do not count toward the victory conditions, only those that you pick up from other players count. This makes the spiral action more valuable, and also injects a modicum of interaction between players during the game.

The general feeling of playing the Living Forest with two players is one of ambivalence, mixed with a realization that it is probably a “game du jour” – simply too fluffy for any long-term staying power. The best analogy I can think of are summer movies. These popcorn flicks are entertaining when you watch them, but they quickly get erased from your memory once you leave the cinema. Living Forest is not memorable in a way that many games these days suffer from using overlapping non-interactive mechanisms that meld together after a while. Play enough of them and you can’t spot the differences. Personal tableau, check; card drafting, check; deck building check; tile placement bonuses, check, check, check.

Yet, in the midst of going through the motions, it crossed my mind that this game is probably quite good as a gateway game for kids and family who are just moving beyond Ticket to Ride. Easy victory conditions, check; quick play time, check; cute art, check; moderate complexity, check; low conflict, check. Perhaps, this feature itself is worthy of mention and certainly, the Kennerspiel Jury agrees with it. Each action you take leads you one step closer to home without a lot of unnecessary detours or distractions that obfuscate the goals of the game. You plant a tree, extinguish a fire or buy a card. Oh, and you can also choose to act rather silly and dance around a tree on occasion. That can’t be too bad.

Initial impression: Average

Kids Corner

7 year 8 months: Not too bad indeed. It will take her a couple games, but the first one wasn’t bad and she wanted to play again. We have been switching back and forth between SCOUT and several other Knizia games, but I think this has promise. Certainly, the first game has been a plethora of actions and decisions, but as always, it will take her several plays to even start thinking of winning. In the first game, she cheerfully specialized in the spiral icon and stole all of our tokens, making it harder for us to win. But in the end, I prevailed with the flower victory. I am not sure if it is telling, but she gravitated toward the only part of Living Forest that had significant player interaction. Not sure if it is by design. She is also a little uncertain about specific strategies and how that is tied to risking the card flip. She clearly doesn’t mind going full steam ahead and keep on flipping cards, but there remains a disconnect between planning ahead and working toward a single victory condition. Still, I am cautiously optimistic she will continue to ask to play Living Forest. We shall see.

08/2022: With at least 3-4 more games in the belt, the kiddo is now competitive and has won her first game. It is clear that after grabbing the basics and tending to her own board. Her first win was a narrow but reasonable victory with trees. But her next steps is to start looking beyond her own area and playing defensively to hinder others. Not sure how quickly that will come. Thus far, she is liking Living Forest.

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