Dale Yu: Review of Living Forest

Living Forest

  • Designer: Aske Christiansen
  • Publisher: Ludonaute
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 10+
  • Time: 40 minutes
  • Played with review copy provided by publisher via Asmodee NA

living forest

In Living Forest, players play as one of the four Spirits of Nature, trying to become the Grand Protector of the Forest. The Four Spirits of Nature – Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn – have been called to rescue the Sacred Tree of the Forest facing the devastating flames of Onibi…

Each player gets their own Forest board, a grid of 5×3 spaces, with a single starting Protective tree on it.  The players also get a starting deck of 14 Guardian Animal cards.  These cards have elements found on the left hand side of the card which will be used to perform the actions in the game.  This small deck is shuffled and placed facedown next to your Forest board.  The remainder of the cards are split into three levels, each set is shuffled, and a tableau of 4 cards of each level is made.  There is also a circular spirit board on which each player has a single pawn representing themselves. A fire token starts the game in the center of the spirit board.

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The game will be played in successive rounds until someone has achieved one of the three victory conditions: 12 different Protective trees on their board, 12 Fire tiles in their collection, 12 Sacred Flowers in the Help Line.

Each turn includes 3 phases:  Guardian Animals, Action, End of Turn

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Guardian Animals: This phase happens simultaneously. Players draw and turn face up, one after the other, the Guardian Animal cards from their personal draw stack, forming the Animal Guardian Help Line. You can stop drawing cards whenever you want. However, if you reveal a card showing a third solitary symbol (seen in the upper left corner), then you must stop drawing cards and that 3rd solitary symbol is the end of your Help Line.  Note that a Gregarious symbol will cancel out a Solitary Symbol, so you could end up with more than 3 Solitary cards in your line at the end of this round.  If you have collected Fragment tokens, you can discard them in this phase to either discard a Guardian Animal card that you drew or to destroy a Fire card that you drew.

Action: The Spirits of Nature play in turn. If your Help Line shows strictly less than three solitary symbols (not canceled by gregarious symbols), you can then perform 2 different Actions. If your Help Line shows three solitary symbols (not canceled by gregarious symbols), you can then perform only 1 Action. The strength of an Action is determined by the number of corresponding Elements visible on the Guardian Animal cards on your Help Line and on your Forest individual board (seen on the tiles).  Sum up the total in each of the 5 elements.

There are 5 possible actions:

  • Take a Fragment Tile – take a Fragment tile from the supply to use in a later Guardian Animal Phase
  • Add Guardian Animal cards to your deck – using Sun points, buy cards (cost in lower right), place them face down on top of your draw stack
  • Extinguish the fire – Use your water drop points to extinguish fire tiles that are on the circular spirit board.  Turn them facedown next to your forest board
  • Move on the Spirit Board – Using your white spiral points, move clockwise up to your point total. If you pass another spirit, do not count their space AND take one of their Victory tiles.  Wherever you end movement, take the bonus action shown on that space.

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  • Plant one Protective Tree – Using your green sprout points, buy a tile and place it on your board adjacent to a previously placed tile.  Each tile instantly provides you extra elements or perhaps the ability to perform the same action twice.   If you fill a row or column, you will get an additional bonus for that.  If you plant a tree in the corner, you will get the immediate one-time bonus shown in that space.

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End of the turn: 5 things happen here

Onibi is attacking you: If some Fires remain at the center of the Circle of Spirits and that you cannot resist them (you must have as many blue water drop points as the total value of the Fire tiles on the circular board), then add as many Fire Varan cards to your discard stack as there are Fire tiles at the center of the Circle of Spirits.  Fire Cards are bad as they do not offer any elements on them but give you a Solitary icon.

Onibi is attacking the Sacred Tree: Add as many Fires to the center of the Circle of Spirits as there are Guardian Animal cards taken this turn. (Fire 2 for Level 1 cards, Fire 3 for Level 2 cards, Fire 4 for Level 3 cards).  There can never be more than 7 Fire tiles in the Circle.  If there are no tiles in the center, place a single Level 2 tile in the center (Even if no cards were bought)

The arrival of new Guardian Animals: Complete the Guardian Animal reserve by revealing as many new cards per level as there were cards taken this turn – i.e. fill in the holes in the display

living forest cards

The Return of Guardian Animals: Move all the Animal Guardian cards from your Help Line to your personal discard stack.

Giving the Sacred Tree: Give the Sacred Tree to the next Spirit of Nature clockwise to change the start player

Again, the game ends at the end of any Action Phase when someone has achieved one of the three victory conditions: 12 different Protective trees on their board, 12 Fire tiles in their collection, 12 Sacred Flowers in the Help Line.  If only one player has done this, that player automatically wins.  If multiple players have met a victory condition, they add up their scores for all three criteria, and the highest sum wins.

My thoughts on the game

So, Living Forest has been one of the more thought provoking games I’ve come across in 2022.  And, I’m honestly not sure yet if that’s a good or bad thing!   As soon as we finished our first game, my group (in our usual post mortem) discussed what we thought about the game.  We concluded that after our first game, we were worried that the tree building strategy was the best as we didn’t see any way to stop it.  There wasn’t really much your opponents could do to prevent this from happening, and thus, it was a superior strategy.  It made us worry about the long term replayability of the game.

Then, as I wrote a game session for our internal OG mailing list, a huge amount of discussion popped up.  Lots of people threw around the word “fragile” about the game; but interestingly, there were many different conclusions as to what was so fragile about it.  One writer said that their group felt the Spiral strategy was superior – as you could almost always generate the action you needed by moving on the circle.  Another replied with: “ Fire seemed much too easy to end and win the game with. Fire will happen no matter what, maybe there needs to be a different end value for the fire tokens? I mean it wasn’t even close. There is no way the guys could have won with trees.”  

To me, this shows that there are multiple ways to win, and it’s just a matter of playing the group maybe more than the game.  In general, if you are the only person going down a path, you’ll have less competition – though in a 4p game, you’re guaranteed to have some sort of fight as there are only 3 paths.  Otherwise, you have to do what you can to limit the ability of the other players to do things.  Maybe it’s camping out on the tree space on the circle so someone else can’t use it.  Maybe it’s not buying cards on the turn prior to the fire collector going first – so that they don’t get the best run at the fire tokens.  Maybe it’s just playing your own game, collecting cards and fragment tokens and making a huge one-time dash at the 12 lotus flowers.

After seeing the varied responses to my initial internal mini review, I was definitely interested in playing it again, and being more aware to the situational nature of the strategy, it most certainly played differently. I tried for the fire strategy myself, but I was definitely denied extra fire tokens near the end of the game – the other players simply stopped buying cards; so I could set myself up for fire tokens occasionally, and otherwise a few fell in my lap due to the autorefill if things were empty – but it was not a runaway strategy by any means.  

For me, the trees and fire seem pretty well balanced, and it’s simply a race to see who can get there first.  I don’t yet see the lotus strategy as being as competitive, but I also haven’t tried it myself yet to see for sure.  I suppose if the cards came out right and you were able to get a few gregarious cards with 2 or 3 lotuses on them, and maybe pick up one or two trees/VP markers, you still might have a chance with a single turn and a handful of fragments.

And… due to all this speculation about how to best win the game, I’ve been thinking about the game pretty constantly this week, and that doesn’t happen often.  As a result, this is easily one of the more intriguing games for me this year, and one I still want to explore further.  I will probably play this in person with my regular groups more, but it’s also available online at BGA if you want to try it there.   In some ways, this game might play easier online as you’ll have the computer to count up your totals in the different areas as well as make sure that you’re not missing any bonuses from your trees or tree board (as we often miscounted things on our own in the FTF games).

The game has some interesting “deckbuilding” ideas, and the push your luck nature of the card flip can be tense at times.  There are times when you just want to do one thing, and it that case, you’ll flip stuff up to maximize your points in that area.  But, it’s pretty powerful to have two actions – sometimes just to give you room to pick up a fragment for a later turn – and then you really have to think carefully about whether or not to flip once you have 2 solitary creatures up.

The art on the cards is nice, and we have a good time asking for cards from the tableau by describing what we see.  The rest of the graphic design is good, though you do need to make sure that the players remember to count up their tree and board bonuses.   The player standees are not long for this world though as the smallish bases don’t fit well and they constantly fall over.  I will probably try to find some plastic stands to jam the character parts into.

The fact that I’m still thinking about how to best play the game and I’m looking for pieces to help the standees work better tells me that I’m planning to keep the game.  And, in many ways, that is perhaps a great indication of what I think about it.  

 

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Steph (2 plays): I enjoy the core mechanics. The deck-building and the push-your-luck element is just fun. I was really turned off by the end of the game conditions. 

Jonathan (5+ plays): I really like this game, enough so that after a few plays on BGA, I went and bought a copy. I said ‘love it’ in this review because the game takes ~5-7 rounds and each round, each player takes two out of the five possible actions, but some of them chain, so you can move around the rondel which lets you get a tree, which lets you get some fire tokens. Although it is one action, that sequence lets you take three actions with one. It has enough choice each turn without out staying its welcome and has led to memorable moments and surprises, such as thinking you are winning and then realize your victory next turn will be a turn too late. You do need to pay attention to what the other players are doing, as there might be certain actions you want to avoid  taking because they will set up an opponent. I did not feel there was too much take-that, which I dislike, but for those who don’t like it, I am confident a variant will be found. As an aside, I like the colors green and blue., so I found the game beautiful as well. 

Brandon (3+ plays): I think this is actually a clever little game that I would never want to play on the table in physical form. It does seem to be one of those games where you have to be singularly focused on one thing to try to win, but while being singularly focused on your victory path, you have to watch others and steal when appropriate. I don’t think the deck building is too strong here, but it is present and it can be important to build carefully, but more often than not I have found that part to be secondary. Turn order is so important when planning things, especially for the fire strategy, you want to extinguish all of the fires you can before others, this is especially true in the two player game, which I do not recommend. I mean it’s a race, get derailed one turn and you are probably out of the running and resorting to stealing points on the movement path, if you can. 

Brian (4 plays): This game attracted me from the beginning. So, it was a big disappointment when the first play did feel so ‘fragile’. I specifically sat and studied the game after that first play. I wanted to like it so much, and the first 70% of the game had been interesting and exciting – until the acceleration to a final couple turns where it was clear one strategy was going to beat the others. I studied the game a bit afterwards and said that I wanted to like it, and I wanted to play again to see, but I just couldn’t see it. 

It was on BGA that I was able to play it again. And, I saw that other strategies are in fact viable, and the strategic choices that players need to make to pursue them. There are a few elements that I think aren’t apparent from the rules and a bit non-intuitive on a first play of this game. First is just how rapid the game is. It is always a couple turns shorter than I expected. Second is how important it is for players to choose to not buy cards just because they can, as that benefits the earliest players in the next turn who are pursuing a fire collection strategy. Third is that there is a massive deck of cards for if the fire zaps you, of which I have seen exactly two allocated over the course of four games. If anything, that reinforced to me that putting fires out would be hard, when in fact it is very easy.

I adore the theme and art and I think the concepts are intriguing, but even after seeing the more balanced outcomes I am still a “Like it” rather than a “Love it”. I think that is because the game is just shorter than I want and doesn’t have quite enough ways to really feel like you are building something and to mitigate the luck of the draw over it’s short time frame. I’ve now had games where I only bought 2 or 3 new animals for my deck, and I really wanted that to be a bigger part of what I am supposed to do. 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Jonathan F., Talia
  • I like it. Dale, Brandon, Brian
  • Neutral. Steph Hodge
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
This entry was posted in Essen 2021, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

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