Living Forest is not a game that I expected to be writing about. It’s a deck-building game, and I hate those, right? I thought I did. I was sure I did. Of course I devoured Dominion when it came out in 2008 with over 100 plays in the months that followed. But I tired of it, and then its immediate progeny were exceedingly dull and derivative. Ascension, pass. Thunderstone, hard pass. Orleans, no thanks. A Few Acres of Snow, ha! Mage Knight, my time is finite. Penny Arcade: The Game, derivation piled on derivation. Nightfall, make it stop! After a few years, I decided to just write-off all deck-building games as a lost cause.
When the couple dozen Opinionated Gamer contributors are planning what to write about, we send around a few emails to discuss the latest games and, of course, our opinions. Most games don’t generate more than a handful of emails. There are just too many games and too little time. Living Forest is not most games. For some strange reason, discussion of Aske Christiansen’s debut game generated piles of emails, mountains of emails, heaps and heaps of emails.
Occasionally, I turn those email threads into an OG Roundtable, like the one about traditional card games or the one about Legends of Andor. Not this time. It all started with a message declaring that the game “surprisingly did not suck.” An auspicious start if ever there was one. Paris and Helen had set sail for Troy, and the die had been cast (to mix my Mediterranean metaphors).
What followed were extensive discussions of whether there was an “unbeatable strategy” or maybe the game was just “somewhat fragile” or maybe “flaws will emerge,” but just one little thing – no one could actually agree on which victory condition was “far superior.” The consensus among many was that “I’m still enjoying exploring it” and we “still want to play it again.” So we kept playing it and kept talking about it. This does not happen. It’s hard to overstate how unique this is among the hundreds of games that we discuss – games where we quickly strive not to have to play it or write about it or think about it. What is it about Living Forest that grabbed the minds and the time of more than a dozen OG contributors?
It’s a “super filler” certainly – that helps. It’s quick and snackable. It’s familiar, yet oddly not. As a longtime game curmudgeon, I hesitate to say this, but maybe Living Forest is… innovative.
When I chronicled the progeny of Caylus in 2008 with The Attia Family Tree, I could feel reasonably confident that I had played all of the significant worker placement games to that point. I had the luxury of speaking comprehensively about the evolution of worker placement over the preceding three years. I no longer have that luxury. Sure, I played an unfortunate load of deck-building games in the aftermath of Dominion’s splash, but not only did I then swear off deck-building games for years, I also took a few years off from gaming in 2015-17. So now I can’t really ever say for certain whether a game’s mechanisms are novel or original. Moreover, the number of new games each year has of course exploded to a seemingly unsustainable point. No one can keep up, at least not fully. We have to pick and choose. So I cannot say that Living Forest offers something new.
I can say that Living Forest gives me a different feeling from every other deck-building game that I have played, and that it’s a good feeling. I suppose it all goes back to a chapel. Specifically, the “Chapel” card in Dominion that is. I may just have an unhealthy obsession with deck-thinning, but the way in which deck-thinning strategies overshadow so much of the entire genre is maddening. And even if you’re not deck-thinning, you are constantly thinking about whether your deck is getting bloated. How many cards are in my deck? How many am I drawing through each turn? If I buy that card now and it goes in my discard pile, will I even see it this game? What is the ratio of actions cards to money cards in my deck, or draw power to combat strength, or whatever it might be.
Living Forest is different, refreshingly so. The use of “solitary” animals to gate your turns and draw power means that the vast majority of your card buys do not meaningfully bloat your deck no matter how big your deck may seem. Sure, it’s nice that you add card buys to the top of your deck rather than your discard pile, and it’s interesting that you can use “gregarious” animals to offset your draw-limiting solitary animals. But the innovation for me is that the number of cards in your deck is largely irrelevant for once, in fact, deck bloat is good if anything.
This turns my card purchasing thought process on its head. I think I love that the game took this one step further by not allowing players to trash any of their five starting solitary animals. Of course, the chapel-obsessive in me is just itching to trash those solitary animals, but after nine plays, I’m beginning to get over myself. Maybe someday I’ll learn to stop worrying and love the solitary bombs, or heaven-forbid even purchase one. Ultimately, this is all very liberating though. You can purchase regular animal cards to your heart’s content because diluting those five starting solitary animals by bloating your deck is nothing to be concerned about – unless of course if you’re starting fires that feed your opponent’s water strategy. Keep in mind that multiplayer solitaire this is not because the victory conditions are intertwined and not feeding your opponents’ cavalcade of beasts should always be top of mind.
I don’t know if Living Forest will still be around in a year or in five years. There are only a few game mechanism supernovas… Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Caylus, Dominion, Pandemic, Risk Legacy… and Living Forest is surely not one of them. But there’s always a subsequent game that rides on the shoulders of giants, building on the supernova in a meaningful way and standing the test of time. Agricola… are you what Living Forest has to look forward to?