I played a prototype of Fresh Fish years ago at a friends house and declared the game to be broken. I was certain the bizarro rules couldn’t possibly work, despite the fact that we had just successfully finished a game. Later, when there was a limited release of the game in Germany, game enthusiasts snapped up all available copies and hailed it as one of the most brilliant and unusual games available, leading me to conclude that the game must work after all.
So when Plenary Games re-released Fresh Fish earlier this year, I knew I would have to get a copy and see if I had misevaluated it. Now, after several more plays, I realize that I had, and Fresh Fish has become one of my current favorites. Unfortunately, it’s also nearly impossible to describe. But here goes.
The 10×10 grid on the game board starts empty, except for four Factory tiles — a Harbor, a Game Store, a Nuclear Power Plant and a Petroleum Depot — which are placed randomly before play begins. Each Factory has corresponding Outlets, with one of each kind of Outlet Tile for each player in the game. In other words, a five-player game will have five Fish Stores (for the Harbor), five Game Stores (for the Game Factory), five Nuclear Waste Dumps (for the Power Plant) and five Gas Stations (for the Depot). These tiles are mixed with a similar amount of Generic Buildings tiles to form the draw pool.
Each player also begins with $15 and six Reservation markers. On a turn, a player does one of two things: places a Reservation Marker on any vacant space on the board or flips over the next tile from the draw pool. In the former case, the player’s turn ends after he has placed his Marker, but what happens next in the latter case depends on whether a Generic Building or an Outlet is revealed. If a Generic Building, the player simply places it in a space when he has a Reservation Marker and concludes his turn. But if an Outlet is turned over, all players who don’t already own that particular Outlet bid forthe right to own it, with the winner placing it in one of his reserved space.
Some spaces will become Roads as the game progresses, and, at the end of the game, you add up the number of Road Tiles you have to traverse from each Factory to arrive at your corresponding Outlet. The lowest score wins — after all, the closer your Fish Store is to the Harbor, the fresher the fish you’ll have for sale.
It’s road placement that makes Fresh Fish so unusual — and so difficult to explain. Players don’t place the Road Tiles, you see — the game places the Road Tiles. There are two overarching metarules which determine where the Road Tiles go. Firstly, at the end of the game there can be only one road, so you can’t place a Generic Building or an Outlet in a square that would prevent two or more road segments from eventually joining. Secondly, all Factories and Outlets must have road access by the end of the game. So if a Game Store in the middle of the board has buildings adjacent to it on three of its sides, the space abutting the fourth side must contain a Road Tile (because if a building were placed there, the store would never gain road access). A corollary to the second metarule is that empty spaces on the board also cannot become isolated, because they could, hypothetically, contain an Outlet on a future turn.
Don’t understand? Don’t worry – no one does at first. Although the two metarules are simple to state (“there’s only one road, and all Factories and Outlets need access to the road”), it’s very difficult to wrap your mind around in practice. After each turn, players must check to see if the placement of a building in any of the remaining empty spaces would violate either of the metarules; if so, the space in question is immediately “expropriated” and a Road Tile is placed therein. After a few games this becomes automatic (although even experienced players will occasionally miss one), but the first few times it will feel like your brain is in a garlic press every time you try and work this out.
So it’s not enough to simply place your Fish Store close to the Harbor; you also have to place other buildings around the Harbor to ensure that the road connecting the Factory to your Outlet is as short as possible. It’s entirely possible to place a Gas Station three squares away from the Petroleum Depot, but to wind up with a 12 Road-Tile route because other players placed buildings in such a way as to make the road leaving the Depot snake all around the board before arriving at your Station.
I enjoy Fresh Fish and am always eager to play it, but I haven’t the foggiest idea why. Even though I can now see at a glance where Road Tiles need to go, I still have no clue how to bend the road to my will. Plus, the game is mentally exhausting – afterwards I typically feel hungover, and on two occasions the play of the game has given me a headache (no joke). But Fish pushes the same, perverse “spatial reasoning” button as jigsaw puzzles, Tetris and Ricochet Robot (another migraine-inducer). It’s like watching a good horror movie: throughout you are miserable, but afterwards you say, “that was fantastic! I can’t wait for a sequel!”
It’s hard to recommend Fresh Fish on the basis of “fun,” because it’s certainly not for everyone. Furthermore, playing the game without someone who can instantly spot where the Road Tiles go can be a chore – often you will realize that you missed an expropriation several turns after the fact, and “rewinding” the game is nigh impossible. On this point, all I can say is that I went from disbeliever to fan after three plays, and many of my friends enjoy it as much as I do. But I can recommend the game without reservation on one point: if you’re in the market for something unlike anything you’ve ever played before, Fresh Fish is unlikely to disappoint.