Games: Morels

This review is cross-posted to Playtest.

Before heading to PAX Prime 2012, I wrote down the games I wanted to seek out and try. At the top of the list was Story Realms, which I had the great fortune to play while attending the conference. Having crossed tat one off, I went in search of my #2 choice, but couldn’t find it anywhere. This was due in part to the fact that the designer and sole retailer of the game, Brent Povis, was not at PAX this year. But there was another reason why copies extant: Morels received such great buzz two weeks earlier at Gencon that every available copy had been snapped up, with none left over for me to try.

Oh, well. Based on the fantastic word-of-mouth I ordered my own copy soon thereafter, and have been greatly enjoying the game ever since.

Morels is a rummy-style card game  “card game” because, aside from a handful of “foraging stick” tokens, the 94 cards are the only components; “rummy-style” because gameplay revolves around the drawing and melding of said cards. These commonalities with the traditional game of rummy make Morels feel instantly familiar, even while you are still working out how the game is played.

Each card in the game depicts either a species of fungus (including Lawyer’s Wig, Porcini, Hen of the Woods, and the eponymous Morel), a basket, a frying pan, or something that pairs well with a meal of mushrooms (butter or cider). The deck is shuffled before play begins and a “forest path” is created by dealing eight cards face-up in a row across the center of the table.

A player may use their turn to take one of the cards from the path into their hand. Either of the two cards closest to the head of the trail are free, but each card deeper in the woods costs an additional Foraging Stick. Thus, the third card from the start of the path costs one token, the fourth costs two, and so forth.

After each turn the card closest to the head of the trail is added to a special pile called “The Decay”, cards are shifted down such that all gaps are filled, and the empty spots are filled from the deck. The Decay can hold a maximum of four cards, and a player may use her turn to take these cards instead of selecting one from the path.

Players are constrained by a hand limit, and must occasionally use a turn to play sets of cards, both to free up space and to reap the rewards of melding. Mushrooms may be sold (and discarded) to acquire more Foraging Sticks, or can be cooked (and kept) to provide victory points at the end of the game. A player needs a “Pan” card in order to cook, and can only fry up sets of at least three;  selling, on the other hand, requires no more than two mushrooms of the same species. It is therefore common for players to sell junk to acquire Foraging Sticks, which are then used to get the shrooms that provide the biggest payout when cooked.

There are some special cards in the deck  butter and cider increase the value of cooked mushrooms; baskets increase a player’s hand size  but the core game is simplicity at it’s finest. The only complicating factor is the presence of “Destroying Angel” mushrooms in the deck; when taken, a Destroying Angel forces a player to discard cards from their hand. Because taking The Decay often results in the accumulation of unwanted cards (that nonetheless count against their hand limit), a crafty player can use a Destroying Angel to her advantage. But if you don’t want to deal with the extra complexity that DAs introduce, you can simply resolve not to take them for the first few games, until you have a better idea of their function and utility.

For years my default two-player recommendation has been Lost Cities, as everyone introduced to the game likes or loves it. Morels changes enough of the rummy-esque draw-and-meld formula that Lost Cities employs so well to make it a different, and in many respects better, game. For one thing, there are no blind draws — players select the card (or, in the case of The Decay, cards) they want and are willing to pay for. For another, Lost Cities is essentially abstract, while Morels has just enough cohesion between gameplay and theme that you can actually envision the row of cards as a forest path, or the playing of pan, mushrooms, and butter cards as the frying up of fungi.

The one aspect of Morels that bugs me is the need to move and deal cards after each and every turn. It’s not a lot of busy work, but significant given its frequency. To be fair, I should point out that I dislike the “shift cards and fill the row” mechanism in every game that uses it, up to and including my favorite, Through the Ages. And, honestly, a fun game that gives me some minor detail to grouse about during play is kind of win-win as far as I’m concerned.

As of now, Morels is only available for purchase through the Two Lanterns Games website. Here’s hoping that a major distributor picks this one up. You should consider picking it up as well.