Thank you for checking review #129 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
***Note: A copy of this game was provided in exchange for an honest review.
An Overview of Morels
Morels is a board game designed by Brent Povis that is published by Two Lanterns Games. The box states it plays 2 players and has a playtime of 30 minutes.
The woods are old-growth, dappled with sunlight. Delicious mushrooms beckon from every grove and hollow. Morels may be the most sought-after in these woods, but there are many tasty and valuable varieties awaiting the savvy collector. Bring a basket if you think it’s your lucky day. Forage at night and you will be all alone when you stumble upon a bonanza. If you’re hungry, put a pan on the fire and bask in the aroma of chanterelles as you sauté them in butter. Feeling mercantile? Sell porcini to local aficionados for information that will help you find what you seek deep in the forest.
Morels, a strategic card game for two players, uses two decks: a Day Deck (84 cards) that includes ten different types of mushrooms as well as baskets, cider, butter, pans, and moons; and a smaller Night Deck (8 cards) of mushrooms to be foraged by moonlight. Each mushroom card has two values: one for selling and one for cooking. Selling two or more like mushrooms grants foraging sticks that expand your options in the forest (that is, the running tableau of eight face-up cards on the table), enabling offensive or defensive plays that change with every game played. Cooking sets of three or more like mushrooms – sizzling in butter or cider if the set is large enough – earns points toward winning the game. With poisonous mushrooms wielding their wrath and a hand-size limit to manage, card selection is a tricky proposition at every turn.
Following each turn, one card from the forest moves into a decay pile that is available for only a short time. The Day Deck then refills the forest from the back, creating the effect of a walk in the woods in which some strategic morsels are collected, some are passed by, and others lay ahead.
This game is a very simple set of rules with a fast flow of turns. After all, you are doing one thing on your turn and most of the time you will even have an idea of what you are likely to do based on what is already on the table – any new cards coming out are going to cost 5-6 sticks to take which, frankly, is really expensive at almost any point in the game. Usually you’re looking at the first 1-4 cards, or the ones in the Decay, and trying to determine which card(s) you want to add to your hand and, in case of the Decay, if you even have enough room to take them are, because…
Every card you take needs to be considered carefully. At the start of the game, 8 cards sounds like a lot to be able to hold in your hand. You can sort of take things without really thinking them through, and maybe you’ll even cook something to open up even more space before running out. Even if a Basket drops into your lap, you are eventually going to hit a situation where you don’t want to play anything yet, but are going to have to do something soon or reach for baskets to give yourself more time to stall. Which is why…
The best tension in this game comes from how much you want to press forward, holding out for the next perfect card to add to your growing set of mushrooms before finally cooking them. The more you collect, the more points you can get. Lucking into the right one from the Night deck gives you two more at the price of one card slot. Getting Butter or Cider to cook with them adds even more scoring potential. All the while you have a reference card telling you exactly how many of that card are in the deck, so you can begin to count off how many remain. While there’s a lot of luck there, knowing when to hold them and when to cook them is a key aspect of the game’s engine and provides the crunchy decisions you want in a game like this.
I love the artwork on some of the cards. The personal standout is the Night version of the Fairy Ring, which as soon as I saw it I knew it was a card designed with my wife in mind. Even as someone who doesn’t like mushrooms, there is a lot of pleasantness to look at in here with some solid cardboard tokens added in there. All packaged in a box the same size as a Kosmos 2-player box, although a little thinner.
I’ve debated between how to rate this aspect of the game, and finally decided it is a feature, not a hindrance, and just enough that it avoids being a “neutral” aspect of the game. There are three cards and one action that feel “less desirable” to take in the game, yet with each of them comes circumstances where you want them. First the action of selling mushrooms for walking sticks: this always feels like a terrible action to take unless you need to free up space in your hand because you see cards you need instead coming up and can’t play anything else. Except later you’ll see that card you NEED to get, and if you don’t take it soon your opponent will snag it because they noticed you taking that Shitake every time it came up and they want to deny those points to you. Second is the Pan card, which you need to be able to cook mushrooms. And yes, you can take the wasteful action of playing it on its own rather than play it with a hand of mushrooms to cook. But I almost always hate taking it on its own, which is why I like to let that – and the Basket card – go into the Decay and swoop them up with other cards or at least in greater quantity. And then comes the Destroying Angel Card, the one take-that card in the game. When taken, your base hand size is cut in half and you suffer that effect one additional turn for every set of mushrooms cooked, meaning it hits harder late in the game. Usually, you dance around this card and avoid it until it disappears in the Decay reset. However, on occasion your hand might be small enough, or it gives a chance to dump something like that single Morel you took to deny your opponent access, and so it has its circumstantial place. All of these things are cards/actions I hate to take, but because there are times when it makes sense (or you need to) use them, I can’t hold it against them.
There’s just enough luck going on in here to turn off some gamers from the gameplay. Whether you look at the odds of getting enough of a specific card type to make it worthwhile, to the gamble of taking a Moon card, to even the odds of having enough Pan or Basket cards coming up early enough to make a difference…all of those are micro-transactions in the luck of the draw. The deck isn’t small, and I’ve had a game where Pans and Baskets were really heavy at the end of the deck. This might not sound like a big deal, but it really can be since you need pans to cook those mushrooms filling up your hand, and you need Baskets in order to hold out longer before needing to do something with those mushrooms you’ve been collecting.
After the first play, this was my biggest gripe with the game: the cards are set up in a line of 8 cards. Every turn you are taking a card and/or discarding a card from that line and thus sliding the other 6-7 cards down and flipping new ones. My wife refused to do such a foolish sequence of events, and so my turns were spent scrambling to keep things moving after shifting everything around. And then, before the second game (the next night) I looked at the extra piece of paper in there which talked about an alternative setup option where the cards are essentially in a circle, and a token is moved to mark where you count from when choosing cards and their costs. While not a perfect solution, it was a drastic improvement to the overall experience and turned this major “I hate this part of the game” into an “it is fine” experience. Is the line easier to conceptualize? Yes. Especially when a person skips ahead to take a card…somehow we haven’t figured out the perfect way to wrap our heads around where the token moves to, how the cards shift, etc. But hey, improvement is still improvement.
The Morels card. It wasn’t easy to come up with a strong complaint about this game because it really delivers a great package in a well-designed game. Now I understand that the Morels card is supposed to be rare because it is high in scoring as well as high in selling value. The problem I have with it comes from only having three copies of it in the deck. Why is this an issue? Well, because if you split this card 2-1, one person can only sell the Morels for a boatload of sticks and the other is left holding a card they cannot make use of for the rest of the game (or until they use a Destroying Angel to toss the now-garbage card). Because you need at least 2 to sell or at least 3 to cook, it really hampers the usefulness of this card. Having an extra card in hand may not sound that bad since you can hold 8 naturally, but consider you are likely collecting 2-3 different mushroom types and want to hold as many as you can before cooking or selling them. It is possible (and has happened) that baskets don’t really come out until really late in the game and so you are always limited in your potential compared to your opponent.
The theme for the game threatened to keep us away from ever wanting to pick up or play Morels. After all, how good could a game about collecting and cooking mushrooms be if we both agree that we don’t like mushrooms? The answer to that is completely clear, as once it hit the table it was all we played for several days. My wife liked it so much she even wanted to teach it to a friend when we visited – and instead we were forced to learn Potion Explosion – which is quite the testament to the game. My wife, while not opposed to teaching games to others, tends to prefer to not be the one teaching a game. That provides a pretty distinct honor for the game of Morels, as she enjoyed it that much and we’d still be playing it on repeat today if my wife had her way. Needless to say, it will return to the table soon.
The game is relatively quick in its pacing, and there are a lot of things to consider. Every decision to take Walking Sticks or play down a Pan on its own feels like a wasted opportunity, at least until you run into a turn where you wish you had a Walking Stick or three to get that card you really need, or have a nice set of 3 cards in the center you want to scoop up but, alas, you have one too many cards in your hand to be able to take them all and therefore cannot take them. Moments like that help the thinkiness in the gameplay to shine through.
So in spite of the theme, there is a great deal of fun packaged into this small box of cards and tokens. There is a nice balance between some light press-your-luck elements (most apparent when you consider the Morels card, which has only three copies in the entire game), set collection, and even some hand management going on unless you luck into several early Baskets The game also tends to end with a feeling of “If I had 1-2 more turns…” sensation, which probably drives some players crazy but to me it is a hallmark of a game ending at about the right moment. Plan better, right? If a card you need to get that perfect combo appears in those final 8 cards, make sure you have the sticks to grab it early enough to use it. All in all, Morels was a pleasant surprise that won’t change my mind about eating mushrooms, but did change my mind about the theme for this game: it is executed quite well here!