I have two brothers that are pretty close to me in age. We’ve spent a lot of time over the years sharing the same hobbies: gaming, travel, sports, and more travel. But some of my best and worst memories were learning to fish with them as we were growing up. We grew up near a very small town, in a house in the country with a fishing pond in front.
My brother Dave and I never took to fishing much, but my brother Greg has always been keen on the sport. He even learned to fly fish and has been on rivers from Colorado to Tennessee trying to improve his skills.
If I ever started fishing again, I think fly fishing would be something I could get into. It just seems lightyears better than sitting around in the hot Louisiana summer air waiting for my cork to dip. And yet, even though fishing is not something I ever think about, I was very intrigued to play Coldwater Crown, from designer Brian Suhre and publisher, Bellwether Games. I talked the Gumbo krewe into getting a demo of the game from Brian at BGG Con last year, and we were…well… hooked. Two of us bought the game on the spot, and I’ve played it a half-dozen times since then.
So I was very excited when Dennis Hoyle from Bellwether asked me to have Brian Suhre on Gumbo Live! last season to talk about his latest game, Freshwater Fly. I backed the game, and I’ve had it in my hands for a few weeks now. Does Freshwater Fly live up to Brian’s first highly rated game? Does it capture the essence of what Yeats would have called “the controlled passion” of fly fishing? Let’s find out!
Freshwater Fly is a 2019 release from Bellwether Games, designed by Brian Suhre for one to four players. A three or four player game will take about sixty to ninety minutes, and the game takes only about five to ten minutes to teach as the rules are pretty simple.
Players take on the role of unique fly fishermen, “tying” flies on their rod and sending them drifting down a rushing river full of rocks and three different strengths of fish. Scoring comes in two parts: first, you have to land a fish on your line, and then you have to work the fish into your scoring area by reeling the fish in. Just like in Suhre’s other game, there are extra points to be had for accomplishing the personal goals on your player board, and for completing the goals on the main board which are shared with every player.
Bellwether Games has a well-deserved reputation for quality production, but Dennis really outdid himself in this game. The box cover is thick and sturdy, with absolutely gorgeous art on the cover, the cardboard and the rulebook that really evokes upstream fishing. I bought the Kickstarter edition, and it comes with the beautifully crafted wooden pieces for the flies and markers that make this production shine. But even the cardboard bits are well done.
Players have four different colored player boards, each with the same set of choices on the rondel (shaped and decked out, of course, like a spinning reel on a fly fishing rod), but with personal scoring goals unique to each board. Players will get a board, a finesse token, and their choice of fly to start the game. No scoring track is needed, as the players will keep score from the fish that they land.
The game will move along the track through a dice selection mechanic, and the nine dice in the box are nicely crafted and sized orange dice. I would have liked something a little more thematic, perhaps, but the dice are well made.
The board is nicely sized, and is double sided with a board on one side for multi-player play and the other for solo play. The board art is very colorful and continues the theme well. It lists all of the extra scoring that anyone in the game can complete, and has plenty of room for 18 cards in the tableau representing the six sections of the river that players will fish.
I can promise you that you will not be disappointed with the way this game looks on the table. This is a top notch production. (Caveat: I did have a player board that was marked with an extra press of the cutter, but it is cosmetic and does not affect gameplay. I need to email Dennis about it to let him know that it had to have happened at the factory but was missed in QA…)
I would put Freshwater Fly a little lighter on the scale of gameplay from Coldwater Crown but in the same ballpark. Players have essentially two separate actions to take, started by choosing a die from the dice pool at the start of a round: (a) hook a fish on your line or (b) reel the fish in. Either action is helped by the use of finesse points. Players start with one finesse point, tracked on their player board, and can spend points to manipulate the dice they choose or change a fly when.
Alternatively, instead of trying to land a fish or reel the fish in, players can choose a die solely for the purpose of giving themselves two finesse points. This is not very efficient, but sometimes is needed to set up the next play.
On their turn, players will choose one die. With no fish on the line, players will cast a line on the section of the river that matches that die number. Each section has colored “hatch tokens” representing the type of fish in that area, and three sets of cards (either rocks or fish). Casting involves turning over one of four cards randomly (one of the four cards is a success, the rest are failures) that is re-shuffled at the end of each turn.
Players have only three chances to land the fish, and will drift slowly down the stream one space at a time if they miss. Players must first have a fly on their line that matches any of the “hatch” tokens shown below the fish’s column on the river, and then must turn over a card that shows “strike” when casting. The first cast — assuming there are matching hatch tokens — is only one card flipped over, but if they miss, the fly “drifts” one space down the river, and the player gets two more cards. Two drifts are the maximum, but with only four cards to choose (and they don’t reshuffle until the end of the turn), if you can fish in three columns back to back to back with matching hatch tokens, you are guaranteed to catch a fish. If a player is successful, they will flip the fish card over to reveal the points that can be scored if they land the fish, plus the “drag” the fish will have on the line making it harder to reel in.
If the player grabs a fish next to a rock space, then the player gets a random rock card from the pile. These help to break the rules of the game, giving end game scoring or bonus abilities like extra finesse or dice manipulation or extra casts that can really ramp up your ability to score.
Now that the player has a fish on the line, the player will grab a hatch token matching their fly and move it right onto their board. The next turns will be focused on drafting dice to help move the fish into the scoring pile. This is accomplished through an innovative rondel system, that looks and acts like the reel on any fishing pole. Dice that are chosen during these turns move the rondel that many spaces farther on the track. There are three types of fish, each with different strengths. Green fish only need one spin of the reel, while gold fish need three to land. The larger the strength of the dice means the more you can spin the reel. For instance, grabbing a six pip die will move the hatch token six spaces on the rondel, and each time you advance past the top, the fish will slide down closer to your scoring pile.
The only other thing to mention are the cool momentum tiles at the top of the board. Each one is even more powerful than the rock cards. These can give you extra casts or more turns on the rondel or extra finesse, and they are double sided. Use one side? It goes back to the player board for someone else to choose, but on the reverse side. This means that with five momentum tokens (seven if you have the KS version), there’s plenty of replayability with ten to fourteen different special powers who play wildly different.
At the end of the round, the hatch tokens are refreshed — the tiles containing them are shifted to the left, creating new combinations on the river. In addition, the new tile that comes in on the far right will be refreshed with more hatch tokens randomly drawn from a bag. First person to catch seven fish triggers the end of the game, and players will finish out that round, hoping to land “just one more” fish into their scoring pile.
BUT IS IT ANY FUN?
As I said earlier, Coldwater Crown was a surprise hit for us back at BGG Con 2018, and we loved it so much, that even the SoBo Library bought a copy, too. It has been a frequent play at Gumbo Game Nights. Was it the theme that made it so popular? I don’t think so. I think it is more the unique take on worker placement mechanics combined with an unusual theme and some pretty cool competitions that has led to its popularity.
As for Freshwater Fly, so far, I’ve been the most enamored with the game in the group. I love the fact that it is big and colorful and seems complicated but is essentially a two step process with a rondel action to move your turns along. Dice drafting is one of my favorite mechanics, and here it takes out the AP that can sometimes be associated with that mechanic. Essentially players will take either big dice to move the rondel forward by a lot, or smaller dice to try to get first player next round (which not only gives you first look at the board, but also gives you one extra action.)
The bite sized puzzles that come every round are fairly simple decisions. Which fish should I try to land? (Different fish are worth different points depending on the strength of the fish, but it takes longer to reel in those higher point fish.) Should I take larger dice for the best actions, but sacrificing turn order (going first and having extra dice seems pretty important)? How can I give myself the best chance of landing a fish — manipulating dice? Moving hatch tokens? Adding more strike cards? But, as you can see, all of these decisions are tiny decisions, so it really limits the analysis paralysis that might come if these decisions had to be chained out three or four actions ahead as in a Lacerta game.
I also love the play time. I’ve played the game a ton in solo mode. The edition I have comes with a four river campaign over seven days, where you take on a “Solo Angler” with a very simple AI that grabs fish and points during the game. Your goal is to beat the Angler on four different rivers, each set up with different rock layouts and scoring potential. Plus, the more fish you catch, the more you can “level up” your own angler with extra finesse, bonus points, skill cards, etc. I can set up and play a complete solo game in about 45-60 minutes now. In our last multiplayer game, a three person game lasted right under an hour, so this game squarely fits for most groups in the One Hour Wonder category, although your mileage may vary.
But, the biggest thing I like about Freshwater Fly is that while it is most definitely a Euro, it has that overlay of a theme that makes me forget I’m playing colors and numbers. I think it has to do with the designer’s decision to make almost every decision in the game a thematic one. Fish are harder to catch due to “drag”, but it can be mitigated. Instead of just hopping your tokens around the rondel, you actually put the hatch token in the reel and wind it around. Your fly drifts slowly down the stream, but gives you a better chance to hit the further it goes away from your boots. And landing a fish next to a rock is a challenge, which improves your skill for the next one. If you like thematic euros with solid, elegant mechanics, Freshwater Fly is a good catch.
- You don’t get any more unique in theme than freshwater fly fishing
- The production value, even for the basic retail edition, is off the charts
- The rule book is well laid out, with lots of full color examples
- The game is easy to teach — the mechanics are not that difficult, the challenge is in figuring out which paths to take to maximize your points during each round
- I like the way that the fishing elements come alive in the production, such as the rondel being turned into a reel
- The solo game is well done, challenging, and exciting
- Replayability is there, with tons of rock skill cards, four different player boards, and the “flipping” mechanic in the momentum tokens
- One of our players felt that the choices were obvious and scripted, but wondered if his decisions would have been different depending on the rock skill cards in hand
- Another player was pretty turned off by the theme, having no interest in fishing. I think the exact quote was “Fully thematic and immersive, I was just as bored playing the game as I am fishing in real life”
- One of the players was not a big fan of the rondel reel — he claims he picked five pip dice a lot “so he did not have to turn the wheel”
Freshwater Fly is a unique spin on a rondel / racing game, with gorgeous artwork and simple mechanics that belie the required strategic decisions needed to win.
I realize that the theme will not entice everyone. Hey, I love when my Euros are named after obscure European cities as much as the next gamer, but it sure is nice to be able to play something unique that does not rely on trolls or zombies for a theme.
I have one river and one day left on my run through of Fly Solo, the solo campaign for Freshwater Fly, so let me get back to the river and catch some fish!
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ @boardgamegumbo