There are a myriad of tile laying games out there, some excellent, others less so. Tiles are a versatile component and one of the more interesting applications is in Fresh Fish. The reason for this is that it deals with "negative space". By this I mean that the spaces on which you don't place tiles are equally important as the spaces on which you do.
The theme is one of product delivery—at the start of the game the 10x10 board will have four factories placed near each corner and each factory produces a different good. By the end of the game each player will own four stores, each selling one type of factory good. The general idea is that you want to locate your stores as close as possible to the corresponding factory. The trick is that "close" is not determined by absolute proximity but rather by the length of the road from factory to store. Building right next to a factory might seem to be a great move but if the connecting road winds its way across the board before arriving at your store, well, the fish won't be very fresh now will it? The problem (and interesting part of the game) is that you cannot directly build roads on the board but must set up situations so that the roads are expropriated according to a set of rules. This is the "negative space" aspect I mentioned above.
At the start of the game a stack of tiles will be created—this includes the four stores (a set of each for every player) and about the same number of other buildings (these act merely as "blockers".) On your turn you have two options—you can reserve an undeveloped plot of land or you can flip the top tile from the stack. Each player has a limited number of plots that can be reserved and so you'll usually do so as often as possible. When you turn over a tile one of two things happens—if it's a building (i.e. a "blocker") you must place it on one of your reserved plots but if it's a store, an "in-the-fist" auction is conducted to see who builds it. The winning player then places it on one of her reserved plots. (Players receive $15 with which to bid and never receive any more money throughout the game so care must be spent when bidding.)
That's pretty much the whole game and it does sound pretty straightforward and dull. The interesting bit is in how the roads are built and these depend on a few simple rules:
- Every factory must have access to a road.
- Every store must have access to a road.
- All "undeveloped" plots must be connected together in one large group. (Undeveloped plots being roads, reserved plots and empty spaces.)
What these simple rules imply is that whenever a tile is placed, certain other plots are likely to be expropriated in order to ensure that the above requirements remain true. Sometimes the implications are obvious (if three sides of a factory have buildings on them then the fourth side becomes a road) but others are harder to see or predict. (This is partly due to the "forward planning" aspect of expropriation—if, by placing a building on a specific plot, it would cause one of the above rules to be violated, then that plot is immediately turned into a road. This means that you are often expropriating plots for roads even though none of the rules has actually been violated.) It is not an overstatement to say that realizing how the roads will be expropriated will largely determine how well you do in Fresh Fish.
This is both the best and worst thing about the game. It's a wonderful mechanic (not the least because it's so unusual) but if you have trouble figuring out the implications of each reservation or build (and many people do) then success will prove rather elusive. A number of people I've played with have said that while they enjoy the game, they don't want to play again as they feel at the mercy of a system they don't understand. The first time I played I felt much the same way so I can understand where they're coming from.
In any case, I've really enjoyed playing Fresh Fish. It can definitely be a bit of a workout for the brain but this is not a bad thing at all. There are a number of interesting little occurrences that happen throughout which really spice things up. Things may develop such that certain plots become very valuable and so a rush is on to reserve them. Other times a store may may be auctioned such that two players simply must have it. In short, there is a lot of possibility for clever moves and tactics along with the pressure of having to work on four separate areas of the board at the same time. Good stuff all around.
How's the production of Fresh Fish? Well, the good news is that, with one small exception, the components all work fine and there are no major problems playing the game. The bad news is that there are lots of minor little annoyances. The whole package has the look and feel of a well-made prototype. Being well-made is good but the clip-art appearance of Fresh Fish stands out like a sore thumb when compared to other recent games. The tiles themselves are of decent quality but should have been slightly smaller than the spaces on which they're placed. The building tiles (the "blockers") actually have three different pictures even though they are all functionally identical; parks, apartments, buildings. While it might appear that this variety adds to the visual appeal of the game, it presents a few problems. The first is that it can sometimes confuse players who think that each "blocker" has different rules associated with it. The most common problem is that players often assume that apartments and buildings require street access just as stores and factories do. This is not the case although the mistake is understandable. I think it would have been a better choice for all "blockers" to have the park image as it seems more intuitive that these do not need to be next to roads.
The wooden chips work well for auctions although I must admit that I find the choice of colours (orange and green) to be an odd one for currency but maybe that's just me. The choice of colours is even worse when it comes to the player reservation markers which include a nearly identical orange and red. These are similar enough that they're unusable in my opinion. Fortunately, it's painless to substitute other pieces and I'm sure most gamers have will already have something appropriate. (If you don't, you can send the orange ones back to Plenary Games and they'll replace them with yellow ones.)
I'm also not particularly impressed with the layout of the rulebook. Arranging the pages so that the spine is at the top, rather than the side, might seem to be a novel and clever approach but it isn't. There's a reason why books are constructed as they are and deviating from this is usually a poor decision.
There are a few other "issues" with the game that I really should address. The first is that the expropriation rules, as written in the rulebook, are not entirely correct. An included errata clears up most of the confusion so make sure that you've got this.
There is also the matter of how ties are resolved in the auctions. The original 2F rules had the auctioneer winning ties whereas this Plenary Games version has the player to the auctioneer's left winning. I think this change is a dreadful one. It can happen that a store is auctioned for which you have no reasonable plot reserved. Having to place it 14 or 15 streets away pretty much ensures that you will not win the game. The problem with the new tie-breaker is that you can easily find yourself in such a situation through no fault of your own. With the original method, you were only ever forced to place a store if you yourself had drawn a tile. If you were unlucky enough to draw a fish store when you had no reasonable location for one, well, you can't really blame anyone but yourself. I strongly recommend playing with the original tie-breaker which is how I've played it.
The final issue is in calculating your score. The official method is that you add up the number of streets from each of your stores to the appropriate factory and then subtract your remaining money. While this works well enough I find that it puts remaining money and route length on about equal footing. This feels wrong to me, the auction in Fresh Fish is not terribly innovative or clever (it's just a simple in-the-fist auction) while the building of routes is very unique and interesting. To my mind this should dominate the scoring and so I prefer to play that remaining money is merely a tie-breaker.
However you decide to play, Fresh Fish is definitely worth investigating. The problems are relatively minor and the mechanisms are very unique. Recommended.
- Greg Aleknevicus