Salmon Run Game Review

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The Basics:

  • For ages 8 and up (publisher suggests 10+)
  • For 2 to 4 players
  • Variable game play length based on game set up

Geek Skills:

  • Active Listening & Communication
  • Counting & Math
  • Logical & Critical Decision Making
  • Reading
  • Risk vs. Reward
  • Visuospatial Skills
  • Hand/Resource Management

Learning Curve:

  • Child – Easy
  • Adult – Easy

Theme & Narrative:

  • It’s spawning season for the wild salmon! Swim upriver as fast as you can to complete the circle of life!

Endorsements:

  • Gamer Geek rejected!
  • Parent Geek approved!
  • Child Geek approved!

Overview

Ah, the wild salmon. Truly an incredible fish who spends their lives in the ocean blue, but will risk it all to take a journey full of danger to reach the spawning ponds to lay their eggs and continue the cycle of life. Along the way, the salmon must overcome the many natural obstacles of the river, like rocks and waterfalls, but there are more threatening obstacles in their path. For example, the eagle and bear who look at the salmon runs as a giant smorgasbord.

Salmon Run, by game designer Jesse Catron and published by Gryphon Games, is comprised of 8 double-sided game boards (that represent the river), 4 wooden Salmon player pawns, 6 wooden Bear pawns, 44 starter Swim deck cards (11 per player), 32 Fatigue cards, 48 supplement cards (that includes Swim, Wild, Current, Eagle, Bear, and Rapids cards), and 1 standard six-sided die. The game boards are nice and thick, very durable, and illustrated with majestic river scenes. The cards are also well illustrated, easy to read, and are as thick as any standard playing card. A quality product, through and through.

Getting Ready to Swim

To set up the game, first create each player’s initial Swim deck. To make this process an easy one, the cards have a small icon of a salmon in different colors, where each color corresponds to one of the Salmon player pawns. Find these cards and separate them by color to create each player’s initial Swim deck. A player’s starting Swim deck will contain 3 “Swim Forward”, 3 “Swim Right”, 3 “Swim Left”, 1 “Wild”, and 1 “Bear” card. Give these decks to each player. Any unclaimed initial Swim decks are removed for the duration of the game.

Second, take the remaining cards and sort them by card title into piles, face-up. These represent the total number of cards the players can collect during the game that are added to their Swim deck. Players will collect and return cards to these piles during the course of the game.

Third, build the river. First, find the “Start” and “Spawning Pond” game boards. The next part of this step is based on how long the players want to make the game and how difficult the river will be to navigate. Each game board (except the “Start” and the “Spawning Pond” game boards) will have a difficulty rating of easy, medium, or hard (E, M, and H). As the difficulty rating suggests, the more difficult the river game board, the more complex it will be to navigate. There are several suggestions in the game’s rule book to help determine the overall difficulty and length of game. Once the game boards are selected, they are placed next to each other so the hexes all align and the river current (indicated by arrows) are all pointing the same direction. To assist in this, each game board has a half circle dot. These are connected with each board to create a full white dot. When the river is constructed, it is perfectly normal (and fun) to have the game board staggered.

salmonrun_board

Fourth, place 1 Bear pawn on every hex on the game boards that has a Bear paw print icon.

Fifth, each player takes their Salmon player pawn, placing it in the starting hex. The die is placed to one side and within easy reach of all the players.

Sixth, each player shuffles their Swim deck and draws 4 cards. These cards should remain hidden from their opponents at all times. The remaining cards in the Swim deck should be kept face-down and there should be a place next to each player’s Swim deck for a discard pile.

That’s it for game set up. Determine who the first player is and begin!

Swimming Lessons

The game is played in rounds with each player taking a single turn per round. A player’s turn is summarized here.

Step 1: Play Cards

A player can play up to 3 cards from their hand during their turn in any order they like. Once a card is played, it’s effect is resolved immediately along with any icons the Salmon player pawn moves onto. Note that an icon only affects a player when they move onto it, be it from a card they played or from a push caused by the river’s current. The cards a player can play are summarized here.

  • Swim cards: These cards move the Salmon player pawn either left, right, or forward from its current hex position. Movement is always towards the spawning pond.
  • Double Swim cards: These cards act just like a Swim card, but move the Salmon player pawn twice.
  • Wild: These are special Swim cards that allow the player to determine in which direction they want their Salmon player pawn to move.
  • The Eagle: This card allows the player to look at one opponent’s hand and discard a card of their choice.
  • The Bear: This card allows the player to move any available Bear pawn up to two hexes – if the Bear ever occupies the same hex with Salmon player pawns (even if just moving through it), each owning player collects 1 Fatigue card and places it in their discard pile.
  • Fatigue card: This card does nothing but take up room in the player’s Swim deck. No action is available to the player with these cards.
  • Current card: This card automatically moves all Salmon player pawns in the direction of the arrow in the current hex the Salmon player pawn is occupying. If a hex has more than one arrow, the die is used to determine the direction the current moves the Salmon player pawn.
  • Rapids card: This card forces all players to discard 1 card from their hand for every arrow their Salmon player pawn currently occupies.

Note that some of the above cards can be “countered”. Any player can counter the affects of a Current, Rapids, or Eagle card by playing the same card. For example, if one player plays the Current card, any other player can also play the Current card to avoid being pushed by the river. This includes the player who just played the card in question. Bears can never be countered!

Additionally, when playing cards, a player will automatically collect 1 Fatigue card and place it in their discard pile if they play 3 Swim cards (Swim or Double Swim) on their turn. If a player plays nothing but Fatigue cards, they can return one of them to the Fatigue card pile, but only if they do not play any other card on their turn.

Step 2: Clean Up

After playing their cards, the player takes any cards they played and moves them to their discard pile. If they have less than 4 cards, they now draw as many cards as needed from their Swim deck to have a hand of 4 cards. If their Swim deck no longer has any cards or does not have enough cards to draw up to 4 cards, they take their discard pile, shuffle it, and place it face-down to create a new Swim Deck. If a player has more than 4 cards in their hand, they discard down to 4.

This completes the player’s turn. It is now their opponent’s turn, going clockwise.

River Boons and Banes

For a salmon, the river is filled with opportunities to improve their odds of reaching the “Spawning Pond” and many obstacles that will keep them from their finale destination. The hexes on the game boards will have icons on them. Whenever a Salmon player pawn moves into a hex, the effect of the hex’s icon is triggered. These icons are summarized here.

Water

These are the natural roads and paths of the salmon. A salmon can travel only using water hexes.

Rocks and Land

Rocks and land can never be traveled on or jumped over. For a salmon, these are impossible spaces to move into. If the player uses a Swim or Double Swim card, and its movement direction would cause the Salmon player pawn to move onto a rock or land, the Salmon player pawn just remains in the same hex, but does not resolve the hex’s icon again. Bears can walk on and travel through Rocks, but do not travel on land.

Waterfalls

These hex spaces (marked with a dark blue outline) are river obstacles that can only be passed if a player can play 2 Swim cards or 1 Swim card and 1 Double Swim card. The direction for both cards must be the same. If the player can play these cards, the Salmon player pawn is moved to the next adjacent space to the waterfall in accordance to the card direction and collects a Fatigue card that is placed in their discard pile. Salmon can never travel through or stop on a Waterfall hex. Bears can travel through Waterfall hexes without difficulty. They are bears, after all.

Reeds

Indicated by a reed icon, the player can return a number of cards equal to the number of reed icons in the hex from their current hand, Swim deck, or discard pile. If a card is removed from the player’s Swim deck, the Swim deck is quickly reshuffled (but not with the discard pile) before play continues.

Draw +1

Indicated with a “+1” icon, the player immediately draws 1 card from their Swim deck and adds it to their hand. This card can be used during the player’s turn. If the player is unable to draw a card from their Swim deck, they reshuffle their discard pile to create a new Swim deck.

Eagle

Indicated by an Eagle icon,  a player collects 1 Eagle card (if any are available) and places it in their discard pile.

Fatigue

Indicated by a number of “Z’s”,  a player collects 1 Fatigue card (if any are available) and places it in their discard pile.

Bear

Indicated by the Bear paw icon (and the starting space of all Bear pawns), a player collects 1 Bear card (if any are available) and places it in their discard pile.

Rapids

Indicated by a number of arrows that appear to be jumping from left to right,  a player collects 1 Rapids card (if any are available) and places it in their discard pile.

Current

Indicated by squiggly arrows,  a player collects 1 Current card (if any are available) and places it in their discard pile.

Swim

Indicated by a single jumping fish icon,  a player collects 1 Swim card of their choice (if any are available) and places it in their discard pile.

Double Swim

Indicated by two jumping fish icons,  a player collects 1 Double Swim card of their choice (if any are available) and places it in their discard pile.

Wild

Indicated with a “W”,  a player collects 1 Wild card (if any are available) and places it in their discard pile.

Spawning Like a Boss

The game continues until one player has finished a move into the “Spawning Pond” space. All the other players now finish off the round. The winner is then determined.

If there is only one player who has reached the “Spawning Pond” space with their Salmon player pawn, they are the winner.

If two or more players have reached the “Spawning Pond” space, the winner is the player with the least number of Fatigue cards in their Swim deck and discard pile.

If there is a still a tie, then the players should slap each other like fish until one of them forfeits.

To learn more about Salmon Run, visit the game’s web page at Eagle/Gryphon Games.

Prediction

Salmon Run is, at its core, a very simple deck building game. There is little in the way of advanced tactics or strategy to make use of from what I can see from just reading the rules. What cards I can collect and add to my Swim deck is based on what I care to land on, for the most part. But this is also a race and it doesn’t do a player any good to navigate up and down the river to collect cards when the goal is to get to the spawning grounds as soon as possible. In other words, it’s not about creating an efficient deck that allows the player to move as fast as possible. In fact, if a player were to move as fast as they could, they would collect Fatigue cards as a result, slowing them down. This makes Salmon Run appear to be a very interesting game of balance. A player must keep moving forward, navigating the river as best they can, and seek out cards that offset any Fatigue cards that will cause them to slow down. After all, the goal is to be the first player to the “Spawning Pond” and the with as few Fatigue cards as possible in case of a tie.

For the Child Geeks, Salmon Run shouldn’t be a problem to teach. The game play, actions, cards, and turns are very simple. A player need only look at their cards they have in their hand to determine what is possible and use them in a way that they believe will advance them faster than their opponents. I imagine I’ll be playing a few “open hands” with the Child Geeks until they understand the cards, but I don’t anticipate a lot of problems. Nor do I expect any issues with the Parent or Gamer Geeks, although I think the Parent Geeks will have more fun with Salmon Run than the Gamer Geeks. While there is a fun game to explore here, I don’t think it’ll prove to be a game that the Gamer Geeks feel like is deep enough to fully enjoy.

As expected, teaching the game to the Child Geeks was an easy exercise. Most of the Child Geeks we played the game with were familiar with deck building games, or were strong enough players to understand how the game was played without much in the way of overly explaining it. To teach the game, I showed each Child Geek a card, explained how they were used, and then asked them to repeat back to me what I had said. For the most part, the Child Geeks were able to recall what I told them without issue. For the Parent and Gamer Geeks, I just game them an overview, explained how the game was played, what a player’s turn was all about, how the cards were used (in the general sense), and then got started. All three of our groups had little trouble understanding the game, but the Gamer Geeks did enjoy asking me silly questions in an attempt to annoy me.

They succeeded.

And so, as I set up the game for our first game play as a family, I asked my two oldest Child Geeks what they thought of Salmon Run so far based on what I had taught them.

“A game about racing fish? This is crazy! I do like how I get to swim through the river, though.” ~ Liam (age 8)

“I like the bears and the eagles!” ~ Nyhus (age 5)

Note that my 5-year-old is going to play as my “partner” as his reading skills are not yet strong enough to play on his own. He appears to understand the game well enough to help me make choices, however.

Let’s see if Salmon Run sinks or swims!

Final Word

Salmon Run was very well received by the Child Geeks. They found it to be challenging, but not so challenging that they couldn’t figure out how to move their salmon up the river and cross the finish line on their own. For those Child Geeks who were not familiar with deck building games, Salmon Run proved to be an excellent introduction. Child Geeks as young as 5-years-old played the game with older players, but could not play it on their own. A player needs to be able to read the cards to play effectively. Regardless of age, all the Child Geeks we played the game with enjoyed it and gladly gave it their endorsement.

My little geek and I plan our next fishy move

My little geek and I plan our next fishy move

The Parent Geeks also enjoyed Salmon Run and thought it was an enjoyable casual game that was light on rules, but engaging enough to keep them interested from start to finish. They really liked how the game boards could be used to create different levels of game difficulty and game length. In fact, the Parent Geeks removed a section of the river during play that no player had visited yet to quickly adjust the game’s length when time was looking short. This didn’t upset the game’s play in the slightest, but did allow the Parent Geeks to finish the game as a result. This was found to be a very satisfying game design choice and they thought they could do just the opposite and make the game longer if they wanted, too, by adding game boards. Which, of course, they could. The Parent Geeks were happy to endorse Salmon Run, stating it was a great game to play with the family and with their peers. Also, it made them hungry for salmon.

The Gamer Geeks were not impressed with the game. To them, it was too light and didn’t really feel like a deck building game. In fact, the deck building portion of the game was all but unnecessary, from their point of view. If you were able to simply move at least 2 hexes per turn, you could do very well in the game without ever needing to go off into the reeds or chase down new cards. Additionally, the gamer elitist didn’t feel like the game ever took off or felt exciting. You can’t lose your fish, always have cards to play, and are never without options. Which, from the Gamer Geek’s point of view, meant the game didn’t provide a significant challenge. There was no real tactics to use and the only strategy was “don’t be the last fish”. Some agreed the game would be good for families and others did not, but they all agreed that the game was not up to speed to be given their endorsement. They did enjoy the components and thought the game board design was a good one, but the game experience it provided fell short of their standards.

The Gamer Geeks during one of our games on a Thursday night

The Gamer Geeks during one of our games on a Thursday night

So what we have here is a highly thematic deck building game about fish attempting to race to the spawning ponds to breed and then die in mass numbers. That part is not in the narrative, obviously, but it sets the stage on which the game is played. Once you are playing the game, you have a few choices available to you, and the importance of those choices is dependent on the difficulty of the game. If the game boards used have a number of tricky navigation points, players will want to collect more Swim cards. If the river is long, players will want to collect more Rapids, Current, Eagle, and Bear cards to keep their opponent’s busy. If the game is short and easy, players really don’t need to collect anything. I think this makes the game exceptionally easy to adjust to the playing audience and the desired game play.

While the Gamer Geek in me is left wanting a stronger and more meaningful deck build experience in the game play, I am nevertheless enjoying Salmon Run with my family. For my little geeks, Salmon Run is a challenging game of thinking through the cards and evaluating the level of pain that will be inflicted on their salmon during the course of a round. As a Parent Geek, I’ve been enjoying the game with my family and it’s proving to be a great game to play causally with gamer and non-gamer Parent Geek peers. Yes, I wish it was more, but that’s just me wanting everything I play to be ground breaking and life affirming. While I don’t think Salmon Run is charting new territory, it’s most certainly offering waters I enjoy swimming in.

This game was given to Father Geek as a review copy. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.

About Cyrus

Editor in Chief, Owner/Operator, Board Game Fanatic, Father of Three, and Nice Guy, Cyrus has always enjoyed board, card, miniature, role playing, and video games, but didn't get back into the hobby seriously until early 2000. Once he did, however, he was hooked. He now plays board games with anyone and everyone he can, but enjoys playing with his children and wife the most. Video games continue to be of real interest, but not as much as dice and little miniatures. As he carefully navigates the ins and outs of parenting, he does his very best to bestow what wisdom he has and help nurture his children's young minds. It is his hope and ambition to raise three strong, honorable men who will one day go on to do great things and buy their Mom and Dad a lobster dinner Cyrus goes by the handle fathergeek on Board Game Geek. You can also check him out on CyrusKirby.com. Yes, he has a URL that is his name. His ego knows no bounds, apparently....
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3 Responses to Salmon Run Game Review

  1. Peter Schott says:

    Very good overview of the game. I was seriously considering backing this at one point, but couldn’t justify the funds at the time. This looks like something that would work well with our normal gaming friends and even for our kids. I’ll keep an eye out for this just in case I see it for a good price.

  2. Pingback: Hero Brigade Game Review (prepublished version) » Father Geek

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