Oceans of Fun: A Fish Club Review
One of the best things about the ongoing board game renaissance is that we keep seeing classic board games get reimagined and reinvented. No, I’m not talking about Minions Operation or Socialist Monopoly (yes, it was real, and just as bad as you’re imagining.) Rather, I’m talking about seeing classic board game mechanics employed in new, more interesting games. Kingdomino, for example, somehow took dominos to fantastic new heights, King of Tokyo breathed movie-monster magic into Yahtzee, and in much the same way, Fish Club has managed to elevate the classic game of Connect 4 into something that feels entirely new and interesting.
Lets set the mood with The Little Mermaid soundtrack. Excuse me, I mean, The Little Mermaid’s OSCAR WINNING soundtrack.
I certainly don’t mean to get down on Connect 4, the game is a classic for a reason. Strategically, however, it does amount to a slightly more robust game of tic-tac-toe. Blue Orange Games has done something very interesting with this reimplementation- instead of doubling down on the strategy, adding new rules, variable player powers, special abilities and other vestigial additions, they stripped out the strategy and made Connect 4 something of a dexterity game by focusing on the best part of the game- dropping the pieces into the tray. The tray in Connect 4 is symbolic of the game itself- an exact grid of perfectly straight lines, just waiting for your finely tuned strategic mind to paint it in alternating red and yellow. There’s order and reason, whereas Fish Club relies on chaos and madness. There is no grid to keep the pieces in place, the only walls are on the outside of the tray, and the floor has more bounce than a trampoline. Your pieces fall where they may and your victory depends not on lady luck, but the harsh mistress that is gravity.
In a way, Fish Club is a dexterity game, but it’s really more like Plinko- you have some control over where the piece lands, but not as much as you’d expect. Despite how easy it seems, there is an element of chaos in the works that keeps things interesting. The pieces aren’t circles, they’re … well, they’re fish-shaped. And fish don’t really stack up well. Barely at all, in fact. The floor of the tray has little hills and valleys that slide your pieces off-course, and if your piece hits the floor directly, it will bounce at least an inch and wind up somewhere entirely different. This immediately sounds like a recipe for insanity, but Blue Orange managed to reign this beast in.
A game in progress. The seahorses managed to split up blue's run, so it's an easy win for red IF they can land a fish right at the opening. Sounds easy, right?
First of all, they upped the winning move from 4 consecutive pieces to five- this is important when you can just cluster your pieces together instead of making a line with them. Then, they added neutral pieces- oddly-shaped yellow pieces that don’t count for your streak of five but can be used to disrupt your opponent. Each player has a starfish, an extra-long seahorse, a shell, and a.. weird smaller fish they can use specifically to mess with their opponents. Finally, and this one is hard to describe, but the pieces are just well designed. They fit together and slide into each other. They have just enough weight to alter things when they hit the bottom, but they tend to stick in the area where they land. Do you drop the fish face first or tail first? That absurd question will have a tremendous impact on how the fish lands, but good luck figuring out how.
Additionally, the yellow pieces have inherent strategies with their shapes. The long seahorse is intended to torpedo between your opponent’s pieces, while the starfish is nearly impossible to build over. We discovered early on that using yellow pieces early was essential, as it was impossible to predict how the board would change in those opening turns- better to drop down a shell than lose one of your precious game-winning fish. There was a lot more strategy here than initially expected- I wouldn’t call it a brain-burner but you can’t just go slapping your pieces down willy-nilly either. You have to plan your moves out, and I that’s where things go from fine to amazing, because, believe it or not, all these chaotic elements are NOT conducive to executing a plan- but they are conducive to hilarity.
Each of these pieces is an essential part of your arsenal, designed for a very specific reason. Except the little fish, those are just for being a jerk.
I have a theory about dexterity games and why they’re so engaging. It goes like this:
[Simple Plan] + [Chaos] = [Hilarity].
Fish Club is a great example of this, and you can see it in games like Crokinole, Flick ‘em Up, and Ice Cool as well. Even the simplest shots are trickier than they seem in these sorts of games and there’s an enormous margin of error so you get drawn in as you see the plastic fish dangling over the tray, even when it’s not your turn. There are two options, and they both result in laughter. The first option is that the dropper flubs an easy-looking shot and everybody laughs. Maybe the seahorse slips away and covers up your longest run of fish, or a winning fish bounces off its companions and lands in the soup. The second option is that the shot goes perfectly, the dropper lands that fish right with its fellows, and then they get to be the one laughing! It’s so, so silly, but the stakes around each shot grow as the game progresses and it’s easy to get into it. For how simple this game is, there is a disparate amount of hootin’ and hollerin’ after exceptionally good (and especially bad!) shots.
Fish Club is definitely a kid’s game, no two ways about it, but I will say that as a grown man with back problems and opinions about different kinds of cardboard, I had an absolute blast with this game. It’s inexpensive, silly, and a great way to kill an afternoon if you’ve got a competitive games partner. One game quickly turns into two, then a best of five, seven, nine… it’s light-hearted, almost entirely devoid of complex strategy, and yet, somehow still extremely cut-throat. Fish Club is a wonderful undersea romp that is sure to delight and amuse your children- and it’s chaotic and hilarious enough that it’ll keep adults entertained for a lot longer than you might suspect.