Morels – Review

Before Lisa and I attended Origins, I organized my short list of games I wanted to learn more about. We’ve been playing so many games lately that I really wanted a demo of Morels, a two-player, set collection card game designed by Brent Povis. A game about collecting various types of mushrooms from the forest is odd, I’ll grant you that, however, I have fond and vivid memories of camping with my father in the back of an F-100 pickup truck in the woods of Michigan and spending our days walking around the woods looking for mushrooms. My father always told me that banging on the trunks of trees with a stick as you walked by, your foraging stick, was what would help you find more; it would make them pop up. I knew he was full of, ahmem, it and was just giving a young kid something to do to keep him busy (and heard if we got separated), but I played the role, scoping out the best stick, and giving each tree I passed a good whack.

When we entered the Origins exhibit hall, I found it hard not to walk directly to the booth; it took deliberate effort to walk slowly down the aisles until I “stumbled” upon it. Happily, I didn’t have to wait long. There, at a couple of cloth covered tables, behind a wooden crate filled with copies of Morels, and some backpacking paraphenalia tucked against the wall was Kaleen, Brent’s wife, finishing up teaching the game to some attendees. Brent was off to the side talking to another interested customer.

Kaleen hooked us in and sat us down for a demo run. Before we knew it, her practiced and professional style had us up and running in no time. Lisa was immediately into her calculated mode, playing every turn like it was her last. That’s usually a good sign that she likes a game so I was encouraged.

The artwork is simply beautiful, capturing a sense of whimsy but at the same time a sense of old-worldness, a style from the past, a style that aligns well with my “old” memories of foraging for morels with my father. Even the summary card is well done. Brent went out of his way for this first release and included little plastic frying pans and hand carved “foraging sticks” made from wooden golf tees if you bought the game at the con. He’s offering them for an additional cost if you buy direct from them.

Morels is, at its heart, a simple set collection game. There are two decks, day (84 cards) and night (8 cards). The day deck consists of cards representing various types of fungi (10 Honey Fungus, 8 Tree Ear, 6 Lawyer’s Wig, 5 Shiitake, 5 Hen of the Woods, 4 Fairy Ring, 4 Porcini, 4 Chanterelle, and 3 Morels) as well as 11 frying pans, 8 moons, 5 baskets, 3 butter, 3 apple cider, and the terrifying 5 Destroying Angels. The night deck consists of 1 each of a “night version” of Honey Fungus, Tree Ear, Lawyer’s Wig, Shiitake, Hen of the Woods, Fairy Ring, Porcini, and Chanterelle.

The day deck is shuffled and 3 cards are given to each player along with the plastic frying pan. The day and night decks are set to the side forming draw piles and the sticks are set to the side to form a supply. The top 8 cards from the day deck are drawn and placed in a line extending away from the day deck, and represent the forest. During play, opponents “stand” at the far end of the line and forage for mushrooms at their feet (farthest from the deck) but can look up and peer deeper into the forest to see mushrooms that lurk in the distance but will get closer as players “walk” through the forest. In reality (as if we could really discuss reality when describing figurative mushroom hunting in the deep forest while sitting at the table in your kitchen or game room), the forest of cards actually move towards the players in an ever-flowing sidewalk conveyor 🙂

A turn comprises a player doing one of several available actions and once complete, the card closest to the player’s feet is placed in a “decay” area. The decay can contain, at most, 4 cards, so the 5th card would cause the current 4 to be discarded (out of the game) and a new decay seeded with a single card. The game ends when ALL cards have been removed from the forest and the player with the most points determines the winner.

So, what actions can a player perform to earn points?

  • Pick a card from the forest
  • Sell a meld of 2 (or more) mushrooms
  • Cook a meld of 3 (or more) mushrooms
  • Pick up all the cards in the decay
  • Lay down a pan

There’s more to picking up a card than simply bending down and picking up the one “at your feet”. You’ve got two feet right?! So the first two cards are “at your feet” and you can bend to pick up either one of those without any additional effort. However, if neither of those cards are to your liking you can choose to reach farther into the forest and take one of those. However, you must expend foraging sticks in the necessary numbers to reach past those first two cards (one stick per card past the first two). After you choose your card, the normal decay occurs and the card closest to your feet goes into the decay.

So how do you obtain foraging sticks? As an alternative to picking up cards, you can sell a meld of two or more identical mushrooms to obtain foraging sticks for subsequent turns. At this point, I’ll need to mention that each card has, in the upper left hand corner, two values. Next to the pan, is a value that indicates how much each muchroom of this type is worth if you’ve cooked it by game end. The value next to the stick, represents how many sticks you’ll recieve if you sell two or more mushrooms of a given type.

On your turn, a player is also allowed to play a meld of 3 or more identical mushrooms, along with a pan or onto a single pan placed in a previous turn. Cooking a meld of mushrooms locks in the number of points indicated on the card. You cannot add to this pan on subsequent turns.

You can also pick up all of the cards in the decay (there will only ever be a maximum of 4 cards there). However, each player is never allowed to pick up cards in numbers that would violate an 8 card hand limit. So no matter how badly you may want the cards in the decay or that last Morel sitting there at your feet staring up at you, you may not violate that hand limit.

However, the basket card bumps your hand limit by 2 cards. Baskets, when taken, are placed in front of you (never in hand) and take effect immediately. So if there is a basket in the decay, it may allow you to take it when you might not otherwise be able to. The more baskets you collect, the bigger your hand can get.

On your turn you’re also allowed to place a single pan card in front of you for cooking on subsequent turns. Doing so, still caused a card from the forest to decay but the forest edge only moves by one card which can make all the difference in the world to your opponent who may not have enough sticks to reach that one card they want that they would have been able to had you picked up a card from the forest floor.

The butter and apple cider cards are played in conjunction with a meld of mushrooms when you cook. They augment the point value of the meld at the game end by making the cooked product taste better.

The Destroying Angel card is poisonous. In general you don’t want them but you may choose to endure the pain they cause to get a set of cards you do want from the decay. At a high level, the Destroying Angel reduces your hand limit to only 4 cards for a variable number of rounds (based on how much you’ve cooked) until the toxins wear off. Baskets can help you keep some of your cards safe but you still only have 4 operational cards until you get better.

So, the final card is the Moon card. This one is special in that when you choose it or recieve it from the decay, you don’t put it in your hand. You instead discard the card and draw the top card from the night deck. This deck of cards are special in that they represent 2 cards of a given mushroom type. This can come in really handy if you have a pair of cards that you can’t cook (you need a minimum of 3) or when you only have 1 card that you can’t sell (you need a minimum of two). Since each night card counts as two day cards, this can turn a dismal hand into something tolerable at least for a few turns. Even a single night card is useful for selling to get sticks since it counts as 2 cards it’s immediately available for being sold.

Lisa and I really enjoy this game and have been having a ball with it. We’ve played a dozen times in the past week and she’s won most of the games so either I’m really bad at it or she’s just that good at it. I’ll let you choose which is the more correct (and both options are viable 🙂

Morels has just enough luck (the blind draws of the night deck coupled with the order the cards come out in the forest) to remain fun and light but doesn’t give up much for being a gamier game if you play it that way. Timing having sticks can be critical, paying attention to what you need and what your opponent has been collecting, as well as controlling hand limit, and the pacing of the depletion of the forest cards all contribute to smart play.

All in all, I have zero regrets buying the game and I would recommend it for any family that likes to play cards games. For those gamier families, it’s in the realm of Balloon Cup, Jambo, Jaipur, and Lost Cities but better. There’s less chaos and more interesting choices to make. You can buy the game directly from the self-publisher at the Two Lanterns Games website. You won’t regret it.

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