Full disclosure: A preview copy of Ducks in Tow was provided by First Fish Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game. Also, while I don’t charge for Kickstarter previews, the publisher was charged a rush fee due to the tight timeline they needed the review completed in.
I would say this is the last of the Kickstarters for a while, but a Kickstarter just arrived today so, hope springs eternal. So does work. Either way, I really do enjoy getting the opportunity to do these, so, if you’re reading, thanks so much for reading and supporting the site with your views. It means a lot to me. That said, you came for the review, so, let’s check out what’s going on with Ducks in Tow, the latest from First Fish Games, who also made the interesting-seeming Town Builder: Coevorden, which I haven’t tried. I’ll get around to it some day.
In Ducks in Tow, you play as a duck enthusiast (not a Quack, that’s a different game) who’s gone to the local duck sanctuary to hang with your favorite birds. Your friends have too, and you all love ducks. You’ll lead them around the whole sanctuary to get them into formations for photos or cute locations, feeding them the whole time because, well, you like ducks. That’s really all there is to say about it. Who will end up having the nicest day in the duck park?
First, give out the starting cards:
The player with the First Player card is first. Additionally, give each player a Starting Pawn:
They’ll go on various spots. Build the board with Special Action Tiles:
And Location Tiles:
Making different configurations for each player count:
Look through the Location Cards and remove any Locations that aren’t in this game, then shuffle them and deal 4 to each player:
Set the deck down and reveal 4; those will be cards players can draw. Then grab the Formation Cards; shuffle and reveal X + 2 cards, where X is the number of players:
Place the Food in the Food Bag:
Give players food in turn order:
- First player: 2 food
- Second player: 3 food
- Third player: 4 food
- Fourth player: 4 food
Put the ducks in the bag:
- 2 players: Use 6 of each color duck
- 3 players: Use 7 of each color duck
- 4 players: Use all ducks
Shuffle them around and place one on every tile. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to start!
So, Ducks in Tow is a game about spending a day at the duck sanctuary. You’re going to get those bad boys, feed them, and then take them different locations to accomplish objectives. You just … love ducks that much. You’ll notice your player pawn has a plastic Tow behind it; you’ll add ducks to that so they can follow you from space to space. Truly adorable.
On your turn, you’ll have up to 4 actions that you can use to perform any number of Basic or Tile Actions. Let’s walk through those.
You may move your pawn to any adjacent Tile. Not much to say about this one.
You may return any number of food cubes to the bag to take the same number of ducks from the tile and add them to your Tow. The color of the ducks and the food cubes must match.
Shake the Bag
You may pull a random duck from the bag. If you have a matching food cube, you may discard it to add the duck to your Tow. Otherwise, you must Disperse it at the end of your turn.
Each Location Card has 1 or more ducks on it. If you are on that Location Card, you may complete as many Location Cards as you are able to in one action.
To complete a location card, remove the required ducks from your Tow and draw an additional duck from the bag for dispersement. You’ll do this every time you complete a card. Then, place the Location Card to the left or to the right of your already-placed Location Cards.
Some of these ducks will begin to form patterns that you might see on Formation Cards. If you have a pattern matching a Formation Card, you may take it from the supply and place it on top of the matching ducks. You may not use the same duck for 2 different Formation Cards, though they may overlap if they’re not using the same duck. Additionally, they cannot extend outside the gray part of your cards.
The Gift Shop
The Gift Shop allows you to take one of two actions:
- Take 2 food of your choice. If you have more than 4 food, discard down to 4 food.
- Take 2 Location Cards. You may take from the available row or the top of the deck. If you have more than 4 Location Cards, discard cards until you’re back at 4. Do not refill the Location Cards until the end of your turn.
To adopt, remove 2 Ducks from your tow. One will stay in front of you until the end of your turn, where you’ll Disperse it. The other may go on any blank spot on your Location Cards. If this causes you to be eligible for a Formation Card (I talk about them briefly in Drop Off), you may take it now. The duck will stay on your Location Card until the game ends.
End of Turn
Normally, nothing happens at the end of your turn. However, if you Adopted, Shook the Bag unluckily, or Dropped Off, you may have multiple ducks in your possession that you need to Disperse. If you have any, Disperse works as follows:
Choose a tile, and then place a random duck from the ducks you have in front of you on it. You must start with Empty Tiles and then move on to whichever tiles have the fewest ducks on them, with one exception: you cannot place a duck on a tile with a Player Pawn.
Finally, you may return any unwanted food to the bag and then draw back up to 4 food cubes. Additionally, if you have fewer than 4 Location Cards, you may draw back up to 4 by taking any of the face-up cards or the top card of the Location Card deck. Reveal new Location Cards after refilling your hand so that there are 4 face-up. Once you’ve done that, your turn is over and the next player can begin their turn.
End of Game
The game ends once a player has a certain number of Location Cards in front of them, or once all Formation Cards have been taken:
- 2 players: 8 Location Cards
- 3 players: 7 Location Cards
- 4 players: 6 Location Cards
Once that happens, total your score from your Formation Cards. Also, gain 1 point for each duck in your longest contiguous row of ducks of each color on your Location Cards. The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
There’s a major one in that the board is physically very different at higher player counts, presumably to reduce congestion. While this makes me very interested in more challenging alternate layouts, it also seems to keep the balance between players’ conflicting forces pretty well at bay, assuming everyone doesn’t get the same starting cards. Even if they do, if everyone’s going one way, you want to go the other. It makes it harder for them to place ducks that you can’t get if everyone’s within range of a few of the birds. Naturally, there’s an increase in downtime as the player count increases, but that’s to be expected with pretty much any game where players aren’t playing simultaneously (and even a few where they are). That said, I’ve seen experienced players play against new players. They’re not necessarily better, but they are faster. It might be worth learning the game at a lower player count and then breaking it out with more people to play it more quickly. That said, it wasn’t that much longer at four players, so I don’t really have a strong preference on player count for this one. Kind of down for any number of players.
- A rush strategy isn’t necessarily that bad of an idea. I mean, if you can get it to work with the Formation Cards, go for it, but I usually make sure that I can get a few Formation Cards early, get my decent lines for Locations, and then rush the end game. If you rush it too early, you’re going to finish with 4 points (at best), just like everyone else.
- Most of your points are going to come from Location Cards. The chaining bonus for rows is enormous, given how little you’re getting from Formation Cards (2 – 4 points, which isn’t nothing, but you could be getting that for each color of duck). Don’t downplay how important getting the Location Cards to work for you is; this is part of why I don’t really endorse a rush strategy as a sound move. I think a mixed rush is good, since it makes it hard for players to complete big Location Cards at the end of the game and get even more points, though. You want to block them from getting lots of Location Card points, if you can.
- Formation Cards are a nice bonus, if you can make them work. The spatial component of them isn’t going to work for everyone, but they’re definitely solid points if you can score enough of them. I haven’t seen a game end from everyone taking them yet, but it’s possible, I suppose. Either way they’re a good incentive to get denser Location Cards (as opposed to the Location Cards that only require one duck to complete).
- Shake the Bag if you only need one duck and you’ve got one of every resource. If you need more, it’s better to just get them from the tile if it’s close; if you don’t have one of every resource, you risk missing it on the duck and getting nothing. And you lose out on an action, which sucks even more. It’s a risk, but sometimes it pays off for the more risk-inclined. I just have a lower risk tolerance, so I never take that chance.
- Plan ahead. You want to have several paths towards getting to your Location with the ducks you want. You’re almost certainly going to get somewhat blocked by other players (usually unintentionally), so, prepare for that and have some backup routes. Plus, don’t forget that the ducks are going to get dispersed at the end of every player’s turn if they complete a Location Card, so even a temporary setback might just be a temporary one.
- Disperse ducks away from players, if you can. They can’t take ducks if they’re not on the tiles, right? So try to place the ducks far away from players when you’re forced to disperse. It won’t always work, but sometimes it really messes with a player’s plan.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Very cute theme. I think some people are going to be a bit emotionally overwhelmed given ducks’ proximity to The Horrible Goose, but it’s a very nice game about going to a duck sanctuary and feeding ducks so that they’ll become your friend and you can take them where they want to go. You’re essentially duck Lyft. There are a lot worse things you can be in life than a Lyft for ducks, so, go for it.
- Also very cute art. I get the overwhelming impression that the designer is one of those people that just really likes a specific animal (ducks in this case) and the game feels like a labor of love in that direction. Even then, Andrew’s art shines here with its use of color to distinguish the various locations. They’re upbeat and vibrant, which is exactly the art style for this game. I was already obviously impressed by his work on Everdell, but dude’s got range, and I respect that. Can’t wait to see what he does next.
- Plays pretty quickly. I think experienced players will cut a ton of time off the game once they understand the general flow and the way to get the Formation and Location Cards they need in the ordering that they want. It’s not a bad game at all to learn at two and then play with more players, as a result; the experienced players tend to take far shorter turns.
- I actually really appreciate the way the initial turn ordering cuts into your resources and how resources are replenished every turn. It saves a lot of time that would be spent trying to get the resources and instead focuses on the pick-up-and-deliver aspect of it, to its benefit. I like that every player refills their hand and resources at the end of the turn. It’s a small optimization (that may not even be that helpful
- I also like that the ducks gradually increase in number, both thematically and as a nice pseudo-catch-up mechanism. I like the idea that the ducks are getting wise to you and they’re gradually ramping up as more of them are like, yo, there’s food here. Since there are more ducks on every tile and you just placed them, there are more ducks for other players to grab and put on their Tows, so they can complete Location Cards faster. It’s a nice end-to-end experience. And it’s increasingly cute.
- I’ve mistyped duck probably seventy times in the course of writing this review. I think I swear too much on the internet. I didn’t even realize that I could misspell it two different ways. Sigh.
- It would be cool if the other side of the tiles had alternate art. Just for a bit of variety with setup. It’s not a problem that they don’t; just more of a “nice to have”, honestly.
- It would be nice to have an ability that lets you clear the draw row completely. I think it happens indirectly when you take cards via a Gift Shop Tile Action, but that’s 25% of your turn wasted for potentially little benefit to you (since you don’t refill until the end of your turn). To be fair, I had the same issue with Calico.
- I think a few things need to be fixed for the final version, just in terms of quality of life. One thing is the Tows are a bit too shallow. It’s a prototype, so, I imagine the final version will be a bit less wobbly, but the ducks fall out upon movement. It’s also currently a bit of an issue that I don’t know which player is which when I’m playing, which makes it a bit hard for me to swerve. That’s not the worst in a game, but having something that indicates what color pawn belongs to which player would help me, as a cunning duck connoisseur. Additionally, the transparencies for the Formation Cards are nice, but there needs to be some place to display them; they’re not gonna show up well on every table. A small 6-unit Formation Board would solve a lot of those problems and still be visible on every surface. Plus, it gives them the opportunity to pay Andrew more money for art, which I’m a huge fan of.
- The action economy of the game is tight enough that Shake the Bag seems to very rarely happen with low-risk players. I shudder at the idea of losing one action on my turn to grab a duck, only to draw the exact duck I don’t need. Even then, getting a random duck is only super useful if I need one of everything or don’t mind adopting.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I think Ducks in Tow is a really delightful game! I mean, thematically, it was always going to be that; are there many things that are cuter than a bunch of ducks following people around? I’m not even a huge fan of birds and I still think it’s cute (flightless birds are a different story; love those silly ground birds). It’s an interesting combination of a pickup-and-deliver game and a spatial pattern-building game, which I haven’t seen a lot of. It reminds me of the sets of games that occupy that space, like Tiny Towns, Roam, and etc. It’s just, instead of the mechanic for your pattern-building being their methods, it’s a pickup-and-deliver game. It’s an interesting spin! Still fairly easy to learn, which is nice; makes it much easier for me to teach it to new players, and the theme is all but guaranteed to get them interested, as it’s pretty novel, as far as I can tell. There’s some blocking, but it’s relatively minor, all things considered, so the game is even pretty friendly, which I appreciate. Naturally, before the final version of the game ships, there are a few things I’d like to see fixed, like a better display method for the Formation Cards or Tows that really lock those ducks in, but I figure for a preview it’s a pretty solid product. I’ll be interested to see how it does on Kickstarter, but currently, yeah, I’m excited about Ducks in Tow; hopefully you will be too, if you get a chance to try it!