Full disclosure: A preview copy of Forest Guardians was provided by Shepherd Kit. 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.
I think I’m settling back into a routine, even though this whole pandemic thing has really just … crushed my normally-otherwise-problematically-high drive to write. Thankfully, the benefits of being tired all the time, now, are that I can write approximately … one review a week, at best. I tried, valiantly, to get that number up to two, but I ended up slumped at my writing desk playing Animal Crossing. On the plus side, I made 8M Bells in turnip sales. On the minus side, well, you know. Anyways, the one review I got written this week was Forest Guardians, which I’ve been really excited about ever since I saw Shepherd Kit talking about it a while back. Let’s see how it shapes up!
In Forest Guardians, you play as Forest Rangers trying to protect their local woodland from a variety of inclement threats. Deforestation, fires, illegal logging, lost animals, poorly-scoped elevation changes; you name it. You’ll have to work quickly, though; the forest grows rapidly and as it changes and new trees emerge it may be difficult to leave your mark on the ecosystem. Will you be able to become the ultimate protector of the forest?
Setup isn’t too bad. First, take the tiles:
You’ll want to organize them by back (I / II / III). Place the starting tile in the center:
Allow each player to choose a character and a player board:
You’ll use the B side for the Advanced Game. Give them a Ranger Token as well, and put the Illegal Logger Token on his starting space on the starting tile:
Set up each player’s board by giving them the trees in their color and placing them in the relevant rows:
Certain spaces on the rows have room for a brown Upgrade Cube; give each player four of those, as well:
Now to set up the rest of the tokens! Shuffle up the Animal Cards:
There are two sets; place the shuffled four cards with the symbol on the back on top of the shuffled four cards without the symbol. Place their Animal Tokens nearby:
Set up the Fire Tokens; set them nearby:
Give each player three resource cards:
You should be ready to start!
To play with two players, remove four of the I tiles (with no symbols on them) and all of the III tiles.
In Forest Guardians, your goal is to plant trees and build up the local environment, as well as rescue animals and defend against illegal logging and forest fires. Should you do so, you’ll be named the ultimate Guardian of the Forest, which is nice. But how do you go about doing that?
Your turn generally consists of three phases.
Explore the Forest
In this phase, you’ll flip the top tile of the lowest-numbered available tile stack (I, then II, then III). You then add it to the board, making sure that it connects to at least two other tiles’ edges. There are some exceptions to this, naturally:
- Illegal Logger: When you draw this one, you must place it such that it is along one of the arrows pointing off of the Illegal Logger’s start tile. Unlike other tiles, this tile may be placed such that it only connects to one other tile’s edge. Once you’ve done that, move the Illegal Logger in a straight line towards that tile; all trees on tiles between the Illegal Logger’s starting tile and the tile you just placed are removed and returned to players, who place them back on their board starting with the rightmost empty space and moving left. Once that’s done, the Illegal Logger returns to his start tile.
- Forest Fires: When this tile is revealed, place it normally, then place a Fire Token on the tile and on every adjacent tile (except for the Illegal Logger’s start tile). Remove all trees on tiles that gain a Fire Token. If a Fire Token is placed on a tile that has a Rescued Animal on it, that Animal is returned to the rescuing player’s Shelter on their player board. If there’s already an animal there, that’s fine; they share. More on rescuing animals later in this review.
- Animal Encounters: When you place a tile with an Animal icon on it, immediately reveal the top card of the Animal Deck and place the Animal Token on that space. That Animal can potentially be rescued.
Once you’ve Explored the Forest, you may take Player Actions.
At the beginning of the game, you may only take one action per turn. This action may be any of the following:
- Plant a Tree: You may pay the Planting Cost for a Tree and add it to an available space on the board. An available space is any space that isn’t a Mountain or Lake, isn’t the Illegal Logger’s starting space, and isn’t a space that currently has a tree of yours. Choose the leftmost tree in a row, pay the cost, and place the tree token. Certain trees, when planted, give you an Upgrade Token, which can be used immediately to either give you an extra action or increase your hand limit by 1 permanently. Note that if any other players have trees on the tile you want to plant on, the cost of planting a tree there increases by one card of the same type.
- Put out a Fire: You may spend one Water card to remove any one Fire Token from the board and add it to your player board. Fire Tokens you’ve claimed are worth 1 point at the end of the game.
- Help an Animal: You may spend an action to remove an Animal Token from the board and add it to your shelter. Once you have fulfilled the Animal’s placement condition, you may spend another action to place it back on the board such that it sits in an area that satisfies its placement condition. The same tile cannot be used to satisfy more than one animal’s placement conditions, however.
- Swap out Cards: Discard any number of cards from your hand and immediately draw that many cards from the deck.
This one’s simple; draw cards until you reach your hand limit.
End of Game
When one player has planted all of their trees, the other players get one more turn and then the game ends. If a player draws the last tile, the game ends once their turn ends.
Either way, count your points from Rescued Animals, Fire Tokens, and Trees Planted; the player with the most points wins!
The advanced game adds a few extra wrinkles, mostly player powers. It also adds a fifth action: Send Out Ranger.
This action allows you to place your Ranger token on any space to protect it from Illegal Logging (the Logger skips over it) or Forest Fires. Note that it protects all trees on that space, not just yours.
Player Count Differences
I think the difference in player count can make the game a bit swingy. In general, getting the take-that tiles are a pretty big advantage (depending on how dense your tree placements have been), so adding more players can lead to scenarios in which one player has gotten an even larger portion of the take-that tiles, giving them a pretty big advantage. Additionally, since the resource card distributions don’t change, if players are hoarding water, it will be more difficult for you to acquire it since more players can hold the cards in their hands. I’d additionally expect the forest to be a bit denser at higher player counts. As a result, I lean more towards playing this at 2 – 3 players, personally, since I feel like it’s not quite as crowded of a game. If you don’t mind that crowd, though, then go for it!
- I would recommend trying to get an extra action as quickly as possible. This can quickly increase the number of trees that you can plant per turn, which gives you a chance to get additional actions. If you sit on this for too long, you’re constrained to one tree per turn, and that can lead to scenarios where you’re trailing behind other players and still need to place a lot of trees. That’s not particularly good.
- That said, don’t neglect your need to increase your hand size. The similar problem is that if you sit on growing your hand size, you can’t get the sets of cards you need to place the higher-level trees, so you might get stuck with them towards the end of the game (especially since you may need 4 of one type of card to place the tier 3 tree if it’s on an already-occupied space).
- If you can’t do much, consider rescuing an animal or putting out fires. Those are ways to get some points, which is useful. Or at least better than getting no points, I suppose.
- You can try to force players to play tiles near the Illegal Logger, but there’s not really much of a reason to do so. Most of the time players will just gradually build away from the Illegal Logger, since his blind spots become more widespread as you fan out in one direction.
- Playing on the same tile as other players is an okay idea, since it disincentivizes them attacking you with a fire tile or the Illegal Logger. This works best at lower player counts. At higher player counts, it just incentivizes whichever player is not part of your budding collective to attack that tile and hit you both. If you’re the player in that position, it’s a strictly good idea to do so and I don’t blame you.
- When you draw a Mountain or a Lake tile, place it near a tile you already have a tree on (but not one you have a Rescued Animal on). This will let you fairly easily get a Rescue, usually. The Leopard Cat and the Pangolin can mess this up a bit for you.
- If you’re playing the Advanced Mode, lean into your player powers, if you can. As with most games that provide player powers of some kind, generally ignoring them is unwise, especially if your opponents are choosing to not ignore them.
- Particularly watch out for Purple, since their ability lets them place trees on occupied tiles without paying any of the extra cost. This player can (and frequently will) speedrun the game, essentially, since there’s nowhere they can’t place. They’ll always pick ideal spots that are away from the edges and not long the Illegal Logger lines, so you can’t usually push them backwards, either.
- Red isn’t affected by fire, so that may be possible to use to your advantage, if you play as them. You can bait opponents into moving into dangerous zones and then start fires to burn their trees and scare off their animals. You’re the hero, remember?
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Really love the art. Shepherd Kit always does such great work on their game art, and of course, this is no exception.
- Shepherd Kit is doing a great job making games that are family-friendly but still have important lessons to teach about history or conservation, and I really like that. I think they do a really good job in the educational game space, and the games are fun, too.
- A good and delightful collection of animals, as well. It’s a very pleasant collection of animals.
- The component quality is still very solid. I think they have a pretty consistent manufacturer. Some of the standees are a bit finicky to set up, but them’s the breaks, sometimes.
- Not too complicated to learn, but I appreciate that it has an advanced mode for when you want a little more depth. I like when games have a bit of a skills ramp as you become more familiar with them.
- I do enjoy tile-laying, mechanically, and I like that the tableau you build as a group is different every time. It gives you a sense of progression, which is something I always come back to as something I really like. It’s similar to Bosk, in that regard, where every game you get a very artful presentation once it finishes up.
- I also like the game’s progression as you move from I to III. It’s a very literal sense of progression. I tend to like those in games, too, since they make you feel like you’re getting “better” even if you’re just planting different trees and experiencing new effects.
- The randomness of the tile draw can lead to turns where you can’t play a tree because you got a Lake / Mountain, which can be pretty frustrating. You usually can, but if you don’t have the right cards and you drew the wrong tile, that’s a bit of a “feels bad” moment.
- Similarly, it would be nice to have some level of mechanic where two cards of one type count as a card of any type or something so you don’t get stuck in card cycle loops. It’s very frustrating to have two each of two card types and discard one type only to draw another two of the type you just discarded. Having something that lets you solve that problem will speed up the game a smidge and make it rely less on “drawing the right card” (as by the Pidgeonhole Principle, that means every possible five-card hand would allow you to play three cards of one type). That specific suggestion worries me for Game Balance Reasons, but something similar to it would help.
- If players generally agree to nerf the Illegal Logger, they don’t necessarily have much to do. I don’t see a lot of games where players expand out in many directions along the Illegal Logger’s path; I find most players just build away and try to ignore him. When that happens, though, I’m often like, “then what … was the point?”. I’ve had several games where the Illegal Logger has cut down exactly 0 trees, which was surprising.
- The take-that aspects of the game can be a bit frustrating, since they effectively undo player actions. I tend to like things that are implicit undoes of player actions, rather than explicit. This can be, like “I placed two trees this turn”, and then your opponent, on their turn, removes the two trees you just placed. It can be frustrating, since it essentially means you accomplished nothing with your turn. Then again, I’m also generally opposed to take-that in my games. I haven’t found many versions of it I like.
- They’re also decently fickle; since they’re done by the player that draws them (and that player still gets their full turn), they give the player who drew them a lot of power that’s not really … earned? Drawing more of the take-that tiles puts you at a distinct advantage, in my opinion, and there’s no real way to account for that in the game, which is disappointing.
Overall: 7.25 / 10
Overall, though, I think that Forest Guardians is pretty fun! It probably leans a bit towards the family game side of things, but, if I were playing board games with younger players (or just … not myself, right now), I’d probably recommend taking it for a spin. I find the take-that aspects of the game odd since they’re player-controlled and frequently involve doing things that run counter to the game’s core ideals (like starting a forest fire or illegally logging); it seems like it would be better if the game itself handled those, though it adds in a bit more complexity. That aside, I’m generally a grump about take-that, so, this isn’t terribly surprising. I do think that the player-control aspects of it are also problematic, since they happen randomly and can cause the game to swing a bit in the favor of the player that activates them. Not much to be done about that, though, so, be prepared to tolerate a bit of randomness if you’re going to play this one. If you’d like to play something that aims to demonstrate the importance of taking care of the forest, though, I think it does a great job communicating that and doing so through fun art, accessible gameplay, and a solid player progression path. I like that quite a bit! Either way, I think Shepherd Kit has once again done a nice job with Forest Guardians, and if you’re looking for a solid title for the whole family, I’d suggest checking it out!