If you hadn’t heard along the game vine, the Living Forest was recently awarded the As d'Or Jeu de l’année Initié at the 2022 Festival International des jeux à Cannes! Sort of in the middle between newbie and expert, this new award category celebrates a great new French published game with a little more mech under the lid.
With that accolade under its belt and a beautiful looking box, I couldn’t wait to get stuck in!
Setting The Woodland Scene!
In Living Forest, we are spirits who are trying to save our forest and a very sacred tree from wicked Onibi and his fierce fires. And obviously, everybody wants to be the first spirit to do it!
Handily, there are some powerful Guardian Animals with special elements that can help you defeat Onibi. And there are three separate ways that flame thrower can be thwarted.
- Plant 12 unique protective trees on your forest board
- Put out 12 fires
- Collect 12 sacred flowers and awaken Sanki, the Great Guardian, who can kick Onibi into tomorrow
Each turn has 3 phases and up to 2 actions to perform. Your main task is to choose the winning way!
Phase 1: Guardian Animals
Players simultaneously draw and turn over their Guardian Animal cards from their personal draw stack. This is your “Help Line”. Each Guardian has a helpful combination of natural elements used to fight Onibi. But, like most animals, they can be picky about who shares their patch, and some like to be alone (solitary).
You can keep drawing Guardian cards, but if you reveal 3 Guardians with “ solitary” symbols printed on them in a row, you must stop. A “gregarious” or “neutral” symbol will cancel out a solitary symbol. You can use any Lotus tiles you have acquired to discard a card just revealed with a solitary symbol card to enable you to keep drawing if you like.
You can also use them to discard any Fire Varan cards that appear in your Help Line. Varans are Onibi’s servants and they heat up the gameplay! As a result, you may be able to keep drawing Animal Guardians into your Help Line even with a bunch of lonely, solitary wolves in there too!
If you aren’t forced to stop drawing, you’ll get two actions in phase 2. If you push your luck too far, it is just one action for you!
Phase 2: Actions
This phase is taken in turn order (based on where you placed your spirit token on the circle of spirits board). Depending on how you fared in the Guardian Animal Help Line phase, you’ll be able to do 1 or 2 of the following using the total of each element type gained by adding up the symbols on each of your Animal Guardian cards revealed in your Help Line during Phase 1.
- Plant a protective tree – if your Guardian Animals awarded you any plant points i.e. visible in your Help Line, you can buy a tree tile and place it on your board. The placement must be adjacent to a previously planted one. Every tree gives you permanent elements and/or a bonus action. Plus, filling rows, columns get you added permanent rewards (with corners offering an immediate one-off boon!).
- Put out a fire – Use any water drops collected you can extinguish fire tiles that are on the circular spirit board. When done, these tiles go face down next to your board and contribute towards your target of 12.
- Take a Lotus tile –these can be used to cancel out Fire Varan cards and solitary symbols in later turns. Or they can be used to return a Guardian Animal (including solitary and Fire Varan cards) revealed in your Help Line back into your personal stack.
- Buy a Guardian Animal from the tableau and add it to your personal deck using suns collected in Phase 1 – they come in 3 strengths but the more elements they contain, the higher the fire cost. Once bought it goes face down on top of your draw stack and the corresponding fire token goes onto the circle of spirits board for the next turn!).
- Move around the circle of the spirits board using any white spirals collected in Phase 1. You can only move clockwise but you can pass other spirits. If you do, you can steal a victory tile from them (and their space doesn’t count when working out how many spaces you can afford to move!). The victory tile is handy as it acts as an extra tree/fire/flower towards your total of 12. Plus, your landing spot will provide an additional bonus.
Phase 3: End Of Turn!
In phase 3, Onibi launches their dastardly attack on you and the forest! If there are still fire tokens on the circle of spirits board and you don’t have enough water elements in your supply to put them out. You must add Fire Varan cards to your own discarded stack of Guardian Animals equal to the difference between your total drops and the value of those fire token values. (And this is not good as they only have solitary symbols on them and no elements!)
Then you must add new fire tokens to the circle of spirits board equal in value to the total and type of Guardian Animal cards taken this turn (min 2, max 7). You must also refill the Guardian Animal tableau. Finally, move all the Guardian Animal cards from your Help Line to your personal stack and pass the first player token round to the next person.
Note that if any player achieves 12 different Protective trees on their board, 12 Fire tiles in their collection, or 12 Sacred Flowers in the Help Line during Phase 2, the game ends!
Living forest has multiple paths to victory and quite a few mechanics in play. Having played several times now, I gravitate towards collecting protective trees more than other actions. I like the spatial puzzle element. The permanent and immediate bonuses they offer give an advantage that strengthens as the game goes on. And there’s no downside to planting. They are miniature, natural engines.
But that is not to say that you can ignore the other aspects – if you do, you’ll go down in flames! Those fire cards can quickly start building up in your stack if you’re not careful! Nor am I saying that other choices are not good roots(!) to winning. Some just perhaps require more balance over the course of the game. They have advantages but the cost to use them is a little more obvious.
For example, in the action phase, you can choose to take an extra Guardian Animal card from the tableau to boost elements in your Help Line in later turns. However, that means more fire tokens are added to the circle of spirits board at the end of that turn. This means the benefit is quickly followed by a risk that may work against you later.
I find the flowers the hardest to keep track of as 12 can appear in the Help Line, on your forest board and on any flower specific victory tiles collected. But that does also mean that you suddenly find yourself having won (boom for the blooms!).
Essentially, like a lot of games, Living Forest is about trade-offs. Choosing one action over another and doing it at the right time. I was quite surprised by how fundamental the push your luck mechanism in the first phase really is. Primarily because this dictates whether you can take one action or two (but also how many additional elements you get to spend) during your turn. And actions are where, well, the action is!
The production value and artwork in Living Forest are without a doubt gorgeous – the colours are so vibrant on the table. Having said that, the player tokens don’t stay on their little stands very well (but that’s just a minor niggle). The rule book also has some nice examples of actions and phases and is pretty easy to follow.
With the competing paths to victory and interwoven mechanics, I would agree that there is a little bit more going on under the lid than your average gateway game. But it’s not a heavy game. As such, I would feel comfortable introducing Living Forest to a new gamer who loved the theme and wanted to play.