Elizabeth Hargrave has changed teams. From winged creatures to wily ones. Butterflies and birds have given way to foxes. And not just any foxes. Friendly ones! The Fox Experiment is a game for 1-4 players (age 10+) based on a historical breeding programme (“the Silver Fox Domestication Experiment”) which started in the 1950s. Back then, two Soviet scientists working at the Institute for Fur Breeding Animals found that domesticated species share a number of physical traits (floppy ears, spots, curly tails etc.). Why? They weren’t sure. So like all good scientists, they set off to find out. They formed a team and decided to see if they could replicate these friendly characteristics in foxes. By breeding the top 10% of the tamest animals, the hope was (and remains) that the next generation will be cuddlier, cuter and less…well….foxy than the last!
What The Fox?
First off, you might be surprised by the sheer amount of stuff that comes out of the box. Billed as a roll and write, I was expecting some boards/sheets, pens, and of course some dice. But I massively underestimated the volume of components in this game. Dice, tokens, pens, cards, more cards, bonus cards, fox meeples, player boards, cogs, main board………..the list goes on! So, before you start, make sure you have a table big enough. We didn’t and regretted it when we had to move everything to another room!
Once you have set everything up though, don’t be intimidated. The gameplay is actually quite straightforward. You have 5 rounds in which to breed your own friendly pups. Each round is divided into four phases:
Selection: you pick a male and female fox parent from the available kennel and a supply track (turn order) bonus;
Breeding: using the matching trait dice they give (plus any wild dice you have), you roll them and allocate (mark off) complete dice traits on your own blank pup card. Complete traits are arranged by matching halves of two dice or using those which show a whole trait;
Research: as traits build up on your pup (and you claim bonuses from science cards and other spots), you’ll get trait tokens which you can spend to trigger upgrades on your personal player board. Upgrades can include extra wild dice which can be used to form any trait. If you achieve the no. of traits on your personal study card, you also get to place a cute wooden fox meeple for VPs;
Administration: at the end of the round, a new generation of parent foxes are revealed, and the new pups players have bred get added to the kennel to increase options available to all next round Highest value pups also
At the end of the game, points are scored for achieved end game objectives (public – pleasing the Patrons who reward you for using tokens to upgrade, and private – points for completed Studies that focus on strengthening particular traits), friendliest fox, upgrades obtained, and unused trait tokens.
NB: If you are playing solo/ two player, there is an AI in play which blocks parents in the kennel (but also increases the trait die on remaining ones) and spots on the main board including the supply track turn order bonus spots.
The thought of animal experimentation never fills me with excitement or joy. But thankfully, the science upon which this game is based relates to genetic reprogramming which takes place naturally over the course of many generations of foxes. And if you are interested in finding out more about the work of the pioneering biologists, their work on this and other projects was a brave rejection of preconceived Russian theory.
And given the background (and lots of little touches like naming your pups), this game does feel thematic. Beyond a roll and write mechanism pasted onto a setting, the pairing of foxes and traits via the dice rolls makes sense. And strengthening traits in later rounds as the dice featuring those traits increase mirrors the genetic objectives of the experiment itself.
Ultimately, the Fox Experiment is a lot more straightforward than all the bits and bobs would have you believe. I won’t deny that it a table hog as from the pictures that’s pretty obvious. But the 5 rounds have a set phasing and after a few rounds the pattern becomes familiar.
It’s also a game where you can get points from all places. The personal Studies and Patrons are a good inclusion, although the trade-off between keeping trait tokens and upgrading seemed like a no-brainer. It’s not massively tense, and by that, I mean we weren’t really ever fighting over spots or foxes. There was always something else each of us could do to further our in-game position and prosect of end game victory. But you will feel something when another player takes the mummy or daddy fox that have the trait dice you need to complete a Study! As such, it is more interactive than other bigger-box roll/flip and writes like Hadrian’s Wall. But It certainly isn’t as synapse sizzling in terms of placement efficiency as that game.
As we mainly play at 2P, our first game incorporated the Automa. As such, it involved quite a bit of extra rule checking*. But again operating their deck and moving their components became faster after a few rounds. And the blocking of parent cards, supply track and other spaces is necessary to increase the interest in real player choices.
Overall, we enjoyed the Fox Experiment. There’s a lot of stuff and the boards are very busy visually, but the gameplay isn’t overwhelming and the icons quickly become familiar. Unpacking it and setting it up, I probably expected something more complex. Particularly as the roll and write genre is levelling up in terms of depth of play. But it was easy to fathom, and I am definitely looking forward to playing it solo – once I have organised all the bits and bobs! haha
(*NB: in Solo/2P reshuffle the Automa deck at the start of each round as the rules aren’t clear but the BGG consensus is that it works best that way – and it does!)