When cutthroat themes are mentioned, the usual ideas of dragons and demons, carnage and Cthulhu, or panic inducing horrors from hell often spring to the fore. Fish, particularly salmon, don't automatically leap to mind, but that's where Upstream will prove you wrong.
This small box game by Victor Samitier and 2Tomatoes gives players the tactical and often brutal task of getting the most salmon up river to the breeding grounds by the time the tiles run out. Simple enough it may seem, but then there are those dangers mentioned before.
Bears, heron and eagles all lie in wait, ready to pick off your precious salmon and, with them, your points and chances of winning. All three obstacles hold peril in different and thematic ways, utilising the idea of predators on a river to great effect. Remembering these, and taking advantage by backing your opponents into corners, is the aim of the game here.
At its core, Upstream is a simple abstract game with teeth. You have five movement points on your turn to use in order to get your four salmon tokens up the river and your options are simple: swim, or jump.
Swimming, your first option, may seem the easiest option. Use one movement point to move one tile up on the river and try to avoid the dangers on the way. Unfortunately, those dangers are numerous and staying underwater doesn’t always save you. Eagles wait in your path. If you swim onto one of their tiles, they will grab a salmon and fly off, not only reducing your salmon numbers but also opening up the route for your opponents to take without peril.
Jumping, the other choice, allows you to clear dangers and obstacles quickly, and also allows you to bypass tiles with too many tokens on them (each tile can only hold as many tokens as there are players in the game, so they fill up fast) - but the bears await. If you jump onto a tile with a bear, they will immediately swipe your fish out of the air and enjoy their lunch. Bears don’t leave, they stay fishing in the river, and they are also mostly situated next to obstacles on the river that require jumping over, so the decision can be a difficult one. Heron, the quiet lurkers, will only attack when you finish your turn on their place, but they also remain there for the game, not flying off as the eagles do.
Hindrances also appear in guises other than animals on this river. Rocks lessen the number of tokens allowed on each tile by one, and it can be immensely frustrating to discover that the route to victory is blocked by the traffic jam of tokens spread across the river ahead of you.
Staying ahead, at the fore of the pack, can feel the most rewarding, but can also put you in more danger from the eagles. Hiding in the mid-school may be safest, but taking a risk can get your salmon the best position in the spawning pool, leading to more points. Finally, you can’t hang about either! As the river slowly moves along, the back three tiles are removed each turn and, when this happens, those salmon sitting on those tiles are also discarded. Bang go your points, plucked out of the water.
There is a decent amount of variety within the box, with a whirlpool variant for two players using the existing rock tiles to stall movement and slow players down (this can also be used in the 3-5 player game for a slight change of game) and the mini-expansion of rapids can force players into places they didn’t necessarily want to go.
The components in Upstream are lovely – the tiles are a reasonable thickness, with gorgeous origami style illustrations and bright colours making it easy to see what your options are. The narrow width of the play area (three tiles wide) make the game extremely tight and great for a smaller playing space. Each players’ salmon tokens are wooden, with engraved salmon on either side and the colours are fairly easy to tell apart.
Player Count and Length
The player count is also good, ranging from 2-5, although at the higher player counts one of the negatives of the game comes to the fore. There is no denying it can be fiddly, particularly when playing with four or five players. The tiles aren’t quite big enough to comfortably hold the tokens, and the stream also gets extremely crowded. While some players will love how tight and ruthless this makes the game, others will get frustrated, particularly with the obvious first person benefit each round.
The first player does circulate, and the first player can also choose how the new tiles on the river are laid, which can allow them to place perils in order to halt a leader in their tracks, but there is also the distinct possibility that a lagging player can end up being forced to make a difficult decision when tiles are full.
Upstream is quick, taking 20-45 minutes depending on player count, and can easily fit on most tables as a light puzzle between heavier games, or as a warm up game before settling in for the evening. With a decent amount of depth and tactics to employ, while not outstaying its welcome, even those frustrated gamers who find the board too constricted and cutthroat will be able to make their dash up the river without feeling that the time has been wasted. Turns come around quickly, if no one around the table suffers too badly with analysis paralysis.
Final Thoughts on Upstream
In short, Upstream is a stunning filler with a nicely implemented theme, relaxing graphics and enough teeth to keep each turn interesting. You may wish those tiles and tokens were a bit bigger, and the fiddliness will put some people off. However, for those gamers who want a small box game to travel with, or a lighter game to introduce new gamers to, this isn’t overly complex and may just be the game to use as bait to lure players in at game night.