Players secretly take on the roles of animals of the forest, each with their own unique ability. Prey animals are gathering food while being hunted by the predator. Across 8 turns, players move across the board by simultaneously playing 1 face-up movement card each turn. However, their pawns don't actually move until the end of the game! Until then, players try to hide their own identity while attempting to figure out who the others are, before it is too late...
Nuts to the dumb fox
“I want to watch Peter Rabbit!”, my two-year-old son requests. For the hundredth time. Full of excitement, my son immerses himself in the woodland world yet again. At the edge of his seat, he wonders: “Will the fox capture the rabbit this time?” The obvious answer is no, of course he won’t. As was the case in the 99 times before this, because the dumb fox never learns. It’s a story with a fixed outcome; once you know what’s going to happen, it’s not exciting anymore.
Oh, I’m sorry, who am I again? My name is Hurby Donkers (yep, that’s my name), and I’m a Dutch boardgame designer. I like all the good stuff in a boardgame: Challenge, depth, player interaction, and most of all, suspense.
The latter is something the woodland theme has plenty of. It must be thrilling to have to go out there in the woods looking for food, not knowing what dangers might lurk behind the trees. So I set out to translate this excitement into a boardgame, to have players feel what it’s like to be that scared tiny animal. But make no mistake: With player-controlled animals, the fox does learn. So next time you set out to eat that nut, be sure that he’ll be waiting you out. You’ll be screaming “Oh, Fox!” before you know it.
A tough nut in a soft shell
My goal was to create a game that draws you in and keeps you immersed into the world it presents. In other words, I aimed to have all mechanics be as elegant as possible, as to not subtract from the experience. To bring the concept of the hunter and the hunted to life, I wanted players to really have to crawl into eachother’s minds, in order to not guess but actually predict their actions. So a game that is soft on the outside and tough on the inside, if you will. With that in mind, the first draft was made about a year ago.
A fox in squirrel-clothing
There was always going to be one predator animal hunting down multiple prey animals. Working together would have made the prey animal players feel too safe, so they were all going to play for themselves, only looking to save their own skin. Each player would be receiving one face-down role card, of which one was the predator. Because any player could be the predator, there was possible danger around every corner.
The forest for the trees
To have a sense of environment and adventure, I felt that the game needed a spatial element. So I created a board with different locations in a forest that players could move to. These locations would hold the different food types that the prey animals were after, to give the players a sense of direction as well as valuable information to deduce eachother’s identity with.
Prey animals would need to be able to hide themselves, so the movement over the board was going to be hidden. I guess the obvious first thing that would come to mind is hidden movement with pen and paper, with players secretly writing down their location. However, I wanted none of that. It’s been done before, but more importantly, I think it’s fiddly and not pretty to look at. Furthermore, the movement should not be completely hidden, as there is no suspense if you don’t have the faintest clue about where everyone is and you just give up trying to find out. That would just be random.
I’m sorry, but let me just interrupt myself again here by stating something that is important to me personally in game design: I generally don’t like it when lots of random stuff happens to you. Event cards and dice rolls that determine an outcome are common perpetrators of this. I love to get outplayed by another player, but having aspects of a game determined by randomness keeps me from feeling invested in it.
Right, moving on. Because my goal was to have players be as scared as possible, they needed to feel the possibility that they were figured out, while also entertaining the thought that they were not. You know, suspense. For the predator to figure out anything, as much information as possible should be out in the open. So players were to have a hand of movement cards, from which they would simultaneously play one face-up card each round for all players to see. The cards were square and could be played in four directions. I felt that simultaneous action selection was especially important for this game, because the last I want is downtime inbetween turns taking away from the immersion I so carefully tried to craft.
To summarise: By analysing a player’s movement cards, you could deduce that player’s identity by looking at the locations he had visited. Furthermore, you can completely put your opponents on the wrong track. For example:
The deduction: “That player is visiting a lot of locations with nuts, he must surely be the squirrel!”
The masquerade: “Even though I’m the predator, I’m visiting a lot of locations with nuts, so they’ll surely think I am the squirrel!”
The suspense: “Do I have the nuts to eat that nut over there, or is the predator onto me?”
As sly as a… squirrel?
I’m sure all of the above would have already combined into an okay game, but I figured the deduction and masquerading parts to be too narrow. To allow for true mindgames, I gave each animal a special ability that would only be triggered by playing a trigger movement card. When playing such a card, because others don’t know your identity, they also don’t know which special ability you just activated. On one hand, this made deduction a fair bit tougher because it wasn’t as straight-forward, but on the other, it made deduction deeper because it gave away more information. Furthermore, by giving each animal a special ability (as thematic as possible of course), the animals became different from each other, further increasing the sense of immersion. Also, I really really wanted to include special powers just because, so there’s that. Anyway, the addition of trigger cards meant that the player pawns don’t move, as that would give away their positions on the board. To this day, when explaining the game, everyone looks at me funny when I say that the pawns don’t move until the very end of the game. They don’t move. They don’t. Nope.
That Dutch nut with the French name
Up until last year, I designed games as a hobby. Sure, I entertained the dream that one day I would see my games published, but it felt like a mountain to climb so I procrastinated, repeatedly choosing to create a new game over seeing a finished one to the end. I did go to gaming clubs though, where this lifesaving guy named Michel Baudoin took an interest in my prototypes. When I showed him Oh, Fox!, he thought it was the mutt’s nuts. As a boardgame designer turned graphics designer with an ambition for marketing, he suggested we publish it together. Yeah, let’s do it! Cinnamon Games was a fact, and I never looked back.
And with that, I knew that Oh, Fox! was going to make it. Oh, by the way: The game wasn’t to be called Oh, Fox! back then. “Froschlest Faschlad” I had as the title, or “Forest Facade” when properly pronounced, but as you can see we imagined it a tad difficult to pronounce well, especially for non-native speakers like ourselves. I leave it up to you to imagine what sparked the idea of “Oh, Fox!” as the title, okay?
Together, we proceeded to polish the game. We playtested as much as we could, visiting friends, boardgame clubs, and boardgame conventions. While Michel was busy illustrating the game and getting it out there into the world, I worked on processing feedback and nutting out mechanical problems.
The core mechanics felt very much carved in wood and held up to the very end, but getting everything else just right appeared to be quite the tough nut to crack. Progress did not come gradually, but rather in sudden revelations, mostly resulting from feedback from playtesters on boardgame clubs and conventions. To any of you reading this: Thank you! We had initially assumed that the game was accessible for a mainstream audience, but doubts arose when the game appeared to be too difficult for some people, especially while playing the role of predator animal. So for a long time, we didn’t really lock in which audience to target, as I was unsure of whether the difficulty was a problem that could be fixed, or something that was woven into the core mechanics of the game.
Oh, but I tried. Aiming to strengthen the predator, I took a dive into some more obscure concepts. For example, I once had the predator attack all preys on adjacent spaces when playing a stop card. Another example was separating the board into five zones, and having the predator attack all prey animals in the same zone. But when a regular playtester and self-proclaimed terrible predator player started attacking prey animals left and right like it was a picnic, I knew I had used a sledgehammer to crack a nut. So back to the drawing board it was. Besides, the concepts didn’t make much sense anyway, so I was glad to be rid of them. You know, elegance and immersion and all. I kept on trying all sorts of things and would eventually find light at the end of the tunnel. “De aanhouder wint” they say in our language, meaning something akin to “perseverence prevails”.
A fox in… owl-clothing?
The first of a few very important changes was to make known which player is the predator by have that player take the predator token. This ensures that all prey animal players only really have that one player to worry about and can delve deeper into the masquerading elements of the game. Reluctant as I was at first, I had to eventually admit that it works well, especially for players looking for a more casual experience. I made sure to keep the original concept intact though, so veteran gamers can still enjoy the Masked Predator variant in which the predator could be any player. If you have the game and enjoy it, you owe it to yourself to at least try it once, trust me.
Crack the nut to eat the kernel
To actually eat the food on their location, prey animals must play a stop card. Looking back, I feel stupid for not implementing this from the get-go. Prior to this change, the predator player had to predict where the prey animal would move to, which was much too difficult and he was often times one step behind. After this change, eating food requires an extra turn for the prey animal, allowing the predator player to catch up. I dare say that it works wonders and that it feels just right, as the act of eating food with a stop card is the especially dangerous part.
Moving like a fox
Thinking the game was nigh complete, we entered the blind-playtesting phase. We sent 30 paper-printed copies to volunteers all across The Netherlands and Belgium, together with a structured feedback form and a play session log. Our confidence grew as feedback returned in the form of great praise all around, except for one big thorn in the side: Almost unanimously, session logs showed underwhelming results for the predator players and the playtesters felt like they were always running one step behind. Supposedly the menace of the forest, the predator still seemed quite the laughing stock. The conclusion: It wasn’t that the game was too difficult to play, it was simply imbalanced. At first I felt nutted, but when thinking about it, I guess the best feedback you can hope for is unanimous feedback, even if it is negative. This way, at least you know which direction to design into. We didn’t have a great deal of time left this late in the game’s development, so it was nut-cutting time.
Previously, the predator could only attack a prey animal when both énd their turn on the same location. I remembed how visitors on gaming conventions would often ask: “So what if you encounter the predator dúring your movement?” They were onto something. I know it makes thematic sense and seems like a no-brainer, but at the time I thought the mechanics involved would be too complicated, so I waived it off. Fortunately, they weren’t. Having the predator attack each prey animal that he encounters during his movement turned out to be as sweet as a nut and was the final change required to fully balance the game. It made the game so much more fun too!
In a nutshell
We tested and tweaked and tweaked and tested and tested and tweaked the game, making sure to gather as much feedback from as many people as possible in the process. I fully believe that we crafted the best version of Oh, Fox! that we possibly could, and I’m very proud of the result.
So what’s next?
Oh, Fox! is currently in press and will be available on SPIEL ’19 this October. You can find us at booth 4J107, which is in hall 4. Thank you for reading and I very much hope to see you there!