The vision for Foxes

I was asked by a publisher I'm working with for Foxes what my vision for the game is. And I think that's a good question. A game without a vision will drift, and it will wander, and it will be difficult to develop into a great game. This blog is an attempt to answer that question, and hopefully is something I'll refer back to as we continue to develop the game. Some parts of this will be familiar to anybody that has kept up with my writing on the game, but having it all here in one place will hopefully be interesting.

Foxes had its origins in the early days of Hocus. At the time, Grant and I were thinking that we could possibly do a suite of games in the same box. We thought, OK, we're going to have this deck and these tokens, what about variations on the theme? What about other classic card games with spells? I decided to try Cribbage with spells, and Grant was looking at Blackjack with spells. The product vision for Hocus moved, as that game became stronger and we felt like more stuff in the package might just muddle the intent, but I didn't want to let Foxes go. I've always loved Cribbage, it was the first serious card game that I learned to play well, and there are precious few games that start with it as a base.

The first couple versions of Foxes (then known as Wiccage) hewed pretty close to a Cribbage formula, but as I tortured my friends with it, it became apparent that really, it was just worse than Cribbage. That realization was a little disheartening, but I tried to rally by sitting down to read about some classic card games. It's a good practice for me when I'm stuck for inspiration. Two things really struck me. One, I was reminded how many games out there used smaller decks than the standard poker deck. Outside of Euchre and (maybe) Pinochle, American players seem to encounter very few games that are played with smaller decks. But if I was going to design a two-player game, a smaller deck would present players with different possibilities, and might give me some interesting design problems.

Second, I was struck by Écarté among a few other games, as being two-player trick-taking games. It's a category that's virtually unknown in the US, outside of a brief heyday for Bridgette (which made the Games Magazine Hall of Fame), but it's a category I've personally wished was more common. Trick-taking games have been a part of my life for a long time. I met my wife Megan playing bridge, but of course, that requires four players. I used to have lunch with my friend H.P. (a fellow bridge player) in high school all the time and we would try and cook up two-player trick-taking games. It's an itch I felt needed scratching, and once I combined those ideas of trimming my deck and pivoting towards trick-taking, things started taking shape.

From there, the game was really driven by a few impulses. One, I wanted the deck to be interesting. One of the things I love about folk games, particularly European ones, are the bits of character you see in how the deck operates. Special rules for Jacks, strange orderings, quirks and exceptions that add a ton of character to the game. I wanted to combine that with a modern sensibility to permit such character and texture in the deck but without the memorization that's required. That was the imptetus for the odd card powers: with my own deck, I could print the rules right on the card, but allow for the cards to be unique. But, I didn't want them to come off like event cards or collectible card game cards. I wanted the powers to be inherent to the rank, and to feel like they're natural. I also wanted to play with some surprising consequences for the ranks: that's where the top rank forcing plays, the 9s being cross-suit, the 1s stealing the lead, and the other things in the deck came from. I wanted to make sure that the deck held some surprises, with consequences for the way people approach playing.

Second, I wanted the game to appeal to serious fans of classic card games. To a certain extent, I've known from the beginning that this was a niche product. It's meant to fulfill a need that I've always felt, and I wanted to make sure that it would be interesting even to relatively serious card players. Open minded Bridge players, say. That's not to say I'm uninterested in accessibility, of course, and I feel like the presentation can make a big difference in the approchability of the game. But I want the game to be one that is worthy of serious play. I want it to be a game that provides a rich, challenging experience to players who invest their time in it. I want it to be a game that doesn't feel like a compromise, that doesn't feel like a cut-down card game, but instead is fully satisfying. I would love for players to feel like they can truly become expert in the game.

Third, I've been trying to keep my mind focused on things which add interest to the game without necessarily complication. Again, that comes from the impulse to make a game like classic card games. Those games are successful because relatively simple rules interact in interesting ways to challenge players. It's why I eventually dumped all the last vestiges of the old spell casting from the original inspiration in favor of fixed abilities on the cards. It's why I've wanted the ability to swap what is trump, to provide a lot of texture to the card play and the opportunity for well-timed plays. It's why I've tried to focus on tools for the player who is behind to regain control, but in ways that feel natural and not cheap.

In the end, what I'm inspired here is a category of games, rather than a specific theme or mechanism. I'd like this game to be a love letter to traditional trick-taking, and a revelation of a type of play that most people wouldn't consider for this category of games. I want it to simultaneously feel modern but classic. I want this to be the game that 15-year-old Josh would have played in the lunch room with his friend, when they didn't share a lunch with any of their usual card game crowd. I want this to be the game that I could have played on train seatback trays across Europe when I was bumming around with a friend, or on a vacation with Megan. I want this to be a game that I always have with me because it's compact but always satisfying. I want players to play it and feel recognition at the familiar elements, but to also see new and surprising things.