Morels is a game for two players. It often turns up on lists of great games for two, or great games to play with your wife. My wife, though she plays less often than I do, is by no means a casual gamer, and she can hold her own in heavy strategy games. I decided to buy Morels as a light-to-medium game my wife and I could easily get to the table and play. While it fits that bill, after a few games, I remain unsure of how often we will actually play it.
What you get
84 Day cards
8 Night cards
2 Frying pan tokens
16 Stick tokens
2 reference cards
The day deck contains 8 types of regular mushrooms, between 5 and 10 each, plus the three titular Morels. Each of these cards shows two numbers in the upper left–the number of points it is worth, and the number of stick tokens it will get you. There are also a handful of Destroying Angel mushrooms that slow you down, butter and cider cards that earn extra points, moon cards, frying pan cards, and basket cards.
The night deck includes alternate versions of the 8 common mushrooms with the artwork changed to reflect the time of day. The differences that range from the subtle disappearance of fish in a stream to the appearance of dancing fairies.
The game has some very lovely artwork. The relationship between the day and night cards is fantastic, and there is unity across components. The Frying Pan tokens use the same art as the frying pan cards, and the Stick tokens use the art from the corner of the day card back. My only complaint about the components is that the card surfaces are smooth which makes them a bit hard to shuffle. But otherwise, the few gameplay aspects really just get out of the way and let the artwork shine.
What you do
The goal is to earn the most points from cooking the most delicious mushrooms by drawing cards and playing them from your hand.
Set up by shuffling the day deck and night deck separately, and laying 8 day cards face up in a line extending from the day deck. This makes up the “Forest” and the game ends when there are no cards left in the Forest. (We interpreted this as playing until there are no more cards to pick, not just reaching the bottom of the deck.) Allow room for a “decay” pile at the opposite end of the Forest from the deck. Place the night deck face down next to the day deck. Each player gets one of the frying pan tokens, and three cards from the forest deck to start.
The player has five options on a turn: take a single card from the forest, take all the cards from the decay, play a pan card, cook mushrooms, or sell mushrooms. There is a permanent hand limit of 8, so the player cannot take an action that would result in more than 8 cards in hand.
There are two ways to draw cards into your hand. Taking a single card is the most common action. The two cards farthest from the deck are considered “at your feet” and may be taken for free. You may pay stick tokens to take cards closer to the deck. The first costs 1 stick, the second costs 2, etc. Most of the cards are added to your hand, but there are a few exceptions. When taking a moon card, it is discarded, and the player immediately adds the top card from the night deck to their hand. The night cards count as 2 cards for selling and cooking. Basket cards increase your hand limit by 2, and immediately enter play without entering your hand. Destroying Angel mushrooms also immediately enter play?, cause you to discard down to a new hand limit of 4 cards (plus 2 cards per basket) and remain in play 1 turn for each set of cooked mushrooms. You can only have one Destroying Angel in front of you at a time so duplicates are discarded, but if you cook more mushrooms while a destroying angel is in play it prolongs the effect by a turn. Any Basket, Destroying Angel, or Moon cards in your starting hand are all resolved on your first turn. The second possible action is to take all of the cards from the decay pile, and resolve any effects as above.
The remaining actions are for playing cards. The player may play an empty pan with no mushrooms. To cook mushrooms, the player must have at least 3 of the same type of mushroom (remember that night cards are worth 2). The player can add them to a pan in play, or play a new pan along with the mushrooms. The player may also add butter to the pan for 3 extra points if at least 4 mushrooms are being cooked, or cider for 5 extra points if at least 5 mushrooms are being cooked. Multiple butters or cider may be used, but mushrooms only count for one card, so a minimum of 8 mushrooms must be played to use 2 butter. Importantly, once cooked, nothing else can be added to the pan on a later turn. Cooked mushrooms are worth between 1 and 6 points for each card.
Finally, the player may sell extra mushrooms. The player must sell at least 2 mushrooms at a time (so night cards can always be sold). The player takes the number of stick tokens shown on each sold card (representing knowledge gained from the locals) and discards them.
No matter which action is taken, the card farthest from the deck is moved to the decay pile, and the Forest is refilled with one or two cards from the day deck. The decay can only have 4 cards in it at a time, so when a 5th card decays, the previous cards are discarded.
The rulebook makes a comment comment that a player who gets into a position of not being able to take any of these actions (due to hand limits and not having enough mushrooms to sell) should be ridiculed. While I found it amusing at first, this points to one of the things I dislike about the game, that you can really work yourself into a corner.
What I liked
The theme and artwork at the top of this list. Hunting mushrooms is such a unique theme to explore. And there is an interesting read on the game creators’ website that discusses the art direction for each mushroom. The forest and decay mechanics are very interesting, because you always have to consider what cards you are passing on in order to get the ones you like. The rules are easy to learn and teach, and it plays smoothly and quickly.
What I disliked
But I was somewhat disappointed by some of the game aspects. First, while interesting, the theme is very light. Sticks are just money, and the artwork could have been almost anything with a point value and price printed on it. But more deeply, the mechanics feel very restrictive. You start with no sticks, so you’re stuck at the mercy of the deck for a while. You often know what you want to do, but find that your options are more limited than the 5 above.
For a game about casually strolling through the woods hunting for mushrooms, the forest moves too quickly. It makes it hard to figure out what is going to be where, because things can jump ahead in the forest, or end up in the decay so quickly. Even though you can see what is coming up, you don’t have enough time to adjust your strategy, so you are frequently making do with what is in front of you, rather than actually focusing on a strategy.
As with so many 2 player games, interaction is largely tit-for-tat, either helping yourself or hurting your opponent.
I need to point out that these aren’t necessarily bad aspects of the game, they just weren’t what we were looking for in the game.
There are some bright spots in this forest. The designers went for a rather minimal game, and it should be no surprise that I would love to spice the game up with some extra cards. A wild card (wild mushroom?) worth nothing that can be used in any dish, maybe at a price of reduced hand limit (like a reverse of night cards). Or some neat ways to manipulate the deck, like reducing the cost to take a higher mushroom or letting you manipulate the decay. Or literally spice it up with some pepper or hot sauce that only works on cheaper mushrooms (we found the cheap mushroom strategy to be underpowered, even with butter and cider.)
Or perhaps a way to discard a card from your hand at a price. Give the player a way to discard or make use of junk cards, so that you literally can’t get stuck in the game. I don’t like the idea of rewarding bad play, but I dislike punishing a player for it more.
Overall, there is some strategy in the game, but for two people who really love deep strategy games, this did not satisfy. I have some friends who I think would really enjoy this with their spouses. But this game about hunting rare mushrooms and cooking them leaves us hungry and searching for a heavier game.