Released in 2007 by Rio Grande Games. Designed by Michael Adams and Peter Sarrett. For 2-5 players.
Let’s dive straight in (so to speak) to this game’s most striking feature. Its worms.
Each player in If Wishes Were Fishes! gets six stretchy, squidgy worms made of soft, purple plastic with which to play. They’re each eight centimetres long. They are, quite simply, splendid toys. Though turns are mostly pretty quick – this is at its core a single-action-per-turn, collect-or-sell game – it can be tremendously therapeutic (and plain fun) to have something to mould and massage while you’re not the active player.
Of course, nerds and squares would have it that such toys are not befitting of an adult game (and this game certainly has enough strategic depth to be considered one). Please don’t listen.
Yes, If Wishes Were Fishes! could have been dressed in different clothes. The player could have been a non-specific businessperson, rather than a fisherman or fisherwoman. The silly, fun artwork could be stripped away, and replaced with something po-faced. You could have had cardboard chits for worms, and have called them investment tokens. There’s enough muscle in this game to support a sterner styling.
But, as I see it, you’d lose much of the charm of If Wishes Were Fishes! And I don’t see what would be gained (from the perspective of a player – I can see that, commercially, a more serious surface would have made the nature of the product more comprehensible to customers). I love the fact that the cat-fish look like cats. I want to applaud the brave decisions that led to If Wishes Were Fishes! being released in its appealing, exuberant form.
Anyway, let’s address how the game works.
Players start the game with enough boat-space to catch two fish. Catching a fish is one of three actions available to a player on his or her turn (assuming the player has room enough to collect another fish). This is done by picking a card from a selection of four – each card depicting one of seven types of fish. However, only the first fish in the row is free. To take the second, third or fourth the player needs to use some bait (i.e. one or more of the wonderful worms) – though the mechanism isn’t entirely explicable in thematic terms, in that the bait is placed on each of the fish which are stepped over. Thus, to take the fourth fish, I’d have to put worms on the three I refused. If a player later wants one of those fish, he or she also takes the worms sitting on the card.
It’s the same mechanism as is used in picking races in Small World, if you happen to have played it. Except worms are not, in themselves, counted as victory points in If Wishes Were Fishes!, unlike the tokens spent to choose a race in Small World. And, if there are two-players in a game, starting with six worms each, there will only ever be twelve worms in a game – with three players there will never be more or less than eighteen total, and so on. Partly for this reason, players must be frugal with their worms. If a player runs out, and therefore cannot choose which cards to take, it’s very debilitating. But, on the whole, it’s a neat selection device, and one I don’t mind seeing in multiple games.
The second possible action is to sell a single fish already collected in a previous turn. Fish have a base value of two dollars (victory points) each.When a fish is sold, a fish counter in the player’s colour is moved onto a section of the board representing the kind of fish card used – for instance, if blue sold a starfish, then a blue counter is placed by the starfish market stand on the board.
However, one or more meeples representing buyers may be present at the market stand in question. These increase the value of any fish sold to that stand. For instance, the presence of the large white meeple adds three dollars to the value of fish sold to the stand it occupies. If it were at the starfish stand (with no other meeple there), then starfish would be worth five dollars each. So, clearly, selling the right fish is important.
On top of this, market stands will close during the game. When the first stand – whatever kind of fish it might require – has four fish tokens in front of it, then that stand closes. The player who sold the most fish to it gets a bonus of seven dollars, and the player who sold the second most gets three dollars. Subsequently, another market will close when it has five fish (and will pay out slightly higher bonuses to the first and second players), then another at six fish, and another at seven. This final closure sees the game end.
Thus, even a market with a couple of meeples present might become unattractive to most players, if adding fish will trigger a substantial bonus for a player doing well in the game. It’s a neat nuance, but by no means the greatest source of fun in the game. Better even than playing with the worms, is screwing over your opponents with wishes.
Wishes are found on fish cards (the bottom half shows the fish, the top half the wish). When a player selects a fish card from the market, he or she may chose not to keep the fish, but, instead, to use the card immediately to grant the one-off ability depicted. Many of these are connected with moving meeples, meaning a player can increase the value of fish he or she has collected (and, of course, decrease the value of opponents’ fish). Some allow for selling multiple fish cards of the same type, or for removing a fish counter from a market (thereby potentially altering who will receive bonuses when or if the market closes).
This means there’s a lot going on. Too much to plan multiple turns ahead. But enough for some nifty strokes of ingenuity spanning two or three turns. A simple combination might be to take a couple of unpopular fish of the same type, maybe picking up some worms which were spent passing them over, then use a wish to sell them as another, more valued type of fish. There’s luck involved, particularly with larger numbers of players, but there is also potential for some of the subtle manipulation of other players found in stock market games. Perhaps you want the valuable white meeple removed from a market space, because you see the leader has some fish of that kind to sell. You could take the wish that allows for that yourself. Or you could spend a worm, skip that card, and take something that more directly benefits you – hoping the little bribe will get your neighbour to do the job for you.
Still another wish gives the player a dollar for every worm he or she holds (though a player taking this wish must give a worm to each opponent afterwards). This, I’ve found, offers a big potential pitfall to new players. If one player is conservative with his or her worms, and others not so much, a couple of worm-scoring wishes in quick succession can catapult that player into an overwhelming lead. And, once a player has lost most of his or her worms, it’s difficult to regain them – meaning a first play can often be disheartening. In my experience, it’s very rare indeed that any fish or wish is worth spending two, never mind three, worms. New players can be told this, but, of course, the relative worth of worms, wishes, and fishes really has to be learnt from experience.
Nonetheless, I think If Wishes Were Fishes! deserves hearty acclaim, of a kind it did not meet with upon release. It’s dynamic, fun, and directly interactive – plus a game can often be wrapped up in an hour or so. It’s also as much of a pleasure with two as with more players – rare for a game about market manipulation. Some might advise you to ignore the fluffy, childish trappings, and embrace the hearty game beneath. I won’t. I’d advise you to embrace both.