Friedemann Friese’s own account of the origin of his river-rapid racing game Fast Flowing Forest Fellers does not exactly speak of the product of a moment of revelation. ‘I had the idea of making a race game,’ he writes, ‘with totally different boards and a simple mechanic.’ No individual part of that idea is especially novel, and nor is the combination. Formula Dé and Roborally, the most celebrated of the many predecessors of Fast Flowing Forest Fellers, are both mechanically simple racing games, and are each playable over multiple courses (Formula Dé in particular boasts a phenomenal amount of extra tracks available as expansions). Each game predates Fast Flowing Forest Fellers by many years (Fast Flowing Forest Fellers was released in 2008, while Formula Dé came out in 1991 and Roborally in 1994).
However, Fast Flowing Forest Fellers improves upon its predecessors in a respect which is easy either to overlook or to under-appreciate: it is much quicker to play. Where Roborally and Formula Dé can each run to well over an hour, even a five-player game of Fast Flowing Forest Fellers should seldom take more than half that time. Given the tactical and strategic simplicity of each of these three games, the brevity of Fast Flowing Forest Fellers is a very important element in its favour; its duration is in better balance with its density.
This is not to say that there is no capacity for clever play in Fast Flowing Forest Fellers. There is. As in Roborally, a good number of its courses constitute tricksy spatial puzzles: criss-crossed by currents, and littered with logs, getting to the finish fastest is seldom a matter of blitzing straight downriver. Sometimes moving less far, or moving sideways, might be the best option, if it minimizes the chance of being bashed around by logs and other players.
In the game, each player is trying to guide either two or three lumberjacks (depending on the number of players) to the end of the course. The first player who manages to steer all of his or her figures to the end of the course wins. A player’s movement options on any given turn are, however, limited by a personal deck of cards. Each turn a player selects one card from a hand of three, this determining which figure moves, and how far it can move (a card might allow movement one, two, three, four, or five spaces). Unlike in Roborally, these movement cards do not determine direction. Whichever card is selected, a figure is allowed to move upriver, downriver, or sideways, and could even double back on itself. In order to negotiate logs, and other player’s figures, this range of movement options is often valuable.
Logs appear in vast quantities on some of the game’s boards and are sparse on others, but whether present in large number or not, they tend to create choke points in whatever location they feature. Dealing with them and the problems they create is another of the neat innovations offered by Fast Flowing Forest Fellers. They let the game feel cluttered and anarchic, as it should, even with a lower number of players.
The logs can be pushed, as can other players figures, though only in the direction a figure is travelling (i.e. they cannot be swept aside). This means that removing obstructions tends to mean spending valuable movement points getting to the side of a log. In this lies a neat way to keep players close to one another. Any figure well ahead of the others is likely to lose a good deal of its advantage in clearing logs (which will then pose less trouble to players behind).
A player who has drawn many of his or her best cards early might feel irked by having to do this work, but it is important for the game as an experience that players should be close to one another: after all, the primary pleasure in Fast Flowing Forest Fellers is not in pushing around dead trees, but in pushing around other players. Watching a log thwart a rival has nothing on the joy of getting in his or her way yourself.
Currents offer the most potential for mischief. Any figure or log which ends a turn on a current space will be carried in a given direction. Often, this means a trip back upriver. Many boards are designed to allow chain reactions, where a series of figures can push one another onto consecutive current spaces. Thus, one need not always pick a particular friend to pick on: on occasion, one is offered that special pleasure of screwing over all of one’s friends at once. It is, need I say it, quite delightful when this works out. The design of the game boards (there are six, all double-sided, two of which are chosen each game to form the course) is such that messing with multiple rivals is frequently possible.
Spotting this kind of opportunity to interfere with others can sometimes take a little thought: comparing the possible effect of one series of shunts to another does take a certain amount of imaginative effort. But that’s to the benefit of the game, in my view. Sometimes the way one might intervene with other players is entirely obvious at first glance, but sometimes not. Perhaps once or twice a game you’ll end your turn celebrating your own cunning, having seen a chance for awkwardness which escaped everyone else’s attention. In half an hour, I need a game to give me some potential to feel a sense of achievement.
In temperance, however, it should be said that in most cases it is possible for players to irk one another, but not to be downright infuriating. A couple of boards have very long currents running upriver, but in most cases a nudge might only set a player back two or three spaces. Also, any player aiming to win will often find himself or herself pushing opponents downriver: because the river gets crowded, it’s often necessary to advance another player in order to improve your own position. To win, it stands to reason you can’t spend all your time knocking everyone else sideways.
That interaction with other players comes in the form of alternating help and hindrance makes Fast Flowing Forest Fellers a fair old hoot to play. There will be begging, there will be gloating, there will be cackling. There will be times where you are presented with straight choices, where you must help one or another player, or must hurt one or another. Other racing games might also spawn such situations during the course of a game, particularly those racing games of the Roborally ilk, but Fast Flowing Forest Fellers maintains this kind of interaction throughout its length in a way its predecessors typically do not. It might not be that much is new, but it represents a beautifully engineered chaos.