The last few days before Christmas (or the winter holiday of your choosing) are always hectic. There are last-minute presents to buy and cards to write (especially when you receive one from a friend or relative and realize you haven’t sent them anything this year), gifts to wrap, lights to hang, grocery lists to check off, and, if you’re spending a few days with relatives like I am, bags to pack. That’s why, when selecting the twelfth and final game for my 12 Days of Gaming, I went for something quick. In fact, one of the only common complaints about the game is that it can take as long to set up as it does to play.
Of course, the game I’m referring to is Hey, That’s My Fish!, another title from Fantasy Flight Games’ “Silver Line” of relatively inexpensive games in smaller boxes (“small” is a relative term here–we’re talking about a company that made its name producing shelf-destroying so-called “coffin boxes”). Like Lord of the Rings and many other Silver Line games, Hey, That’s My Fish! was originally a European design from a German-Lithuanian duo. First published in English, much less attractively, in 2005 by Mayfair Games, Hey, That’s My Fish! is one of the most versatile games I own. It looks like a family game, and the single-sheet rules are definitely accessible enough for even a preschooler to pick up, but like Chess, the simple ruleset hides a fishy trove of depth and potential strategy.
In Hey, That’s My Fish!, players take the roles of penguins competing for the titular yummies on a slowly cracking ice floe. Each player controls more than one penguin, with the penguin count per player shifting so that the total number of penguins in play always stays roughly the same at 8 or 9. During setup, the players randomly build an 8×8 grid from the 60 hexagonal ice floe tiles, although advanced players might experiment with distributing the tiles in different shapes. Each tile depicts a number of fish, equal to the tile’s point value at the end of the game, with 1-fish tiles being the most common and 3-fishers being the rarest. After that, players take turns placing their penguins onto the map.
Once the game begins, a player’s turn is simple: choose one of your penguins, and move it as many tiles as you want along a straight path (no corners or U-turns allowed!). Once you’ve ended your movement, you pick up the tile that your penguin started on and add it to your score pile. You can’t move through other penguins or empty spaces, though, so it might take several turns to reach that plump 3-fish tile…if your opponents don’t get it first.
What rapidly becomes apparent through play is that, since each movement removes a tile from play, each individual turn has massive ramifications. Before long, gaps begin to appear in the ice, eventually breaking the solid grid into several unique continents. You’ll often find one of your penguins “marooned” on such an island of ice, and once every penguin has a land mass all their own, you simply pick up the rest of the tiles (demonstrating that you can acquire them through valid movements) and tally up your score, ignoring any tiles that nobody can reach anymore.
I seriously love this game, and I don’t play it often enough. What makes it work so well is that it so easily accommodates players of differing skill levels or degrees of competitiveness. Kids or casual gamers can just go straight for the most valuable tiles without caring about positioning or flanking, and while hardcore gamers can puzzle out every move and attempt aggressive blocking maneuvers. They’re essentially playing two entirely separate games, but the whole time, they’re playing together, and their moves are profoundly impacting the others’ games. Fantastic.
In an earlier review, I had this to say about Hey, That’s My Fish!:
But really, Hey, That’s My Fish! is a game about greed. This isn’t like those other popular games about building roads or cities or riding on trains. It’s a game about eating way too many fish, because you’re greedy. As you squabble over your plentiful resources–really, there’s enough fish here to keep a whole colony of penguins fed through the winter–you’re inadvertently and obliviously destroying the very ground you walk on. You will get yourself trapped in a corner as the result of your own machinations–either you were too nearsighted, focusing only on the prospect of immediate reward, or you were too farsighted, ignoring the perils directly in front of you. In either case, your greed is your opponent here, at least as much as the other penguins. Once again, I’m reminded of Qix, where the prospect of a high-scoring move was the most frequent cause of my demise.
Just look at the cover art. That penguin is one fat, greedy bastard. Look at his evil little smirk. And look at the empty-handed penguin in the background, floating away on his own ice floe. Want to know how he got there? He got greedy. And being greedy is, it turns out, incredibly fun. It was fun in Hungry Hungry Hippos, and it’s fun now. It’s fun to snatch that 3-fish tile from right under your mom’s nose, it’s fun to maroon your best friend on a tiny island in turn 3, and it’s fun to fall victim to your own ambitions. The ever-changing conditions and strategic potential are what make Hey, That’s My Fish! satisfying, but this focus on unabashed greed is what makes the game fun, and it’s a kind of fun that everybody can get behind.
What could be more perfect for the holidays?