What is this game about?
Tournament Fishing: The Deckbuilding Game is just what it says on the tin: a deck building game about tournament fishing. It is designed by Greg Mahler, and can be acquired on The Game Crafter. Each player gets a starting deck of cards, which includes lures, cast cards, and hooks. You also set up a lake, using stacks of cards that might be fish... or might be events, some of which are positive, and some of which are definitely not.
This is a light game with easy setup, but there are several elements of play that make it interesting. The first is hand management—if you don't have a lure, you can't even cast to look for fish in the lake. You also need to make sure that you're acquiring the more powerful cards you'll need to catch tough fish. On top of that, each fish likes a different type of lure, so you might find yourself fishing with the wrong bait! The cards are also multi-use, so you need to think about the way you are choosing to deploy your hand every turn. While cards can be used for their value when meeting the threshold to reel in a fish, you'll also need cards in your hand so you can "fight" the fish and complete the catch. Each fish will require you to draw a certain number of fight cards, and you must play a card from your hand that matches the symbol on the fight card if you want to succeed. Finally, cards can be used as money during your buy phase. If you want to take a trip to the bait shop and pick up a fancy lure or hook, you'll need to hold on to enough cards in your hand to make the purchase.
Unlike most deck builders, Tournament Fishing also requires you to keep cards in your hand until you use them in one way or another—you don't automatically discard your hand at the end of a turn, and you can't deliberately overspend in order to get rid of a card. This mechanical difference forces you to adjust your strategy in some interesting ways as you play.
There are also some memory elements to Tournament Fishing that make it more fun to try to plan ahead. Some card effects allow you to "scan" various spots on the lake, which can help you find out whether there is an event you don't want—or a fish you do—when you cast your line on future turns. There are some events that end your casting phase or even cause you to lose lures, so it's good to check when you can, although you won't always be able to. You should always keep track of the time, too—each round of the game represents an hour of your day spent on the lake.
Overall, Tournament Fishing really does replicate going fishing in some interesting ways—sometimes you just cast your line and see what happens, other times you make a plan and go in ready to land and big one, and the fish sometimes wins no matter what you do.
How does it play solo?
Tournament Fishing now has two solo variants, both of which are fun. In both, your goal is to score more points than your automated rival. In the first variant, you draw AI cards that determine which items you will remove from the bait shop, and which spot on the lake the AI will focus on when trying to catch a fish. In this version of the game, the AI will automatically catch six fish. The question is, how valuable will they be? In some games, the AI will catch all high-value fish and totally destroy you in the tournament. Other times, the AI is less lucky and you can gain an edge.
In the second variant, you draw fight cards for the AI, and if the AI player draws a "POP!" card, then it loses the fish. This keeps AI upkeep low, while still giving you a bit more realistic experience, since you are vulnerable to "POP!" cards, too. In the same vein, you can also choose to play in such a way that the AI is vulnerable to negative events, again giving you a chance to get ahead!
In either solo variant, the memory elements of the game keep the AI turn interesting for the player. While some cards straight-up tell you where the AI will fish, there are others that allow you to choose... meaning that if you've been scanning the lake and have a good memory, you can send the AI to less desirable areas and keep the best fishing spots for yourself.
There is a lot to like about Tournament Fishing. It's a light, enjoyable deck builder that captures its theme very well. It really does feel like you're experiencing the vagaries of a day out on the lake—did you choose the right lure? The right hook? The right casting techniques? And even if you did, will a feisty fish make off with your bait? Tournament Fishing also gives you a good range of decisions to make while remaining a relaxing experience. You need to choose which cards you'll hang onto for what purposes, as well as which cards you'll buy from the bait shop to add to your deck and why. Overall it works very nicely.
That said, there are sometimes clunky turns where useful combinations of cards don't come up. This is, after all, a deck builder—and one in which there is no mechanism for culling, other than events in which a fish makes off with something you actually want! While the random elements like "POP!" cards don't bother me much—a fish making off with your expensive lure is a reality of going fishing—it can be a bit challenging to streamline your deck, and there's nothing more frustrating than a dead turn.
Also, while the rulebook is clear and the game has clear symbology, the actual text in the rulebook is tiny and difficult to read. Some of the graphic design choices are tough on the eyes. None of that detracts from the gameplay, which is solid. But get out your reading glasses!
I also want to draw attention to the fact that Tournament Fishing is a true labor of love. Greg Mahler has clearly put a piece of his soul into this game, designing and redesigning it himself without a big-name publisher. He has released updates, expansions, and even a playmat. He's active on BGG, responsive to feedback, and is constantly tweaking this game to improve it. (The variants that make the solo AI more realistic were player suggestions that he tested and incorporated.) The result is a game that, in terms of gameplay, holds its own among traditionally-published games, as well as many hot Kickstarter titles. I would never have known about it if I hadn't seen a message from Michael Kelley of One Stop Co-Op Shop, and I'm really glad that I've gotten to play it. Tournament Fishing has reminded me that our community has incredible richness and depth beyond the "new hotness."
Do I recommend it?
Tournament Fishing is not my favorite deck builder, but I definitely like it. If you enjoy the fishing theme and you're looking for a light, quick deck buliding experience, then Tournament Fishing may be a great match for you.
Overall Rating: 3.5 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it!
3 stars — I like it!
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.