As I removed the unusually thick plastic wrap from Fish Frenzy, one thought stuck in my mind: “Crash Games did it big.” Even the shrinkwrap was the highest quality I’d ever seen.
Crash Games was one of the first game companies I came across when I got into Kickstarter. I’ll never forget excitedly telling my wife about this train card game I’d just backed as we actually happened to be sitting on a train. That game, Yardmaster, turned out to have the thickest possible cards, huge wooden tokens, and a box that could probably survive a low yield nuclear strike.
The story of what subsequently befell Crash Games is probably well-chronicled elsewhere. There was a merger, a name change to Crash of Games, an un-merger, a name change back, and the founder went through some really tough personal times. The end result was massive debt and a Kickstarter campaign to fire sell inventory of their last two titles—Backyard Builders Treehouse and Fish Frenzy—in an attempt to pay the bills.
They sold a lot, but not enough to save the business.
That’s how I came to be melancholically cracking the plastic wrap on a Fish Frenzy box (I already had the original version of Backyard Builders Treehouse, a.k.a. Yardmaster Express), knowing it was the last time I’d ever open a brand new Crash Game.
Fish Frenzy is a game where three to five players are seagulls fighting to steal fish off of three to five fishing boats. Each round, fish cards are dealt out to the boats and then players claim boats. If two players try to claim the same boat, there is a fight using fish tokens. The winner of each boat gets to either keep the fish cards on that boat, or gain a certain number of fish tokens. At the end of the game, players get points based on who has the most of each type of fish card, and the winner is the player with the most points.
The idea behind Fish Frenzy is intriguing. It’s not a pedestrian game about fishing or fishmongering. It’s about what happens in between those two, it’s about externalities, about seagulls scavenging for a meal like hyenas of the sea-savanna.
The colorful, cartoonish artwork sparkles with an unabashedly jubilant joie de vivre that’s actually surprisingly hard to find in a board game. There’s a feast of depth and detail just on the box cover alone, the crisp caricatures of birds and fish subtly capturing the graven, dilated quirkiness of animal eyes, midway between Cookie Monster’s goggly ping pong balls and Quint’s monologue about lifeless doll’s eyes in Jaws.
Add to that Crash Games’ tremendous component quality and you have a seeming recipe for success.
In fact, I think the only possible gripe about the production is that the wooden player tokens don’t exactly look like seagulls. They didn’t seem to get the beaks quite right.
I annoyed everyone who came over to my house by asking them what they thought the tokens were without showing them what game they were from. Guesses included seals, geese, swans, loons, dinosaurs, Nessie the Loch Ness Monster, and shoes.
Aside from that one pointy little issue, though, Fish Frenzy is a perfect-looking game, stacked with so many bowlfuls of little wooden pieces that opening it up feels like tearing into a brand new box of sugary, rainbow-colored cereal.
Where Fish Frenzy falls flat is when you’re actually playing. It’s tough to explain because the game sounds interesting on paper. It sounds like there would be a give-and-take between needing fish tokens to fight with and needing fish cards to score points. But there isn’t. It sounds like there would be epic clashes over the best hauls of fish. But there aren’t.
It’s all undone by the fights. Basically, whoever has the most fish tokens wins. There’s perfect information and no randomness so there’s such an inevitable certainty to who’s going to win that you feel like it’s futile to even try to fight. You know exactly who’s going to come out on top before it ever happens.
I’ve thought a lot about Fish Frenzy in the months since we first played it. It seems like the idea is you’re bidding on the boats and the fish tokens are your currency. But it never really feels like that. There’s a hard limit on the number of fish tokens you can have, you start with a bunch, they’re useless at the end of the game, and points are in such short supply that taking the wrong boat can cause you to lose. So, everyone’s almost certainly willing to go all in every round. Which means there’s always an obvious pecking order, and you have a 0% chance of disrupting it.
Fish Frenzy just didn’t feel very fun.
Still, I don’t know. I’d probably play it again. Evidently some people thought it was a good game. And it did come with a pack of bonus objective and event cards that could add some new twists.
But maybe part of that is just me wanting Fish Frenzy to better than it is. I love the idea behind it and the screwy art and the wooden fish so much that I want to believe there’s a fun game underneath there, somewhere. I wanted Crash Games to go out on a higher note than this.