Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to make a new digital acquaintance of Keith Matejka, a game designer working on his first game, a strategy card game set to begin its journey into crowdfunding on Kickstarter this April.
Matejka was kind enough to send me a prototype of his game, Bullfrogs, to play and review. This post is the result of me taking the game to my local hobby shop, Yancy Street Comics, playing through the mechanics with my fellow D&D’er Bill, and getting his insight, as well as the insight of fellow gamer Derrick, who watched us play the second half of the game.
Everything written here is my honest opinion as a gamer and a genuine effort to give Metajka feedback to help make his Kickstarter campaign a success.
I’ll be judging the game on three premises: theme, mechanics and rulebook.
We’ll start with the box. The box is relatively small but big enough to hold the cards and the little wooden tokens that represent frogs and bullfrogs. If the box size stays the same, it’ll easily hold the froggy meeples that are a stretch goal upgrade for the game.
The cover features the art of John Ariosa, known for his work on Mice & Mystics, and depicts two bullfrogs decked out in warrior garb with weapons at the ready. My first thought is “There is some sort of battle taking place in this game.” The art grabs me and it’s family-friendly and fun without being too “cartoony.”
My only issue with the box is that the name doesn’t really tell me what type of game this is. “Bullfrogs” is boldly-emblazoned across the box and preceeded by a tagline of sorts “A game by Keith Matejka.” If it said “A strategy card game by Keith Matejka,” I’d have a better understanding of what kind of game this is without having to turn the box over to read about it. This is important because it’ll be front-faced on a hobby shop shelf so it needs to inform me at first glance. Matejka’s name by itself won’t draw a potential buyer because he’s not well-known in the industry. A name alone really only works if you’re Steve Jackson or otherwise well-established. The back of the box doesn’t yet have any info but this is just a prototype so I’m sure the finished product with describe it better.
Otherwise, I love the idea of battling bullfrogs. It’s cute, it works with the fantasy theme and I can’t think of any similar card game that uses warrior frogs. The lily pads on the cards work well with the theme.
I won’t go into every detail because you can download the rulebook and a print-and-play version of the game for yourself but here’s a general idea of how the game is played:
Set up begins with five cards, a center log card and four lily pad cards that form a cross and the basis for adding additional lily pad cards from your hand. There are 10 lily pads each, in four different colors, for 2-4 players, as well as 14 frogs and 2 bullfrog cylinders in the corresponding color for each player. Each player also has a “cheat sheet” card that explains the steps one can take during their turn.
The sequence of play: 1. Play a lily pad card 2. Take actions (playing your frogs or sabotaging opposing players’ frogs) 3. Scoring lily pads 4. Draw a lily pad from your assigned color’s draw pile.
You only score lily pads when a lily pad sinks, which is caused by too many frogs sitting on it. The number of actions you can take each turn is determined by the lily pad card you play, which specifies how many action points you get. Each lily pad can contain a certain number of frogs, determined by the number of circles depicted on the card. When a lily pad sinks, it gets scored and then up to four frogs can be jumped to adjacent lily pads, which in-turn can cause a ripple effect of other lily pads filling up, sinking, and needing scored. When you place a frog or bullfrog on a lily pad, you really have to look at the adjacent lily pads to see where frogs will jump to if the lily pad sinks because you might be letting an opponent win.
During scoring, bullfrogs count for 2 points, which can break a tie on a lily pad with only four circles. Other than that, Bill and I struggled to see the real value in the bullfrog. If it’s not able to be jumped from a sinking lily pad to an adjacent one, it’s removed from the game, unlike the frogs, which just go back to the player to be used again. There’s not a significant amount of risk and reward associated with the bullfrog to really inspire using it until maybe the last couple moves when you’re scrambling for extra points. Otherwise you risk losing it in the beginning.
When Derrick wandered up on our table, at first glance the game reminded him of card version of tic-tac-toe or Connect Four. He saw the box on the table and liked the art but didn’t realize it was the same game we were playing based on our play-through. None of us really felt the “battle” or “combat” in the game-play that the box promised.
Bill and Derrick didn’t appear as fond of the theme as I did. Derrick said if he saw it on a shelf with just the name “Bullsfrogs,” he’d walk right by it. Bill recommended adding more depth to the mechanics that really show off what the box art conveys- warrior frogs in battle gear and carrying weapons. Sinking lily pads didn’t convey the war. We all felt that the theme as an afterthought that wasn’t conveyed well in the mechanics, at least not the battle aspect.
There’s definite strategy in deciding where to place your allotted number of frogs at the start of each turn because if doing so fills a lily pad, the frogs must jump to another. This can win you additional battles but it could also cause your opponent(s) to win the card frogs have jumped to.
A note on scoring:
Frogs can’t be deployed to the center log but can jump there off a sinking lily pad or if they’re put there by a sabotage action. That would be fine if it wasn’t scored after the game is over. The player with the most combat points, determined by number of frogs and bullfrogs, on the log card gets three additional victory points at end game, which gives them more points toward winning. That’d be fine except for the sabotage aspect. It’s not really a “sabotage” of another player’s frog if jumping them to the log card can win them extra points at the end of the game. We recommend any frogs landing here or being sabotaged here not counting in end game scoring.
Rulebooks are notoriously not well-written for many, many games. It can be difficult to convey to a new player what the game designer has played through in his/her head and with prototypes thousands of times. But the rulebook for Bullfrogs is very well designed, especially for a prototype game. The rules are, for the most part, clear and concise and you’re given examples with illustrations of different plays. The lay-out is clean and simple and uses different fonts and font sizes, as well as numbers and bullet points, to lead a player through the different sequences.
Our only quip was with the introduction.
Weapons clash, water splashes and the booming battle cries of armored bullfrogs ring out across the moonlit swamp. Amphibian armies leap from lily pad to lily pad in their desperate struggle to win control of the pond.
So far, so good. We like the visual that’s being painted for us.
Suddenly, a shout of triumph rises up. Enough warriors have finally entered battle on a lily pad to dominate the fight and assure victory for their side. Overloaded, the lily pad sinks into the swamp, earning points for the commander with the most frogs on the lily pad.
This is where the fourth wall is broken. We’ve moved from being told a story to being told game mechanics. If these are real frogs battling, why would they be earning “points?” They’d be killing one another, pushing other frogs into the water and scaring them off, something. War’s not won with points. We get that it’s a family-friendly game but here you’ve lost anyone that’s not a child. You’re setting the mood here, not starting to explain game rules. I’d recommend sticking to pure storytelling in the introduction.
Frogs scatter from the sinking lily pad to the surrounding ones, coming to aid their allies or sabotage their foes, their weight causing the lily pads to drift away across the cold, glittering water. The winning commander must understand the ripple effects of every move, and avoid acting to win a single battle at the cost of losing the war.
The rest of the intro works well with the first paragraph.
Overall, we all agreed that the game itself was enjoyable to play and had great potential. The game plays extremely quickly, especially with more than two players. It’s a great filler game for commercials during your favorite TV show, waiting in line for events at conventions, or killing time between tournaments at your local hobby shop.
We look forward to seeing what changes might come in the final version of the game and how it will expand based on Kickstarter stretch goals.
Special thanks to Keith Matejka, John Ariosa and Luis Francisco for taking the time to answer some questions about the game and to Matejka for sending the prototype. Other than receiving the game for review, Dames & Dice was not paid to write this.