Off the Shelf #1: Morels

When I first started this blog, I wanted to talk about new stuff all the time. The hotness, as it were. I think I’m coming to the point in my gaming hobby evolution that I would rather think about stuff I already have. So, I’m starting this Off the Shelf series. Each post will be about a random game from my own collection, where I’ll pull it off the shelf and kind of re-evaluate it critically. This might mean that I’m going to talk about games I’ve talked about in the past, but it will probably have been so long ago at this point that who cares. I have quite a few games in my collection, so this particular project will probably take a while. Also, to be clear, I’ll still talk about new stuff from time to time. But it won’t be with nearly the intensity that it has been in the past.

OK, let’s get started with the first game off the shelf:

image by BGG user bpovis

Morels is a two-player card game designed by Brent Povis and originally published by his company Two Lanterns Games. As of yet, Two Lanterns has only published two games (Morels and Agility), as well as one expansion for Morels (Foray, which takes the game up to 3-4 players as well as adding other stuff). Morels has been published in other languages, though those versions are typically called Fungi.

I first demoed Morels when I went to Gen Con in 2012. One of the things I most remember about that demo was looking over and seeing Rodney Smith of Watch It Played also demoing the game. I got it for Christmas a couple of years later, and played it quite a few times. I even reviewed it in 2015. But, according to my stats, I haven’t played since 2015. I don’t think that’s true, there may have been a time or two that I just forgot to log, but I’m sure I’ve played it since then – I can visualize playing it in the house I moved into in 2017.

Morels is a game that simulates a walk through the woods, foraging mushrooms to take home and cook. At the start of the game, you deal out eight cards (called Day cards) into a line. In some updated rules, it was changed to placing them in a circle. In either case, you need to indicate where the line is starting. Each player gets a starting hand of three cards.

On your turn, you have several options. You can choose one of the first two cards from the line to put into your hand. If you’d like to take something from farther down the line, you’ll have to use walking sticks, which can be obtained by selling two or more identical mushrooms from your hand (that’s another action option). You can take all cards from the Decay (more on that in a moment) as long as you don’t exceed your hand limit. You can play a pan card from your hand, which is necessary for cooking. And you can take three or more mushrooms (plus butter and/or cider) to cook them on a pan, which is how you’ll score points at the end of the game.

At the end of your action, you’ll take the card that is closest to the start of the path and put it an area to the side known as the Decay. If this area ever has four cards in it when you try to add a new card, discard all of the old cards before adding the new. You’ll then shift all the cards forward and add to the end until there are eight cards. Or, in the case of the circle setup, you just shift the starting point of the path and fill in the gaps with new cards.

When the last card has been taken, the game is immediately over. You add up points from your cooked mushrooms to determine the winner.

A game of Morels with the circular setup

Let’s start with the theme. I know that people like mushrooms. I know this because I’m constantly having to pick them out of dishes I get served. Personally, I can’t imagine why someone would pick up some old fungus growing off a rotten tree and pop it in their mouths. At the same time, I also know that I have zero experience with mushrooms outside of those that you find in the grocery store. So, maybe I haven’t given them enough of a chance. This game does succeed in making to process of foraging mushrooms in real life almost interesting to me.

Moving on now to gameplay, this game is really very fast. It’s a two-player game, so there’s not a lot of downtime. Because at least one card is always leaving the path, and often two cards are leaving, you cycle through the 84-card deck pretty quickly. The decay fills up fast, and if you don’t take it when you need it, it might be gone before you get a chance. This is one of the objections to the original rules, where you are putting cards in a line and are constantly needing to shift them to add more to the end. The variant circular setup takes away the need to shift cards around all the time, but takes away a bit from the feeling of walking down a forest path. So, to each their own on that.

There are two things you can do with mushrooms you collect. One is to turn in two or more to gain walking sticks. Normally, you can only take the first or second card on the path. Each walking stick you spend allows you to go deeper and get something that you maybe don’t want your opponent to take, or get something you want instead of something you don’t. Walking sticks are otherwise worthless (no points), so these are usually fairly sparingly taken. Each type of mushroom gives you a certain number of walking sticks.

The other thing you can do is to cook three or more mushrooms. To do this, you need a pan. Each player gets one of these at the start of the game, and once you have cooked your mushrooms in a pan, it becomes worthless and can never be used again. And so you must hunt for other pans that for some reason have been left on the forest path. Presumably, they have been discarded by other mushroom foragers who used them once to cook their mushrooms, then discarded them. Fortunately, they seem to have one more use in them.

I kid. It’s kind of a thematic plot hole in this game, as is the butter, cider, and baskets that you find randomly along the forest path. It doesn’t ruin the experience for me, I just think it’s funny.

To continue, you cook at least three mushrooms, which will score you the listed points per mushroom. You can add butter to sets of at least four, and cider to sets of at least five to increase their score. Some mushrooms are more rare than others – there are ten Honey Fungus mushrooms that get you one point each, while the super rare Morels (only three in the game) get you six points each. Obviously, you can’t add butter or cider to the Morel set because you can’t get a big enough set, but that’s still eighteen points, the best you can get from any mushroom set. And, hence the name of the game, I suppose.

Something else you’ll find is baskets. When you pick up a basket, you play it immediately and it increases your hand size by two. This can be huge, especially if you’re trying to hoard mushrooms. Your hand fills up pretty quickly, and it’s amazing how inadequate an eight-card hand limit can seem.

The final type of card you’ll find on the forest path is a night card. Taking one of these allows you to draw a card from the night deck, which will give you a random mushroom. The deck has eight cards – one mushroom of each type, but not Morels or the Destroying Angel. These mushrooms are all tinted blue, because they were found at night, and count as two mushrooms each. So, you could sell one or cook it in a group of two instead of three. Or you could just increase bigger sets. They’re very helpful.

It’s probably time to talk about the Destroying Angel. You know, I’m sure, that not all mushrooms are safe to eat. The Destroying Angel is one of the worst. If it doesn’t kill you, it will cause incredible misery – cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, all the pleasant stuff that just makes you want to go out and eat mushrooms. In the game, it won’t kill you, but it will cause you to have to reduce your hand size to four, plus two per basket you have. Its effects last for as many turns as you have cooked mushroom sets. Personally, I’d just recommend avoiding them at all costs.

The last part of this game I want to explore is the decay. Thematically, this is the best part of the game. Mushrooms don’t have a very long shelf life in the wild. Skipping one could cause it to be gone when you return. And so, this decay mechanism gives you a place to collect stuff you’ve skipped, but you have to be quick because it will be gone in two turns. Or fewer, if your opponent wants something in the decay.

A set of honey fungus, complete with butter

So that’s Morels. It’s a really good game that I’m glad to have kept in my collection, and I don’t see it leaving. I would like to play it more, but time and other games get in the way. I would highly recommend that fans of set collection type games check it out, as well as people who like foraging mushrooms and people looking for a good two-player experience.

Through this Off the Shelf series, I’m going to be ranking the games as we go. It’s not going to mean much for the first few, but Morels is currently number one (this being the first post in the series). I suspect it will remain fairly high, but it won’t be number one forever.

Thanks for reading! Stay safe out there.

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