Sturgeon: the Juniper Verdict

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Sturgeon_collageSome games are intended to make a point or to demonstrate a principle. Sturgeon -- published by Minion Games -- was intended, I assume, to prove Sturgeon's law, which states that ninety percent of everything is crap.

The game consists in a deck of 60 cards and a clearly written and attractive rulesheet. The rules are incomplete, as they don't specify exactly how the Fisherman card is played, but the designer's intention was easy enough to guess. On paper, the game looked great; I was pretty eager, after having read the rules, to give Sturgeon a go. My naïve enthusiasm was dashed almost immediately.

Sturgeon is very simple in concept. Each player has a display area in front of her to which she plays cards face-up. Most of the cards in the deck represent fish: the food chain of this particular lake includes minnows, bass, and sturgeon. To play a bass from your hand, your display area must first contain two minnows (which are discarded when the bass is played). Similarly, a sturgeon card requires two bass. Big fish eats (two) little fish. The first player to have two sturgeons in her display area is declared the winner. The path to victory, then, is crystal clear:


8 minnows become

4 bass, which become

2 sturgeons


Play exactly those 14 cards in that order, and you've won. Of course, there's a twist. Working your way up the food chain is time-consuming. It's quicker (and way more fun) to steal the products of your opponents' efforts. To pull off a steal, you'll need Swim cards, and there are 12 of these in the deck. If you want to steal a fish from the player that plays after you in turn order, you play one Swim card. To steal from the player two seats away, you play two Swim cards, and so on. The deck also contains 3 Chase cards, which reverse the turn order. If the player preceding you in turn order has a fish that you want to steal, play a Chase card and that fish is only 1 Swim card away.

Your hand size will vary throughout the game -- if, for example, you play a mitt full of swims in one turn, you will have depleted your hand severely -- but it can never exceed 5 at the end of your turn. You draw a new card for free at the start of your turn, so you might begin your turn with as many as 6 cards in hand.

Sounds like a rollicking contest of screw-your-neighbor, right? I thought so too, but you're probably smarter than me, and you may already have seen the fundamental problem. Any guesses?

That's right, class. There are just 12 Swim cards in a deck of 60. That means only one in five cards is a Swim. If you start your turn with five cards in hand, then in the average case you'll have one Swim card to play with. If you'd expected, as I had, many opportunities for devious and tricky play, and lots of hilarious thievery, you'd have been disappointed. The Swim cards are the fun part, but there aren't nearly enough of them for the game to really catch fire.

Further compounding the scarcity of the Swim cards is the fact that everyone else is hoarding them, too, so your odds of drawing one could actually be lower than one-in-five. Even worse, there are a couple of cards (Weeds and School) that have the effect of making theft even more unlikely by inflating the cost, in Swim cards, of a steal.

And, in case that's not bad enough, there are two Fisherman cards in the deck. Fishermen eat only sturgeon, and nothing eats them. The only way to counter a Fisherman is – you guessed it – a Swim card. If you've already got a sturgeon in your display area, you'd be crazy not to hold a Swim card in reserve, just in case the fishermen come out. In a four-player game, that means that one third of the Swim cards might be taken out of circulation just to insure against fishermen.

Equally screwy is the number of fish cards. You'll need four times as many Minnow cards as Sturgeon cards, yet there are only 16 minnows in the deck, compared to 10 sturgeons. I assume that the rationale for the 10 Sturgeon cards was a desire for each player in a five-player game to potentially have two sturgeons, and thus be in a position to win, assuming an absolutely equal distribution. If you play with three players, though, you'll have way more sturgeons in circulation than you'll need, and the excess sturgeons are pretty much useless.

What the game needed, I think, is for every card to be both a fish card and a “special” (i.e. one of Swim, Chase, Weeds, School, or Fisherman). For example, a card could have been labeled Minnow and Swim, or Bass and Fisherman, or Sturgeon and Chase. Players could have decided at the time they played the card whether it would be used as a fish or as a special. This would have solved the scarcity problems and opened the game up a bit, tactically.

The Sturgeon box promises “Frenzied Fish-Feeding Fun” but there's not much frenzy in this lake. My mom tells me that fish is brain food, but this Sturgeon is only half-baked. Avoid.

Sturgeon is a game for 2-5 players aged 10 and up. It was designed by Russ Brown.

DISCLAIMER: the copy of Sturgeon that was play-tested by the author of this review was graciously provided free-of charge by the publisher, Minion Games.

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