How did they ever make a board game about fishing? It’s a terrible fit. Fishing is random and fickle and sometimes you spend an entire day doing it and have literally no success.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy fishing. I have many fond memories going out on the boat with my grandparents, trolling for rainbow trout. Grandpa steered the boat, grandma baited the hooks and ensured that the maximum number of lines legally allowed were in the water at all times. I mostly ate sandwiches and waited for the action to happen. Sometimes the fish were biting and we’d return with fifteen. Other times we were skunked.
But how do you port this experience to cardboard? If you’re Brian Suhre, designer of Coldwater Crown, you don’t. Not really. Micro-thematic details are liberally included where possible, but nothing about what you actually do in Coldwater Crown actually feels like fishing.
The core mechanism involves trying to remove gems (err…”bait”) from your quadrisected personal board as efficiently as possible. Every time you clear a space you catch a fish, with the particular fish you catch determined by which quadrant you cleared and which color token was the last to go.
I suppose, if you really wanted to, you could try to explain this by suggesting that the bait tokens represent time and effort. Catching a fish is inevitable, but the most skilled people are able to quicken the pace. But even if I grant this argument (which has many holes), we’re left with the fact that I’m never thinking about this while I’m playing. Indeed, the more involved I get in a game of Coldwater Crown the less I think about fishing. It’s only when I let my attention drift from trying to sequence actions efficiently that I remember all of the fishing stuff.
This sense of disjointedness creeps into every aspect of the game. The worker placement system, free-flowing and unconcerned with notions of “rounds” or “clean-up” (see also: The Gallerist), creates fun little tactical puzzles on occasion. No space can be truly blocked, as you both place a worker and remove one each turn, activating the location in both scenarios, but you can leave the wrong worker on a space.
See, the workers in Coldwater Crown are dual-sided. If you place a normal, boring “1” disc on a given color you’re allowed to take up to one token of that color from each quadrant. However, with an ubermensch “2” you can remove all tokens of that color from your board. Frequently this does not matter, but when it does it’ll drive you batty. Unfortunately the situations where you can deliberately make such blocking maneuvers are few and far between. Usually, even if you’re trying to be antagonistic, the best you can do is create a mild inconvenience.
It’s a shame, too, because a tighter, meaner Coldwater Crown could at least approach the thrills of battling a fish hooked on the line. Instead we get a smattering of halfhearted mechanisms of dubious purpose, like the “master angler” cards, which only seem to exist because someone really wanted a secondary way to score points, or the “tag” bonuses, which are literally just a couple of victory points thrown out at complete random.
Ultimately Coldwater Crown is too gentle; too idyllic. The art from Ryan Coleman and Beth Sobel, though handsome, literally illustrates the problem. It presents an image of fishing that does not exist–all sunshine and vibrant blues and perfect ichthyic specimens. Fishing, at its best, does house those elements, but it also has blood and viscera. I’ve been fishing at the kind of stream you see in Coldwater Crown. I beat a fish to death against a rock there before gutting it and cooking it.
It might be safe to say that Coldwater Crown better emulates the parts of fishing where you’re not catching anything; those periods of quiet contemplation. It’s certainly a relaxing game with the lowest of stakes. The scores in all of my games have been suspiciously close. Is it enough for a board game to be mildly clever?