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Wingspan designer’s The Fox Experiment helps evolve nature-themed board games

Bringing the fun back to [checks notes]... Soviet Siberia!

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A selection of colorful cards, including several Soviet soldiers, in Hargrave’s The Fox Experiment. Photo: Pandasaurus Games

With the creation of Wingspan, the delightful ornithology-themed board game released in 2019, designer Elizabeth Hargrave helped give birth to the modern-day genre of nature-themed board games. Its success, buoyed by dozens of industry awards and all manner of mainstream media attention, has opened the door to dozens of similar games, from Meadow to Forest Shuffle. Now the acclaimed designer has leveraged that creative capital to delve ever deeper down a scientific rabbit hole. How deep? Well, her latest game is focused on an obscure Soviet effort to domesticate wild foxes… and it’s not half bad.

The Fox Experiment is based on a controversial project funded by the Soviet Union in 1958, with scientists using selective breeding in the hopes of transforming a wild species into a domesticated partner. Hargrave’s design, however, is not at all concerned with the political, historical, and moral ramifications of that project. Instead, it focuses on tackling the technical matter at hand — the job of selectively breeding the friendliest foxes. Over multiple generations, players draft male and female foxes and then roll handfuls of dice based on their observable traits. These results are then filtered through their offspring, which in turn display a variety of desirable and undesirable traits of their own. These pups are then selectively bred to create the next litter of cubs, creating a core loop of play that is both satisfying and evocative of the experiment being modeled.

A card listing two foxes, Jasmine and Vasily, occupies a sideboard in The Fox Experiment. A dry erase marker is also shown. Photo: Pandasaurus Games

The system is smart and straightforward. Dice are colored and represent various desired traits, such as fluffy tails and floppy ears. These map to the qualities seen in the Russian genetic experiment. As foxes become more friendly to humans over subsequent generations, they develop the qualities you are attempting to foster. Connecting this selective breeding to rolling large pools of dice is a splendid method of resolution. It allows for virtually no downtime as everyone performs their trait rolling simultaneously.

One of the more interesting aspects of the game is the influence of the up-and-coming roll-and-write genre on this design. These games typically feature the rolling of dice or flipping of cards, followed by players marking sections of a personal board — think Yahtzee with more modern themes and mechanics. This category, much like nature-themed games, has seen significant growth in the past several years. The Fox Experiment utilizes roll-and-write concepts by having players note their generated traits with a dry erase marker and then name their newly bred cub. Ticking off boxes as a result of a massively successful roll is a simple joy, but the real element of wonder here is in the naming. It opens the game up by allowing players to influence the tone of play and inject personalization. In one play, I had a long line of foxes named various forms of Jeff, and in another, there was a large litter named after members of GWAR. There is also a subtle emotional attachment developed through the process of naming your pups, and it can inject sadness or pride seeing another player scoop one of your bred foxes up in the next generation to serve as their parent for the round.

The Fox Experiment is a noteworthy title for pushing the broader hobby toward the inclusion of more sophisticated scientific themes. It’s a relatively straightforward game roughly on par with Wingspan in complexity, but it shows a far more insightful integration of its subject matter. Regardless of accomplishment, it doesn’t take much effort to goad players into rolling mounds of dice while staring at cute foxes. But the subject matter, which implies difficult topics such as captivity and forced breeding, might not sit well with everyone.

The Fox Experiment will be available at retail on Dec. 8 for $59.95. The game was reviewed using a pre-release copy provided by Pandasaurus Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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