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Sea Salt & Paper could be the next pocket-sized card game go-to after Love Letter - Essen Spiel 2022 preview

Small deck energy.

Among the hundreds of big releases at this year’s Essen Spiel board game fair in Germany was nestled a single deck of cards. But in that deck of cards sat one of the year’s most interesting and attractive games - one you shouldn’t miss.

Sea Salt & Paper’s minimalist size might have left it in the physical shadow of the table-filling boards and miniatures of many of its neighbours, but its art style quickly marked it out as something different from the norm.

The game’s pocket-sized box - little bigger than a standard deck of playing cards - and the 58 cards inside are decorated with photographs of incredible origami creations.

The real-life origami models made for Sea Salt & Paper were visible at this year's Essen Spiel convention.

Each papercraft creation is themed around the sea - hence the name - from crabs and mermaids to lighthouses and ships, and was made for real by origami masters Lucien Derainne and Pierre-Yves Gallard before being snapped for the game. (Japanese origami legend Tomoko Fuse’s stunning shell models also make an appearance.) The models were available to see in person at publisher Bombyx’s booth in Messe Essen - and I can tell you, they look just as impressive in person.

Sea Salt & Paper melds together a fairly standard game of set-collection with an intriguing risk-reward twist.

Unconventional as it may be, origami is the perfect art style for the card game. Sea Salt & Paper designers Bruno Cathala and Théo Rivière similarly manage to form a subtly complex creation out of very basic components, melding together a fairly standard game of set-collection with an intriguing risk-reward twist.

The game itself is straightforward: players draw two cards from the top of the deck, before choosing one to keep and one to add to either of two discard piles on the table. They can alternatively choose to pick up the top card of either discard in place of drawing fresh cards.

Players score points for sets of cards, but can bet they have the highest score at the end of the round to potentially earn even more.

Each card scores points in different ways, most of which come down to forming some kind of matching set. For instance, pairs of crabs, boats and fish, sets of sharks and swimmers - an unfortunate but profitable pairing - and runs of shells, octopuses, penguins and sailors that score depending on how many you have in the set. (In a slightly confusing visual disparity, the number of origami models on a card doesn’t match its value.) Other cards add bonus modifiers for specific types of cards - lighthouses for boats, captains for sailors and so on.

The game's compact size, sumptuous visuals and smart twist on set-collecting classics packs this tiny box with far more potency than you might expect.

So far, so card game. Sea Salt & Paper is far from the first card game to ask players to collect sets for points. Where it sets itself apart, however, is at the end of each round.

When one player has amassed seven or more points, they can choose to end the round. They don’t have to, mind - they can keep going as long as they like. Choosing to end the round comes with the potential of a major points windfall, if you’re willing to get risky.

Some more of the board game highlights from this year's Essen SpielWatch on YouTube

Calling an end to the round goes one of two ways. The player says “stop” and everybody counts the points on their cards. Everybody benefits, so there’s not a major incentive to do so - other than to stop another player going for a “last chance” call.

Calling “last chance” triggers Sea Salt & Paper’s masterstroke, a risk-reward bet that you have more points than anyone else around the table. All the other players get one extra to try and best your score, with your hand of cards revealed. Pull it off, and you score bonus points for each card in your biggest set of matching colours. If someone out-scores you, though, you sacrifice the normal value of your cards and only score the relatively paltry colour bonus - while everyone else gets to score as usual. (Side note: Sea Salt & Paper includes ColorADD’s colour alphabet, using symbols on each card to denote their colour for colourblind players.)

Duo cards can be revealed to your opponents to use their powers, ranging from stealing cards to drawing extra cards.

It’s an exciting interactive twist that encourages going for broke, trying to push beyond the minimum score needed to end a round in pursuit of a game-winning bounty. It also makes for a fun shift to a temporary ‘one-versus-all’ setup, as the rest of the table collectively tries to take you down. Hubris is guaranteed.

Adding to the sharp competitive gameplay is the option to reveal ‘duo’ cards on your turn, which activate specific effects at the cost of being revealed to your opponents. The abilities allow you to steal cards from rivals, draw extra cards and even take another turn, so they are powerful enough to be tempting - and their points remain, albeit now revealed to your opponents as they secretly work out how their own score compares based on the fragment of information they have.

Some cards add additional ways to score - and in the case of the mermaids, you instantly win if you play all four.

Sea Salt & Paper’s gameplay isn’t hugely groundbreaking, but the combination of its compact size, sumptuous visuals and smart twist on set-collecting classics packs this tiny box with far more potency than you might expect. It easily deserves a place alongside the likes of Love Letter, Cockroach Poker and 6 nimmt as a small, affordable game to take with you and break out to fill 15 minutes here or there.

Discovering it at Essen Spiel 2022 felt like spotting a glinting treasure washed up along the beach - one you can’t help but show off to others.

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