"Afloat, upon the surface of a smooth and silent river, slowly breathing, you observe the shifting currents [...]. There is little much to do, but let the river take you. Surrendering to its flow, slowly you realise that perhaps there is no separation between surface and sky, between your mind and the river itself and if your mind is the river and the river your mind, perhaps if you can balance the thoughts and feelings and sensations that arise, you may have some say in where you are taken" as you Float Downstream by Jeremy Dawson from Blood Moon Games Ltd.
Meditation as a Game
The game really introduces itself. It takes you on a journey through your mind. It wants you to let your thoughts flow, like a gentle river. Every card in the game has a short quote on it. The rulebook tells you to read it before flipping it over and revealing the next section. The longer you continue on your journey, the more thoughts you encounter and the more opportunity you have to rid yourself of bad ones. When you eventually reach the end, the river flows into a calm lake and hopefully, your mind is now clear.
It is wonderful that the rulebook for Float Downstream immediately tells you to "breathe in slowly ... and exhale" and repeats this reminder at various stages: breathe in ... and breathe out. The whole game is about mindfulness. Every mechanism is linked back to it. Every action you take is about balancing your thoughts. Your ultimate reward will be to gain "enlightenment", but you never lose in this game. You can stay "adrift" and just try again.
The artwork of Float Downstream really tries to help you reach a meditative state. It's quite abstract and feels ethereal. I really want to know who is responsible for it all. I wonder what other games they may have illustrated. It fits perfectly the theme of this game.
Playing the game is also all about making you focus on the here and now. It wants you to stay in the moment and be conscious of your breathing and your thoughts. You traverse one of the three streams of the thought river and you can change between them at junction points. However, you're never looking further ahead. You're always playing on a single river card, as you're trying to focus your mind.
Abstract Resource Management
The game rules are really easy to pick up. The rulebook gets you set up and then walks you through a few turns. You plunge right in. Before you know it, you're taking turns on your own and make decisions about whether to change streams or stay on course. On your journey, you either pick up or have to pay back thought form counters. They come in five different colours and payment is either in the correct colour or by using two tokens with different colours. So you do have to look at what tokens you have and what the current river card wants from you.
Float Downstream's mechanisms stay on theme and you get penalized if you are unable to pay a thought form. You also get penalized if you have too many tokens of the same colour. On both occasions, you get a black counter representing a bad thought. Of course, if you have a balanced mind, a complete set of five tokens, one of each of the colours, you can discard them to rid yourself of a bad thought. If you are doing really well and have no thought tokens at all, your empty mind gives you a moment of clarity and you get a white token, which represents bonus points.
As you reach the end of one river card, having picked up or paid with thought tokens, you read the quote on the next card from the deck, before taking the thought tokens shown on it and flipping it over and continuing your journey. The only decision you make at this stage is whether to flip the card left to right or top to bottom. You continue to stay in the moment, with your mind focussed on the here and now.
Float Downstream Solo
Of course, you don't have to treat this as a meditative experience. The game is basically an abstract resource management game with very little strategy involved. The deck of cards is shuffled every time you play. You're at the mercy of the gods of fortune when it comes to being able to have the right resources to hand for the next card. The only decisions you make are which way to flip each card, if and when to change streams and whether to pay thought form tokens to get rid of black counters. It's really quite simple and doesn't require much thought.
Of course, that's exactly what Float Downstream is all about. If it required you to make tough decisions all the time, you would never be able to switch off. As it is, the game creates a rather addictive solo experience. When you get to the end and count up the river cards you have traversed, subtract bad thoughts and add good thoughts to arrive at your total points, you want to play again straight away and beat your own score.
I'm not much of a solo player myself, but even I enjoyed playing Float Downstream a lot. I don't know what's actually in the Kickstarter. I was given a PnP version of the game and had to find my own thought form counters and other tokens. However, even as a PnP it works really well. You can print out the counters and cut them out, but I decided to use meeples from Carcassonne, replacing the orange counters with pink and using grey instead of white.
If you're after a game that gives you a little bit of distraction and helps you relax and clear your mind, Float Downstream is definitely worth checking out.