As I was walking through the 2022 Gen Con convention hall, a modest little table caught my eye, set up for French publisher Bombyx. A couple of very nice Frenchman were sitting there with a very small box and a fresh steaming batch of croissants (ok, maybe they didn’t have croissants). This tiny box had the words, Sea Salt & Paper, Bruno Cathala, and Théo Rivière printed on it, along with some of the most undeniably adorable artwork I’d seen all day, so I said “bonjour” and I sat down for a quick teach. I’m glad I did, because I found a simple new pocket-sized card game I take with me when I travel and plays well for 2-4 people in about 30 minutes. Did I mention it has the best art I’ve seen in ages?
Sea Salt & Paper is a relatively simple hand management/set collection game on… ahem, paper. The deck is populated by a variety of maritime-oriented iconography: fish, squids, shells, boats, sharks, crabs, swimmers, sailors, etc. Each card is also one of eleven different colors. The game consists of 3 primary point-scoring mechanisms: playing unique matching pairs that each provide an additional bonus action, collecting sets, and potentially boosting card values with multipliers. The deck also contains four powerful Mermaid cards which allow you to score points equal to the number of cards in your most copious color.
Each round begins with no cards in the players’ hands, the deck in the center of the table, and two discard piles. A player may draw two cards from the deck, select one, and discard the other to one of the two piles. Alternatively, the player may simply take one of the face-up cards off the top of one of the piles. After that, the player may choose to play a matched pair in front of them into their tableau. These pairs each give the player one point visible to other players (most of their point total is kept secret), and also gives them a one-time free ability. After they’ve done this, they may play another matched pair if they have one, end their turn, or, if they’ve got seven or more points, attempt to end the round in one of two ways.
Before we get to that, a quick note on the other cards. There are four different sets a player may also collect: shells, octopi, penguins, and sailors. In addition to the sets, there are multipliers that increase the value of fish, boats, penguins, and sailors. Finally, the illusive mermaids. In addition to scoring one point per card of the color you have the most of, if you somehow manage to grab 4 mermaids in your hand at the same time, you win the game. Not the round. The entire game. But seeing as that’s not really a viable strategy, let’s move on and talk about ending the round, because that’s the most interesting part.
When a player has seven or more points at the end of their turn, they have the option of ending the round, and doing so in one of two ways. The first way is to simply say STOP, which immediately ends the round, and everyone scores the points for the cards they have in their tableaus (one point for each pair) and what they have in their hands (the sets, the multipliers, the mermaids). Their other option is to declare LAST CHANCE, which is the far more intriguing and risky option. This gives each other player one more turn, after which scores are compared. If the player who declared LAST CHANCE has the most points, they not only score their card points, but they also get a color bonus, which is essentially like having another mermaid, scoring one additional point for each of their most copious color, while every opponent only scores the color bonus, not scoring any points for their pairs, sets, mermaids, etc. If the person who declared LAST CHANCE does not have the most points, that player only scores their color bonus, while all other players score their normal card points. This is played until a player or players crosses 40/35/30 points for 2/3/4 players, at which point the player with the most points wins.
I’m a big fan of Bruno Cathala’s work, both simple and complex. He’s responsible for some of the most broadly appealing games in the hobby over the last 20 years (Kingdomino, Sobek, 7 Wonders Duel), as well as some of the most influential (Shadows Over Camelot, Mr. Jack), and 5 Tribes remains one of my favorite mid-weight Euros ever. So needless to say, I was excited to try out this simple small box card game. The art, the size, and the design pedigree were all elements that, as a consumer, would lead to a snap purchase, and I was delighted to find that this was a really solid little game.
So many of the elements are familiar, such as the set collection, but honestly, those were by far the least interesting parts of the game for me. The thing that drew me in was the push-your-luck element of the end-of-round scoring. When to assume you’re ahead and attempt to pull off a LAST CHANCE bid versus when to simply take the points you have by declaring STOP (not to mention the will-they/won’t-they drama of predicting when your opponent might do so) is such a fun element of a seemingly straight-forward hand management game, it takes Sea Salt & Paper to an exciting and different place. And while the chances of collecting all four mermaids is incredibly unlikely, I have seen it happen across my dozen or so plays of the game, so it’s not impossible, and adds another fun wrinkle into the gameplay. Also, the game works well at all player counts, though I would say it sings at two and three players.
Let’s talk about art, folks. Few games have had art that absolutely dazzled me like Sea Salt & Paper. I’m talking, like, EVER. It’s one of the most beautiful and charming games I own, and that all comes down to the incredible photographed origami that graces each card. Someone please give Lucien Derainne & Pierre-Yves Gallard all the game art awards, and they can just keep them in perpetuity for these unreal origami creations and magnificent photographic staging.
There are two valid complaints about the game that arose across my plays, both from other gamers and myself. One is that, for what the game is, it’s a little long. That’s not to say it overstays its welcome, it’s simply that for a little appetizer game like SS&P, there were a few games that bled into the 40-minute territory, which is perhaps more than I want from game of this weight. That might not apply to everyone; others might be totally content to live in this underwater kingdom for the better part of an hour, but it was just a little too light for me to fully sink my teeth into for that length of time.
The other is the problem of the runaway winner. It’s conceivable for a player to jump out to a huge early lead by absolutely crushing everyone in one round with the LAST CHANCE scoring mechanism, and then essentially winning from ahead by trying to speed their way to 7 points and simply calling STOP each future round to prevent others from having an opportunity to catch up. It’s not insurmountable, I’ve certainly come back from a big hole, but it can be quite hard, and for such a light game, and one that can last for up to 40 minutes, it can suck to know you’re going to lose 10 minutes in.
Despite those two minor gripes, I think this game is a winner. It won over my non-gamer wife, and it won over several heavy gamers I play with too. It’s something you can teach in 5 minutes and it’s a joy to look at. So, to my two French friends from Gen Con 2022, I say “merci, et bon voyage!”
Final Score: 4 stars – A delightful and light hand management and set collection game with a quirky push-your-luck scoring mechanism that is a joy to look at and usually a crowd-pleaser for all levels of gamer.
• The game can run long for its weight
• It can be hard to come from behind