Why do you keep touching me?
There’s an acknowledged truth in board gaming that says ideas aren’t worth anything. Hasbro wouldn’t give me a cup of tea and the bus-fare home for my amazing new game idea about a gang of street toughs learning to respect themselves from a harsh-but-fair community support officer. Ideas are nothing, implementation is everything.
Daniel Solis knows this, and if you don’t follow him on twitter you really should if you have any interest in games design whatsoever. The man is a machine, spitting out ideas, each as interesting as the last, in a fireball of creativity that just has to be seen to be believed. He wrote a blog post on this very thing about a year ago, which you can see here: http://danielsolisblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/what-if-someon....
All that being said, Gravwell is a game based on an idea. It’s high-concept board gaming. And the idea is this: what would happen if your movement was entirely based on where your opponents are in relation to you?
And it’s a great idea.
Board, medium. A fun, pretty board, spiralling out, looking a little like a roll and move game. The path could be straight, but then, theme! And fitting it in the box! The board is fine.
Ships. One per player + two derelict vessels that bring to mind Firefly but I don’t know why. Lovely, if fragile. Glue possibly required.
Fuel Cards. The cards have two numbers on them: speed, from 1 - 10, which tells you how far the card will move you, and initiative, which tells you when your movement will take place in the turn order. This is from 1 - 26, so to avoid confusion with the first number, they are presented alphabetically, with A being 1st and Z being 26th.
Emergency Stop Cards. These are dual purpose; they remind everyone of their colour, and can be used once to cancel one of the fuel cards.
When at all possible, I try not to flat out explain rules in these reviews - it’s not really the point. But if you haven’t played Gravwell this is going to take a little concentration. Most of the fuel cards move you a number of spaces in one direction. That direction is determined by your closest opponent or derelict ship. So, if I have an opponent two spaces behind me and a derelict ship one space in front of me, I’m going to be flung in the correct direction (out of the deadly spiral, towards the Warp gate).
If the opponent is one square away (behind me) and the derelict ship two in front, then bad luck. My boosters are going to fire, and I’m going to boldly go straight back towards the “singularity” or “starting square” to use board gaming parlance. Once I’ve collected my $200 for passing Go (this is a joke) then next turn I can head out again.
There are cards other than boost which can be used for other situations. Repel is as it sounds - rather than sling-shotting towards your nearest ship, you instead spring away. This can be useful when you are out in front, but they are limited and often weak. And finally there are the tractor beams, which pull every other ship (including derelicts) towards you a certain number of spaces.
This is your brain on Gravwell
Here is how your brain works during a first game of Gravwell:
1. This is odd.
2. This is random.
3. Oh, I can use big numbers safely when he is far in front of me.
4. Oh, I can mess up his plans if I swap my position.
5. I need to never be where my opponents think I’m going to be.
6. Ahhhh, the early letters and late letters are really useful for that.
7. I seeeeee, I can pull someone closer , they’ll go past me, and fire the wrong way! Whheeeeeeee.
8. All the letters can be used well in the right situation.
9. So if he’s played a boost, he’s going to stream past me but if I play a low alphabet card then I’ll go on the other side of him first but if he knows I know he’s going to try that I need to do the opposite. Also I need to build up a resistance to iocane powder.
10. Is there ever an advantage to being in the lead?
11. Yes, there is, because the swing effect is broadly symmetrical. If you’re in the lead, then your opponents have to play their big cards early to try and catch up, and you can save up for a big push later in the round. It’s sort of about maintaining momentum. Literally!
12. Well, not literally, but almost.
13. I’m going to bed.
There is a semi-draft at the beginning of each turn to populate the players’ hands of cards. This works by laying 3 cards face down for each person playing and one card face up on top to form 6, 9 or 12 equal piles of two, depending on player number. Obviously the top card is open information, and this is used to mitigate the random somewhat. Though trying to remember three other cards from three opponents’ hands quickly becomes too much - you remember instead the As, Bs and Cs and the repels if you can. That gives you a rough idea of the kind of tricks they can play, although of course with half the hand hidden, you never know what they might be up to.
The draft also serves as a minor catchup mechanic, as the player in last place gets to choose first. It’s swiftly apparent that it’s worth more to take what your in-the-lead opponent needs (usually a repel) than to pick yourself up a juicy boost card. Those are much more common, and you’ll tend to pick them up anyway later.
Talking of catch-up mechanics, is the game one giant catch-up mechanic disguised as a game? I don’t think so. The more you play, the more layers of tactics and avenues of play open up to you.
Broadly, there is catch-up going on, in the sense that if you are very far behind, there tends to be only one way you can go - forward, and quickly. But once you’re stuck in the middle, there is as much chance of accidentally being propelled backwards as forwards. So, I guess it would be true to say that there are catchup mechanisms to get you into contention, but not to pole. That part is up to you. Maintaining the lead is the trick.
I guess, like almost every game that makes you hold cards in your hand and play them, card management comes into play. This is highlighted and streamlined by the Emergency Stop card, a get-out-of-jail-free that means that the boost or repel card you played this turn is discarded, unused. You can use it to keep yourself in an irksome place for your opponent, or you can use it to stop yourself firing 10 spaces towards the singularity, but either way, you only have one per round, and once it’s gone, you are very, very vulnerable.
I’ve played 6 or 7 games of Gravwell now, and I’ve really enjoyed all of them but one. I’m not convinced there is a two player game in here, unless I’m very much mistaken. I keep getting the opportunity to play with more players, so I may do a follow up article just on the two player game once I have played it more. It seems an odd choice to only have one derelict; for ease of movement and an increase in dead-locked ties. Further investigation needed.
So I like Gravwell - I think that’s apparent. It’s important with new players to play one game to “get” it and then another to really enjoy it. Players really will enjoy their second game more, even if they thought they’d figured it all out at the end of the first one. The early game is important, even if it doesn’t seem so after the big swooping changes that happen throughout the game.
I’ve mentioned I might do a follow-up on the two player - I think I may do a follow up in general. I’d like to see how much better I get at the game. I’d like to see if I can win convincingly and consistently against a newbie after 30 plays under my belt. I hope I can. There is definitely an interesting article on whether that is important for a game to be fun/worthwhile.
So Gravwell is a game of ideas - ideas that it brings to the table, and ideas it gives you whilst playing. It’s nice to know games can still do that. It’s not a mechanic that many other games are probably going to ape - it doesn’t suit many situations. But it’s undoubtedly a good thing that this unique mechanic exists in the wild.
To see this review with plenty of extras (read: photos) see http://www.mechanicalgamer.com/post/75512369973/mechanical-r...
- Last edited Wed Feb 19, 2014 1:24 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Mon Feb 3, 2014 9:30 pm
Chaos is a ladder
Nice write up. I was fortunate to be introduced to this game back in the fall after my friend picked this up at a convention, and received a copy as a gift around the holidays. I've played this over a dozen times with all player counts 1-4, and find that each count has it's own challenges.
The solo gameplay is incredibly difficult to beat but I think does a relatively good job at simulating another person at the table. Sure you could argue that it's random, but no more random than playing against someone new, or for that matter against someone that also knows how to play the game well... (should I do this now, or this? Well they're likely going to do this, so if I do this I'll mitigate my loss, etc.). Funny enough, the same things happens with my 2-4 player counts as well - it's a game of anticipation, and working in flux. Definitely explore the 1 and 2 player options and I'm sure you'll find a similar game with a little more focus on cards that were played in odd rounds and how that relates to your current situation. Often overlooked is the graph in the bottom of the board showing the distribution of the cards, which is highly useful in 1-2 player games.
Personally I find the game incredibly frustrating and at the same time completely addictive and satisfying. It's like the scratch ticket that you get and you're always 1 number off, but somehow you return to get another one.
It's a fabulous game, and one I eagerly introduce to all gamers.