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Subject: Grifters: First Impressions of an Evolving Crime Lord rss

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Chris Hass
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Seizing the Day

Sure, depending on what game you choose to play, you can save yourself, your city, or your universe. But some days you just want to be bad. Really bad. And really really good at it. For those moods, Grifters is your game.

Grifters is a card-based game with a seductively immersive theme: Players are leaders of criminal organizations out to do bad things for big money in a near-future techno-dystopia. The goal of the game is to gather “specialists” to your burgeoning syndicate and to deploy them to bring you resources (money, other specialists) or to pull off big crimes (“jobs”) for cash and infamy.

If you’re a fan of the games Resistance, Coup, One Night Revolution, or their many offshoots, you’ll note that Grifters is set the same “Dystopian Universe.” However, you don’t need to know any of these other games to enjoy Grifters and there’s no direct relationship between Grifters and its Dystopian siblings beyond the techno-futuristic realism of the game art, a permissive atmosphere for daring criminality, and a local currency called “ISK.”

Gearing Up

Grifters’ has a “go big or go home” attitude that is apparent in its artwork, gameplay, and even its currency: the money chits are worth no less than 1 million ISK each. The game comes with a very artful deck of specialists (your potential henchmen), a deck of masterminds (powerful and fiercely loyal henchmen), 75 ISK tokens, twenty color-coded crime cards (crimes to commit for money), and four player boards.

Each player board has 4 designated areas for cards and a printed summary of turn options for reference. The number of players determines how much ISK players receive at the start, and how much makes up the shared bank.

Gameplay supports two to four players, and the suggested age is 14 or higher. An initial game might take an hour, mostly while players introduce themselves to their henchmen, but the box suggests games will last about 30 minutes and I suspect repeated plays will bear this out. Nevertheless, it’s a truly engaging 30 minutes.

The game ends when one of three resources runs out: specialist cards, available crimes to commit (“jobs”), or ISK in the bank.

Getting Started

Gameplay centers around building up a crew of thugs, hackers, underbosses, con men, femme fatales, and other nefarious souls to allow you to tackle increasingly complex criminal “jobs.” All the potential hires are called “specialists” and come in one of three flavors: Brains, Speed, and Brawn. In addition, each specialist has a unique ability that enables gathering resources (“Take 2M ISK from each player”), swapping cards (“abduct”), stealing a specialist's ability ("cloning"), or teaming with other cards in your hand to pull off a crime job.

Potential crime “jobs” are provided in five color-coded categories of four jobs cards each. Since the winner is the player with the most money at the end of the game, the rub is that you only get paid for the crimes you commit if you can successfully pull off two or more jobs in any of the five categories. The jobs get harder as the category cards are claimed, and if someone else takes the card you’re aiming for, you may have to seriously rethink your plans or go broke.

Finding Your Crime Groove

If this all sounds complicated, fret not. The gameplay mechanics themselves are very simple. There are only three (mandatory) actions players take every turn: Advance their player board, play one or more cards onto the player board, return any cards in the board's "refresh" area to their hand. That's it!

Despite the game's straightforward mechanics, decision making can be deliciously complex due to the variety and skills of the specialist cards. At the beginning of the game all players start with three “mastermind” cards that cannot be stolen by other players or otherwise lost. In addition everyone gets three initial “specialists” randomly. So at the start players will have a good idea of at least half of what their opponents are working with.

On a given turn, players have to either play down a single specialist from their hand or a team of specialists. Playing a single card provides that specialist's unique benefit. Playing a team of multiple cards doesn’t give you access to specialists' individual abilities, but if their card symbols (brain, speed, brawn) match those on one of the centrally-located “jobs” cards, players can take that card (successfully commit the crime) and reap the benefits it provides. At the end of a turn, any card in the last area of their player board (“refresh”) goes back into the their hand in preparation for their next turn.

So basically, you’re selecting minions, sending them out to do your bidding, welcoming them back after three or four turns, and thinking ahead as to how best to string them all into a winning strategy.

Meeting the Crew

By far the most complicated (and fun) aspect of Grifters is getting to know the various specialist cards, their abilities, and thinking creatively about how to string them together to advance the cause. Yet in a pinch, just playing a card on a hunch to steal some money, buy you some time, or risk it all on a big crazy gamble might pay off. The first time through the game players will find themselves eagerly scanning through the card text, working out the ramifications of their potential choices and nervously trying to keep an eye on what everyone else is up to. Increased familiarity with the cards will calm that down some, but after significant replays might make the game more routine and less exciting. Your mileage will likely vary.

Good Crime Takes Time

When players put a specialist into action they do so by playing it down to their player board. The player board itself is a clever mechanism both to attenuate gameplay and to immerse players in the theme. In the real world well-planned heists take time to pull off and when players put a specialist or team to work, they’re in effect sending minions out into the world to do their boss' bidding. It takes up to three turns (“nights”) for played specialists to cycle through the player board and return (to the player's hand). In this manner players' cards are renewable resources. Players can use the board to see where everyone in their crew is, plan ahead, and through opportunistic acquisition of specialists, grow the team. As players' hands grow so do their options.

Thematically, this is one of the most fun aspects of the game: By getting to know your specialists and their abilities you look forward to sending them out and welcoming them back, thinking carefully all the while about how to maximize their potential impact. Like a good boss, you don’t want to misuse specialists and lose the helpful benefits they bring you.

The specialist cards are artfully and realistically depicted and present a pantheon of criminal types that is really fun to plan around. Grifters offers every kind of shady character you might imagine: from hackers to fall guys, femme fatales to musclebound thugs. Their artful depictions and well-balanced abilities help make Grifters impressively immersive: Every aspect of this game reflects and supports its theme in great ways. You start to feel like a criminal mastermind as your team of specialists grows.

Yet despite the criminal aspect of Grifters' theme, it still manages not to let players get too far into morally grey territory as they interact with each other.

Honor Among Thieves

Even though you are attempting nefarious deeds with a rogues gallery of talented miscreants– in a game dedicated to pulling off high-stakes cons, heists, and other crimes– the game mechanics are surpringly polite.

While players are able to interact by taking cards and resources from each other, Grifters elevates those actions by nearly always providing some benefit to the player being taken advantage of.

For example, in order to “abduct” (take) a card from Player 2’s hand, Player 1 can't steal it outright. They have to swap the abducted card for another card. Because Player 1 doesn’t know Player 2’s plans, the swap might be very advantageous for Player 2. Similarly, a player cannot steal a completed job card from another player. Instead they have to swap it with one of their own completed jobs. These built-in “courtesies” evoke an “honor among thieves” vibe and keep interactions from being wholly negative. In fact, players might just find themselves hoping someone will abduct one of their specialists just to see what benefit it might bring.

Because there’s usually some up-side, however small, when another player interferes with your plans, despite its theme and players' goals, Grifters comes across as refreshingly . . . polite.

The exception to this is having your money stash pilfered, but even there pilfering happens so frequently that players are rarely left penniless (ISK-less?) for very long. As a result, in Grifters players' goals may be unworthy, but their interactions aren’t allowed to be. This adds thematic realism by evoking a kind of "sure, you want to get ridiculously rich, but you’ve still got to live in this town, amirite?" attitude. Which is kind of . . . nice. Don’t you think?

Hey, We're Crooks, Not Monsters

Grifters sticks largely to the “gentlemanly” side of crime as well. Sure, you can steal radioactive isotopes or hold a pop diva for ransom, but crimes aren’t overtly violent or graphic in any appreciable way. Nor does anyone “die” or get hurt during the game.

Grifters is about the finesse of your specialist team, not mayhem. You engage a specialist, for example a Thug, and by playing it according to the rules, you know the Thug will succeed in the task you have set him to. And because of this, in effect, specialists do their job without bothering you with the details of how exactly those jobs were accomplished. Thematically this also makes sense: You’re the boss. You don’t need (or want) to know how your team accomplishes their assigned tasks, only that they succeeded so that your plans can evolve. It makes Grifters' gameplay more Ocean’s Eleven than Smokin’ Aces and lets players enjoy the theme largely guilt free.

Ok, yes, you employed a Thug to get some information out of a mark, but perhaps your overly-steroidal Thug simply gave the cowardly mark a convincing Ving Rames stare, rather than resorting to violence. It’s your crime crew– tell yourself whatever story helps you to sleep at night.

Fast Fun

In summary, this is a thematically engaging and fun game that is easy to learn and moderately difficult to master. Gameplay is fast, and once you get to know the available range of specialist abilities, it will be even faster. Your priority generally is getting ahead, not destroying other players, and the simplicity of the available actions means you can always do something even if it isn’t precisely what you would have wanted.
The sheer number of unique and duplicate specialists gives players a lot of options so while the actual play mechanics are super simple: (advance the player board, play down one or more cards, take any cards in the “refresh” area of the player board into your hand) the game appears to have high replayability. Beyond that, it’s fun. The theme is immersive without being offputting, and the game play enables you to take or leave the storytelling bits.

Even if you’re not one for flavor text, reading off the titles and descriptions of the crime “jobs” can’t help but make you smile. Or shudder. (“Really? You stole radioactive materials?” “Yeah, well you defaced an art gallery!”) Targeting one particular type of job might make you a criminal specialist. Or leave you woefully under diversified when another player swaps out a payoff card for a stinker.

The Elephant in the Room

Compared to other well-known and respected hand-building games like Dominion, Grifters is a relative lightweight, while flexing many of the same gameplay muscles and encouraging thoughtful, relatively complex decision making. Whether Grifters will feel "light" or enjoyably "heavy" to gamers depends a lot on what sort of gameplay experience they enjoy best and how familiar they are with this genre of game. Grifters might in fact be a good introduction to hand-building games for those unfamiliar with the genre. In particular the structure imposed by the Grifters player boards' "3 night" mechanic makes a lot of the gameplay very transparent and easy to follow for novices.

(My go-to game for learning hand-building games is the core set for Star Realms, but that's another story.)

Both Grifters and Dominion are smoother to play when players are familiar with the cards available. Grifters provides a very impressive array of specialist abilities to get to know but it's nowhere near the thousands of cards available for Dominion. (Yet?) Multiple plays are encouraged and I suspect players will master the available range of specialist cards in Grifters long before they run out of Dominion cards to study up on. Also, where a game of Dominion lends itself to quiet, nearly solo play until the end-game where players' reveal their strategies and tally their points, Grifters encourages and rewards players for keeping a close eye on what other players are up to on a turn-by-turn basis. In addition, the ability to abduct or "clone" one or more of an opponent's specialists also encourages player awareness and fosters social interaction.

As a result, Grifters is more inherently social than Dominion, and whether you view that as a plus or a minus will likely influence your enjoyment of it. As someone who plays with players of a variety of gaming experience, this game lives in the complexity middle ground very comfortably. Gameplay is easy to learn and jump into, the variety of cards offers a lot of replayability and nuance even as your crimes get bigger and bolder.

Go Grift Something Already

Grifters is dripping with theme: through its artwork, its brainy and brawny attitude, and the ways it encourages you to focus on your goals but keep a nervous eye on other players lest they derail your plans. The combination is fairly glorious. Repeated plays will undoubtedly get players thinking more like gentlemanly crime bosses and bolster their successes. And hopefully before players have completely mastered the game's offerings there will be some new expansions to add into the mix.

Will today be a great day to be a criminal mastermind? It's up to you. Get Grifting!
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Scott Sexton
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I don't think that Dominion is what you refer to as a hand building game, nor is Star Realms.

Grifters is far closer mechanically to Concordia, or Skyway Robbery (both of which I think the term "hand building" applies to aptly) with a touch of Battlecruisers tossed in (take that plus "cool down" mechanics for cards played).

Dominion and Star Realms are deck building games. What sets deck building apart from hand building games is the whole part about having a deck. A deck builder requires you to have a deck that cycles and randomizes your cards (with only minor exceptions like City of Iron).

Hand builders lack the cycling or randomizing elements present in deck builders. Typically, hand builders are far more reliant on hand management as a driving force behind the game. Another way of saying it is:

Deck Building = you are building an efficiency engine out of cards

Hand Building = you are building a pool of cards and seeking to play them out as optimally as possible.
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