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Subject: Magic: the Goat Chess rss

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Ethan Krindle
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Hey, what's this weird box with all the fur and teeth? A card-dueling game about mad wizard-shepherds facing off their herds of mutant demon battle-goats? Well, clearly I can't not buy that!

But I shouldn't get my hopes up. It looks like it's a Kickstarter card game selling itself on a zany theme, and those tend to have pretty half-baked mechanics, right?

...oh. Oh my. There's a rock-solid game in this box, with crunchy strategy and tactics and lots of tense decision-making!

So folks, let me tell you why over the last year or so Gruff has gone from being an impulse buy to one of my favourite two-player versus games.

How to goat one's enemies to death!

There are plenty of good videos on this game explaining the mechanics, so I won't go into too much detail, but here's a quick summary.

Each player starts by picking a shepherd and three goats. Each goat has a unique ability as well as three stats that can change throughout the game: Mean (attack), Fat (defense), and Weird (how Crazy they make your shepherd each time you activate them). Each goat also comes with a deck of fifteen (mostly) unique cards with varying costs to play them. You will pick eight cards from each goat to form a 24-card deck.

Each shepherd has a health bar, a Crazy bar (which determines how many "points" they have to play cards every turn - more Crazy is better!), and a unique ability.

Once both players have picked their goats and built their decks, play begins. The goats are lined up into three "columns", with each of your goats facing off against an opposing goat. On your turn, you pick one of your goats to activate, play cards from your hand (up to the limit of how Crazy you currently are) and then choose one of four actions for the goat: attack (the opposing goat), swap places with an adjacent goat, grow one of the goat's stats, or revive a KO'd goat.

Once you've used a goat, they become "exhausted" and can't be activated again until all of your goats are exhausted (or KOd). This forces you to keep switching goats rather than just building up one giga-goat and relying on it every turn.

Attacks don't resolve until the start of your next turn, so your opponent will have a full turn to respond to whatever you're doing. An attack that equals the defending goat's fat will KO that goat; any extra damage is applied the opposing shepherd. (Think "trample" from Magic: The Gathering.) Knock them down to zero health and you win!

So how does it feel to be Lord of All Goats?

First off, a quick note - the theme of this game is great, and the art does an excellent job of bringing it across. It's got just the right mix of "adorable" and "disgusting".

But if you're reading this review, you're probably already on board with the theme, so the real question is - how does it feel to play?

First, let's talk about the pre-game deck construction. I'm really impressed with this part. I grew up playing CCGs like Magic The Gathering, and building your own custom deck is part of the fun of that, but with thousands of cards to choose from it can also be quite time-consuming and intimidating. Gruff gives you 90% of that experience, but for 10% of the time and effort. With 7 shepherds and 15 goats (each with 15 cards, almost all of which are unique to that goat), there's a huge variety of possible combinations and decks you can build. But because in any given game you're only picking 24 out of 45 cards, the decision space is small enough that it's feasible for even a first-time player to sit down and build a deck right at the game table and be ready to play within 15-20 minutes (less if everyone knows the cards well).

And there are plenty of interesting strategic decisions to make before the game even starts. Do I pick my goats for their stats, or for the cards that they bring? Do I focus on beefing up my goats' Mean and overrun my opponent with brute force, or do I try to win through clever card play? Are my goats Weird enough to allow me to play some of the more powerful but expensive cards, or should I focus on cheap cards that I'll actually be able to use?

Once you have a few games under your belt, you'll start to learn how to look at the available cards and pick out one or two to be your "kill cards". For example, one weak but really Weird goat has a very expensive card that adds his Weird to his attack score. So you could build a deck around stalling your opponent until you're Crazy enough to cast that card, and then melt his brain with your Arcane Goat of Glory! But you can't ever count on drawing any one specific card, so it's always a good idea to build a flexible deck with several possible strategies.

As for the gameplay itself, it's actually a really tight and tense tactical game where you're often sweating over the situation every single turn, and a single card can flip the balance. And here's where I'm going to make an odd comparison - the game that this most reminds me of isn't Magic: The Gathering; it's Chess.

See, in Chess, there's this concept known as "tempo" where if you're forcing your opponent to react to your moves, you are said to "have tempo". A lot of the tactics in Chess are around how to either maintain tempo, thereby keeping the pressure on your opponent until you build up enough to "push through" to his king, or how to regain tempo, possibly by sacrificing one of your pieces in order to allow you to make an offensive move elsewhere.

Gruff plays a lot like that. Because your opponent has an entire turn to react to your attacks before they resolve, he will try to find a way to prevent his goats from getting KOd or his shepherd taking damage, but this may mean that he has to "waste" his turn doing something unproductive (such as swapping the position of two goats) instead of what he'd rather be doing, threatening you! As long as you can keep him on the defensive, you are controlling the state of play - but like you, he's building up Crazy and drawing new cards each turn, so if he can hold out long enough, he may be able to play a card that turns things around and allows him to start pushing his counterattack.

I've played a lot of games of gruff that felt like a desperate knife-fight, with me barely keeping out of my opponent's reach from turn to turn while I wait for an opening and then - pow! - stab him through the heart with a goat! It's incredibly satisfying.

Gruff does have a few weaknesses that I should mention. You are drawing cards from your deck randomly, so there is a certain luck factor in whether you get the cards you need when you need them. I don't find this to be too much of a problem, as Gruff is more about making whatever cards you draw work for you right now rather than waiting to draw that one specific card, but there have been occasional games where I kept drawing cards that either weren't useful or that I couldn't afford to play yet, and I got clobbered. That's annoying when it happens, but on the other hand, those games tend to end quickly so you can just shuffle the decks up and play again.

Another weakness is that it can be quite challenging to recover tempo once you're on the back foot, which can lead to the frustrating feeling that you're being steamrolled by your opponent. I think that this weakness is more apparent than real - figuring out tricks to deal with this scenario is part of the learning curve - but it can lead to first-time players having a somewhat frustrating experience where they feel like there's nothing they can do.

But overall, Gruff is one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises in my gaming collection! The strategy is engaging without being overwhelming, the tactics are tense to the point of desperation, and the goats are cuddly and horrible! I will definitely be grinning impishly at my friends and saying "Shall we duel some goats?" for years to come.
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Brent Critchfield
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What an awesome and thorough review, Thanks!
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Crazed Survivor
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Azilut wrote:
Gruff plays a lot like that. Because your opponent has an entire turn to react to your attacks before they resolve, he will try to find a way to prevent his goats from getting KOd or his shepherd taking damage, but this may mean that he has to "waste" his turn doing something unproductive (such as swapping the position of two goats) instead of what he'd rather be doing, threatening you! As long as you can keep him on the defensive, you are controlling the state of play - but like you, he's building up Crazy and drawing new cards each turn, so if he can hold out long enough, he may be able to play a card that turns things around and allows him to start pushing his counterattack.


This reaction turn was something that really put me off on my first game. I didn't expect it and as a Magic player I'm used to instant reaction, which Gruff doesn't provide.

I've come to understand and love that aspect now, and this paragraph in particular is really interesting. Going all in in the first few turn is a strategy that I find interesting. Your opponent doesn't necessarily want to lose a Gruff on his first/second turn and so there's a good chance that he'll make subpar moves so he can counter your attack (building fat, wasting a condition card, your choice's good.)
So there, you didn't damage him, you didn't kill a Gruff, but he didn't build Crazy either and wasted a card. I found that it does make a difference late game. That might be because I mostly played against first timers but I liked that tempo. Applying pressure early is fun and satisfying.

Of course, sometimes you might also want your Gruff killed. That Gruff might be good but it doesn't build Crazy and I'd rather not have to waste a turn on him every three turns, so by killing him I can go back to that super weird Gruff one turn early and gain more Crazy to cast that crazy spell!

Gruff is an impressively deep game and there's much to be said about strategy. There's much more than meets the eye here and I can't play it enough I'd play it over Epic Card Game anytime even though it requires more work from newcomers.

I assume the super weird but weak Gruff you were talking about is Fluttermind, glory be on his perfeclty combed tentacles?

All hail the Fluttermind!
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Ethan Krindle
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All hail!
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