W. Eric Martin
This review originally appeared on BoardgameNews.com.
Don Meyer knows his strength when it comes to game design, and that strength is turning out uncomplicated, low-energy games that will engage Grandma and Cousin Bob at the table for thirty minutes while still leaving them time to catch up on what's happening with distant family members. That was the feeling I took away from Gemlok, which I reviewed on BGN in June 2007, and Meyer's Cromlet leaves me with the same impression: a game that's different, but one that won't threaten casual players.
The gameboard in Cromlet – a made-up word that has nothing to do with Conan – is an explosion of color. The look is early 19th century carnival in the choice of both font and design. Once your pupils contract, you'll notice 24 cromlets – that is, rows of numbers – with each row being headed by a letter and containing 3-8 numbers.
Players start with a hand of cards, and each turn you play a card and mark one empty space with one of your colored tokens. The deck contains one color-coded card for each numbered space on the board, and if you can play the lowest number in a cromlet, then you must do so on your turn; otherwise you can play a card of your choice. The deck also includes a half-dozen wild cards, and you can play one at any time to claim any number.
Immediately after playing a card, you can choose to claim that cromlet as long as a chain of tokens covers all the lower-numbered spaces on that cromlet up to your token at the end of the line. Not all of the numbered spaces need to be filled, mind you; just all of the ones on lower numbers rom where your token is located. If you fill the last open spot in a cromlet, whether high, low or in-between, then you must claim it. You can claim only 4-12 cromlets depending on the number of players, and your score is equal to the numbers that you've covered on the cromlets that you've claimed.
Due to the "must play the lowest card if possible" rule, the early parts of the game are often spent staring at five cards that you can't play while make forced plays that don't seem to get you anywhere. The trick of the game, of course, is that you want to delay claiming cromlets as long as possible in order to nab those of high value, but given the plethora of wild cards and the unlikelihood of having all the cards of a color pass through your hand, you're unlikely to claim that top spot. This leaves you teetering on the edge any time that you play a card in the 6-9 point range as that seems to be where people start laying out claims. Wait too long, and players can fill in the high value spots in order to dampen the score of a particular cromlet – assuming they have a choice of which cards to play, that is.
After five games, I'm still puzzled as to whether I'm missing any amount of strategy in the game or whether it's so small that I keep overlooking it. Cromlet is good for killing off a half-hour and giving you a chance to socialize; some people find those attractive qualities in a game.
The game's Grandma feel is completed by having facts about colors on each of the cards. The E cromlet is vermillion, for example, and E13 reads, "Vermillion – One of the oldest pigments used by human beings," while E4 reads, "Naturally produced vermillion comes from cinnabar mined in China. This is why vermillion is sometimes called China red." Four more facts about vermillion await you in Cromlet!