This review is based on three plays and observations of three or four additional games. It’s my first review, so please forgive any shortcomings.
Players manipulate nine sheep in an effort to fulfill various scoring criteria. Eight of the sheep are white with a color spot (two each for blue, green, red, and yellow). The ninth sheep is black. Nine sheep are always used, regardless of the number of players; in a three-player game one color will be neutral. During initial setup the sheep are always placed in a three-by-three grid, but before the first round each player gets an opportunity to manipulate the flock, so each game will have a different starting configuration.
Each player mat has twelve squares, each of which show an action to be performed. Some of the actions are moving an entire row or column one space, moving one sheep in any direction (pushing all other sheep in the same direction), jumping one sheep in any direction to the first available space, and rotating the entire flock 90 degrees. Each square can only be used once by each player. Most actions have two squares, but some only have one, so you need to be careful about using unique actions too early. Each square indicates not only the action available but also an icon showing whether the action can be performed on any sheep or must only be performed on your own sheep, whether the next player can reverse your action, and how many spaces the timing marker moves along the timing track.
There are four different scoring mechanisms throughout the course of the game. The timing track shows which field the sheep are in, which in turn determines which scoring mechanism is active. In the second and fourth fields, two scoring places are indicated. The timing track also doubles as a scoring track.
In the first field, the goal is to put your two sheep together. If at the end of your turn your sheep are orthagonally adjacent, you score two points. If they are diagonally adjacent, you score two points.
In the second field, the Roger Ram figure is placed in front of the flock. When the timing marker passes the two scoring indicators, each sheep in the row closest to Roger receives 4 points, each sheep in the next row receives 3 points, and so on.
In the third field, you want to put your sheep next to the black sheep. At the end of your turn you score two points for each of your sheep that is orthagonally adjacent to the black sheep and one point for each diagonally adjacent to the black sheep.
The fourth field is where things get nasty. This is the shearing field, and the goal is to push other sheep towards the shearer while keeping your sheep as far away as possible. The shearer is placed in front of the flock. As in the second field, there are two scoring times indicated. At each scoring time, the entire row closest to the shearer is removed from the game. Each sheep in the row farthest away from the shearer receives four points, next farthest three points, and so on. It’s possible for one player to have both sheep eliminated in the first scoring round in the shearing field, but the game only lasts for another few minutes, so the eliminated player won’t have to wait long for the next game.
Throughout the game, the flock must stay together. At the end of each player’s turn, any sheep NOT orthagonally adjacent to the main flock have to be reunited with the flock. A die is rolled to show whether the sheep should move orthagonally or diagonally to join the flock, but the active player decides which direction to move the sheep.
The final element is the sheep panic. If the timing marker stops at certain spots on the timing track, a color die is rolled to see which sheep panics. The active player moves one of the sheep of the given color one space in any direction, pushing all other sheep in front of it. The white side of the die causes the flock to rotate 90 degrees.
These are not complete rules by any means, but hopefully you now have a general idea of the game play.
Shear Panic comes with eleven resin sheep figures, four player mats, a timer track, two dice, and a handful of counters. The nine sheep glued to square bases are the pieces manipulated by the players. Two additional sheep (Roger and the shearer) are not necessary for game play but provide great additional flavor. The beautifully detailed sheep shine as the stars of the show. In terms of game play, the sheep work well. It is easy to distinguish between the different colors (unless you’re color-blind) and to tell which way the flock is facing. I’m concerned about the long-term durability of the sheep, however. Roger and the shearer come in little bubble-wrap envelopes, but the other sheep are just tossed into the box. Care will be needed to store the game so that the sheep won’t be rattled around too much; a box with separators would be a welcome addition for future editions.
The remaining components are nothing fancy. The timer track and player mats consist of laminated paper, but they do a good job of providing all the information necessary to play the game without constantly referring to the rulebook. There was a printing problem with the color die where green was indistinguishable from black, but Fragor fixed the problem by putting an extra dab of paint on the black side, so the dice work fine. The rulebook is clearly written, entertaining, and full of illustrations to clarify the actions.
The bottom line:
At first glance many people see the cute sheep and expect a polite little filler game. Not so! Okay, the sheep ARE adorable, but this is a cutthroat game, where you get ahead by shoving other sheep around and hopefully even sacrificing them to the shearer. There are several things to consider on each turn. You need to keep an eye on which actions you still have available, how many spaces each action will move the timing marker, and which actions your opponents still have available. For some this will cause enough analysis paralysis that a timer might be required to keep the game moving. AP didn’t seem to be a big problem in the games I watched at the Fragor booth at Essen or played since then, but I heard of one poor person trapped in a 2-hour game of Shear Panic. This is an enjoyable 30-45 minute game but would be a mind-numbingly boring 2-hour game.
Shear Panic was one of my must-see games at Essen because of all the buzz on BGG, and the friendly booth manned by enthusiastic Scots wearing kilts would have sucked me in even if I had never heard of the game. However, I love this game for itself. The dice add a certain degree of randomness, but luck plays a fairly low factor, and there are plenty of interesting decisions to make. Some people found the four different scoring mechanisms artificial and forced, but that aspect of the game didn’t bother me or most of the people with whom I discussed the game.
If you detest abstract games, you won’t be a big fan. If you need to build great, sweeping empires, create vast armies, negotiate your way to riches, and/or move goods from one side of the board to the other in order to enjoy yourself, look elsewhere. If you think the cute sheep mean this is just the game to play with your six-year-old, think again. If, however, you enjoy games that appear simple on the surface but get more complex every time you look at them, check this out as soon as you get the chance!