Friday, February 23, 2018

Dave Reviews: More Than Three Sizable Pig Subcontractors

The Grimm Forest

When considering the history of the Brothers Grimm, one might think that someone who hears the line, "Little pig, little pig, let me in," and thinks of Negan from The Walking Dead would like something situated in the Grimm universe.

Nothing quite so bloody to find here. Just a good little game with some of the best aesthetic choices in recent board gaming history.

The concept behind The Grimm Forest is that the king needs an architect, and goes to the Three Little Pigs of yore for help. But they're old and senile now, so it's up to their extended family to compete for the king's favor and the contract to become the kingdom's new building maestro. The pigs need to go to the straw fields, forest, and brickyard for material (a market with an assortment of resources is available in a four-player game), and build houses to prove their worth. The first to build three houses is the winner; if more than one pig finishes three houses in the same round, the one with the sturdiest houses (brick > wood > straw) wins based on their efficiency.

Gonna say this up front, even though it has nothing to do with the gameplay: whoever designed the inserts for this game deserves a raise. Or a bigger cut of the profits. Something. Massive Darkness was a game with fantastic minis, with a set of inserts that handled almost all the minis, cards, and other pieces, but still managed to fail spectacularly enough to make the game not worth pulling off the shelf unless we really wanted to play it. Grimm Forest has zero of these issues. Each insert is given a precise spot in the box, shaped perfectly for the pieces it's designed to hold, and doesn't rely on most of the items going into slots carved out of one piece of plastic that serves as the main insert. Even the boards you punch the pieces out of are designed not to be thrown away, but to be slipped into the bottom of the box so that the inserts sit flush with the box top and nothing moves around. You can put the box sideways without worrying that everything will tumble free. If there's anything they could have done better, it's mark which of the four player pigs go in which of their slots, because it's not entirely obvious, but that's a minor quibble about something seriously impressive.

And the minis are fantastic. Returning to the above comparison, Grimm has only a dozen or so minis, but they're on the quality level of Massive Darkness. It allows the game to boast high quality miniatures while maintaining a $50 MSRP (we assumed it was $70 before seeing the price). The other art (player boards and resource locations) is gorgeous as well. Everything about how the game is aesthetically designed and put together is great.

That sounds like a lead-in to talking about how the game is seriously underwhelming. Not here! In fairness, the aesthetics are the best part, but that's more a compliment to the design than a mark against the gameplay. The game itself is... well, let's discuss how it works.

Each turn, players place a gather card (and, optionally, a Fable card with a special effect) face down for the location they want to get resources from. This card goes back to your hand; there's no need to rotate locations if you don't want to. Pigs go to the chosen resource, unless some ability prevents or changes that; all pigs in the same location share resources equally, with remainders left for the next round. Pigs in a location by themselves get everything there (so you want to pull that off as much as possible, generally speaking). Once resources are gathered, players perform two actions from the following: collect one resource of their choice from the general supply, draw a Fable card, or use collected resources to build a piece of a house. Then more resources are piled on to the locations and the process begins again.

Houses consist of a floor, walls, and roof; these cost two, four, and six of the appropriate resource, respectively. Building the walls lets you draw a Friend card; you can have one Friend at any given time, and if you don't want the one you draw, you have to give it to someone else. In that case, they have to accept the new Friend and get rid of any they already have, which is the only way to remove powerful Friends from your opponents' boards. It's also a good way to piss people off and make them target you, which means the requirement that someone has to take any drawn Friend keeps people interacting.

Fable cards tend to have less powerful effects than Friends, only work that turn, and in some cases don't have any effect (ie. the card requires you to be on a location alone and you end up with somebody in the same spot). You can pile them up, though, and choose the best one for any given situation. Fable cards also include monsters, which can destroy resources in an area if anyone goes to it (wolf), destroy the resources someone already has if they visit where the monster is placed (dragon!), or knock part of someone's house off (BIG BAD WOLF). It's a take-that mechanic, and a lot of people aren't fans of that type of gameplay. However, it's not as simple as fucking someone over at will; Fable cards are shown before gather cards, thus monsters are placed in locations before anyone knows for sure where their opponents are going. Monsters are very dangerous for anybody who's telegraphing their moves, but if you can keep your opponents guessing, they may play monsters at inopportune times, target other people, or never use them at all because they never find a good moment.

The balance between efficiently gathering resources and remaining unpredictable is fairly well struck, though not perfect. In general it ends up being more effective to collect whatever you need most than to dodge opponents unless you're sure the area you need is about to be targeted in a way that keeps you from collecting as much useful stuff as you'd get from somewhere else. Even then you need to really know it's going to happen, in which case your opponents are being predictable and you have the advantage. Mostly people are going to try and be clever here and there and fuck themselves up in the process, and the monsters don't show up that often most of the time, making a straightforward strategy generally preferable.

One questionable decision is the inclusion of basic and advanced cards. If you do as they suggest, and remove the advanced cards before your first play, you get a fairly shitty version of the game. Without more tools for pushing back against other people's advancement, one big hit on a resource (most likely when everyone else avoids it expecting a monster because it's too tempting a target) puts you so far ahead you can coast to victory. It's a more solitary version of the game, and while playable, it's very much a learning version of a game that doesn't need a learning version. You aren't going to have an advantage by knowing the mechanics better than newer opponents, because the mechanics are clear from the start; an advantage in experience would involve knowing the cards available, which doesn't require playing a basic game first. Shuffle everything in and play the full game from the start.

This is a very good game for introducing people to some of the concepts that undergird more complex titles. Solving the riddle of your opponents' hidden decisions and using that to your advantage? Check. Keeping track of your opponents' progress and resources? Check. Timing your special abilities for maximum effect? Check. If you already run with a pretty hardcore gaming group, this probably won't be enough to keep you entertained for more than a few plays, but if you're a casual gamer or routinely have them around, this is going to last quite a bit longer for a very reasonable price.

Score: Ten finished houses out of twelve (fucking wolf blew the roofs off the other two).

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