Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Gravwell: Try to Escape, and It Pulls You Back

Before I talk about Gravwell, I need to talk about Star Trek.

In "The Void", the crew of Voyager find themselves trapped in a pocket dimension. Surrounded by the corpses of derelict ships similarly trapped long ago, they must use all of their resources to find the faint path back to their own universe. And of course, there are still living ships within this dark space to contend with. A great episode, and the first thing I thought of when Gravwell came out. A game in which you MUST escape, before one of the other players does the same.

Gravity is a Rubber Band

As you take the first turn, the simplicity of Gravwell is almost overwhelming. You play a card with a number on it. You move your ship that number. Easy as cake. Could be a kid's game. But then the feeling evaporates. Because after the first turn of movement, things get tricky in a big way.

Movement cards in Gravwell don't have a direction. They instead push you either towards (yellow cards) or away (purple cards) from the nearest ship.

If you are last in line (or its the first turn of the game and all the gravity is in front of you) movement is straightforward. Once the other players start flailing around, making big grabs for the escape route, the "closest ship" is incredibly unpredictable.  Moving takes serious thought if you expect to get anywhere.

All movement cards are played at the same time, then resolved alphabetically. Carbon goes before Florine for example. So in addition to predicting the distance your opponents are going to travel, you also have to predict the order they will move in.

Red Ship, Blue Ship and Derelict, together at last!
Bumping Robots

A long time ago, the best game in my existence was a multi-hour programmed movement game called Robo Rally. I went to a couple "game nights" where all we played was Robo Rally, over giant boards of obstacles to navigate.

The absolute best part of Robo Rally was when the robots ended up very close together. Bumping, bumbling over each other, with the greatest chance of something completely unpredictable happening. A robot might miss a step, or end up on the wrong conveyor belt, or get crushed because a single misstep was made.

In Gravwell, the players are always squabbling like that fleeting moment in Robo Rally…from the beginning to the end. Ships try to escape. But they are inevitably drawn back into the chaos by ill-timed movement cards and the incredibly heinous tractor beams your opponents insist on playing.

More like "Jankarium"

Tractor Beams

Beside the yellow and purple movement cards, there are also blue "anti-movement" cards. The tractor beam does not move your ship, instead it sucks all the other ships in the game (including the 2 normally stationary derelict ships) towards the tractoring ship. This is akin to a lobster trying to escape a pot, only to have the other lobsters pull him back in, along with some lemon and seasoning salt.

This has to be the most hard-won "You Win" space ever.

Climbing out of a Hole

The feeling of attempting escape, and being foiled constantly in that attempt, is the heart of Gravwell. Often you will make progress in a single movement phase, only to have most of that progress erased in the next movement phase.

When I first started playing, I thought it would be easy to draft the cards I needed to stay consistently ahead. But what Gravwell is really all about is putting yourself in a good position as a part of the group.  Moving as a giant lump of ships going forward and back, ready to make the one mad dash for victory a split-second before anyone else.

You never, ever want to be in front. You want to be just behind the front ship…yet all the movement cards work to either shoot you back down into the hole or rocket you far into the lead where you will only plummet back again.

An Original Design

I love the originality and simplicity of this game. I can honestly say I have played no game "like" Gravwell. When I was rounding up opponents, I explained the game as "Candyland with space ships and the space ships are all chained together." Despite this, everyone wanted to play. The rules are simple, the game is fast.

Time for Lunch

Gravwell is a lunch break game. You aren't building an economy or maximizing victory points. In an hour long lunch break, you can spend the first 10 minutes teaching the game and playing the other 50 no problem. People who have never played modern games before can learn the rules easily. People who have played modern games before will still be interested.

The End Game

I think the only trouble with Gravwell comes from people expecting more than it is. There is randomness. Bad things will happen, and the very limited opportunities to make corrections during the turn (a single "emergency stop" card) will leave you with little option most of the time but to take your lumps.

Conflict with the other players is always turned on. The constant fluctuations keep all players excited and in the game. I find myself wanting to play Gravwell. And so far that has been easy to do.

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