It is a scientifically proven fact that everything is improved by adding a robot or a spaceship. As always, there are exceptions and readers of a certain age in the UK may want to reflect upon ITV’s Metal Mickey and shudder. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal_Mickey
Gravwell, Grav….well as soon as I heard about it, I knew that I needed to play this game. Just the name brought the movie The Black Hole to mind and with it a flashback: a voice intoning, “The black hole, so powerful not even light can escape it,” over a green screen graphic of water going down a plughole.
Have you ever been stuck in a black hole and turned to chemicals for a way out? If so, you will recognise the desperate plight that you find yourself in when you start Gravwell.
Your status? Alone in a small ship, marooned in a singularity.
Your aim? Flying to the safety of the waiting warp gate.
Your method? Injecting chemicals into your engine to manoeuvre your ship.
Looking further out, you see two lifeless hulks. A reminder that the cost of failure is an eternity drifting in dead space.
By careful mining of asteroids, you gain chemicals, (well elements, but that would have spoiled my introduction), to fuel your engine and manoeuvre your way out. Use some elements, and your engine rockets you towards the nearest ship, others push you away and sometimes your tractor beam can be energised to pull everyone towards you.
The elements are represented by 26 cards, each one is named after a different element from Argon to Xenon. The cards are divided into three types: attractive, repulsive and tractor beam, each has a strength between 1 and 10, (for how far you move).
By this point in the review, you might be thinking, “Elements, singularity, manoeuvre? Is that the time? I have a hedgehog to pluck!”* That would be a big mistake. This isn’t a dry simulation of physics and escape velocities. Oh, no, no, this is a fast game where everyone plays simultaneously and you will have finished in half an hour.
Don’t Dodge the Draft
Your bid for escape takes place over 6 rounds. Each round is split into 2 phases.
Phase 1 is the draft. The element cards are dealt in pairs, one face up and one down. The piles are chosen in turn, (player furthest from safety goes first), until each player has six cards. Three quarters of the cards are “attract” type, so any other sorts showing will be a popular choice.
In the second phase, the cards are played and ships moved. This is a bald statement that hides the nub of the game. Let’s think about this process:
All cards are selected and displayed simultaneously.
Cards are activated in alphabetical order.
Your ship moves towards or away from the nearest ship.
Unless you have played the tractor beam.
In a perfect world, your are just behind another ship and when you play Radium, BANG! You slingshot 9 spaces past them. In the real world, your opponent played Carbon to move before you did, and BANG! You find yourself heading back towards the singularity. This mass card reveal turns the game into a series of deductions, second guessing and ridiculous reverses.
Smart players might be able to remember which cards other players picked, and use this to their advantage. You will not find me in this group. Fortunately, if you find you yourself staring down the barrel of a one way trip back to the singularity, help is at hand with a, once per round, Emergency Stop card that does just that and saves your blushes.
The round continues until all cards have been played, or someone makes it through the stargate to end the game. Once all cards have been played, the cards are shuffled and the draft begins again.
Playing with Three
The game plays up to 4. I have played with 1, 2 and 3 players, and found the enjoyment increases with the player count.
How easy is it to teach the game?
This is one of those games that is best demonstrated. Running through a couple of rounds is enough to pick up the basic concept of play order and card effects. With the basics in place, the other nuances like, what happens when you are equally spaced between two other ships, drop into place. My top tip? Don’t do what I do, instead, let everyone move their own ships to reinforce the learning.
Can complexity be scaled?
Not really, it’s a simple game and there isn’t much that can be stripped away. There are variants that change the draft or restrict the emergency stop, as well as the previously mentioned solo play.
Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?
You can restrict the Emergency stop card to once per game, or take it away altogether to level the playing field.
How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?
‘Take that’ style games are not the sort you want to play with your children, unless you are bearing a grudge. Gravwell has some ‘take that’ opportunities, but their impacts are minor and often backfire, so do not upset.
Everyone is going to find themselves at the back of the pack at some point and there is no shame or harm in that. Being behind allows you first pick in the draft. It offers a chance to plan ahead and slingshot into the lead.
Beyond the game
The designer Corey Young is active on the Board Game Geek forum for his game and has suggested some variants. I also enjoyed reading his explanation for the invented elements in the game. We thought the game deserved some better spaceships and spent way too long searching for some miniatures for the game. You can see the results in the accompanying pictures.
What do I think
Gravwell is a fast and fun step up from a filler game. It delivers laughs and face-palms in equal measure. I like the way that it can be played as seriously as you like: from almost random pick -a-card, right through to full on card-counting.
If it came in a Love Letter size package, I would be happy to put a rocket in my pocket and take it everywhere.
If you like space ships and want something a little different, give Gravwell a try.
*This column does not endorse or encourage hedgehog plucking.