“Goats are the cable talk show panelists of the animal world, ready at a moment’s notice to interject, interrupt, and opine. They have something to say about everything, little of it complimentary. They are the most impertinent animals I have ever known.” – Jon Katz
While I have gotten much better about it, I have had a bit of a problem with Kickstarter in the past. Upon typing this sentence, I logged in to see just how big of a problem it was. Doing so was hopefully the worst decision I will make today. I’m not sure which is worse, the obscene amounts of money I have hemorrhaged on games there, or the fact that a disturbingly high percentage of the ones I have received remain unplayed. Probably the latter because it exacerbates the former. Fortunately, the game I am talking about today is one of the proud few who have escaped their shrink wrapping and known the soft, intimate, sexy, life-affirming touch of human hands.
There are some perks to commanding the rapt attention of 7 people online with board game reviews, in that you are occasionally called upon to help other people decide to throw American Dollars at their subject, which today is Clash of the Battle Goats by Brent Critchfield and Studio Woe currently on Kickstarter.
Clash of the Battle Goats is a stand alone expansion/intro to Gruff, The Tactical Card Game of Mutated Monster Goats. The name alone raises an eyebrow and begs the question, how did that come to pass?
So in the tale of the Three Billy Goats Gruff, the titular characters would like to cross a bridge to graze in the grassy knoll on the other side. A troll who lives under the bridge threatens to eat them, but the first two convince the troll to wait for the third and largest who will make the best meal. True to their word, the third of the brothers Gruff was the largest, but he was also the best prepared to kick some troll ass. After doing exactly that, the three goats go about their merry way and enjoy their grassy grazings.
That’s the story we know and love, but where are the mutations? I was told there would be monsters and tactics. What the story we know didn’t tell us is that the bridge in question is one that goes into another dimension, and that trolls have controlled that gate for as long as anyone can remember. When the gatekeepers were dispatched by the third goat, the destructive potential of the species was realized. Add some shepherds with nary a scruple among them, a dash of mad science (for my dollar the best kind of science) and a sprinkle of black magic, and the goats have been weaponized into monstrosities called Gruffs, which is where the game takes off. In Clash (as well as Gruff) the player avatar is one of these shepherds, who controls a flock of three of these barnyard nightmares and engages in combat with other insane shepherds of demon flocks.
First a little bit about the presentation. The art in both Clash and Gruff is both colorful and a touch macabre, overall pretty fantastic and does a great job striking that sweet spot between the cartoonish style you’d see in Pokemon and the very serious fantasy art you’ll see in most D&D books. It’s enjoyable in a slightly gross way. While the art is solid, you won’t see a ton of it. Each Gruff has a set of its own cards with the corresponding Gruff serving as the art for the card. Card text is variable, card art is static, similar to the Legendary Deck Building Game. Interestingly, that was a big turn off for me and Legendary, but I viewed it as an asset for this game. The cards themselves have a good feel and a nice linen finish to them, I’m not necessarily going to sleeve this game because I am not particularly worried about standard wear being overly noticeable. Components are A-OK. Let’s talk about the game.
As mentioned previously, you’ll be playing one of these ne’er-do-well Shepherds. Each Shepherd has its own unique set of stats and abilities. You will have three Gruffs in your flock which start in play in a line in front of your Shepherd.
Like their Shepherds, each Gruff is unique, not only in their stats and abilities, but each has their own collection of cards which you will shuffle together to form your player deck. Gruffs have three stats, Mean (the value used for attacking), Fat, (effectively the hit points of the Gruff) and Weird (think something like magic points/mana but not exactly). Let’s get to the gameplay.
A turn is broken down into a few easy to follow phases.
Draw: You start your turn drawing a card from your deck. Doi.
Combat Resolution: After you draw your card, you will resolve an Attack (provided you launched one on the previous turn). Compare the Mean value of your Gruff to the Fat value of the Gruff currently in its way. If the Mean score exceeds the Fat score, the defending Gruff is killed (don’t worry, no good Gruff stays down for long) and any excess Mean carries over as damage to the opposing shepherd.
Activation: After you’ve had your fill of Gruff Con Carne, you choose one of your Gruffs to activate. Once a Gruff is activated, it is exhausted and will not be able to be chosen for activation again until your other Gruffs have either been exhausted and/or put down, at which point you refresh the Gruffs still alive.
Playing Cards: Controlling and commanding these unnatural freaks is taxing to one’s sanity. The activated Gruff’s Weird value is added to your shepherd’s Crazy value, which is used to play any number of cards whose total costs do not exceed the shepherd’s Crazy. The longer the game goes, the more Crazy your shepherd will accumulate, the more Crazy your shepherd has, the more ridiculous cards and combos you will be able to play. The cards could be single use actions that are discarded immediately after use, short term effects that last until your next turn, and mutations (there they are!) that augment/hinder the Gruff they are played on until they are cancelled or removed from another card.
Tactical Action: After you are done playing cards, you will choose one of four tactical actions.
- Attack – Move your activated Gruff forward to show it is on the attack. It will attack the Gruff directly across from it, or if you’re doing especially well, the empty space in front of the opposing Shepherd. The attack won’t actually resolve until the start of your next turn.
- Shift – Exchange the positions of two adjacent Gruffs. Seeing as Combat isn’t resolved until the beginning of the attacker’s turn, this allows you to have some control over which Gruff is actually defending you. The Gruff your opponent thought they were attacking is not necessarily the Gruff they will be attacking.
- Grow – Choose a stat on one of your Gruffs and increase it by 1.
- Resurrect – Bring a dead Gruff back to the fight. It comes back in a fresh state retaining all stat modifiers and mutations it had prior to being murdered to death.
Selection and execution of your Tactical action ends your turn, then the next player begins theirs. Wash, rinse and repeat until one shepherd stands bloodied but triumphant atop the piled corpses of its foes.
Things What I Like About Clash
- If you want to play Magic, why not just play Magic? In this and other reviews, it feels likely to me that you will read that the gameplay in Clash/Gruff is somewhat analogous to Magic: The Gathering. I’ll admit, I have been suckered on more than one occasion by the tagline “fans of Magic the Gathering will love this game” or somesuch fantasy dragon bullshit. Guess how many times I fell for that bit? Too many. Guess how many games delivered on that promise? I won’t tell you, but it rhymes with “hero” Neither Clash nor Gruff feel derivative of Magic, but it really scratches the competitive card game itch for me, which is not an easy task. Players familiar with how Magic plays (in terms of a head to head conflict with creatures doing your attacking, being augmented by other cards you play and the ultimate goal to reduce your opponent’s hit points to zero before they can do it to you) will feel right at home. Those without that experience will not be left out in the cold though. In fact, the friend I conscripted to play this with in order to write this specifically refused to start playing Hearthstone citing that he didn’t do “games like Magic” and he is greatly enjoying us trying to kill each other with weaponized livestock.
- I love revisionist history-meets-fantasy stories. The Scythe campaign beguiled us with artwork that looks like it’s around WWI…except with mechs. The Weird West setting for Deadlands and Doomtown is a world where the Civil War never ended, and there are a bunch of supernatural things going on. I didn’t see the Daniel Day Lewis Lincoln movie, but I was thoroughly tickled by the concept of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Clash/Gruff takes a familiar tale and adds fun twists to make it wildly more entertaining without disturbing the original source material.
- Easy Like Sunday Morning. It takes all of one round to grasp the basics of the game to the point where you are only addressing the rulebook to address very specific situations. One of the marks of a solid game in my mind is a game where the rulebook becomes quickly obsolete.
- Tactical Depth – The gameplay is easy to pick up, but there are a lot of strategical nuances. It’s a lot more than a race to see who can bash their opponent hardest and fastest with goat-beasts from Hell. It’s pretty fun mentally mapping out your next moves and trying to anticipate what your opponent will do, which is really the meat of any game of this type. Mechanically solid and sound, it is further enhanced with the flavor of the individual Gruffs.
- Doesn’t overstay its welcome. Clash plays with a narrative tempo similar to Star Realms, which is to say fantastic. The game takes 20-30 minutes, starts a bit slow, then ramps up speed to end with some bigger more impressive swings. Part of this is due to the clever Crazy/Weird design, which establishes your resource curve. The more Crazy your Shepherd gets, the wackier and more powerful things you can play. Turns play out quickly and there is really no down time for either player. This is not a game prone to AP.
Things What I Don’t Care As Much For:
- Enough is never enough. I don’t have much bad to say about Clash. In fact, my only criticism is also an endorsement. While you can get a lot of mileage from Clash by mixing and matching the six Gruffs to the two Shepherds, there is still definitely a finite number of combinations that isn’t precisely overwhelming. Fortunately, Gruff is already a thing that exists, and it has seven more Shepherds and fifteen more Gruffs, for a total of 9 Shepherds and 21 Gruffs. Couple this with the notion that while Clash keeps it streamlined with each Gruff having just the set of cards you will use for it, in the base game Gruff, the goats have 15 cards each, with the player choosing 8 to use in their deck. This means you have crazy replay value, as well as personally customizable decks. This doesn’t mean you will have to be super duper good at the game to do this; you can probably do just fine with the eight least expensive cards. I digress, if you like Clash, you should definitely invest in Gruff.
- Three’s a Crowd. Clash is designed and marketed as a head to head game. Its parent game Gruff can support up to 4, but I have found that the game really shines brightest when kept to two. This means it’s better suited for playing with your partner, or rocking out a round or two with a buddy when waiting for others to show up for game night. This is not to say that Clash is a filler game, but it’s probably not going to be the main course. In the interests of full disclosure, I haven’t tried any of the special multi-player rules.
Thoughts as a Designer:
Brent scored a solid hit here. Clash/Gruff hits the sweet spots of being light without being brainless and being silly without being annoying or slapsticky. As far as games where two players go head to head and try to murder each other go, this is a really good one. It’s a lot of fun exploring the synergies with various Gruffs and their cards. The game has a lot of fertile expansion ground, and I expect that Clash is not the last we’ll see of this franchise, which I for one am happy about.
Clash is a fantastic intro to the world of Gruff and has immediately established itself as one of my favorites in the realm of head to head combat card games. It’s easy to learn, pretty (in a gross way), accessible to gamers of all ages and carries a very reasonable price point. If you break down hours of enjoyment vs monetary investment, you’re definitely going to come out way ahead. In my younger years, I stayed up til the break of dawn frequently playing games like Magic, Legend of the Five Rings and Warlord. Gruff fits seamlessly in with that kind of experience, where the strong gameplay is fun and engaging enough to compel you to play again and again and a low time commitment makes that feel like that’s okay even when you’ve been at it all night with no sleep and you have to be at work in 4 hours. That and it’s like one zillionth of the cost of entry to any CCG.
Clash is currently funding on Kickstarter and your help will just make more stretch goals happen. For my part, I’ll be happy to backslide on my Kickstarter embargo just long enough to pick this gem up.