I like to be surprised. I like it even more when that surprise makes me feel clever, like I've just discovered some subtlety that isn't readily apparent to everyone, or that I've sussed out some secret. Board games excel at giving you this feeling, even though that usually means is that the designer behind the game is clever, and you are actually only coming to understand the cleverness of their design—it is still satisfying. Crabs!, Daily Magic Games' newest Kickstarter project, gave me that feeling a couple of times, which was doubly surprising because it looks far more simplistic than it actually is.
Note: All components shown are from a prototype version of the game and are not necessarily representative of the final product.
My first impression of Crabs! was that it was going to be a basic set collection game with cute art that would slot nicely into the "simple filler" category. After playing Crabs!, I have to say that the game does have a short enough play-time to still be considered a filler, but it gives players enough to consider while playing that, while it's easy to learn, it's certainly not overly simplistic.
A game of Crabs! is a race to 25 points (29 in a two player game). The primary means of earning points is by selling sets of crab cards to vendors in order to collect and score those Vendor cards. You can also earn a few points by upgrading your crabbing gear, and by selling special crabs. Making sets of crabs seems simple and straightforward at first, but getting those crabs off of the table and into your hand, and then catching them in order have them ready to score takes some consideration if you want to stay one step ahead of your opponents.
You begin the game with a handful of cards, but you can't actually sell them (and collect the vendor card for points) until you've caught them. In order to catch a crab you have to play one crab card face down as your Rope. Then, you play crab cards on top of the rope and add the total value of those face-up crabs together plus any gear that you've acquired. That value determines the value of the crab that you can keep. You then get to catch one of the face up crabs to keep, which can be used later to sell and score Vendor cards. All crab cards have two values, a relaxed value, and a lower stressed value. Taking a stressed crab can net you more value in the long run, but it requires that you spend time to relax it before you can sell it. On top of making the decision of which crab to catch, deciding exactly which cards to play, including the rope, is key because all of those cards are then placed face-up in the center of the table, and are made available to your opponents. Another factor to consider is what crabs your opponents have already caught, because each Vendor card requires a different set of crabs to obtain, so if you aren't paying attention to who has what, and what you are making available, your opponents might beat you to claiming the Vendor that you've had your eye on.
The cards that are thrown back onto the table (into the Crab Pool) make a huge difference as well because of the way that cards are taken into your hand. There are three ways to acquire cards in Crabs!. You can simply take two cards, from the Crab Pool and/or the draw deck. This always increases your total hand size (to a limit of 8 at the end of your turn) but it limits your options. Alternately, you can Trade cards, one for one, with any crabs in the Pool. The third option, Raise, is the most interesting, and at first it seems only slightly different than trading. When you Raise crabs you play any value of crabs from your hand into the Pool, and then you take that same value of crabs back into your hand. You can use the Raise action to flood the Pool with low value cards in order to nab a few high value cards or vice versa, or you can use it in more subtle ways to help you control your hand size while still nabbing the crabs that you think you need.
Vendor cards require 1 to 4 crabs, and are worth anywhere from 2 - 16 points, so it pays to shoot for sets as quickly as possible, especially if you are going after one of the sets of four. It's also possible to tailor your approach based on what you think your opponents might go for, and it can be fun to change up strategies between games. Since the game only lasts until one person scores 25 points a 16 point swing is obviously huge, and the difference between a win and a loss can come down to your ability to delay your opponent if you can see them going for a particular set.
Win or lose, the game plays quickly, especially with two players. The play-time increases proportionately with the number of players (up to 5), but it still runs short enough to fit a filler role very well. There aren't any cutthroat elements to the game, but it's still a competitive experience, especially when playing with other players who are paying attention and trying to outmaneuver each other.
Crabs! is adorable, easy to learn, and it plays very quickly, but it has enough strategic depth to keep it interesting. Don't be fooled by its cutesy veneer, Crabs! has some clever tweaks and nuances that offer players a surprising amount of flexibility in their race to score points. If you like set collection games, and you like games with a short run-time, or if you are simply looking for a filler that still has some meat on its bones then you should give Crabs! some serious consideration.
If you are interested in grabbing a copy of Crabs! then head on over to the Kickstarter page and pledge. Daily Magic Games has a great track record on their Kickstarter deliveries, and there is no indication that they won't put the same care and attention into Crabs!. The initial funding goal is a modest $5,000, so this one should fund pretty easily.
There are three pledge levels for Crabs!, all of which come with a KS exclusive 1st Player Token and any stretch goals:
For $16 you nab one copy of the game, with shipping running $3 for the USA, $6 for just about everywhere else in the world, and $54 for shipping to Brazil and Russia. Additional copies can be added on for a total of $18 for the USA and $20 everywhere else (shipping included). This base pledge has an estimated delivery of April '18.
If you are a retailer, there is a $20 pledge level that exists as a deposit on 12 copies of the game. The vendor pledge is estimated for May '18.
The final tier is $199 and nets you a copy of the game, and your likeness will be included as one of the Vendors in the final release of the game. This pledge has free shipping in the USA, with $20 everywhere else, but will be delivered a month earlier than any others, with a deliver date listed of March '18.
A preview copy of Crabs! was provided by Daily Magic Games.