Have you ever wanted to control a small army of hideously mutated goats and fight against equally horrifying shepherds? Well, if you want to fulfill that extremely odd and specific request, then have I got a game for you! That game is Gruff, a goat-themed card battle game with the slightest hint of deck building created by Studio Woe and product of a successful Kickstarter.
Gruff pits two players against one another in a card battle with some interesting, unique twists. To begin, each player selects a Shepherd. Each Shepherd has a Life bar to represent their health and a "Crazy" bar to represent their mana pool. These are tracked with included plastic clips that are placed on the Shepherd card. It's nice to not have to rely on a pencil and paper, counters, or anything of the sort to keep all of the important numbers in mind. Shepherds also have unique special abilities outside of these two core stats. Capri, for example, lets you draw an additional card from your deck every time a Gruff is killed.
Furthermore, Shepherds may have a "Threshold" mechanic. A little white line is marked out on their life bar; when they cross past this Threshold, a certain ability will activate. When Gristle's life drops below his Threshold, you draw all cards named Protect and Block from the discard pile. This makes this particular Shepherd an ideal choice for players who are keen on defensive play.
Of course, there's more to the game than just the Shepherds. The titular Gruffs are your main source of attack and defense in this game (similar to summoned creatures in the go-to example of Magic: The Gathering). Each player selects a total of three Gruffs out of a pool of 15. Gruffs have three stats: Mean (their attack), Fat (their health), and Weird (how much Crazy they add to your Shepherd when activated). These vary on an individual level and it gives players the opportunity to mix and match their Gruff composition for different playstyles. If you pick a lot of Gruffs with high Weird scores, you'll build up a lot of Crazy and be able to invest that into playable cards.
Speaking of playable cards, each Gruff also has a miniature deck associated with them. Once you've chosen your three Gruffs, you select 8 cards from each Gruff's mini deck. These three sets of 8 cards specific to each mutated monstrosity combine together to form your deck for the duration of the game. You can play as many cards as you like on your turn provided that the total cost of those cards doesn't exceed your Shepherd's Crazy. This deck-building element allows for variation in gameplay even if you select the same Shepherd and set of Gruffs; a subtle tweak here or there in the composition of your cards can make the difference between a well-balanced deck and a deck that's just lacking in some critical fashion.
Gruff's gameplay acts a bit differently than your average card battle game. Damage isn't dealt instantaneously, nor are your minions completed wiped from the board once defeated. A sort of queue system is in play where moves are planned and resolved at a slight delay. It took my tabletop group some time to adjust to these differences, but we eventually managed to do it.
A turn technically begins with the "Clean Up" phase where damage is resolved from the previous turn. After that, you draw a card from your deck. If you don't have any cards left in your deck, you skip this step; any players looking to burn through a lot of cards should have the sense to include a mechanic to refresh their hand from the discard pile so they don't run out of the necessary tools for gameplay. (Indeed, I myself lost one of my first games simply because I ran out of cards and had no way to breach my opponent's defenses with the Gruffs I had on the field.)
Next, you activate one of your three Gruffs on the field. Choose carefully, as you cannot rely on hammering your opponent with the same bad-ass billy goat again and again. You can "refresh" your entire team back to playable status only after they're all Exhausted (played an action on your turn) or Dead. This means that you have to be quite careful not only in your team composition but how you use them. I made a serious misstep in the very first game that I played; I didn't have anyone on my team with a high enough Mean score to do any serious damage. I'd run all out of cards to play, and that was that.
After you've activated one of your three Gruffs, you can now play cards from your hand equal to your Shepherd's Weird score. These cards include all the standard fare of card battle games including direct damage, buffs, debuffs, and outright game-changers such as preventing all damage sourced from a particular target. Cards can range in cost from 0 all the way up to the high teens and twenties. As an example, Nuclear Launch gives one of your Gruffs a staggering +10 to its damage for the insanely high cost of 28 Crazy. (3o is the maximum cap for Crazy, so that's a lot.)
Once you've finished playing your cards, you move on to making your chosen Gruff actually do something. They can choose to attack the enemy Gruff directly in front of them, swap places with an adjacent ally, Grow (increase any one of their three stats by one), or Resurrect a fallen ally. Attack is the only one here that operates a bit differently than you would expect it to.
Once you've declared your attack, the Gruff immediately opposite it is in line to receive damage. The damage doesn't actually get dealt until the beginning of your next turn. This gives your opponent time to respond by shuffling his line around or playing cards defensively. If your attacking Gruff's Mean score is higher than the enemy Gruff's Fat score, that enemy is killed and any additional damage bleeds through to your opponent.
The game goes back and forth in this fashion until one of the two players has exhausted their Life. How exactly that happens is a matter of your Gruff composition, your card selection, and how you use them. Everyone makes a misplay, but Gruff is a game where the selection of your creatures and the composition of your deck is critically important to gameplay. It takes a bit of learning to get there, but once you do, you should have a rough understanding of how you ought to balance out your team and your deck.
Although we mainly played two-player matches in the dozen or so playtest sessions we've had over the last few months, Gruff does offer rules for four-player tournaments and a three-player melee. We tried these styles of play and thought they were fun. The heart of Gruff is in 1v1 goat-battling action, and that's where I think it succeeds best.
In terms of the materials, the game comes packaged nicely in a sturdy, compact box containing the Gruffs, Shepherds, a rulebook, and a cute miniature figurine as a bonus. The box is quite compact overall; while it couldn't reasonably fit in a pocket (unless, like me, you have an old ratty pair of JNCO jeans sitting around buried deep in your closet, hoping that they never come into fashion again) it can easily fit into a backpack or purse. The game doesn't take up an awfully large amount of table space. We managed to play a single game in under an hour once we had an understanding of the mechanics, setup, and gameplay.
The variety in Shepherd choice, Gruff composition, and deck-building means that you can get a lot of mileage out of such a little box. There are no booster packs to buy, although the game model is open to the idea of expansion. Indeed, Clash of the Battle Goats had a successful Kickstarter (which we talked about some months ago here on TechRaptor) and acts as a separate game with the same mechanics that can either be played on its own or combined with Gruff to mix and match gameplay. Going forward, this model seems just about one of the fairest out there and handily averts some of the trappings of both card battle and deck building games. You can purchase Gruff and not feel like you're getting taken for a ride to the tune of hundreds or thousands of dollars, and it doesn't seem like your cards will necessarily become obsolete anytime soon. (I'm looking at you, Magic: The Gathering).
All in all, some people in my tabletop group enjoyed the game and some were less enthusiastic about it. It seemed to click most with people who had a history of playing card battle games like Yu-Gi-Oh! and the like and hits a lot of the same key highs (in a good way). The self-contained nature of the game, its coming expansion, and (I'm assuming) future expansions means that you're less likely to have to deal with errata or cards becoming obsolete. It's well-designed overall, and a good bit of fun.
You can purchase Gruff directly from Studio Woe and from other fine tabletop retailers for $35 or your regional equivalent. At that price, I think it's more than worthwhile for the sheer variety that's possible.
The Bottom Line: If you enjoy card battle games, I can recommend Gruff. If you're looking to get into them for the first time, I might be slightly hesitant to recommend it if only for the nature of its mechanics. Still, compared to some of the card battle games out there with 14 steps in a turn, it's reasonably accessible for new players. The best way you'll get a good feel of how to put a team together and pick your cards is by messing up a few times. I think this is one of the game's strongest features and one of its strongest failings; some greater form of advice in avoiding these pitfalls ought to have been included in the rule booklet.
Get this game if:
You want to get into card battle or deck-building games.
You enjoy a lot of replayability and variety in your board games.
You don't want to spend $500 on a Magic: The Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh deck.
Avoid this game if:
You don't enjoy sifting through dozens of cards.
You can't handle trial-and-error gameplay.
The copy of Gruff used for this review was provided by Studio Woe.
Gruff is an overall good addition to the card battle genre. Although it doesn't notably innovate in any particular area, it's a well-crafted self-contained experience. If you like the game, you'll get a lot of mileage out of such a tiny box.(Review Policy)
- Good variety of Shepherds & Gruffs
- Team composition and deck building allows for a lot of replayability
- A compact box makes it easy to tote around
- It's possible to build an objectively bad or broken deck
- A bit tricky for newbies to pick up the overall strategy