Sep 132012

The Japanese board/card games  I’ve talked about so far have been fairly inspired by anime and manga. Tanto Cuore’s a straight-up adaptation of the whole maid fetish. Shadow Hunters takes its cues from the style of horror you’re used to in this stuff. Magical Athlete’s all about super-deformed characters doing cute competitive stuff.

Grimoire’s a bit of a different creature. Its art– what little of it that’s present– has a similar style to that of Shadow Hunter’s. It has that willowy, flowing vibe going for it. The catch is that Grimoire isn’t really trying to feel like something out of an anime or manga. It’s a game that just happens to be made by a Japanese designer and just happens to have this style of art.

First off, the basic idea behind Grimoire is that you’re some wizard dude. You’re competing with other wizard dudes to gain the most power through manipulating people into being your allies and direct conflict with your competitors. You cast a spell each turn, draw a card, and try to get the most victory points (VP). The wizard dude with the most VP at the end of the game wins. Straightforward concept, but let’s talk about how this concept probably came about. I’ve probably covered this before, but we’ll talk about it again in the context of Grimoire. In the board game world you have two broad schools of thought:

  • The concept comes first, then you build the rules around the concept.
  • The rules come first, then you build the concept around the rules.

Something like old school Risk is the latter. Someone wanted to create a game about conquering the world, so they build a game system around that concept. Another one of my favorites, Arkham Horror, falls along those lines. Someone wanted to make a game about being an investigator hunting down Cthulhu shit, so they built the rules around that.

Then you get games where someone comes up with a rule system first. It’s all number crunching and mechanics, and they like how those mechanics work. Once those basics are done, then the creator starts to think about what “theme,” if any, would fit these rules. That’s how Grimoire feels– someone had an idea for a game system, and said system just happened to fit into the theme of “wizards with spellbooks casting spells against one another.”

When you’re playing this game, if you cast the Fireball spell, you just gain 1 VP. When you cast the Cure spell, you discard 1 VP and draw a card from the discard pile. Those abilities kinda make sense from a concrete level. You could interpret gaining VP as “doing damage,” since the guy with the most VP wins the game. So more damage = more VP. And healing kinda makes sense too. You spend time to heal yourself, which you could consider losing that 1 VP, but you gain something else out of the bargain.

At the same time, that isn’t really attacking and healing, is it? You can rationalize why those actions are interpreted as such, but the key word here is “interpret.” This isn’t a matter of losing Hit Points or something else that’s a direct measurement of “attack,” it’s an abstraction of the concept of “attack.”

That’s the main difference between these sorts of games. When you churn out a rule set first, whatever theme you lay over it isn’t always going to feel organic. That isn’t to say that the game is inherently bad in any way, it’s just a different approach to gaming. The difference is in the level of immersion. An old school table top RPer like me tends to play this stuff for that level of immersion, and sometimes it’s lacking in a game like Grimoire. It hits other gaming buttons, just not my primary one.

But it’s still a solid little game.

The actual game works like this:

Each player has access to the same number of “spells” each turn. Each spell lets you do something special: cast a fireball to score points, cast a silence or resistance spell to protect you from certain other spells, cast a time spell to mess with the turn order, and so on.

At the beginning of the game, each player has access to six spells. With each turn, that number of spells increases. You start with the same six spells every game, and you know exactly which spells you’ll be able to use each turn since the sequence is always the same.

At the beginning of each turn, everyone secretly picks a spell from their spellbook. Said spellbook is the neatest thing about this game. Instead of a deck of cards or a sheet listing your spells, you have an actual book. When you pick a spell you put your bookmark on the page of the spell you want to use and close the book. It’s a neat bit that just as easily could be done with a deck of cards. In that regard the game does a pretty good job of that immersion bit I like.

Once everyone’s picked a spell, you reveal them. Each spell is numbered 1-15. This determines the turn order, with the lowest number going first.

There’s one catch to this: If you picked the same spell as someone else, everyone else who was the only person to pick their chosen spell will go first. After they go, everyone that shares a spell with someone else goes. If you tie like that, determine who goes first by using the reverse order of the previous turn. So if you went before the guy you tied with on the last turn, he’ll go before you this turn. So here’s an example.

  • W picks Silence, #2. X picks Fireball, #3. Y and Z pick Luck, #1.
  • Despite Y and Z picking #1, since they both picked it they’re screwed. They have to go after W and X.
  • W goes first since he picked #2.
  • X goes second since he picked #3.
  • In this imaginary game, Y went first last round and X went second. Therefore, they switch that order. X gets dibs on the tie and goes third, leaving Y in forth this round.

In turn order, each player casts their spell, doing whatever it says to do, and then draws a card from the play field. That’s the flow of the game for the most part. Pick a spell, see who goes first, cast spells, draw a card. Repeat until the end.

Those cards play a big part in what happens, though. Some of them are Treasures, which give straight-up VP. When you draw one of these you place it face down in front of you. That way people know how many coins you have, but they won’ t be sure how much VP you’re getting from them unless they keep close watch. The other cards are companions, and these cards give you special abilities or let you score VP at the end of the game based on certain conditions.

There are Item cards as well, and you get those by casting certain spells. They tell you what they do when you get them.

So yeah, it’s a pretty simple game. Play spells to try to position yourself. Draw cards, trying to get the right combos based on whatever your Companions say. Keep going until one of the players either has 10 Companions or 10 Treasures. Once that happens, that turn is the last. Count up the VP and there you go. It goes pretty quick, lasting less than an hour the couple of times I’ve played it. It’s nothing special– I’d buy Shadow Hunters or Tanto Cuore first if you wanna mingle your anime fandom with your gaming fandom– but it’s also pretty damn cheap. Less than $20 if you snag it online.

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