Groo: The Game
Being a long time fan of Groo comics, I was expecting much from this game. I was disappointed.
Groo, the comic, is silly. It's fun. It's about a very stupid guy who goes around slaying people and causing mayhem; something like Conan the Barbarian meets Inspector Clouseau. So I was expecting the game to have that same kind of light hearted attitude, to bring out the chaotic fun of wholesale slaughter which Groo does so well.
To be fair, they got the light heartedness right. There is a card called "Cheese Dip", there's a card that is very powerful but only stays in play if its owner speaks in rhyme, and there are a few other passably good gags throughout. And the artwork is great stuff from the comic artist Sergio Aragones, so it makes you chuckle.
But it's the game play where Groo falls down. Rather than being wild, fast and funny, it's a slow and often frustrating game where luck plays too much a part for any strategy to be applied.
The basic principle is that each player controls a town in the world of Groo. Each turn, players roll seven six-sided dice. These come blank and you have to stick stickers on them, which seemed a tad cheap, given how expensive this game is (well, in Australia anyway). Six of the dice have two labour symbols, two grain symbols, one Kopin (gold) symbol and a Groo symbol. We'll get back to him later.
Each player also has a hand of five cards drawn from a common pack of about 80. These cards are of reasonable quality: quite strong, but lack any plastic coverings. As I said, they're also nicely illustrated if you like Aragones, which I do. Anyway, most of these cards are Building cards or Army cards. Each, regardless of type, has a required cost to build them, in terms of numbers of labour, grain and Kopin units. Looking at the dice you just rolled, should you have enough resources, you can play those cards and remove the used dice.
What's interesting is that the unused dice then get passed to your neighbour, and any he can't use to his neighbour, and so on. Once everyone round the table has used what dice they want, the turn ends.
Buildings built give a number of victory points as shown on the card; seven are required for victory. Plus many buildings have a special ability allowing you to score bonus victory points or trade some of your dice for others, or improve your armies. Armies give no victory points, but can be used to attack other players. If they have no armies to defend, you can use this to destroy their buildings and so prevent them from winning.
Troops are also where you will find your favourite characters from the game: the Sage, Arcadio, Grooella, the Minstrel, and so on. That was all I got in my set, but apparently this is randomised so you may get Pal and Drumm or Arba and Dakarba in yours, I wouldn't know. What's disappointing is that none of these characters have a significant impact on the game to make them come alive. It's nice to see the familiar face of the Sage, but you don't care because he hardly improves your overall military strength.
Groo is not on a troop card. Groo is represented by one card which is different from the rest, and bears no text - just Groo. If Groo is in front of a player, that player's town is where Groo is currently wandering. This is (in the comic and the game) a very bad thing for the town.
The other major type of card is the Groo Effect card. These cost Groo symbols on the dice to play, and inflict destruction and the like on whoever has Groo. But the seventh dice rolled determines where Groo wanders to next: either one or two towns left or right, or he stays put. Plus there are plenty of cards to keep Groo circulating so nobody gets Groo'd for too long. On top of this, there are a few wild cards that keep you guessing.
Now you are probably thinking, OK, that sounds fine. If someone came to you with this outline for a game, you'd probably say it was Not A Bad Idea. You'd probably suggest sitting down and playtesting it for a while and seeing how it worked in practice. Too bad this didn't occur to the creators.
OK, that's a tad unfair, but there are just too many problems with this game that could have been fixed with just more playtesting. After just five games with various numbers of players, we had a long list of things to fix, and even a few ideas on how to do this.
Some of the mistakes are fundamental, like the problem of there being too much randomness. Since you are depending on both rolling the right faces and drawing the right cards, more often then not your turn amounts to nothing. The idea of passing your dice on is meant to alleviate this, but since you don't replenish your hand back up to five until the start of your go, you have even less cards to work with. This makes the best strategy sometimes to do nothing in your turn, and do lots in other people's turns. Such an obvious contradiction should have pointed to a problem with the rules.
The Groo idea is nice, but since Groo effects are fairly rare, and so are Groo heads, they don't play the attacking role they should. Usually rolling a Groo just means you have given someone else a chance to attack. And since Groo moves so randomly, the chances that he's going to be at the place you most want to damage is also pretty slight. It's also pretty likely he's going to be on you, making it pointless.
Combat is similarly flawed. Like Magic, attacking means your forces cannot defend, and since it is always clear who will win each battle (it is based on the strength value as printed on the card), it is far more advisable to keep your forces in defence. Because if you lose them, the randomness of the dice and cards means it is unlikely you'll ever get them back. So you end up with a situation like the dullest Magic:TG standoffs, until someone gets a powerful force and uses it. Sure, this works fine if that's all you want, but this is Groo! Combat should be fun, fast and furious, not a series of boring impasses.
Then there's the cards themselves. Some of them are ridiculously powerful for the cost, and some are so expensive or part of such an unlikely combination that you discard them straight away. An example is the Castle, which costs three of the most rare and valuable Kopins. The chances of this are about 1 in 20, so a smart player ditches it for a decent card. Another example is the Butcher, Baker and Candlestickmaker - each worth 1 victory point on their own, but double if all three are present. With three or more players, the chances of this are astronomical, so why bother including it?
The other problem with the cards is that their costs make no sense, logically, or in terms of the game. Obviously more powerful cards cost less than weaker ones. This only heightens the luck factor, and in most games, the winner becomes obvious and unstoppable within the first ten minutes or so. Whoever gets a few building cards down fast (by pure luck) will win out.
Games that don't end like that, however, just go on and on until you go through the deck a few times and everyone just gives up. Well, that's what we did after an evening's play - we'd had a mildly OK time, but weren't impressed. I put it at the back of my shelf and we never played it again.
Some flashes of humour there, a few ideas that look great on paper, but ultimately flat, boring and unenjoyable. Too dependent on luck and unbalanced to be a good strategy game, and too complex and dull to be a good beer and pretzels game. Add some design flaws which even I could have corrected, and this is not a good package. And after laying out thirty five bucks of my meagre student funds for this, I felt really ripped off.
Style: 3 (Average)