A little bit of knowledge is pretty much accepted as being a dangerous thing. And with that in mind, I tiptoe my way towards a look at Goblins, Inc. from Rio Grande Games. It was one of 10 Rio Grande games being demonstrated for people in attendance at the World Boardgaming Championships this year.
It was the most complicated and difficult-to-access, in terms of being able to play in a comfort zone of knowing what the hell's going on. You have to explain a lot of little rules to make the whole thing comprehensible. As an example, there are what's known as 'tactics cards,' about which you will be asked to decide which, among three, you are going to choose. First, though, you better understand what all the symbols on these cards mean, so you can make a wise decision as to which one of them you want. There are layers to each process in this game, and there are quite a few of them; layers and processes.
Basically, though, you're goblins, working in a robot factory, teaming up with a fellow goblin and trying to make the biggest, bad-ass robot on the block, bristling with weaponry and ready to take on the other team's robot in direct battle, which will ultimately determine which player wins. You have some immediate problems, though.
First off, while there are (in a standard team game) four players on two teams, there are also four individuals at work. While this temporary partner of yours is helping you build this robot, he is actually making choices behind your back about what he wants to see happen. He could, in theory, sabotage what you're doing to earn more points. In practice, he or she probably wouldn't do that, but he or she could.
This all happens, in Phase 1 of this game (I'm tired already), during which players (sorry, goblins) draw tiles randomly from a pile of them, and place them on their 5 X 5-square board, wherever it suits them; players are constructing this robot, one tile at a time. The key component of the tile laying is about weapons (the more pointing in the right direction, the merrier) and connectivity. There are tiles that connect and some that don't; your metal pieces have to match up to other metal pieces. You can be building this thing and find yourself with five terrible tiles, which forces you into placing them in places you don't want to be. Any tile laid that either immediately or eventually becomes disconnected from the officially connected robot, falls off. (see accompanying photo of a badly-planned robot in mid-construction).
Some of these tiles are going to fall off when your opponent's robot opens fire; one at a time, every time a dice roll gives him a 'hit,' but that's later.
You have to go through a whole series of questions about this robot of yours before you can even begin to fight.
"When I'm looking to place the tile, where should I put it?" you ask. "I can't ask my teammate (not allowed), so maybe since he put a tile down with a weapon facing this way, I should put one down facing that way."
Weapons, you see, will determine how many dice you bring to the fight (every weapon pointed at the opponent's robot earns a single die, up to five maximum), but there's a problem here, too. You will not know until you're done placing all of the tiles that fit into the two team boards, which way your robot is going to be facing as you assume battle stations, nor from which direction the other team's robot is going to be attacking you.
Either you or your teammate will be making that decision, but only after the robot has been built. This interferes with your tile-placement thinking. Since your teammate might be planning on turning the robot's orientation by possibly 180 degrees, you end up wondering which way to place the tile to make it effective in a fight. Or maybe you do know, because in this round, you are the person who's going to be making decisions about the robot's orientation in battle. It's almost a crap shoot, no matter which end of that stick you're holding, but time's a-wasting, and you have to get this robot built. Down go the tiles.
Then comes the fight. Decisions about robot orientation are revealed, weapons pointing in the right direction are counted, and each team is awarded the proper number of dice. The dice are rolled, with their numbers corresponding to numbered columns on a robot's board. If all goes according to plan, anything you 'hit' in the appropriate column on the opponent's robot, thereby knocking it off into space, is out of the game. Each robot opens fire and absorbs an attack from the opponent robot. If you've blasted the other robot out of existence (pieces have dropped off, and there's nothing left of the thing), you win. If, however, you are both still standing, you will again make offensive and defensive decisions about robot orientation, and open fire again. You do this, maximum, four times and if they're both still standing, you count up all the tiles, defense tokens, and goblin figures that you knocked off your opponent's robot and whoever destroyed the most stuff is the winner. If it's still tied, nobody gets winning points, As a winner, you get two points for each of your Goblin figures in the cockpit of this robot and 1 point each for each of your partner's Goblin figures.
But wait, we're not done yet. Those secret plans that your teammate was hatching come into play. In essence, those secret plans are bets; that your robot has so many weapons left on it at the end, or how much decoration, or combinations of tiles. Or what sort of stuff you knocked off the other guy. You can even bet on the outcome, bet against yourself, even. You get points for successful bets, and points, my friend, are the name of the game.
Then, you start over. You switch teammates, clear the robot boards and do it all over again. At the end of these two rounds, the single player with the highest number of points wins the game. Ties at the end of two games are resolved by either playing a third round, or letting the tie stand. The thematic object here is to be the player with the most points, which will earn you the title of New Boss of the robot factory. A tie means that "the (old) Boss' nephew gets to be the Boss."
Most of the above was written without reference to the rules. I did have to look up the winning conditions, and did quote from the rulebook about the consequences of a tie at the end, but beyond that, it was all written from memory. This says a lot about the game, actually, and even more about the rules themselves. They are, first of all, a hoot. . listen. .
"Hi, my name is Norbert! I'm here to give you a tour of your new workplace, the Goblins, Inc. factory," it says in the opening paragraph of the Setup and Round Overview. "Start by opening the box (Duh.) Set up the game according to pictures on this page. Each player should choose a color. Keep 2 of the Goblin Figures in your color. Put your Third Goblin on the 0 space of the scoreboard. Take the Promotion Card in your color and set it in front of you with the 0 side up (Hey, you gotta start somewhere.)"
The comments in parentheses are the author's, not mine. It continues in this wry vein through 11 pages of text and a back page with reference details about the Tactics and Hidden Agenda Cards. There's this, too, quoted from the instructions about fighting, labelled "Fight!"
"I love the sounds of combat," Norbert writes. "Gears clack as the two robots charge at each other. Metal crashes into metal. Rockets explode. And from deep inside the opposing robot, your enemy cries out in anguish: "Left? You turned left? Let me drive!"
It should be noted that I have yet to play a full, two-round game of Goblins, Inc., though I am looking forward to it. I spent some time at the WBC trying to organize three other people into playing what I assumed would be a 'serious' game of it. As the Rio Grande demonstrator, though, it was not something I could do during normal business hours, because it would have necessitated my undivided attention and prevented me from interacting with other folk, interested in playing one of the other nine games. I was able to set others up to play it, though generally, because of the crowd's transient nature (on their way to here, there, or wherever) they didn't play through its two rounds, either.
It's picked up about 439 ratings on BoardGameGeek so far, and has an average rating of 6.79; not overwhelmingly supportive, but not too far from the "7" that would elevate its popularity. Its similarity to Galaxy Truckers is mentioned a lot ("Galaxy Trucker without the pressure of time," wrote Hung Nguyen). As noted earlier, it has a troublesome learning curve, especially at the outset. Another Geek commentator (Geoff) said "Eww. If I'm going to play something silly, it's not going to take this long or require this much brain power."
That, of course, would make it that much more attractive to some gamers. It is silly. It does take a while, and does require a high degree of brain power, but there's something compelling about the exercise that, IMHO, makes it all worthwhile. As I said. . looking forward to getting into this with local gaming buddies.
Goblins, Inc., designed by Filip Neduk, and artist David Cochard, is published by Rio Grande Games. It is designed for play by 2-4 players, although it's best (based on experience with it, to date) as a two-team, four player game. The 2-player version has players working with two colors, while the 3-player version has one player competing against two on a team. Suggested age range is 13, but as is often the case, it can be grasped by a younger crowd with high levels of patience and interest. Box indicates 45-60 minutes playing time, which is a low estimate. First time through, it will definitely take longer, but even with repeated play, I suspect it will be longer than an hour. It retails for $49.95 on the Rio Grande Web site and, at present, just over $30 on CoolStuffInc.com. The BoardGameGeek marketplace has some copies for less than that.