Gremlins, Inc. isn’t so much about the satisfaction of a well laid plan coming together, but about the schadenfreude of stabbing your rivals in the back and making everybody that you’re playing against suffer. It requires resourcefulness, forward thinking and a little luck in order to succeed, but it’s also a very tricky game to try and explain.
For one thing, it’s not actually a single game. The videogame is a digital representation of the card-based board game, but these live alongside a distinct and separate card game, set in the same universe and using the same source material, but with rather different gameplay. Alas, I’ve yet to try the card game out – though I fully intend to – but we’re here today to talk about the videogame that’s heading into Steam Early Access next month.
Set in a Steampunk world of backstabbing capitalist gremlins, the aim of the game is to make your way from one location to another on the board, trying to garner as much money and political power as possible. Rather than an orderly route, it’s a higgledy-piggledy layout that can easily confound, as you struggle to figure out the way the game actually works.
The most important thing to grasp early on is how to move around the board. Instead of rolling a boring old die to determine the number of spaces, your movement comes from sacrificing one of the six cards in your hand, with each card having a value between one and six.
That sounds simple enough, but your move is then followed by an action, in which you can play a card for whatever effect it says, so long as you’re sat on a corresponding spot or special location. Suddenly there’s a lot of tactical thought than needs to be put into each and every play.
The goal is to spot which of your cards will have the greatest effect in your favour and try to get to the point on the board where you can put it into action. That is far easier said than done, because each play tends to have a negative impact on your opponent, and vice versa. You could be heading to the bank to swell your coffers, only to be whisked away across the map as a card sees you trading places with someone else, or you find yourself having to pay to keep the cards for a certain location. That can get quite expensive if your opponents are paying attention!
And then there’s the simple difficulty of navigating the board itself. Several landmarks, from the Bank to the Court, Casino and Inferno are dotted around the map, with the paths between them lined with more humdrum spots to land on, from a police check to income, and so on. You can head either way down some paths, but others are one way only, and chances are that whichever route you’re trying to take, you’ll go over something which goes against you in some way. It could be the very aptly named misfortune spot or having to stop and bribe the cops to ignore your scurrilous behaviour once more.
Of course, sometimes you’re just going to get thrown into jail for a few turns. It could be you didn’t bribe enough people, or you were found to be in possession of one of the few criminal cards – the most powerful, most dastardly and most desirable of cards to play – or someone else simply played a card to have you thrown behind bars.
But that opens up a new avenue of opportunity for you, as you try to get out of jail as quickly as possible, but also have the chance to increase your notoriety and influence when you’re in jail. Heck, even if you win the elections and become governor off the back of your political influence and karma, you might even be the governor, able to rake in cash from those that run across the tribute spots dotted around the map – particularly on the way up to the Astral Plane.
I’d certainly not say it’s easy to pick up and play, but while I might have started by saying that this it’s a difficult game to explain, after half an hour in I was really starting to get to grips with it and have a lot of fun. Sure I stumbled a few times, repeatedly going in and out of jail as I tried to hold onto my criminal cards and came a cropper of the misfortune spots, but I was also more than capable of putting some of my own schemes into action.
Whether the videogame or the board game, Gremlins, Inc. can be played with up to six people, with the digital form able to trim the playing time from a couple of hours down to 40-odd minutes, depending on how many players you have and whether you’re playing to points or for a set number of turns. Of course, it works just as well down to two players, as it was at Gamescom, for a slightly less chaotic and more measured experience.
I can’t help but feel that this is one that will be best played with your friends in the same room, as opposed to playing online, just so you can see their faces when you finally manage to pull that grand plan. The downside is that they’ll get the chance to wipe that smug grin right off your face a couple turns later.