A lot of things go into making a great game. Things like the mechanics, theme, components, art, and graphic design are all swished together and sometimes when they merge they create something truly special and that’s why Gravwell is my pick for the best game of 2013.
The premise to Gravwell is simple. A flotilla of ships have survived passing through a singularity and to escape death they must make it to the warp gate. The problem however is that the black hole has warped the laws of physics and simply flying straight isn’t possible. Instead, the ships must manipulate gravity itself to pull, push, or attract the nearest body of mass.
“The Gravwell mechanism occurred to me while I was trying to devise a more interesting scoring mechanism,” Gravwell designer Corey Young said. “I was originally playing around with cribbage boards. I liked the leapfrog system. I thought it might be interesting to put all the pegs on a single track. How might your peg’s position be influenced by the other players’ pegs? I played with surrounding the other players with your two pegs, or choosing which peg to advance. Eventually, I dropped it to a single peg.”
It’s the gravity thing that makes Gravwell such a standout game. Each player will simultaneously play cards. Then depending on the card’s initiation they are activated. So in the example above, the black ship played a repel three hoping that they could push themselves forward while the yellow ship played a pull nine. However because of their alphabetical order the pull nine happens first which means that the yellow ship will leap over the black ship and so when the black ship repels it will go backwards instead of forwards.
“I originally thought about simply using A through Z, but it didn’t take long for the chemistry idea to emerge,” Young said. “I actually consulted the periodic table while working on the distributions. The regions on the table mapped to the amplitude/distance of the card. That went out the window when some of the elements were swapped. I thought about how well Gravwell will work in places with other alphabets. Some people also have a very hard time remembering which letters come first. Some suggest changing the letters to numbers. If you think about that, it would get very confusing. You’d have two numbers on the card. Remind me again which one does what?”
Although it can be a slight mind bender to wrap your head around, once you see Gravwell in play it makes perfect sense and is easy to pick-up. Which is one of the things that makes it so great because no matter if you are playing with hardcore gamers or your family at Thanksgiving, it’s the kind of game that everyone can understand and enjoy. There is a clear elegance to the game and its design. The rules and mechanics could’ve easily been more complex, but they aren’t. There is just enough meat to them to make the game thinky without it ever feeling like a burden.
“The core mechanism in Gravwell was originally a scoring mechanism for another game,” Young said. “Some of my earlier designs were hopelessly complicated. After studying many other games, and reading some of the great books about game design, I learned to sculpt my designs rather than constructing.”
As is, the card drafting in the game is pretty simple. A single card is placed down with a face-up card on top of it. Players then take turns picking stacks. It becomes a real balancing act of then trying to get the cards you need while trying to make sure your opponents don’t get the cards they need. At the same time, cards that activate sooner are more valuable but they are also weaker so drafting is a real mind boggle trying to figure out what cards will best serve your needs.
“Originally, I had a 21 card deck and it was strictly a 3-player game,” Young said. “You got your hand by a fancy passing mechanism that involved drawing a card, choosing one to keep, like 7 Wonders, discarding a card and passing the rest of your hand. I summed it up as ‘Pull 1, Pick 1, Pitch 1, Pass’ and thought I was clever for doing so. I was very, very wrong. I’m forever grateful to the Dallas Designers Group for caring enough to provide honest, harsh criticism of the earlier version. It made me reboot my thinking.”
In addition to their regular cards, each player also has an emergency stop. Once per round, a player can use it to prevent themselves from moving. It’s really important and can make or break a round for you. It really saves your butt when you thought you would be slingshotting forward nine spaces but because of the activation order you end up going backwards nine spaces.
“Interestingly, the distribution of the cards wasn’t that hard,” Young said. “I knew that the early cards were valuable for their predictability, so I made them move the least. I knew that repulsing cards couldn’t be too early. At first I thought the biggest cards should be closer to Z, but then I realized that the late-middle is the hardest to predict. I think the breakthrough was the Emergency Stop card. I think it provides that one critical element of control. I love watching players moan while considering using it on their third card.”
Beyond the gameplay, Gravwell is a gorgeous game. The graphic design is top knotch and the color palate used for the box, cards, and board give it a truly cosmic feel that’s pleasing to the eyes.
“I have to thank Marco Sipriaso for the art,” Yougn said. “I have yet to meet him, but I’m very grateful for his work and that of the rest of the creative team at Cryptozoic. I didn’t have creative say, but I was thrilled with everything I saw. I got occasional snapshots of the work. There was one change that I requested that made it into the final board, the infographic in the corners showing the card values was my design.”
Gravwell is a top notch game that has already hit the table many times in our house. It’s great for all ages and for any gaming occasion. If you’ve not given it a whirl you should definitly track down a copy. You won’t be disappointed.
Here are a few other photos of the game…