Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Getting to Know "The Grid"

Games in some ways, like people, have personalities.  Some, like Ticket to Ride, are friendly, fun, and easy to get to know.  Others, like Two Rooms and a Boom, are gregarious and a little crazy; if you can handle the energy, they are very entertaining.  Some are obtuse and a little intimidating, like a Phil Eklund simulation or a heavy wargame.  And some are subtle, reserved, and a little introverted; they don't want to show you everything right away, and if you base your opinion on a first impression, you'll miss what's hidden underneath.

The Mexican industrial design studio Left has devised a unique abstract tile placement game with the understated title, "The Grid Game." This set of 88 hexagonal tiles in a muted color palette has a quiet beauty, like a southwestern desert at sunset.  And it has a subtlety of gameplay that only emerges after patient peeling away of layers. 

Designed by Estudio Victor Aleman, each hexagonal wooden tile is made from three rhomboid pieces, each one of seven colors.  Players will start with a set of randomly selected tiles and play them one at a time to an array, with the constraint that tiles may only touch if they match in color.  After the second tile is placed, subsequently played tiles must touch two other tiles, again matching colors on the touching sides. 

Interestingly, the tiles are cut in such a way that the corners where two rhomboid pieces meet are "taller" (i.e. stand higher above the table) than do the corners that belong to only one rhomboid piece.  This vertical height of the different corners is important, because placing a tile is further constrained by having the touching corners match in height as well.  It took a few plays for me to discover that this height restriction is specifically designed so that every hexagonal tile after the first one has only three legal orientations rather than six.  This restriction has the nifty effect of ensuring that no tile placement results in a theoretically unplayable adjacent space.

Clockwise from left: Black-sided tile
(5 pts), one-color tile (3 pts), two-
color tile (2 pts), three-color tile (1 pt)
There are several categories of tiles - those with three different colors, those with two rhomboids of one color and one of a second color, those that are all one color, and a separate category for those having two black rhomboids.  The tiles with black rhomboids are unique in that no tile - not even another black-sided tile - may touch the black side of another tile when placed.   

Sounds simple enough - place tiles to match colored sides.  Easy as Carcassonne, right?  In fact, at the start of the game, each player has many tiles from which to choose, so the early game is especially straightforward.  And the objective is simply to get rid of all your tiles.  If a player has no playable tile, the turn passes to the next player.  So the goal, really, is to be able to play a tile every turn and so to run out first.  If the game reaches the point where no one has a playable tile, then players score points based on the tiles they have left, and fewest points wins.

By the second play, it emerges that the tiles that are worth the most points - i.e. the ones you don't want to be stuck with - are the hardest to play.  Black-sided tiles are worth five points - huge in this game - and can only be played against two tiles of a specific color and with no other adjacencies.  Tiles that are all one color are worth a hefty three points but are almost as difficult as black-sided tiles to play.  So there is a tendency to unload black-sided tiles as soon after the second round as possible, and one-colored tiles right away as well.  The result can be a very difficult field to play, and in fact our second game ended very quickly when the entire field was essentially blocked with black-sided tiles around the entire periphery, as we each tried to unload black-sided tiles as fast as possible.

At this point I was ready to write off the game as crippled by a negative feedback loop, thinking that the point values motivated players to render the field unplayable quickly by unloading the high-value tiles as quickly as possible.  Our third play, however, revealed that the game can take a completely different direction, when I was able to play all my tiles without a pass.  Gameplay becomes less ad hoc, and attention becomes more focused on how many of which colors a player has - and which colors an opponent is short on.  Further reflection suggests that the tile mix has everything to do with the course of the game, so that a winning strategy can vary with the early game circumstances.  Now the players must discern which direction to take depending on the kinds of tiles that are in play.  Suddenly we found a new richness that did not emerge in our first two games.  Such is the personality of a shy game that takes time and several encounters to get to know properly.

We did establish that the tile draw at the beginning of the game is crucial to the game balance; we found that having significantly more black-sided tiles than an opponent, or more one-color tiles, makes for a considerable disadvantage.  The publisher would do well to include a rule to ensure that players start with the same number of each type of tile to mitigate this effect.  The actual mix that all players share can vary from game to game, and in fact a variable mix can lead to a variety of strategic options.  Balance is important, however, and a disparate tile mix among players appears to bias the game significantly.

An opened game "box" showing the four tile trays (with
five more games in their boxes, behind)
Photo by Victor Aleman posted on boardgamegeek.com
The physical components are remarkable.  The wooden tiles are precisely cut and thoroughly glued, with only the slightest of adhesive residue visible on a number of the tiles.  The game comes in a set of four foam-sided trays that each hold 22 tiles in a snug hexagonal grid.  The four trays stack into a wrap-around gamebox-sized sleeve with a velcro flap that makes for a unique, snazzy-looking package.

A nice table presence, almost as appealing as
or Ingenious
I mentioned the subtle Southwestern color palette, which makes for a beautiful table presence, but in anything less than very good lighting, some of the colors are difficult to distinguish, particularly brown from dark gray and dark gray from black.  Many times during the game we wished for more strongly contrasted colors.  And yet, when the game is done, we marvel at how pretty it is.

An illegal placement due to different
corner height - difficult to tell until you
notice this tile is oriented differently
In the first few games, we found it impossible to tell the difference in height between corners of the tiles until we tried to place them next to each other.  Many times we would attempt to situate a tile only to discover that the corners were not aligned vertically, and it was not initially obvious why.  It wasn't until we discovered that the corner heights are intended to confine all tiles to be placed in one of three possible orientations, 120 degrees apart, that we could naturally identify legal ways to place tiles that would ensure same-height corners would be lined up with each other.  It seems that some stronger visual signifier might help in this respect, although such an indicator would probably change the visual aesthetic of the game.

The player count is ostensibly for one to 11 players.  The review copy did not include solitaire rules, though the publisher expressed an intent to include them in the final production copy.  As for high player counts, I struggle to see more than five or six players around this game enjoying any kind of strategic gameplay value.  With more than eight players, each person will place fewer than ten tiles in the entire game, hardly enough to feel engaged in what is otherwise a game of considerable potential depth.  The publisher admits that in tests with more players, although people found it inclusive, the game slowed down, and players were often distracted.

I find that this quietly attractive, subtly strategic game will appeal to people who favor abstract tile-laying games that evolve with repeated plays and who have patience to discover a game over time.  I would not recommend it for more than five players.  It will not appeal to those who prefer thematic games, games that they can fully appreciate in the first play, or laugh-out-loud party games.

Victor Aleman, Creative Director of LEFT, provided a copy of The Grid Game for this review.