Full disclosure: A review copy of Gloomy Graves was provided by Renegade Game Studios.
Last of the 2020 Renegades! I got a box in with three little games inside, and this is the last of the three. We’ll see what happens next. Gloomy Graves isn’t exactly my personal brand or aesthetic, but I do love card-based spatial reasoning games, so let’s see how this one measures up against the others.
In Gloomy Graves, the fantasy wars have been going and going and they don’t look like stopping. The only thing that’s ending is the lives of dozens of fantasy creatures. But, as a fantasy gravedigger, that’s just good business. You’re looking to turn a profit, but you also share a graveyard with some other upstarts who are trying to outdig you and make a name for themselves. Thankfully, you have your own Private Crypt that you can really spruce up for the dead. Or, more likely, you’ll just throw more bodies on top of the first set. Not like they mind. Will you be able to show up your opponents? Or was getting into this competition a grave mistake?
Alright, so, you have to prepare the deck based on player count:
- 2 players: Remove the cards marked with two shovels on the back. Then, remove 3 more cards randomly.
- 3 players: Remove the cards marked with three shovels on the back.
- 4 players: Remove one card randomly.
Create the corpse row by shuffling the cards you prepped and revealing three. Deal two more to the center, face-up, creating a 2×2 square we’ll call the communal graveyard. Additionally, deal each player 5, face-down. They’ll choose one and reveal it, starting their private crypt in front of them.
Now, sort the score cards:
Once you’ve done that, you’re ready!
A game of Gloomy Graves is played over a series of rounds in which each player takes a turn building up gravesites to try and score points on corpses. You know, typical Thursday night.
On your turn, you’ll do three things, and then your turn ends. Turns continue until the end of the game. Let’s go through them!
First thing’s first; you gotta build your gravesites! You’ll do this by playing two cards from your hand. One will go in your private crypt, and the other will go in the communal graveyard. Generally, this means that cards played must follow a few rules:
- No covering gravediggers, unless you’re doing so with another gravedigger. You can’t bury them! They’re the ones who do the burying! Gravediggers can cover any other card, though.
- Gravediggers can’t be adjacent to each other. Making eye contact with someone while burying a corpse is weird, trust me.
- You can’t tuck cards under other cards. No matter how much you want to.
Playing to your Private Crypt
Playing to your Private Crypt is a cinch. Place the card you want to play face-up so that it’s either adjacent or on top of an existing card, following the rules laid out above. The biggest new rules are:
- Your Private Crypt may only be a 3×3 square. Real estate in this town’s expensive. Plus, you want to make your crypt exclusive so that you can use the phrase “people are dying to get in”. It’ll go on all the ads.
- Your Private Crypt may not have more than one gravedigger in any row or column.
Playing to the Communal Graveyard
When you play to the Communal Graveyard, like the Private Crypt, you must play face-up. Unlike the Private Crypt, however, you can only cover one half of a card with the card you’re playing (one square). This means that the Communal Graveyard always grows, but it grows slowly. That’s cheery!
Now, you can optionally score Graves, if you want. If you do, you must score a color you placed this turn (if you placed a Gravedigger, you may score any color; they’re wild!).
To figure it out, check your Private Crypt and the Communal Graveyard for the largest contiguous group of squares of your chosen color in each gravesite (noting that these don’t have to include the card you just played, but they … should?). Add them together, and take the Score Card with a number (the bottom value) less than or equal to the total number of squares. This means if I had 14 purple squares, I would have to take the 12, not the 15.
Couple things worth noting:
- Once a player takes a card, nobody else can score that card.
- Once a player takes a card, that player cannot score that card’s color again. Choose wisely!
Now, you must refill back to four cards in hand. Do this by taking any one card from the three face-up cards or the top card of the deck, then flip a new card to replace the one you took if you took a face-up card. Then do that again. Not much else to say for this section.
End of Game
The game ends when one of two conditions occur:
- The deck is empty. Shift’s over!
- One player has claimed a score card of each color.
When that happens, finish the round so that all players get an equal number of turns, and then do final scoring.
Final scoring isn’t too tough, though; add the values on your cards, and then any bonuses:
- 3 score cards: +5 points
- 4 score cards: +10 points
- 5 score cards: +15 points
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
See, this one’s an interesting one, because the complexity increases slightly at higher player counts. Since all players occupy a shared space, you can have three sort of states emerge: antagonistic, where all players work to thwart each other, mutualistic, where all players help each other, or indifferent, where players play to their own strengths and ignore other players. At lower player counts, the swing between these three states doesn’t really matter, since it’s usually just one person you gotta slap in the head if they’re working against your best interests. But at four, if all three of your opponents are trying to literally and metaphorically bury you, you’re not going to be able to get out from under that, and that’s gonna be pretty frustrating. It doesn’t happen that often, in my experience, but the beginning of the game where players are learning how to play takes a while at higher player counts because players will block each other if they’re not sure what their best strategy should be. Or, at least, that’s been my experience. At two, it’s substantially easier to get things done, I feel. That makes me like this one a bit at the lower end of the player count spectrum. I just find the momentum of the game a bit too swingy with four players.
- Don’t settle for the low-scoring cards. I would strongly advise against going for them unless the game is ending imminently; at that point, they’re at least worth it for the bonus points you can get for having multiple different types of score cards, which is good. If you grab the low-scoring cards early, then you’re basically writing off an entire color. It might grow!
- Especially don’t settle for low-scoring cards if you’re in a two-player game, unless you’re looking to sabotage your opponent for the rest of the game. This gives your opponent free reign of that color, which is bad. Sure, you can try and sabotage them forever, but you’re eventually going to slip up a bit (or there will just be enough staggered gravediggers to make something work). Either way, not the best use of your time.
- That said, once you get a score card, make that color worthless. You should split up graves as soon as you score their color. Either force your opponent to waste valuable turns building it back up or force them to resign themselves to very few points for a particular color. It’s essentially win-win for you. It’s just burning the bridge behind you.
- I find it’s pretty easy to get about 5 of a color in my Private Crypt with no issue. You can get 3 gravediggers in your Private Crypt, so you should. This makes it pretty easy to connect them and instantly have 5 of one color, if you set them up correctly. You should try to make them easy to connect (having them along a major diagonal helps with this a lot).
- I wouldn’t mess too much with the configuration of your Private Crypt, once you’ve got it. I mean the configuration of your gravediggers; you should be changing up the colors as often as possible, since you need them to bolster what you get from the Communal Graveyard.
- Watch out, playing gravediggers to the Communal Graveyard. They’re often very useful, since players can also start building off of them in any color that they want and they can’t be removed. Just remember that they’re wild, so using the gravedigger to break up an opponent’s gravesite might not be a particularly useful maneuver, either.
- If you can trick another player into working with you, that’s often useful. It puts you in a dead heat with them competing to get that Score Card, which might be good. It’s definitely a high-risk, high-reward situation, so, be prepared and make sure you can get the Score Card first. This usually requires you to look at their Private Crypt to see how they’re doing.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I like the difference between managing your own plot and the massive, shared plot. It’s a cool spin on spatial reasoning. I’ve seen a major, shared area; I’ve seen many private areas; I don’t often get to see both. And I like it! It reminds me a bit of Let’s Make a Bus Route and what it did in the roll-and-write space with a giant shared board.
- In general, I appreciate spatial reasoning games a lot. I like having to think about expansion tactics and where and how to place cards to protect my grave investment, and those all come into play pretty solidly, here. It’s a nice spatial game, I feel.
- The game also creates a good tension between going for easy points and trying to pursue a high-scoring card while risking being blocked. It’s a kind-of-dramatic game, since a player and you can be racing for something and it might come down to another player’s sloppy move or a lucky draw or a poor bit of timing. That can be a bit frustrating, yes, but it also provides a lot of good tension while you’re playing. So that’s good!
- Very portable. It’s another one of the small-box games that Renegade pushed out at the start of this year, along with The Fox in the Forest: Duet and Stellar. All of them are particularly portable, which is nice, and I believe they’re also all the same box size, which is even nicer for my shelf.
- It kind of reminds me of dominoes? I assume that’s because of the cards. It has some of that same DNA as Kingdomino, but the vertical element allows for interesting plays. This one has to be cards, though, unlike, ShipShape or something, since you’re doing all this stacking in a kind of free-form way.
- The card size is … interesting. I don’t think I like it, but, it’s still not as hard to shuffle as square cards, so I’ll put my opinion on the card size as “firmly neutral-negative”.
- Blocking is an important part of the game, but it doesn’t always feel great. Getting a major scoring vein of yours thrashed kind of sucks, but that’s 100% what you’ve got to do if you want to kick players down the ladder. If you’re not looking for that kind of antagonism, then you’re just relying on drawing better cards than your opponents, which isn’t much fun, either. This is a great game for players who want to play aggressively but not that aggressively.
- The game takes a fair bit of time to get going, especially if players aren’t working in concert. This is probably my biggest problem with the game; I think it was summarized quite well by another player stating that the game had several really interesting turns, but they happened squarely in the middle. And I kind of agree. I think this could be averted a bit by creating a larger Communal Graveyard to start at higher player counts, since it’ll allow players to more quickly get to scoring threshold. The problem is making that so that it’s fair to all players, which is challenging.
- The theme is just … really off-putting to me. I’ve played a few games where the theme does nothing for me, and that’s fine, but yeah, I don’t really like … direction this took. It’s very well done from a “can I appreciate that this is art” standpoint, but man, this is 100% not my aesthetic. I don’t want to look at decaying bodies the whole time I’m playing a game; it makes me feel even more existential dread. At least with skeletons I can joke and be like “I knew him well, Horatio; a man of infinite jest and most excellent fancy” or something. This just kind of grosses me out, unfortunately. Which, gotta give it up; the fact that it can gross me out really speaks to David Szilagyi’s skill on the artistic side. I just wish they had gone a different route.
Overall: 6.75 / 10
Overall, I enjoyed my plays of Gloomy Graves, but it’s not going to be a particular heavy-hitter for me. I think, as a player who cares a lot about theme, this ship had sailed a bit as soon as I saw all the corpses on all the cards. Not much to be done about that; that’s just a difference in taste, but it makes me wonder who is in the demographic that this appeals to. Not saying there’s nobody, just that, I wonder if this is too narrow of a scope? Oh well; mine’s not to reason why. Gameplay-wise, it’s entertaining, but it slows down a lot in the four-player game to the point that I would, as mentioned elsewhere in this review, rather have more cards start in play so that players can get the ball rolling on scoring more quickly, rather than having to wait for players to be able to organize themselves well enough to actually make collective progress. This is the mild issue with shared board states between players, if the board state can be destructively modified. It plays great once everyone knows how to play, since they know how to manipulate that shared market. If not everyone knows how to play, then they can throw a wrench in the gears that sets everyone back. The same thing happened in another game I’m working on a review of, humorously. Let’s Make A Bus Route, on the other hand, has no real destructive modifications, so even at a five-player game with all new players, it still works pretty well. Oh well. Either way, there are some things I like and some things I don’t, but if you like fantasy corpses, spatial reasoning, or tense little portable games, Gloomy Graves might be worth checking out!