Full disclosure: A review copy of Gravwell was provided by Renegade Game Studios.
Plugging away on more reviews! My goal for this week is to get another week farther ahead, which is always challenging. This means, functionally, I have to write upwards of six or seven reviews in a week, since writing three reviews in a week just keeps pace, yeah? So if I want to get additional weeks ahead, I have to do my review work for this week and next week and the week after. It’s a whole thing. But I’m making progress! So, in the spirit of progress, let’s do a mini review of the second edition of Renegade’s Gravwell! I played this back at my office a while ago, and now there’s a new edition, so let’s check it out!
In Gravwell, you’ve fallen through a black hole and survived. So that’s a positive, at least. But now gravity and physics and everything else is kind of weird. Your engines are definitely not coming back online, but you might be able to … push? off of that thing over there? Oh, wait, that’s also a ship. They’re trying to escape this void, as well, so you’ll need to be careful if you want to make it out of the warp gate before it closes. Will you be able to escape? Or did you underestimate the gravity of the situation?
So, if you’ve played Gravwell before, then you know all about how it’s a game of playing effectively cards that push you away from or pull you towards your nearest neighbor. If you haven’t, well, welcome to my Gravwell review! That’s most of the game, effectively. Players choose cards that do one of three things:
- Pull you towards your closest neighboring object.
- Push you away from your closest neighboring object.
- Pull all objects towards you.
And the cards resolve in alphabetical order, which is where things can get tricky, since where you were when you played your card may not be where you are when your card resolves. Have fun with that. So the new version has added a few new things; let’s go through them really quickly.
- New player powers! Every ship now has three unique ship abilities, in addition to the Emergency Stop (which lets you just not move instead of using your played Fuel Card).
- Increased player count! You can now play Gravwell with up to six players for maximum gravity chaos! At five- and six-player games, some players will start at the Outer Warp Gate (previously the finish line) and try to move towards the Inner Warp Gate (previously the starting point). That gets hectic. More cards have been added, along with a fourth Fuel Card type: the Multipoint Repulsor, which pushes everything away from you. So that’s fun.
- Mining has been changed. I don’t remember the original Mining, but to refill your hand, players now create stacks of three cards (one face-down, two face-up), and every player gets to select two stacks.
So that’s new Gravwell!
- Going first isn’t always ideal, unless you know exactly what you want to do. There’s a real temptation to come out guns blazing, but you don’t necessarily have all the right cards (or all the right details) for that. Even playing the first card in your hand (alphabetically) may not be enough to guarantee you’ll go before all the other players, and you might end up firing your tractor beam and moving perfectly backwards if you’re not careful. Have a plan, but also be mindful that your ordering matters and be careful about it.
- Be ready with that Emergency Stop; you might need it. No shame if you need to use it; sometimes it’s much better to Emergency Stop than it is to burn a magnesium flare and plunge ten spaces backwards. Not ideal; that’s how we lose games. Jamming the brakes does come with an opportunity cost, however: you miss out on the ability to charge a different ability. Make sure that it’s worth it! It might be fine if you just end up moving back a couple spaces. Sometimes that’s even enough to activate a power on its own.
- Look at the various ways to charge your player powers, and try to lean into those if you can. Your player powers are singularly unique to your ship, and they lean into certain methods of play, be it high-interaction, sabotage, or ordering manipulation (among others). The game presents you with an option for strategy, so whether or not you lean into it is up to you. I’d just recommend doing that, since it can give you an advantage relative to other players. That said, some of the activation criteria (land on a Debris Field, for instance) is really hard.
- Pulling things back towards you is a fantastic way to confuse other players and really mess their turns up. It’s extremely fun to use a Multipoint Tractor Beam on a player that’s just enough ahead of you that you’re now the closest thing to them (and behind them), so they either have to exhaust their Emergency Stop or they’re just shooting off into the void again. Either way, good times for you. You may also end up pulling players onto the other side of you, so now that repulsor they were going to fire pushes them in the opposite direction.
- In general, a little bit of sabotage can go an extremely long way, if you plan it correctly. All you need to do is shift a few elements around. Now a player is too close to another player, and their tractor beam pulls them in the wrong direction. Now they’re focusing on space junk as you move right behind them, and they don’t realize their card fires after yours does. If you can do that twice in one round, you’ll successfully overcome their Emergency Stop and really mess them up. It can be helpful to keep an eye on which cards are taken during Mining; this will give you a relative sense of when players will be moving during the next round, and you can plan your diabolical sabotages accordingly. Again, very cruel, but sometimes it’s just what’s gotta be done.
- Don’t just play cards for their value; be cognizant of their ordering, as well, and think about how they all link together. Big cards are great, but playing a big card early will just leave you adrift with no useful points to push off of (and a lot of people behind you, meaning that ties just break in an unfavorable direction). You need to have a strategy of the order in which you play your cards so you don’t get stuck with three tractor beams when you’re already out in front of everyone. Keep the same thing in mind when you’re Mining: don’t just take all the cards of the same type. Stay flexible, and set yourself up to make use of your cards and your powers.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- No shade towards the new art, but this new cover is breathtaking. I love Kwanchai Moriya’s artwork, and his vision of space is hauntingly intense, here. It’s incredible. I really like the new cover for Gravwell; I think it looks incredible. It coveys the intensity of the race and has sort of an energetic feel to it? I’m a big fan. To be fair, I love Kwanchai’s space work, art-wise, and I think it always looks excellent, but the deep purples in this particularly stand out to me. It’s a compelling piece, and a very good cover for a game.
- The ship minis are fun shapes and indicative of their abilities, which is fun. Some of them are goofy shapes. The black ship is pirate-y and stealthy, so it’s super sleek and angular. The green ship is very organic, so it’s got a bunch of rounded edges that definitely aren’t streamlined or anything, but who cares? It’s a space game.
- I like that everyone’s powers are unique. It gives you a lot of different things to think about as you play, and I particularly like that it gives you a new opportunity to explore every time you play. How will you leverage these powers? How will you work against them if your opponent gets them? It’s fun to think about, and I love that kind of variety in a game.
- The Fuel Cards are very cool, clean, modern designs. They’re very pleasant to look at, but that kinda bold-contrast science-y effect really works, for me. I think it looks very cool.
- The core gameplay is so interesting! I love that the timing of moves determines so much of your fate, and that you can really cast yourself into the depths if you’re not careful. It’s tricky, and I like that. One of my favorite things to do is to kind of just let new players … have at it, with limited explanation, and see how they figure out how things work in relation to other things. First they’re surprised, then they’re either delighted or frustrated, and then they’re invested. The entire cycle of that is a lot of fun to watch (and fun to experience as a player). Generally, I find that players won’t make the same mistake twice, which is always fun.
- I really like that the higher end of the player count spectrum forces players to go in both directions. It’s wildly hectic. So much is happening at higher player counts that I’m a little concerned about whether or not players will be able to keep track of the direction they’re headed in. Essentially, with six players, three of them are headed backwards, from the Outer Warp Gate to the Inner Warp Gate, and the other three are following the normal Gravwell Route. This, naturally, causes some intense chaos that isn’t as present at lower player counts. Plus, the Debris is moving all over the place as well, since they added a new Multipoint Repulsor that just pushes everything away from one player. It’s a wild time.
- Every player having unique powers means that you might get jumped by a power you weren’t aware of, either because you didn’t get a chance to hear everyone’s abilities or you couldn’t keep track of every player’s abilities in your head. This is kind of the challenge of the higher player counts. There are many players, each player has three unique powers, you have no idea how those powers activate, and you may have no idea what those powers do. Even if everyone goes around and reads them out, it’s not really any sort of guarantee that you’ll keep those usefully in your head, so you might just end up getting completely surprised by a power you never saw coming. It’s the challenge of unique player powers: how do you make them interesting while not unplesantly surprising players?
- As you might expect from high-chaos games, more players makes the game more interesting, but also more hectic. There’s a lot going on with more players, and it’s very hard to necessarily predict where you’ll end up when you play. I think there’s something to be said about the nightmare that is a six-player game in terms of intensity and challenge, but there’s also something to be said about keeping it to four players, so that everyone is at least moving in the same direction with some predictability. It’s wild, but I wouldn’t learn Gravwell 2E at six players.
- I kind of miss the “Escape from the 9th Dimension” theming of the original. It was goofy! I liked it! But I don’t think the new theming is bad; I just kind of miss the spookiness of the 9th Dimension.
- Having a player choose the direction of mining feels weirdly arbitrary. It’s a decently big deal and there’s some strategy involved in who gets to pick cards when, and it feels like it was a bit of a shrug, design-wise. Everything else in the game feels really interesting and intentional, so I was just a bit put out by this particular interaction.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think Gravwell’s second edition is a strong, fun offering! The theme of messing with gravity and attraction / repulsion between stranded ships is super cool, and I think the game does a really good job implementing it in an interesting way. Fundamentally, the game is every bit about timing as much as it is about distance, which turns Gravwell into an intense pseudo-bluffing game. Can you read what your opponents are planning based on their position, and if so, can you use that information to your advantage? Or are they going to double-bluff and try to trick you into moving ahead of them so that they can ride your coattails? I like the tension of it and the groans during resolution as players find out that their best-laid plans are catapulting them into the void. Honestly, it has a lot of the same entertainment value as Tsuro, at high player counts, since players are just tripping over each other in a limited space. Unlike Tsuro, though, games can go on a bit longer, and the complexity of Gravwell can either be an additional benefit or drawback depending on your group. I haven’t seen another game that plays with gravity like Gravwell, though, and Kwanchai Moriya’s art adds a certain level of intense cosmic urgency to the game that I think really distinguishes it. I just would tilt towards playing this with more people, so that you get some of that really hectic gameplay. Two players is fun, but you’re largely just trying to outpace the other person, which misses out on some of Gravwell’s most entertaining challenges. If you’re a fan of space games, you like cool art, or you want some gravity-based bluffing shenanigans, I’d say, check out Gravwell! You might enjoy it as well.
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