That will be your first reaction to Gremlins Inc, a videogame boardgame that’s looks awfully, well, busy. Busy would be the kind way to put it. Mess is more likely what you’ll think. It’s what I thought. What a chaotic tangle of tiny pictures and arrows! Is that some sort of artwork lurking behind it all? What is that back there? A gremlin warren? Is there a way to see text labels for all these icons? Or even just a legend?
After the jump, wet and fed after midnight?
But anyone who plays boardgames, or even reasonably complex strategy games, knows that a first impression is just a first impression. A mess is only a mess when it remains a mess after you’ve figured it out. And frankly, I’d rather a game be a mess that makes sense than a tidy slice that doesn’t doesn’t make sense. Or, arguably even worse, a tidy slice that doesn’t give me the information I need.
A boardgame needs to talk to you. It needs to anticipate what you might want to know and it needs to tell you that clearly. And in most boardgames, you’ll want to know lots of stuff. That’s why Gremlins Inc looks like a mess. It has a lot to say.
Once you understand how to hear what it’s telling you, once you’ve figured it out, Gremlins Inc makes perfect sense. The noise resolves into an articulate presentation. Where previously there was a plate of icon spaghetti, there will be a kind of elegance and even a meaningful geography. The best boards are maps with a sense of place. Gremlins Inc presents a gremlin city with an unmistakable flow and rhythm, with an economy consisting of more than just money. You gather and spend votes for the gubernatorial elections (I had no idea gremlins lived in a democracy; I would have pegged them for monarchists). Malice is a resource that you don’t want, but you’re going to have a hard time avoiding it in this industrial capitalist milieu. Gremlins tend to step on each other to get ahead. Gremlins are nothing if not malicious.
The substance of Gremlins Inc is advancing yourself while setting your opponents back. The dirty tricks mostly take the form of cards, which can only be played by reaching certain spots on the board. The moment-to-moment gameplay is using your cards to get to the places where you can use your cards’ special abilities. In other words, it takes cards to use cards. Are you going to use a card to move or are you going to wait to use its unique power (out of 130 cards, only 30 have more than one copy in the deck)? Because where other games of this type have dice, Gremlins Inc uses cards. This is a roll-and-move game without the roll part.
If you’re not familiar with roll-and-move games, consider yourself lucky. It’s one of the oldest and most tedious foundations for game design. In other words, it’s how Monopoly works. The slightly less mainstream version of roll-and-move is Talisman, a beer-and-pretzels-but-mostly-beer-and-more-mostly-really-cheap-beer fantasy boardgame. You can get various videogame versions of Talisman, but they’re all horrible ports of horrible boardgames bogged down by business models that rely on penny ante DLC. The actual bona fide boardgamer version of roll-and-move is…well, there is no such thing because boardgamers wouldn’t be caught dead playing something so cerebrally inert. Roll a die, move a few spaces around the board, follow the instructions which often involve rolling the die again, then wait for your next turn.
But Gremlins Inc dispenses with the rolling and instead uses your cards. Because they power both movement and special actions, you’re making meaningful decisions. And furthermore, the board isn’t just a track around which you run laps. As you can see from the screenshot, it’s an intricate set of paths and forks and detours and one-ways and even a cul-de-sac. But as you probably can’t see from the screenshots, it’s also a very definite geography. You’re here. The place you can use this awesome card is over there. Do you take a potentially risky shortcut? Or do you take your time? The decision belongs to you and not some D6. One of the most significant design decisions is that you can always stop on an important space. You’ll never overshoot the place you want to land. You did the hard work of getting here, so Gremlins Inc isn’t going to fuss with making you stick the landing.
The board’s flow feeds into both the resources and some sort of thematic silliness about gremlins. Not that I have any idea what sets these gremlins apart from, say, kobolds or goblins. One man’s gremlin is another man’s imp, which is another man’s gnome. I suppose the defining characteristic of these gremlins is their steampunkishness. The board is some sort of underworld with dirigibles and gears and contraptions and constabularies and a governor and a coterie of devils on one side and a band of astrally enlightened heroes on the other. The treasure is on top and the trash is down below. The office is next to the plant. And of course the courts are next to the casino. Beware the jail. Or embrace it. A criminal gremlin can thrive down here. Jail isn’t just a dead turn. It’s a set of new opportunities.
Gremlins Inc includes some clever subgames involving crime, punishment, elections, bribery, quests, bidding, secrecy, and sheer misfortune. But it mostly comes down to managing your hand of cards to navigate this underworld. It mostly comes down to the board and the collection of vividly realized and distinct cards.
Gremlins Inc explains the basics with its tutorial, ingame documentation, and tooltips. But it takes brute playing to figure out what the developers are doing. This is one of those games that clearly tells you how to do things, but for whatever reason neglects to tell you why you might do them. Which isn’t that unusual in the world of boardgames. For many boardgamers, figuring out the board is half the fun. But Gremlins Inc could have done a better job revealing its elegance earlier. It could have moved you more more quickly from “what a mess” to “I obviously want to play this card and keep that card”. It’s also a relatively long game, and there’s no meaningful catch up mechanic to prevent a winner’s lead from snowballing. These are a couple of reasons I’m not convinced the multiplayer is a selling point. But for a game in a niche genre that’s been out for about a month, and in open beta even longer than that, Gremlins Inc has a surprisingly healthy player base. If you don’t want to play the AI, you won’t have a hard time finding human opponents, so long as you’re willing to sit down in real time, all at once. I’m more comfortable letting the AI zip through their turns and then taking my time poring over the board, considering my options, playing it more like a videogame than a boardgame.
In fact, once Gremlins Inc has passed the “what a mess” stage, it’s not so much a videogame boardgame as a strategy game about navigating a gremlin underworld. It’s worth noting that when you roll a D6 to resolve an encounter, a D6 doesn’t roll. Instead, you pull a lever on a spinner. The outcome is the same. You get a number from one to six. But Gremlins Inc doesn’t need to keep reminding you it’s a boardgame. And neither does it flash and blink with animations and effects that only a videogame can deliver. Above all else, it wants to be clear. After that, it’s content just being a pretty good game about a malicious gremlin underworld.
If you’d like more detail about how it plays — and by more detail, I really mean more detail — I take a closer look at Gremlins Inc in the video below. You should be able to tell within the first ten minutes whether it’s a game for you.