One Sentence Synopsis: These goats gruff are the real reason the troll never bothers anyone anymore…
Mutant. Goats. I think that’s all the introduction this game really needs, because if that doesn’t pique your interest I honestly don’t know what will. Gruff is a strategic, expandable card game for 2-4 players. Each player takes on the role of a unique, demented shepherd charged with herding mutant, weaponized goats. There’s only room in the pasture for one herd, meaning there’s only one thing left to do: have a mutant goat war! The duel is one to the death, and the last player standing at the end of the game is the winner.
Players start by choosing their shepherds, each of which has a unique ability. Sliders are positioned on the bubbled numbers on the “Life” track, indicating the player’s total life, and the “Crazy” track, which is used to play cards. Once done, each player also chooses 3 gruffs out of the 12 the game comes with, and likewise arranges sliders on the gruffs’ stat areas for “Mean”, attack, “Fat”, defense, and “Weird”, the amount of “Crazy” generated when activating the goat. Players then take the associated ability cards for each of the goats they chose and shuffle them together to form their main draw deck, and draw 5 cards from the deck to form their starting hand. Finally, players organize their goats in any order in front of their shepherd to form their battle line and the game begins.
Turns are composed of 5 main phases. First, the player resolves any attack they made during the previous round, dealing damage to the gruff in the position attacked. If all of a player’s gruffs are dead or have been used already(exhausted), then they’re all refreshed and readied for battle again. Next, the player draws 1 card from the top of their deck unless it’s empty, in which case the draw is skipped and play continues. The player then selects one of their non-exhausted/alive gruffs and chooses to activate it by turning it sideways. Once that’s done the goat’s ability activates if applicable, and the shepherd gains a number of “Crazy” equal to the current “Weird” value on the activated gruff.
As a fourth step the active player chooses to play any number of ability cards from their hand, paying their cost in “Crazy” along the way. These cards fall into three broad categories of cards: Actions, which are resolved and immediately discarded, Conditions, which stay in play until the player’s next turn, and Mutations which permanently affect cards until they’re removed.
Finally, the player decides which tactical action they’d like to take for their turn between attacking, growing, moving, or resurrecting. Resurrecting allows the player to return any dead gruff to life in the refreshed position, and moving lets the player swap the positions of 2 gruffs with one another. Growing lets the player increase any stat on the active gruff by 1.
The player may also decide to initiate an attack with their tactical action by pushing their active gruff forward and declaring the gruff is attacking the position in front of it. At the beginning of the next turn, damage is dealt based on the difference between the attacking goat’s “Mean” score, and the defending goat’s “Fat” value. If damage equals or exceeds the defending goat’s “Fat” then the gruff dies, and any extra damage is dealt to the shepherd’s life. Play continues like this until one shepherd is reduced to zero health.
I was surprised by Gruff’s strategic depth. There’s a fine balancing act players must strike between growing their gruffs’ combat stats to better their staying power, and enhancing each’s ability to generate “Crazy” which is essential later in the game to use some of the more expensive and powerful cards in their decks which may cost 10, or even 15+ Crazy. Players must also coordinate taking grow actions with moving the gruffs around, re-positioning them to better defend against attacks, or to find a more ideal location from which to attack the opposing player and throw them off. Learning to use the abilities on each mutant goat to their fullest advantage is also a big part of the game, and it’s possible for discerning players to supercharge the upgrading of their goats by, for example, using a move action to better defend against an incoming attack on a goat that gains a stat whenever they move.
The fact that each gruff comes with their own deck of abilities means each shepherd’s deck is different during every game. That’s not only great for replayability since games generally won’t be the same unless players each continue to pick the same gruffs, but it also creates well over 100 possible combinations of decks, all of which will have very different strategies, strengths, and weaknesses players will need to adjust to. Just in the two suggested decks provided for the review copy, for example, one deck clearly favored strong defensive gruffs and action cards, with the “Gusto” gruff acting like a long-term carry that became nearly unstoppable as the game went on. However, that deck was slow to generate Crazy for actions. Conversely, the other deck gained Crazy fairly quickly, had good regenerative powers, and had a nasty penchant for high burst damage given enough points. With more shepherds, gruffs, and action cards per gruff to choose from, the strategic possibilities are quite exciting.
Although the game is billed as taking between 20 and 40 minutes, in my experience 45 minutes or so was always the better bet. That may have just been our play-styles which, admittedly, often favor long-term planning over zerg-type tactics, but the game nevertheless seemed to pace slower overall than I was expecting. Turns themselves, however, take place quite quickly, and there’s very little downtime in-between rounds playing with 2 players. I can see more experienced players knocking out games more quickly than we did, which I think is a plus because I feel the game’s sweet-spot time-wise is right at about 30 minutes.
If it wasn’t already clear from the shots above, Gruff’s art is spectacular. It’s cartoony yet dark, and just really captures a great mood for the entire experience. As much as I’d love to see unique art for each of the gruffs’ action cards, I think it was a smart idea to keep each gruff’s deck uniform- it keeps things consistent, and it’s easy to tell at-a-glance what general type of ability the card probably has. It also makes organization for subsequent games much easier since the decks are easily divided back out after play. The graphic design is also superb- the layouts are really well integrated with all of the artwork, and the stats are presented clearly and consistently on every card.
The sliders make tracking stats extraordinarily convenient, but I can definitely see some players taking issue with what that’s going to do to the condition of their cards even after only a couple of plays. Although the sliders work over sleeves, the shepherd and gruff cards are unfortunately slightly over-sized so concerned parties may need to do a bit more searching than normal to find sleeves to properly protect their investment here, or leave one side of each card exposed that does not get a slider put on it.
COG Takeaway: Although the game paced slightly longer during my playthroughs than I would have liked for this kind of game, I think Gruff has a huge amount going for it. The artwork and design is phenomenal, and there’s a huge amount of customization and strategy provided by the different goat abilities/decks and shepherds for players to really dig into. That’s not even counting any expandable sets that are subsequently released, which I can foresee adding some pretty great content. Plus, its theme is freaking MUTANT WEAPONIZED GOATS. It’s really a CCG, dueling-type experience in a much more manageable package, and that’s a great accomplishment. If that sounds like it’s up your alley visit Gruff’s BGG page!