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.
|Clockwise from left: Black-sided tile |
(5 pts), one-color tile (3 pts), two-
color tile (2 pts), three-color tile (1 pt)
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
|A nice table presence, almost as appealing as |
Qwirkle or Ingenious
|An illegal placement due to different|
corner height - difficult to tell until you
notice this tile is oriented differently
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.