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Gruff: Stuff of Nightmares Kickstarter Preview

Quick Look: Gruff: Stuff of Nightmares

Designer: Brent Critchfield
Artist: Virginia Critchfield
Publisher: Studio Woe
Year Published: 2018
No. of Players: 1-4
Ages: 11+
Playing Time: 20-45 minutes

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com

WARNING: This is a preview of Gruff: Stuff of Nightmares. All components and rules are prototype and subject to change.


tl;dr: A cute continuation of the Gruff series, bringing TCG-style PVP action to the table alongside a tense co-op option.

Getting to the Game: Each player selects a Shepherd and three Gruffs and builds a 24-card deck to support them, choosing eight cards from each Gruff. Preselected options are available to new players, but with each Gruff having 15 cards in their pool, deck building can get pretty crazy pretty fast. Each Gruff is assigned a position (left, center, or right), and everyone's stats are set to their starting values. Shuffle your deck, and draw five cards. Let's get dreamy.

There are some nuances to Gruff that can be challenging to learn and, more importantly, remember. Combat is declared on your turn but doesn't resolve until the very beginning of your next turn. The idea is likely to take out response actions (you don't ever play cards on your opponent's turn), but it can be a little confusing to veterans of card games where combat is self-contained in the moment. Overall, the idea seems to be to simplify the back-and-forth nature of this genre, but the complexity and action is added back in with the crazy abilities and escalating stats of Gruffs and Shepherds.

Playing the Game: As previously mentioned, the first thing that happens on your turn is that you resolve combats declared on your previous turn. Each Gruff has three stats: Mean (attack), Weird (Shepherd resource), and Fat (defense). When resolving attacks, you add up the Gruff's Mean and any bonuses from ability cards, and compare to the defense (Fat stat plus bonuses) of the Gruff in the attacking Gruff's lane. If the attack is at least as much as the defense, the defending Gruff is killed and any additional damage over the Gruff's defense is assigned to the Shepherd. After that, any condition cards from your last turn are discarded, and then you draw a card. With this construction of a turn, it's possible while defending from an impending attack to know with 100% certainty what's going to happen and deal with that. For example, if my Gruff with two Fat is in the same lane as an attacking Gruff with four Mean, I can look at the cards in my hand and know whether or not I should devote resources to deflecting that attack or just give in and devote my attention elsewhere. It's a cool mechanism, and it serves this game well, as things can get rapidly out of hand.

After your Draw Phase, you get to activate one of your Gruffs. To do this, you turn the Gruff sideways, "exhausting" it, and following the instructions on the Gruff's card. The Gruffs in my review copy all gained certain stats upon either activation or exhaustion, and those gains are cumulative. The Weird stat then contributes Crazy to your shepherd, which is used to play ability cards. Each card has a cost deducted from your available Crazy pool, which is the only limit to the number of cards you can play. This is key to playing some of the massively costly cards in the game - staying alive long enough to pump up your Gruffs' Weird stats to contribute to your Crazy stat.

From there, you get one final action choice in the Tactical Action Phase. You can either commit the active Gruff into combat, pushing it forward in its lane; Shift, which allows the active Gruff to swap places with an adjacent Gruff (living or dead); Grow, giving you a free increase of a Gruff stat of your choice by 1; or Resurrect, bringing one of your dead Gruffs back to life. When Gruffs die, they flip over, maintaining all their stats and tokens, which means that when they're resurrected, they're as good as new. This feels strange until you remember that power creep in this game is real and Shepherds' health pools are low.

Gruff as a game does a very nice job of balancing the huge power curve by using the Shepherds' low health. Playtime for Gruff is listed at 20-45 minutes, which is actually a pretty big range. If one player draws their cards on curve, taking advantage of their early low Crazy pool with low-cost cards and drawing into their larger ones as they go, and the other player ends up with the starting hand I have on the left, you'll see a game on the shorter end. Maximizing your advantage and taking the opportunities your opponent gives you to push damage across to the Shepherd is the winning strategy. Trying to build your board state up across all three Gruffs is only going to slow you down. Predicting where those opportunities and hoping your opponent can't put together the perfect counter is where Gruff really shines, and this leads to some great moments.

Included along with Gruff: Stuff of Nightmares is a co-op / solo mode where your Shepherd(s) take on a giant troll. The troll's play is automated, so you don't have to worry about one player being forced to play "against" the team. This mode is a standout, with multiple ways to play. Having multiple Shepherds on one side of the table tends to even out the randomness of the draw in my experience, and it forces a much nicer curve to the action. it's still punishing in its difficulty, so you'll need to stay sharp. In my opinion, this is a stronger experience than the PvP mode, as you have multiple resources to draw on and can anticipate the troll's actions to some extent.

Artwork and Components: The artwork of Virginia Critchfield is very cute, fitting the theme nicely. It does tend to be a bit "samey" with variations of each Gruff on each of their 15 cards. I personally would have liked more stuff to look at across my hand, but it's important to emphasize here that this is a preview, and it's possible the art is still not complete. There's potential to be had, and I look forward to seeing the final product, as what's here is good.

The components for Gruff are where I really hope the Kickstarter campaign steps up. As it stands currently, there's no way to track damage done in combat, which is relevant because some ability cards do burst damage, and with no way to track how much damage was already done to a gruff, it can get slightly confusing. Also, the Dream and Nightmare tokens are huge cards and could benefit greatly from being tokens that sit on the Gruffs themselves. The stat-tracking sliders fit the cards well; there's no Betrayal at House on the Hill issues here. Overall, there are no components to speak of with Gruff, and there should be. Again, it's important to remember that I have a preview copy that is subject to change. This is one of the places I hope there will be.

The Good: Artwork across the cards is simple but cute. Power creep doesn't feel out of control, and ramping into some of the high-cost cards is exciting. Co-op mode is great.

The Bad: Needs more variation in artwork and a few physical tracking tokens. Gameplay is subject to shuffling a deck of cards, so it's very possible to be out of the game with little way to get back in. 

Score: I liked Gruff a lot, and would be interested in seeing how the game plays with a much larger card pool to draw on. The mechanics here are interesting enough to support a competitive community, and that could be cool. If you already own Gruff in some fashion, Stuff of Nightmares is a solid addition to the game. If you're just starting out, this feels like a good point of entry. I'm giving Gruff: Stuff of Nightmares a score of Rise and Shine.

Check out Gruff: Stuff of Nightmares on:


On KICKSTARTER between now and April 19, 2018.

About the Author:

Nicholas Leeman has been a board game evangelist for over 10 years now, converting friends and family alike to the hobby. He's also a trained actor and works summers as one of the PA announcers for the St. Paul Saints, a professional baseball team. He lives in Minneapolis, MN with his board gaming wife and son.
Gruff: Stuff of Nightmares Kickstarter Preview Gruff: Stuff of Nightmares Kickstarter Preview Reviewed by The Madjai on April 05, 2018 Rating: 5

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