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Grackles Review

Quick Look:

Designers: Sarah Graybill and John Shulters
Artist: Mateusz Wilma
Publisher: Fireside Games
Year Published: 2018
No. of Players: 2-4
Ages: 10+
Playing Time: 20-30 minutes

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com


Lately I have felt this pressure, entirely self-induced, to write reviews that read more like essays - a collection of personable prose that captures the experience of the game as much, or more than, the details of the game. And in order to do so, I felt that my new approach on reviews needed to hook the reader quickly with some anecdote or labored metaphor.

I'm not doing that with this game. Grackles is a great game.

I hope that's enough of a hook, because there's no reason to bury the lead. I like this game. My family likes this game. And if you like abstract strategy games, I think you will like this game. And that is not to say that the other games I have reviewed weren't good games. I think Junk Orbit is a lot of fun. I really enjoyed Planecrafters and predicted it would succeed in its Kickstarter campaign (it did). I've enjoyed Sectre, Crossing Olympus, and others.

Grackles is different.

I played this game the day it arrived at my doorstep, and I have played it every day since. It has come to the point where I look for 15-20 minute blocks that I can squeeze in a game. There's a few minutes between my oldest child's bath time and bed? Let's play a quick game of Grackles. Neither my wife nor I feel like doing the dishes? We'll settle it over a game of Grackles. I've played a lot of Grackles lately, and I have yet to feel the fatigue of repetitive play.

I think there are a lot things I can point to when trying to decipher my draw to this game, and I will touch on them in greater detail below, but I think that I should first issue my own "caveat emptor."

When I was at BGG Spring, I was an hour deep into Roccoco with a pair of strangers when they asked about my favorite games. I went through the list of games I was currently playing and ended with saying that abstract strategy games are my favorite.

"Aren't those just fillers?"

I was a bit taken aback by their response to my answer. For starters, it was the first time that I had heard someone use the term "filler" with a negative connotation. Secondly, I took issue with the implication that abstract strategy games were valued less than games from other categories. But my statement then is the same that it is now: abstract strategy games are my favorite. And like my Rococco-playing companions, you may feel different. You may like a 2-3 hour game with several moving parts and many ways to score victory points, and that's great. I am glad that you like those. I like them, too.

You may dislike fillers. That's fine, too. You do you, boo.

As for abstract strategy games, I like them the most, so if you are still reading at this point, you should understand that the review of this game is coming from someone predisposed to liking this type of game. If you don't enjoy such games, my review probably isn't going to change your mind (but I appreciate you making it this far).

If you do like abstract strategy games, or even think that you might, let's continue and I'll tell you, in no particular order, what I like about Grackles.

Clear and concise rules: The object of the game is to line up as many of your birds as possible on the created telephone wire. So far, it's pretty straightforward. 

I don't recommend skipping rule books, and in fact, I suggest that players spend time in the rules before they even think of attempting to play. This game is no exception, so take the five minutes to read it. The rules have examples of play and the few caveats to the available actions. Overall, the rules for Grackles can be summarized as follows:

On your turn, perform one of the following actions:
  • Draw and place a tile (from the deck, adjacent to another tile)
  • Build a line (from one spot of your color to another)
  • Extend a line (from one end, in a straight line)
  • Rotate an empty tile (without changing its position, 5x max)
Truth be told, that isn't my summary. That is a verbatim summary provided on one of the game's 2"x2" tiles.  That's pretty dang concise.

The game can be summarized in 4 square inches.

Simple where it should be: The game is simple to learn, but I'm talking more about avoiding the temptation of over-complicating something with unnecessary miniatures, creating new terms for common instructions, or making tiles some "unique" shape.

In Grackles, you have one of four colored chips that represent the birds. You place them on the tiles. The tiles are square. There is no unnecessary complexity with Grackles. The only challenge is from your opponent(s), and that is exactly how a multiplayer abstract strategy game should be.

A theme that fits: One problem with abstract strategy games is that they are seemingly easy to throw a theme on as an afterthought, since the game is in general more about the mechanics than thematic elements. Or, conversely, there is no theme and it is simply black versus red, or some iteration of one color versus another. Not only does Grackles have a theme (though self-admittedly lightly themed), but it has a theme that actually makes sense.

Grackles are a common bird in North America with black feathers with the appearance of purple, green, or blue iridescence. Players can play as black, purple, green, or blue. Grackles often flock to and line up on telephone lines; here is a video someone shot outside of my home town of grackles doing what grackles do. The object of Grackles is to create lines of birds on a grid of telephone lines that players create.

I didn't feel that the theme was thrown on as an afterthought, but instead may have been the inspiration for the game. Its nice to see an abstract game that may have been driven by a theme.

Inclusive: This game is about birds, so race and sex representation is a non-factor. One of the designers is a woman, though, which is worth celebrating. Also, I didn't see this explicitly stated in the rule book, but I did notice that each color on the tiles is outlined with a unique series of dashes, making it accessible for the color impaired.

High replayability: As stated above, I have played a lot of Grackles, and each game plays a little differently than the last. This slight variation is enough to hold off the replay fatigue. Having the option of playing with up to four players also keeps the game fresh. A good strategy in a two-player game may be a poor one with three or four players.

Accurate playing time: The game is listed as 20-30 minutes. I average about 15 minutes per game, and that is alright with me. I would rather a game last 15 minutes that is stated to last 20, than spend 15 minutes on a game that was only supposed to last 10. The play time does increase with the more players you add, but I never had a game last more than 30 minutes.

I am often guilty of getting too wrapped up in the authorship of a review - making certain to use the correct categorical information, describing the mechanics accurately, capturing the experience, etc. I often to neglect one of the most important aspects of a game - is it fun?

Simply put: yes. Grackles is a lot of fun. I enjoy playing it with my youngest as much as I do my wife or my co-workers. It's intellectually stimulating, without the air of pretentiousness that often wafts from abstract strategy games. The barrier between explanation and play is also very low, which makes the game inviting for new(er) gamers, regardless of age.

At this point in the review, I usually try to out-clever my previous reviews by tying a nice little recap bow on at the end and concluding with some pithy comment. But, again, I'm not doing that with this game. Instead, I will encourage you to check it out yourself. Take what you read here and then see if your FLGS has a demo copy. Find a friend that has it and ask to play. If all else fails, go to firesidegames.com/grackles and watch the how-to-play video. Abstract gamers can be a finicky bunch, so remember my thoughts and check it out for yourself and see if it is a game for you. It was definitely a game for me.

For those that have grown accustomed to the usual format, here is a high-level, bulleted version of the above information for easy digestion.

Components: 180 bird chips (45 each of black, blue, purple, and green), 25 square tiles, 4 player aids, 20 rotate tokens (5 each of black, blue, purple, and green).

Set-up, rules, and gameplay: The object of the game is to line up as many of your birds on the created telephone wire as possible. Players select a color and take all of the birds and rotate tokens of that color. The two starting tiles (as designated with the black triangles that form a diamond when joined) are placed in the center of the table. The remaining cards are stacked face down within reach of the players.

The two starting tiles.

On a turn, players perform one of the following actions:
  • Draw and place a tile (from the deck, adjacent to another tile)
  • Build a line (from one spot of your color to another)
  • Extend a line (from one end, in a straight line)
  • Rotate an empty tile (without changing its position, 5x max)
There are a few caveats to these actions, however:
  • Players cannot rotate the starting tiles
  • Players cannot build 90 degrees off an existing line of birds
  • Players cannot cross another line of birds, including their own, when creating a new line or extending an existing line
  • All 25 tiles must create a 5x5 square, so no players can play a tile any wider than the fifth tile in a row or column
After all 25 tiles have been placed in a 5x5 grid, players continue in turn order placing birds, rotating tiles (if they have rotate tokens available), or extending a line of birds until no further actions are available for either player. At this point, players may count their birds on the grid (or, more simply, subtract the number of their unplayed chips from 45), and the player with the highest number wins.

Mechanics recipe:
1 pound - area control
1 cup - tile placement

Theme and artwork:
The game is self-admittedly lightly themed, but grackles are North American birds that often flock to, and line up on, telephone lines. The object of Grackles is to create lines of these birds on a grid of telephone lines that players create. The theme is a good fit and is incorporated well into the gameplay.

The good: There's a lot to like about this game. It's simple to learn and teach while still being highly intellectually stimulating. It doesn't try to do too much, but it's appropriately simple in components, rules, and gameplay. The theme, albeit light, works. The subtle unique outlines to each color make the game friendly to those with vision impairments. Most importantly, it's just plain fun.

The bad: None.

Final thoughts: I like this game a lot, and if you like (or think you may like) abstract strategy games, I encourage you to check it out. If you skipped the narrative review to get to the bulleted list, go back and give it a read. Take what you read there and then see if your FLGS has a demo copy. Find a friend that has it and ask to play. If all else fails, go to firesidegames.com/grackles and watch the how-to-play video. Take my thoughts on Grackles, and check it out for yourself to see if it's a game for you. It was definitely a game for me. 

For players that like: Battle Sheep, Othello, Go, Azul

Check out Grackles on:

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/248226/grackles   https://firesidegames.com/   https://www.facebook.com/FiresideGames/?hc_ref=ARS_2gEiJDLFOrewMZYvoOtZ0i8pUQP6c5w3oyFngt59CLK7uJGgq-G7PC-4zhf3aNU&fref=nf   https://twitter.com/firesidegames   https://www.instagram.com/fireside_games/   https://www.youtube.com/user/FiresideGames   

About the Author:
Nick is a compliance consultant by day, a board gamer at night, and a husband and father always. When he is not bringing a game to the table, he is running (most often to or from his kids) or watching the New York Yankees. Follow what Nick is playing on Twitter at @ndshipley
Grackles Review Grackles Review Reviewed by Nick Shipley on August 14, 2018 Rating: 5

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