A Demonic Magical Cat and His Robot BFF Fight a Dinosaur Witch God in the Weird West – A Grimslingers “Tall Tale” Review

Grimslingers (3rd Edition)

Designer: Stephen Gibson
Publisher: 
Greenbrier Games
Players:
 1-4
Playing Time:
60 Minutes
Campaign Mode:
4 chapters, linear narrative, replayable with no permanent modifications
MSRP: $29.95
Logged Plays:
4 games solo, full campaign completed
Copy Purchased By Reviewer


I remember in 2016 going through BoardGameGeek’s Gen Con 2016 preview list looking for hidden gems that might debut there, and one game on the list in particular stood out to me because of its box art.  On the box cover there was a dinosaur with horns, a cute lil’ robot, a cowboy with glowing eyes, some reptile(?) thing with a gun, and a bigger scarier robot.  No, I’m not talking about Smash Up!, I’m talking about Grimslingers by Stephen Gibson and Greenbrier Games.

Dat box.

Grimslingers is effectively two games in one box.  The first game mode, Versus mode, is a 2-6 player competitive card dueling game that can be played 1 vs 1, team vs team, or in a multiplayer free-for-all brawl.   The second mode, Tall Tale mode, is a 1-4 player co-operative narrative campaign-based adventure game.  This review is about the Tall Tale mode specifically (3rd Edition, even more specifically), but the game’s origins is in its Versus mode, so let’s talk about that a bit first.


HIGH MOON AND THE ORIGINS OF GRIMSLINGERS

Grimslingers initially started development as a competitive elemental dueling mobile game called “High Moon,” later renamed to “Grimslingers” to avoid potential trademark issues with a web comic of the same name.  The game had a pixel-art style to it similar to Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, but shared a lot of thematic and mechanical elements of what eventually became Grimslingers:

Designer and artist Stephen Gibson eventually moved High Moon to the tabletop space after having issues keeping programmers staffed on the mobile game.  His eventual goal was to use the profits from the tabletop card game to further fund the mobile game’s development.  When the Grimslingers Kickstarter launched in 2015, the competitive Versus mode was initially the only mode offered.  I won’t go into too much detail about how this mode plays, you can download the rulebook here, but to briefly summarize, each player simultaneously picks and reveals a card from their hand and then resolves the cards in a rock-paper-scissors fashion.  Rounds continue until all but one player/team is left standing.

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A sampling of the game’s gorgeous card artwork.

The cooperative Tall Tale mode was added later in the Kickstarter campaign as an optional add-on stretch goal.  Whereas Versus mode was already designed and developed before the game even went to Kickstarter, Tall Tale mode was just an idea Stephen had at the time of its announcement.  When Greenbrier Games eventually picked up the publishing rights for Grimslingers a couple of months after the Kickstarter wrapped, they gave Stephen the time to flesh out the Tall Tales mode more, and ultimately chose to package it in the core game.

Of the 7 written reviews on BGG (not counting this one), 5 of them are exclusively focused on the Tall Tale mode, and one only briefly mentions Versus mode in passing. Some of the video reviews cover both Versus and Tall Tale mode, but the general consensus from people seems to be that Tall Tale is the better and preferred mode of the two.  Grimslingers may have started as a competitive dueling mobile game, but it found its voice and its audience as a coop/solo tabletop adventure game.


TALL TALE MODE

Grimslingers’ Tall Tale mode can loosely be described as a “weird west” campaign-based cooperative adventure card game.  Players take on the role of Grimslingers, magic-wielding cowboys conscripted by Icarus the Iron Witch.  The campaign takes players (along with their snarky robotic anima sidekicks) through a 4-chapter story in The Valley of Death on a mission of hunting down and killing Icarus’s boss, The Witch King (correction from the designer: The Witch King is not his boss, he’s just a self-proclaimed “king” that thinks he’s the boss).  The world that Stephen has built around this game, The Forgotten West, is an interesting mix of western, magic, sci-fi, and fantasy tropes.  It’s a world where cowboys, bandits, robots, goblins, minotaurs, talking llamas, chupacabras, witches, and vampires co-exist, and it works.  Weird West is a genre that you surprisingly don’t see a lot of in boardgaming, so despite being a strange mish-mash of all sorts of genres, it feels fresh and unique.

Each chapter consists of a series of narrative entries with corresponding objectives that players must complete in order to advance the story and finish the chapter.  Objectives may have you traveling to locations on the map, collecting items, fighting monsters, etc.  The Valley of Death is represented in the game as a small node-based map that players move together as a group around with a single red meeple.  Attack nodes on the map require players to duel an AI opponent similar to how duels work in Versus mode, and reward players with character level-ups and items.  Event nodes have players resolving random events from a deck of event cards.  Landmark nodes give players location specific actions players can take, such as trading with shopkeepers or gambling at the saloon.  Despite being a small piece of cardstock you are pushing a little meeple around, it feels like an open world adventure game that you are free to explore at your leisure.  Between objectives, players are free to mosey about the valley, there is no in-game mechanism or timer forcing players to progress in the story, which is not something you typically see in a cooperative board game.  I found that individual chapters took me around an hour to play solo.

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Example setup of a solo Tall Tale game.

The brisk playtime I had could be due to the fact that I avoiding traveling to attack nodes where at all possible, as I wasn’t a huge fan of the combat system.  Duels lengthened game sessions, they were more dangerous, and weren’t very satisfying to play through.  Across my entire 4-chapter campaign, I only dueled 8 times, most of which were mandatory fights to progress the story.  The combat in Tall Tale mode is similar to Versus mode in that you pick a card every round to play, but the AI plays instead with a custom deck of generic and creature-specific AI cards (6 normal creatures and 1 boss creature come in the game).  Creature AI cards don’t deal with the elemental rock-paper-scissors mechanics that PvP duels do, so for the most part it felt like I was just playing basic spell cards to do a couple points of damage per turn without any real insight into what the AI was going to do.  As you progress through the game and level up, you gain access to advanced spells and items that open up your options a bit, but not by much.

I should also point out that the game is already on its 3rd Edition of its rulebook.  Stephen and Greenbrier have continued to tweak and simplify the rules (as well as fix typos) in the rulebook between print runs over the past 2 years based on player feedback, going as far as stripping out entire sub-systems of the game that players found clunky.  Even in it’s 3rd printing, the rules are a little difficult to parse.  Each different node type on the map is resolved differently and has rules for what you can/can’t do at it.  Duels require learning a whole separate set of rules for combat, and have you flipping back to the Versus rules section for some things.  Player aids for this game would have been a huge help (it is my understanding that these are provided in first big-box expansion, The Northern Territory).

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Creatures, grimslingers, and anima.

Besides doing the art and design of the game, Stephen also wrote the story that goes along with the campaign.  The story is well-written, even humorous at times (sadly something I can’t say about a lot of narrative games on the market).  The characters you meet and places you visit are memorable and evocative of a much bigger and fantastic world that they inhabit.  Rather than spell everything out for you, Stephen’s writing and artwork sets the stage for your imagination to fill in (or question about) this strange world.  The story is linear, which Stephen has said was an intentional choice on his part to tell the story he wanted to tell.  There is only one moment in the entire campaign where players are given a story choice, and it’s a very minor choice at that.

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Examples of some archetypes you can play as.

Character progression in the campaign is pretty linear as well.  At the start of a campaign you will choose one of several archetypes for your character: vampyre, daemon, witchborn, etc.  This will give you a character-specific combat ability as well as your max health/energy values.  As you defeat creatures and complete story objectives, your character will level up, but rewards you get for leveling up are baked into the advancement track, you don’t get a lot of room for character customization over the campaign.  You are able to gain advanced spells as you level up, but a lot of them felt designed for and better suited for Versus mode.  While the campaign is replayable, you could potentially explore playing as different archetypes or taking different routes around the map to get to objectives, this feels like something you would play through once to experience the story and not revisit.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Despite the small package and relatively short campaign that it comes with, Grimslingers’ Forgotten West is actually one of the most interesting, beautiful, and fully-realized worlds that I’ve experienced in a boardgame space.  Fans of weird west fiction and/or gamers looking for a campaign with a unique settings should check this game out.   You can get this game for less than $25 online and a full campaign only lasts 4 hour-long games, so it’s not a huge investment of either your time or money to check out.  Who knows, maybe you’ll even get some mileage out of it as a PvP game as well if you find yourself enjoying the combat mechanics.

I have bought The Northern Territory expansion and look forward to exploring all that has to offer, be sure to come back and check out my review for that in the future!


REVIEW SCORE: 8 out of 10 (Great)

icons8-plus-24 PROS

  • Top-notch world-building, art, and writing, all by the same person!
  • Seriously, I want more games in this universe, Greenbrier
  • “Open world” feel in a small package
  • Games are quick to setup, play, and tear down

icons8-minus-26 CONS

  • AI opponents a little too random and lack of basic spell card diversity limits interesting decisions to be made during duels
  • Rules are a little difficult to parse, even with 3rd Edition rulebook
  • Linear story limits replay value a bit
  • Card stock is difficult to shuffle

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