Editor’s note: The following preview is based on a playable, but not finalized, product; in advance of a crowdfunding campaign.
Update: Some of the details in this preview have already changed from what is written here.-dc]
When Studio Woe puts out a new set for their game, Gruff, they don’t just toss a bunch of new cards at the world. They build on the lore of this world they’ve created. Because of that, I like to open my reviews with the “story so far” from the rulebook in question.
“Once upon a time, […redacted…] the Shepards of Woe!”
Nope! This is only a preview, I’m not spoiling it for you.
Alrighty, for those readers who are new to The Rat Hole, let me give you a touch of background. I’ve been lucky enough to review the previous four Gruff releases, and last summer I became the 2019 Gruff Canadian Champion (If you see me in the 2020 World Championship at GenCon, come say hi). I won’t in any way claim to be an expert (hence why I’m not the World Champion) but I feel I have a decent knowledge base going on here. So let’s take look at Gruff: Whispers of Madness. If you don’t already know how Gruff works I’d suggest looking at some of my previous reviews on it, because I won’t be touching on gameplay very much.
The story of Whispers of Madness is intended to close out the first chapter of the Gruff saga, as the Battle for the Betwix spills over into the mortal world. Think what it would be like if H.P. Lovecraft wrote “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”, or more accurately if he wrote a sequel to it. That’s basically Gruff, and specifically Whispers of Madness which uses the tag line The Tactical Combat Card Game of Horrific Eldritch Goats. This standalone set focuses heavily on the Deepthings faction but also introduces multi-faction “hybrid” goats into the game, which seems to build on the description of the Gruff, Bubbles, from the original game. Essentially, the energy of the nameless things spills out from the Betwixt to further corrupt the already pretty darned corrupt weaponized goats, of the mortal world.
Now, I’ve only seen about a quarter of what’s included in this set, but let me tell you, I’m excited. The pre-campaign advertising makes it clear there that, yes, a Battle for the Betwixt is happening, and the 8 included Shepherd cards are (probably) going to be split between the two sides of the conflict. Similarly, I know that a sizable number of the 15 Gruff character cards are affiliated with the Deepthings faction, and that every Gruff that I’ve seen has Special Abilities and Ability Cards that are downright nasty. I’m not kidding, my mind is all aflutter with possible impacts and combinations to be had with previous Gruffs. Speaking of previous Gruffs, also included will be a “Legendary Gruff” that is an alternate version of a previous Gruff and uses their Ability Cards. Wild-and-completely-unfounded speculation suggests that it will be a Legendary version of Bubbles, who I mentioned earlier.
In saying all that, it might sound a bit like Whispers of Madness isn’t for new players, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Studio Woe very specifically built in card elements to help new players pick up the game. Since the very beginning, most (if not all) of the Gruffs have Ability Cards marked with a star to indicate they are ideal for beginner play. In later sets, they took that a step further, and also added a subtle brand to certain Shepherd, Gruffs, and Ability Cards, that when combined create a well-balanced deck and play experience. Both of these features make learning the game go faster, and can help guide new players towards more advanced play.
At its heart, Gruff is a head-to-head, two-player, game. But there also rules for three or four player games including team play. The regular set of Whispers of Madness will easily accommodate up to four players, without even including potential stretch goals. But wait, there’s more! There are also cooperative and solo options, with the inclusion of Trolls. There are three Troll characters included with this set, and the new Troll that was included with the preview copy I received, mysteriously, wasn’t one of them (hmmmmm).
Trolls can’t be killed by Ability Cards, but otherwise can be targeted as both a Shepherd and a Gruff. In both the co-op and solo mode, the Troll’s actions are controlled by a small deck of Behaviour Cards, that increase in difficulty as the Troll’s Rage increases. A Troll’s Rage stat acts like the Shepherd’s Weird stat to determine actions and a Gruff’s Mean stat when attacking. Trolls honestly have one of the most efficient and effective AI systems that I’ve ever come across in a solo game. It allows players to face an incredible variety of strategies and challenges, without having to add new rules every time.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of Whispers of Madness here, and I’ll have even more to say about the campaign itself tomorrow. So hopefully, I’ll see you back here then.