Base Game Review
Play Time (Box): 30mins
Play Time (Goof): 20-30mins
Producer: Indie Boards & Cards
Designer/s: Jake Tlapek & David Fulton
I grew up loving fantasy and science fiction. Worlds like Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, Legend of Drizzt – I was obsessed with delving into the immersion and discovering these new ideas and concepts.
But in recent years I’ve discovered my favourite theme: Cyberpunk.
There’s something about the vibrant colours in contrast to a dark world I really enjoy. The unique styles. The bizarrely cool fashions. The augmentations, the espionage. It hits all sorts of chords with me aesthetically.
If I had one complaint, it would be some of these worlds which are so inspired by originality are often a bit too similar to each other. But I digress.
There were a few elements of Grifters which really drew me to it. It won’t come as a shock but the setting is Cyberpunk. Literally set in a universe called ‘The Dystopian Universe’, which you might know from games such as Coup. But gameplay wise, it’s a hand-building game. I’ve been a long-time fan of deckbuilders, so a twist on this concept was something I knew I had to check out.
I want to address this early on – Grifters is very much a simple card management game. Whether you’re looking for a filler game or your group tends towards the shorter more specific game types, Grifters might well fit what you’re looking for. I don’t think Grifters is incredibly unique (more on this in a moment) but it really does work smoothly and fills a nice hole in my collection. What Grifters does, it does well.
You start Grifters with three cards that everyone has, and three random cards. I’ve heard people argue this makes Grifters a little too random. You can draw three really good cards and have a leg up in the game. I disagree. Not because I don’t find some cards better than others in situations (stealing from all players is better if you’re opposed to more than one person for example) but you also need to match the symbols to the jobs. It’s unlikely you’ll draw three bad cards but still not be able to pull off a job. And on the rare chance this happens, you’re guaranteed a way to draw more cards out of the middle.
So what is the difference between a deck builder and a so called “hand-builder”? Well primarily the cards you get don’t go into your discard pile, they go directly into your hand ready for the next turn. I’m in two minds about this. What I like is the speed of seeing your plans come into fruition. Rather than a snowball effect where it builds and then one of you manages to smash down the other, it’s more a case of continual little plans which add up to victory. No plan really exceeds three or four actions at most. So while this doesn’t allow for some really incredible long term combinations, it does provide a steady stream of enjoyment and encouragement to keep pushing.
My personal favourite aspect of Grifters is the way it handles its very unique discard pile. When you play cards, they go into “hideouts” and become unavailable for several “nights”. What I like about this is the ability to know how long until you and your opponents have access to certain cards, and your ability to manipulate this. It actually might be a more important aspect then the actual classes of cards you have in hand. Card play, hand/deck building, stealing money from your opponents or the “coffers”, completing objectives… let’s be honest – None of this screams originality. But this hideout system makes Grifters fresh and exciting to me.
Something I’ve often found frustrating in games is there is an ideal player count for them. Now this isn’t exactly untrue of Grifters. But it manages this issue in a clever way – by adding cards to the game depending on the number of players. Most importantly, it adds more quantity and more variety of jobs (the objectives in the middle of the table you’re trying to accomplish).
Pros: ++Hideout System, +Starting Balance, +Steady Stream of Accomplishments, +Player Count Balance
Cons: -Limited Long Term Planning
With Grifters being a short, sweet, targeted game, it misses something in the depth of theme. While the theme doesn’t necessarily feel out of place, it doesn’t grasp me as much as I want it to. The back of the box contains more text than any other game I’ve ever seen. A lot of this is trying to sell you on wanting to play a game set in a dystopian society with you helming powerful criminal organisations and using your soldiers and contacts in order to succeed and become immensely wealthy.
I just feel it doesn’t deliver on what it promises.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with games which capture only a small amount of theme. Some people (not usually me) enjoy abstract games with no theme whatsoever. This is totally fine! But when you sacrifice theme for streamlined gameplay, maybe don’t boast about your theme so much.
One of the biggest signs of this to me is the fact I’ve played with groups of people who don’t realise the flavour of what it is they’re doing. They see the symbols for “play three green cards” and don’t realise they’re vandalizing a gallery opening. I mean some of the ideas for jobs in Grifters is really cool – copying weapons blueprints, framing video celebrities, executing Ponzi schemes, running protection rackets… when you want to play a game about running a science fiction criminal organisation these are the sorts of things you want to do. And yet thematically it falls sorta flat.
I will say, you do get more theme out of playing the individual cards themselves. When I play a Mastermind and hire another specialist or I send in a wheelman to get some of my people out, I do get a taste of the theme I was looking for.
Pros: +Theme Works
Cons: –Shallow Theme, -Lack of Flavour
Production in Grifters is one of the most bizarre in games I’ve reviewed in the over two years of running this site. There are some incredible artistic decisions here, but it feels unfinished.
The colours of the different classes of characters (green for speed, blue for brain, red for brawn) work really well as quick identifiers of which cards go together in a team to complete jobs. Plus the filter over the stylised artwork works really well to give you this kind of scifi/noir feel which I really dig. Not to mention the artistic use of lines, boxes, and dots on each of the cards. It’s the sort of thing I’d generally be willing to hang on my wall.
The backs of the cards are bloody awesome. They tell you everything they need to, they’re not overcrowded, but they also contribute very much to the feel and look of the game. They have this glass shattering look to them but upon closer inspection they’re blueprints. I mean, damn Indie! This looks like the sort of thing you’d find on a high end television show. *round of applause*
It does almost feel like the artists ran out of time because there is so much wasted space on these components it physically hurts. I mean why the hell do you need a double sided player mat? The player mats themselves are excellent and required, not doubting this in any way. But you’re paying for the ink used in the components. So why did they need to print them double sided? Your cards go on there, at no point in the game are you going to flip it over, nor would you because it’s exactly the same. This would have been the PERFECT place for more of this awesome artwork, maybe some more details about the universe we’re operating in, SOMETHING better than what essentially amounts to an absolute waste.
On a similar vein, the job cards are just boring looking. I mentioned in the theme section of this review about how players have legitimately not realised they were kidnapping weapons experts or holding popstars for ransom. This is because the jobs cards are really quite bland with absolutely no artwork or anything to make them more exciting or interesting. I really believe artwork in these areas would have increased the overall quality of the game.
Going back to the player mats for a moment, hats off to whoever decided on the linen finish. They feel awesome, and the added durability at Boarding School events where I’ve taught a number of people to play Grifters has been really appreciated.
However; I don’t understand why the cards didn’t get the same finish. They’re the most active component used in the game. They’re passed between players, placed on mats, shuffled in the deck. You know, the things which happen to cards in tabletop games. It would have been lovely to use those smooth cards. And after a half dozen plays I’ve started to notice minor damage on them, which brings a tear to my eye (and not in the cool criminal tattooed way which would fit the theme).
I don’t understand the decision to keep the ISK element from Coup, but change the name to “Mega ISK”? I mean… were we literally just playing with pennies in Coup? PEOPLE DIED FOR PENNIES?!? It feels like there was an attempt to keep the flavour between worlds with some tweaks, however this feels like you’re throwing the concept out the window. Also the word “mega” feels increasingly cheesy in a game which had walked the line so well in the other card art.
Pros: ++Stylized Artwork, ++Card Backs, +Clear Colours, +Linen Finish Mats
Cons: –Wasted Space, -Boring Job Cards, -ISK…EEK!
I feel like I gave a few mixed messages throughout this review so let me try and clear it up. What Grifters does well, it does incredibly well. But there are some real gaps which stop it from the game reaching the next level. I like it. It’s fun. But it’s also not the first thing I suggest whenever we sit down to play.
I give Grifters:
I would really like to see a larger game set in this same universe. I’d be keen to see what Indie Boards & Cards could come up with.
I got my copy through Tabletop Wonderland
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