Monday, April 6, 2015

Sheepishly going where no farm animal has gone before

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….

Space Sheep - sand timer
The simplest of technologies
I’ve always had an infatuation with sand timers.  I remember being mesmerized by them as a kid.  How did they get the sand in there?  I couldn’t figure it out.  All that mattered was that I liked to turn them and watch the sand fall.  There’s something peaceful and calming about that.  Until you add it into a boardgame.  Once you add it to a boardgame, all bets are off.  People get frantic.  They yell, they make bad decisions, and sometimes they freeze up and do nothing.  It’s almost as if they are instantaneously aware that their lives are passing by with each grain of sand and it freaks them out. 

As games have evolved, this ancient time-measuring device has remained a constant.  Sand timers have been a fixture in party games.  Modern hobby games took this concept of timed play and turned it into something else.  Galaxy Trucker saw players racing to build a ship simultaneously.  Space Dealer requires you to use a timer for almost every action and times the whole game.  Space Sheep takes the sci-fi theme and the real-time play aspect of those games and turns it into a cooperative puzzle game that is incredibly challenging and very unusual.

Space Sheep - A 2-4 player game just under way
A 2-4 player game just under way
Space Sheep is a very unique animal:  It’s a real-time co-op puzzle game.  There aren’t a whole lot of games in that design space!  The game plays 1-8 players so you can even do this one solo.  There’s one different-colored planet for each player in the game.  There’s also one Space Sheep token and one Sheppard token matching each planet’s color.  These are randomly assorted on the board so that no Sheppard and Sheep of the same color are together and no Sheppard or Sheep is on its matching planet.  A random rule is placed on each planet along with a token matching the color of one of the planets.

The game is played in turns, but it’s all under duress of the timer. On a player’s turn, they can play a card to do a couple things:  1)Play a card to activate the planet of the matching color, moving the Sheppard, Sheep, or both if they are the same color in accordance with the rule on the planet 2)Play a card to move the Sheppard of that color one space clockwise or 3)Play a card face down on the Defense Console.  At any time on your turn you may play a card matching the color of the planet the Wolf is on to attack the Wolf, knocking him down.  You then draw cards back up to your starting hand size at the end of your turn.

Space Sheep - The Wolf is ready to attack!
The Wolf is ready to attack!
Wolf?  Yup, this is a co-op so there needs to be some way to lose and that is accomplished by the Wolf.  Should the sand timer ever run out, the Wolf attacks.  When the Wolf attacks, cards are discarded equal to the number on the Wolf tile chosen at the beginning of the game. These come from the Defense Console first, then the deck, and then the players’ hands.  If there are not enough cards to discard, the Sheep have lost!

You can stop this from happening, though.  If the Wolf has been attacked, the Supreme Flock Commander (chosen at the start of the game) can flip the sand timer, stand the Wolf up, and roll a die to move the Wolf to a new location.  This will buy the Sheep more time to work on their plan but it allows the Wolf to regroup.  Don’t underestimate how important this is.  Wolf attacks are devastating.  Even one can be the difference between winning and losing depending on when it happens.

That sounds like a lot, right?  It is!  But only because that sand timer is about 60 seconds.  It is incredibly tough to figure out a good move quickly and that’s one of the great things about this game.  You have to balance that out.  Do I make the most optimal move I can find or do I do something quickly to get to the next player?  If I can’t find something quickly, should I just drop a card on the Defense Console?  Or maybe I should just attack the Wolf!  How much time do I have? 

One of the big issues with a lot of co-ops is alpha-player syndrome.  There’s just no time for that here.  The timer creates a huge amount of tension so you don’t have much time to figure it out, let alone have someone try and dictate what you should do.  You are really going to be scrambling to do anything.

An example of one of the rule tiles.
One of the most amazing ideas in this game is the random rules tiles.  Each planet gets a rule tile with a color token on it.  When a planet is activated, you need to follow the rule for moving the Sheppard or Sheep (both, if they are the same color).  This setup will be completely different from game to game so you’ll never have the same puzzle twice.  But it always works!  What’s even more interesting is that usually the rules are triggered off the Sheep or Sheppard pieces so as they move around the board, the effect of each rule is going to change.  This can be really tough to follow for your first couple games, but once you crack the nut you’ll see how ingenious it is.

Speaking of your first couple games, get ready to lose.  The rulebook sets up a “family game” designed to create a good learning atmosphere.  It does a fine job of teaching… to lose.  The game is just very hard out of the gate, mostly because the learning curve is steep.  That’s not a complaint, just something I think people should know.  Don’t get discouraged if you get your butt whooped repeatedly.  In fact, maybe play the first couple games without the timer to get a feel for how the pieces move and interact.  We did that and it helped immediately.  Some of my gaming partners were overwhelmed so we took out the timer and that helped them learn.  Then when we played with the timer it was a much better experience.

Tactics cards
One of the other really strong points of this game is how flexible the rules are.  There are a bunch of different Wolf tokens to make the game harder or easier.  You can add more or less Tactics cards to the deck to tweak difficulty.  You can add planets to add complexity.  You can changes rules to get a different experience.  You can even play the exact same setup and just change the color tokens on the rules to shake the game up with minimal effort.  This game is almost a toolbox, allowing you to create the experience you want.  Once you find a recipe that works, write it down and you’ll have something solid anytime you want to play.  Of course you may want to tweak that recipe from time to time just to keep it fresh.

If all that isn’t enough for you, Space Sheep also has a hidden traitor element you can bring in.  The proverbial “Wolf in Sheep’s clothing” is present and works just like any other hidden traitor game.  Players even get to vote the traitors out like Werewolf.  Of course all this is still done under the strain of the ever passing grains of sand!
The proverbial "Wolf in Sheep's clothing" is quite literal here.

Player count is pretty wide open for Space Sheep, although I think it plays best at 5 or less.  We’ve played with two and it works perfectly.  Playing solo is a great way to get good at the game.  Playing with more creates a different sort of atmosphere.  It gets more and more chaotic which may not be for everyone.  Once you get to 5, that feels like critical mass for having any real control.  It’s a hoot to play with more, but your odds of winning go down significantly. 

I would be remiss to not mention the amazing wooden Sheep and Sheppards.  These things are HUGE!  Almost to a point of being silly.  I really like them though.  It adds a certain presence to the board.  Let’s just say you’ll never overlook them. 

The purple token is slightly smaller than a quarter to give you some scale.

Space Sheep is flying with its cloaking device on and that’s a shame.  This is a very-underrated game that deserves more love.  If what I’ve written about here sounds like something you’d like, then I highly recommend you check it out.  I liken it to something like Zombie 15’ in that it’s sort of a real-time co-op puzzle game.  Unlike Zombie 15’, this one is going to be different every single time you play it which gives it a lot more replayability.  There are no scenarios here, just a toolbox allowing you to make the game exactly what you want.  That kind of flexibility is unparalleled and yet this game still remains undiscovered which is a shame

The caveat to Space Sheep is that if you don’t like games with the time-induced stress element, then you won’t like this.  I find that genre to be a “love it or hate it” kind of thing.  I personally love it.  I love the tension.  I love having to make tough choices with no chance to reconsider.  I love the chaos of so many things going on.  If you like that sort of insanity, then this is a game you really need to look at.

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