Once upon a time…
…In the darkest of ages, hideous trolls blockaded the way between our world and the next; until one day three billy-goats knocked them into The Betwixt. Toppling their reign forever. Since that time, those who would shepherd their way across the void have weaponized their flocks into monster goats called Gruffs.
You are one of these shepherds. Using foul science and forbidden magic you have bred the meanest, weirdest, and fattest goats that the world has ever seen. Your journey across The Betwixt will be perilous. Other shepherds, driven insane by their herds, will try to block your way. Trample them under hoof and conquer the pastures that lie beyond!
I don’t often quote the text of a rulebook, and I don’t think I’ve ever quoted a full page of it before. But with Gruff I can’t help it. There are two things I adore: folklore and using folklore as a starting point for something more. So the lore surrounding Gruff is pretty much right up my alley.
For the record, Gruff currently has three expansions: Clash of the Battle Goats, Rage of the Trolls, and the fully standalone Stuff of Nightmares. But for today I’ll only be looking at the original core set of Gruff.
There are some really fun multiplayer rulesets for Gruff, but at its heart, this is a two player game. Each player chooses one of the seven unique shepherds to face off with. Each shepherd has their own ability that usually activates when their life drops below a certain marked Threshold. For example, whenever Colefield’s life drops below his threshold opposing players each discard 2 cards at random. Capri’s ability, however, has nothing to do with her own life. Whenever a gruff is killed she draws a card.
Once they have a shepherd, they need to gather their herd but selecting three of the 15 gruffs. Each gruff has three defining sets of stats. Mean (the offensive Damage they can deal), Fat (their Defense value), and Weird (which contributes to how Crazy shepherd is). They also have a unique Ability and a Faction icon. the Factions get glossed over completely in the rulebook (although they do better in the expansions), but thankfully their impact (if and when there is any) is reasonably intuitive during gameplay.
Every gruff has a set of 15 cards that go with it, and when a player chooses their three gruffs they select eight of those cards from each to shuffle together into their deck. All cards have a cost, and a player can use as many cards in a turn as they like, as long as the total cost is not higher than their Shepard’s current Crazy number. Some cards also have more specific requirements, such as Blastov’s card Refuel that requires the active gruff to be a Contraption. What is a Contraption, you ask? Well, that is one of the five Factions that I mentioned earlier. Gruffs are VERY well labeled with their faction name and icon, so it should be fairly obvious.
The flow of the game is easy enough. On the active player’s turn they go through a series of steps (and there are reference cards to help remind you of the order) 0- Clean up, 1- Draw a card, 2- Activate a single gruff, 3- Play cards, 4- Take a Tactical Action. Tactical Actions are what the activated gruff does, Attack, Move (swapping places with an adjacent gruff), Grow (increase a single stat by 1), or Resurrect (bringing a killed gruff back to life). You can only activate one gruff per turn, and you usually won’t be able to activate that specific gruff again until all other living gruffs have been activated.
The oddest part of the play structure is the attacks. You activate your gruff (2), choose Attack as your Tactical Action (4), but the attack isn’t resolved until you next Clean Up phase (0). So you attack, then your opponent takes their turn and can choose to use that turn to play defensively, or not. Then at the start of your turn the attack resolves doing damage to the gruff across from the attacker which may now be different than when the attack was declared), any excess of damage is then applied to the opponent’s shepherd.
The game is won when all of a player’s gruffs are dead or their shepherd is killed.
Gruff is a great game with nearly infinite replayability. I’m not going to do the actual math here, but as a single player you use 1/7 shepherds, 3/15 gruffs, and 8/15 cards from each gruff you select. That’s a lot of options, and that’s without adding in expansions or promo cards. Even with all the unique options, the more you play Gruff the more you start to see the strategies and the potential to improve.
My only real complaint is that the art could use some variety. Don’t get me wrong, the art is AMAZING. But the shepherds all have the same pose, almost like flipping through outfits on a videogame character. The gruffs are slightly more varied, but not really. Their variety is just a function of how unique they are as a whole, the composition of the image remains the same. Some people are going to see that uniformity as a good thing, I just personally think it was a missed opportunity.
Every time I break out Gruff I have a great night. If I was running more event demos and writing fewer reviews, this is probably a game I’d be showcasing fairly regularly and I would probably learn something new every time.