Dad, mom, and the children huddled around a cozy table with a big box containing a board game, it’s the definitive image of a happy family. Sadly, that board game is always going to be Monopoly, the popularity of which still eludes me to this day. Few people are lucky enough to have family that enjoys experimenting with less mainstream games, which could serve to explain the shift to digital board games with online lobbies. You don’t have to explain Gremlins, Inc. to any of your fellow players and you don’t have to deal with any post-game resentment after you wipe the floor with them either.
Capitalism über alles
In Gremlins, Inc. you play, naturally, as an ugly Gremlin. You are one of several cretins looking to become the richest and most powerful of your kind, so the goal of this game is to explore the steampunk city and obtain power. Power is represented by the cog-shaped victory points, but to get these you’ll also have to accrue money, malice, and votes.
Before we delve into those, let’s first address the basic mechanics. Gremlins, Inc.is a board game with limited RNG, because everything you do is based on your cards. You’ll always have a hand of six cards and, each turn, you must use one of these to move. Cards (with few exceptions) have a set value that shows how many spaces you’ll move with them. When you then land on a tile, you can once again play a card if you happen to have one that matches that space. For example, you can play the “A Set Up” card whenever you land on a police tile, whose effect will cause a player of your choosing to be arrested. Alternatively, you could have used that card to move 3 spaces the next turn.
Each tile on the board has some effect to it and many of the negative ones can be countered by playing such a card. Bribe tiles will take some of your money away, police tiles will put you at risk of being arrested, misfortune tiles will give random, bad effects, a lot of nasty stuff. On the flipside, there are gambling tiles, income tiles, and campaigning tiles that can work in your favor. It really becomes a game of calculated risks, of choosing what cards to sacrifice for movement and which ones you want to use on tiles.
Much of the board consists of minor tiles like the ones mentioned above that connect to several of the key locations, such as the bank, junkyard, and jail. These locations offer special mechanics and rewards, but are also frequently associated with the best cards that actually reward you with vast amounts of money, votes, or those precious victory points. However, cards also have activation costs, which often come down to money. Trying to reach these key locations while keeping those good cards AND raising the necessary funds to actually put them to use can be harsh. After all, any number of other players share the board with you, and all of them will benefit from disrupting your schemes.
Gremlins, Inc. offers infinite potential to mess with other players. You can land on the same spot as them and try to outbid them, sending the lowest bidder straight to jail. You can also use card effects to bother them, steal their money, or hurt their chances at winning the election. However, doing this often increases your malice, a counter that represents your misdeeds as balanced against your good deeds. Many of the cheaper ways to get victory points also give you malice, but the more you have, the pricier bribes will become and the more you suffer under card effects that target those with high malice.
What I enjoy in the game is that it has a lot going on and allows for a vast amount of strategies. Every few turns there is an election and you can choose to work towards gathering votes in order to win it, giving you many bonuses and granting a victory point. On the other side of success, landing in jail can actually prove very useful as you then get to choose an action every turn, allowing you to gather wealth, formulate an escape plan, or annoy your competitors from the safe confines of your cell.
It never feels like you are just playing along waiting for the player in the lead to push their victory. Through combined effort, the other players can steal victory points and incur financial wrath on the lead player, allowing others to catch up. Even if you aren’t pulling ace cards, you can choose to take the malice penalty to play dirty or inch your way forward with cheaper cards that might only give one or two points apiece. It can be frustrating if bad luck keeps sending you back to jail, but even there you can make a difference.
The game also offers a healthy amount of singleplayer content and competent bots. While they are prone to interesting slip-ups, most of the time they pose a good challenge. Upwards to six people or bots can play and turns are generally fast enough that nobody is left waiting for too long, so long as people are actually using that downtime to strategize. However, I do recommend setting the game to a turn limit rather than a victory point one. A regular 40-point match can easily go on for upwards to 90 turns as players backstab each other over the final, few points.
Additionally, the game does have some minor grumbles. The tutorial is all text and didn’t exactly prep me for the game proper, even if it did give me enough of a grip on things to figure it out myself after some experimentation. I also take issue with the log function, which is a tiny string of icons at the bottom of the screen that reveal what moves have been made. If you want to see what cards your enemy played, you have to click on each block of this log, then click a second time to see the card, then hover over the gear icon to see the effect of that card. Some tighter interface design would have been appreciated there.
Gremlins, Inc. is a board game I just find myself returning to over and over again, because every game ends up feeling different. In one I might strike it rich as a dangerous crook and spend more time in jail than on the board, in another I might be dirt poor and cobble together a victory with cheap cards and the occasional satanic ritual. The use of cards instead of dice makes this a very deliberate game where victory is less based on RNG and more on planning. However, even the best plans are prone to being ruined by rival players, so be sure to have a plan B and C at the ready.
Gameplay score: 9/10
A world crafted from tiles
Even though there is not much of a story mode, the game’s vision for the gremlins is brought across perfectly through its cards, mechanics, and play. They are presented as competitive, hyper-capitalistic creatures that have a love for banking, invention, and the dark arts. You honestly get a feel for the kind of corrupt, steampunk society these characters live in, as police perform baseless searches and even misfortune can be bribed into affecting someone else.
The title screen welcomes you with jazzy tune and the spectacle of a revered gremlin held aloft on a throne, but from there the presentation does take a bit of a backseat. The base game only features 2 different boards and a handful of different gremlins to play as, and during a game there are only sound-effects and no music. The cards do much to compensate, with each one featuring a lovely drawing that represents its effect. While some cards do share similar art, it’s a great way to further flesh out this creative world.
Presentation score: 8/10
Whether you want to play with friends, strangers, or against bots, Gremlins, Inc. is a solid digital board game that offers new challenges and laughs every time. Its reliance on planning over RNG allows players to be tactical and devious in ways few other games of this type allow. It’s very similar to Armello, but omits that game’s focus on direct combat in favor of more robust political and financial play. With close to 200 cards, a list of DLC content, and many free updates, this is a game bursting with content and one that I’ll certainly be playing more of even after this review goes live.