Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension
Time: ~20 minutes
Times Played: 10+
I love setting up a game for new players to experience, especially those that just by looking at the board, they are able to understand exactly what they have to do. It’s an ode to a simpler time, of games such as Candyland or Trouble; where there was a definitive starting-point, ending-point, and pathway. Gravwell takes that simple premise and turns it on its head with its implementation of 9th dimensional gravity.
The title and the box art tell you little about the game. There is an ambiguous title and some tame, yet colorful art. Looking at the box and judging the game by its uninspiring name, you would have no idea what is inside or what you’re getting into. Something with space jets, it looks like.
Opening the lid for the first time would honestly lead to initial disappointment. Gravwell has a huge box for what the game offers component wise, which is a set of thirty cards, six plastic ships, a white plastic marker, a rulebook, and a board. The rest of the box is a cardboard insert that blocks off two-thirds of the empty space. It looks like a blacked out sports stadium when they don’t have enough fans to fill the upperdecks.
Maybe the additional space is/was designed for future expansions but seeing as the game was released in 2013 and nothing else has come out for it, I am less than optimistic.
The space ships are fine plastic iterations of space-traveling vessels and while nothing to write home about, they’re not oppressive or anything. Same with the cards. They’re easy to read and decipher. I sleeved our cards after six plays due to some wear on the edges from shuffling but that might speak more to my aggressive shuffling technique than the quality of the cards.
The rulebook is a little long for the level of difficulty the games provides but I’d rather have too much information than a lack of information. The rulebook does provide an excellent tutorial on certain situations that can happen in the game that is a worthwhile reference though.
A complaint as opposed to a negative is that Gravwell only plays up to four players. This is such a great game and I hate that if there are five of us, we can’t break this out. I get the decision to limit the game at four as with five or even six, I feel like all hell would break loose and players would constantly be stuck in flux or being forced to move backwards but still, a man can dream.
That’s it for the negatives for this game, at least from my perspective.
The setting of Gravwell is that your ship has been lost in the recesses of space in the 9th dimension. This dimension is weird though. There are derelict ships of voyages past along the pathway toward the warp gate, which will only allow for one ship to pass through before closing.
To get to and through this warp gate, ships must utilize the gravity of the 9th dimension. To utilize this gravity, players will use Fuel Cards that will make their ships move. There are three types of movement: moving towards the nearest object (Yellow…although other players tell me it’s Green…), moving away from the nearest object (Purple), and moving all objects near you (Teal). The Fuel Cards are played simultaneously and are activated in alphabetical order. There is one chance to cancel one of your cards per round. The game lasts until one player either reaches the warp gate or six rounds conclude. In the case of the latter, the closest player to the warp gate wins.
The cards offer one per letter of the alphabet (with the four additional being the Emergency Stop cards) and are well balanced in regards to the types of movement, amount of movement, and correlation of movement to alphabetical order. Typically, players will be moving forward more than backward thanks to this balance.
Gravwell is a fun, light thinker of a game. It is incredibly easy to pick up and play, whether it be your first time or your thirtieth. The game can be frustrating when someone else’s play disrupts your plans but that’s what makes this game great. It takes a simple idea that we’ve seen in many games (racing towards a certain spot) and twists it with the use of gravitational pull.
Gravwell offers a depth of strategy that I haven’t yet experienced in any other lightweight game. This isn’t a brain-burner by any stretch of the imagination but it fills that light game to either warm everyone up for a night of games or to cool them down after a heavier affair. You won’t end this game and think back on turns and what strategy you could have better utilized like a Great Western Trail or even a Viticulture but it wasn’t designed that way. It’s a lightweight game that plays fast and offers a highly interactive experience.
The first play through for new players is difficult to grasp. The nature of the track and the end goal create this familiarity for players that removes any intimidation from the game and while the rules are easy to understand, until they are seen in motion, the gravity of the card actions are not yet apparent to the player. The concepts are simple enough; play a card to move ‘x’ amount of spaces in alphabetical order.
With the gravitational nature of the game, players can and will be screwed over and while sometimes this will be due to an intentional act, it rarely if ever is done out of malice. All players have the same end goal in mind and spending a turn or more to personally attack a player would be a waste of a movement, especially since you don’t know the order in which players are going to act.
Since players are moving towards the finish line, the game never stalls and players are rarely, if ever, locked in a duel where they are stuck moving forward and then back without any progression, in any direction, being made. The game also ends at the conclusion of the sixth round so if players are intentionally locked in a competition on who can screw over the other the most, it won’t overstay its welcome.
Gravwell is playable from one to four players and each offers a different experience. At two-players, the game is a direct duel where each turn involves bluffing and manipulation. It might seem more straightforward about where you are going to go and what card you are going to play, but experienced players will create a Cold War-esque tug-of-war as players jostle for what little positioning they can muster. For instance, look at this two-player game that Rachel and I recently played:
It was neck-and-neck for the entire race and the game ended on the final turn of the final round with our final cards being played, with Rachel scoring a victory by one space. It was so exhilarating that we had to share it on Twitter and Instagram. #ShamelessSelfPromotion
At three- and four-players, Gravwell creates intense feelings of jubilation and frustration. After a round concludes, one player may find themselves well behind the pack, maybe even back in the starting position, frustrated due to the actions of their opponents and their unfortunate card plays. But they know (or if they don’t, they will soon find out) that being in last is not a death sentence. They now have carte blanche to move forward and catch-up to their competitors. Meanwhile, the excitement and joy felt by the leader of the game quickly turns to despair as they realize they are alone and being alone means they are almost certainly moving backwards.
The depth and strategy of the timing of card play coupled with the humor of the results of those plays makes Gravwell so unique and provides those rare moments that games strive to do, creating experiences instead of ‘just plays’. It’s funny when someone goes from playing a card that should win them the game but the player in front of them moves backward. A story is forged when the player that sat in last all game comes from behind to win. The unexpected nature of the paths create a “to win, you have to lose” scenario similar to “The Loser” in Cosmic Encounter.
While a player might end a round with a sizable lead and another player might find themselves buried deep behind the pack, this game has no “runaway leader” nor does it have a true “catch-up” mechanic since the entire game is about catching up. Players cannot act independently as unlike almost every other racing game, you need to work with your opponents to have any chance at victory.
There weren’t any noticeable difference between three- and four-players for us. The board is a little more crowded with four which creates more opportunities to jump ahead (and by the same virtue, fall back) but there are no fundamental mechanical, set-up, or strategy strategy changes implemented.
This is a rare game that we’ve enjoyed at every single player count. Adding or removing players does not impact the playtime of the game at all and the drafting of cards, which I’ve mentioned before being a possible game lengthener, is a quick way to give players some choice over their future round.
Gravwell does offer a solo experience but unfortunately, I cannot speak to it. Every time I set this game up for a solo run, someone jumps in to play since the game itself is fast-paced and lasts at most twenty minutes. I also don’t know if I’ll ever play it solo as it falls into that Clank! territory where I appreciate the offer but I’d rather play something heavier if I’m partaking in solo gaming.
I honestly don’t know who would not like Gravwell. If you only like deeply strategic games or you hate space, then I can see some aversion to the game but besides that, this feels like it has almost a universal appeal to people interested in playing board games. This has become an instant favorite for us and will be a staple of our group for a long time. This is a great game that offers a huge amount of replayability and will be one of our new gateway-esque games to introduce players to the wonders of modern board gaming.