GOSU or Go Home
The other day I was browsing BoardGameGeek, minding my own business and reading about the masterful hand management aspects of Summoner Wars, when out of The Geek’s equivalent of a steamy alley appeared a slouching ruffian. “The greatest hand management game of all time?” he bellowed. “Why, that is not Summoner Wars! It is no other than GOSU!”
With the gauntlet firmly thrown down, there was nothing left to do but seek out this GOSU, purchase it, and put it to the test. It has been two weeks, and here I sit, having played GOSU enough times to be assured of its quality. Is it the greatest hand management game of all time? Or merely the game with the highest goblin count? Read on to find out.
At its most basic, GOSU is about a bunch of goblins fighting over which warlord is the biggest chief of them all. Every card represents a goblin of some clan, rank, and power, and you’ll play these cards to form an army. Throughout the game you’ll engage in Great Battles, the victor of which gains a victory point; first warlord to reach three victory points wins. Of course there’s a bit more complexity to it, but it really is almost as marvelously simple as that: play armies, resolve their abilities, draw some cards, and try to overwhelm your opponent with more goblin troops than they can field. And one of those steps is a hell of a lot trickier than you’d guess at first glance.
To explain, let’s first take a look at what a goblin card looks like:
The first thing you’ll notice is that each card comes in one of five colors, with a corresponding clan symbol at the top-left. There are five clans, each with a different focus — so while the red Fire Goblins like to deal damage, the white Ancient Gobans will let you draw extra cards, and the black Dark Goblins like to trap their enemies and raise the dead, and so on. There’s enough of a spread in the abilities that you can’t bank on all goblins of the same clan doing the same thing, but in general you can get a pretty good idea of the tricks any given clan is going to try and pull.
Below that is the goblin level. There are three levels, marked as I, II, or III, but referred to by the manual as Bakutos (think thugs or footmen), Heroes, and Ōzekis. This is critical to take note of, because you need goblins of a lower level to support goblins of a higher level. Related to their level is the goblin’s military value, found over on the right side of the card. This is always constant according to the goblin’s rank, so Bakutos are always worth 2 in battle, Heroes worth 3, and Ōzekis worth 5. Each turn you take a single action, until you pass, at which point you’re done for the round; once everyone passes, the round is over and a Great Battle takes place, with the winner determined by whoever has the highest combined Military Value. Then a new round begins.
Beyond that, each goblin has a special ability; some have a mutation cost, which we’ll talk about later. For now, you know everything you need to know to begin playing.
You start with a hand of 7 goblins. The option you’ll take most often is to play a goblin into your army, with the restriction that you can’t play a level II or III goblin unless it’s supported by a card beneath it, and that there’s a goblin of the same clan somewhere in the previous row. So you begin by laying down a level I goblin for free. After that, things get a little more tricky. You can play another level I goblin alongside the first so long as it’s from the same clan; if it’s from a different clan, you must pay for its service by discarding 2 cards out of your hand. You can play level II cards provided you’ve made a spot for them with level I goblins and you have a representative of their clan in the row below them. The same rule applies for level III goblins, which require a free spot and clan representatives in both lower rows.
In the above picture, you can see a good mid-game army. There’s a level III Fire Goblin up top, which is legal because there is a level II and a level I Fire Goblin in the rows below her. These don’t need to be directly beneath the played card to be legal — for instance, very few of the shown level II goblins are directly above their level I representatives. In the coming turn, I could play another level I goblin, or a level III goblin; though not a level II goblin because it needs a foundation before it can be played. Many goblins resolve their abilities the instant they come into play.
The list of other actions is nice and short. You can “mutate” a goblin by discarding cards equal to its Mutation Cost and replacing it with a new goblin, which is the only way to play a goblin that doesn’t have representatives in a previous row, or to play new goblins once you’ve hit the maximum three rows of five cards. You also get two Activation Tokens, which you can use to play on certain goblins that have activated abilities, or to draw cards.
And that brings us to GOSU’s most exceptional mechanic, the one that transforms it from a simple game of laying down cards with simple abilities, into something devious and brilliant. You start with those 7 cards. Many goblins let you draw more cards. Turning in one of your Activation Tokens will get you 1 card, or you can turn in both to get 3. Other than that, the game never permits you to draw cards. Not after a Great Battle, not after your hand dries up, not when you beg and plead with the other players. Never.
Suddenly, not only do your choices matter about a thousand times more, but you’re plagued with hard decisions. Do you hang onto your wimpy Ancient Gobans to get more cards, or use mean Fire Goblins to get rid of your opponent’s? Do you discard two precious cards to diversify your first row with a new color of goblin, or keep the cards for future use by playing a goblin from a clan you already have? Do you spend both of your Activation Tokens now to keep your head above water by drawing three cards, or use them to engage horribly cruel goblin abilities? This single mechanic transforms the game from too-simple into a fiendish balancing act. And yes, it’s so integral that I would rate the hand management as superior to even my beloved Summoner Wars.
Yes. I just said that.
It hasn’t dethroned Summoner Wars as my favorite game, because GOSU’s gameplay is its stupendous hand management, and nothing else. I definitely recommend it for that alone, even if it is a much slighter game than the ones I usually gravitate towards. Seriously, it’s phenomenal.
There are a few problems, all of which are mitigated with some quick and dirty house-rules. After all, that’s one of the best things about boardgaming!
- Normally, once one person passes, play continues as usual without that player. Which means one player is now potentially sitting around while everyone else keeps playing — potentially forever. It’s not entirely unfeasible for one player to get unreasonably ahead once everyone else has passed. Which is why my group now plays with a rule that once one player has passed, everyone else gets a maximum of three more turns. This adds to the decision-making process, since you can make a flurry of moves and then opt to pass, or pass once you’ve spent your Activation Tokens, or pass when you see someone getting dangerously close to pulling off one of the game’s alternate victory conditions.
- The game has a large number of catch-up texts on the goblin cards, which give you extra cards or attacks when you’re behind. There are so many of these catch-up texts that winning the first Great Battle means your opponent can often gain a large number of crippling bonuses, and you’ve effectively lost the game for yourself. A small addition fixes the problem: Three catch-up tokens can be used to activate catch-up texts when you’re behind in victory points. You still get a bonus, but you don’t get so much of a bonus that skilled early plays are totally wasted — and of course, now you get to agonize over which catch-up texts to use.
Besides that, it’s a fantastic little game. My final score is that this is one of the best games with goblins in it — not to mention one of the best hand management games of all time, period.