Mini-Review: Grimoire Shuffle
Back in the alt-text for the header image of my Blades of Legend review, I made some predictions about the remaining four games in the Minigame Library from Level 99 Games. I guessed (correctly) that Pixel Tactics and Noir would be good entries, underestimated Infinity Dungeon a bit, and supposed, based on the score over on BoardGameGeek, that Grimoire Shuffle would be “meh.” Reading the rulebook (which, let’s be fair, hasn’t been the Minigame Library’s strongest suit) didn’t do much to change that assumption.
So sitting down and actually playing Grimoire Shuffle was a pleasant surprise. Turns out, it’s a pretty slick team puzzle game. It isn’t on the same level as Pixel Tactics, but it definitely stands out as comparable to Master Plan in that it’s uncommonly smart for its size.
The second comparison to Master Plan isn’t quite as flattering: like that game’s supervillain game show, the theme here is worthy of a few pairs of rolled eyes. Grimoire Shuffle casts its players as two teams of apprentices at the Imperial Magical Library, with the goal of archiving a set of rare books before the other team. The losing team doesn’t get to go to recess or something.
I suppose one could argue that the theme doesn’t matter when it comes to the actual “game” part of the game, but I have two rebuttals for that. One, I have yet to meet one of these rumored mechanics-only robots that has absolutely no need for any sort of theme in the games they consume. Two, both times I’ve explained Grimoire Shuffle, I’ve omitted the backstory only for the players to immediately ask who we were and what we were doing. Context matters, and shapes how we play. And when it comes to Grimoire Shuffle, the story actually does inform the gameplay a bit — you’re decidedly kiddie-pool magicians, so while you can push each other around and trap your opponents into inescapable niches (the Imperial Magical Library’s equivalent of stuffing a nerd into his locker), there isn’t any rough stuff allowed. Nobody’s getting murdered, for instance.
Instead, your goal is to hustle as quickly as possible from one end of the library to the other, gaining “trophy books” with each pass until your team has accumulated enough to win the game. It’s Red Rover through a Rubik’s Cube. With magic.
Rather than employing a regular action mechanic, with the apprentices alternately moving through the stacks and flinging spells, your options are entirely defined by whichever grimoire you happen to be holding at a given time. These give you all sorts of powers: the book of Strength lets you punch sections of the library so hard that they rotate to grant passage or lock off straight corridors, Ghost lets you move through walls, Gravity shifts the layout of an entire row, and Wind lets you run like the, erm, wind. There are grimoires that give you control of other apprentices, or make players swap books before they get a chance to use them. There are even grimoires that add special rooms, like the book of Ice that adds a frictionless Frozen Room somewhere, or Plant, which adds an impassable Overgrown Room. And of course there’s a book of Healing for getting rid of these added obstacles.
Furthermore, the book you’re holding is assigned each round by your current team leader (and his book in turn is determined by the opposing team leader). Since these leadership positions change each round, Grimoire Shuffle becomes a game of limited options and careful teamwork. While most players are resolving their grimoires as best they can and grumbling at their leader for giving them such poor options, two players are taking a brief stab at being that bewildered team boss.
Being team leader is a genuinely tough job. Not only do you go from severely limited choices to absolutely swimming in options once you have all those grimoires to distribute, but it’s also the most under-appreciated role at the table, even when players have had a taste of the stresses of command themselves and promised to be better followers on subsequent turns. Expect to be told to hurry up and hand out those cards even though you’re counting the turn order, considering which players need which books, and wracking your brain to remember which grimoires your opponent is mulling over. Once you dive in, there’s a surprising amount of strategy to it.
And I haven’t even mentioned the optional “Leaders” text that sits at the bottom of each card like an afro-wearing alligator lurking beneath the surface of a rainbow-tinted pool. These make the game go from merely crazy to insanely chaotic.
And, well… that’s it. Hey, I didn’t say Grimoire Shuffle had a hundred interacting mechanics — it isn’t City of Remnants. It’s a respectable minigame, perfect for filler games or playing on the go, and it’s much, much better than I assumed it would be.