Baaad, or Bleating the Competition?
When Stronghold Games asked if I’d like to review Space Sheep!, I jumped at the opportunity. The cover sported a fun little riff on Star Wars, complete with an ass-covering “This Cover is a Parody!” disclaimer, and I was expecting a game about, well, space sheep. Who doesn’t like the idea of space sheep?
Instead, I got this. And I’m not sure what to make of it.
The closest analogy that springs to mind is going to the bookstore and picking up a book with a smoldering elf babe on the cover, and then cracking that sucker open and it’s a chemistry textbook. Which is fine if you were really hoping to read a chemistry textbook instead of some hot fantasy adventure action, but it kind of sucks if instead of covalent bonds, you wanted to read about elvish bonda— bonds of friendship. Or whatever.
So the first thing you need to know about Space Sheep! is that it isn’t about space sheep. The theme is so pasted on that it’s accompanied by the wafting scent of Elmer’s.
What Space Sheep! is then is a logic puzzle. And while it’s horrible as a game about sheep in space, the puzzle is fairly interesting.
Here’s how it works. You set up multiple colored sector boards, and place pairs of “space sheep” and “shepherds” (adorable little Millennium Falcons) on each. Your goal is to have each colored pair arrive back at their home sector, which you accomplish most often by activating the movements on their sector boards — stuff like, “Move 2 Spaces Behind the Red Shepherd.” Since these movement instructions are arranged fresh each game, the puzzle is always different, and the difficulty is entirely modifiable, with straightforward instructions for the meek or something trickier like “Move 1 Past the Green Sheep if the Green Shepherd is Home; otherwise, Move 1 Behind the Green Sheep” for those of you who are mental Olympians.
It isn’t the sort of thing that explains well, since so much of the puzzle is about the visual arrangement of the sectors and sheep, but suffice it to say, it’s a nifty little exercise in maximizing the efficiency of your moves while trying like hell to keep the dozens of possible future movements straight.
Ideally, you’ll play cards to move solitary shepherds into place so you can activate helpful sectors, following that sector’s directions to move your space sheep and shepherds around the board, rotating the ships like tumblers in a combination lock until they slide perfectly into place. Like a big circular Rubik’s Cube that’s different every time and works best when friends help out.
In reality, the fact that the entire game is timed means it’s much less of a puzzle game, and more an exercise in manic frustration.
See, in addition to all the little sheep and Millennium Falcons, there’s also a wolf chasing you around. A one-minute sandtimer counts down the seconds before the wolf catches up to your ships, which discards a bunch of your cards — the same ones that let you activate different sectors or pick colors of shepherds to move, meaning a successful wolf attack drains you of options mighty quick. You can block the wolf by playing a “defense” card of the color sector the wolf is hiding in, letting you tip over the wolf marker and avoid its next attack, and effectively purchasing one more minute of panicked desperation before you have to resolve his attack again.
My issue with this entire system is that Space Sheep! was already a tricky problem to solve to begin with, and the timer compounds its difficulty many times over. While multiple plays in the same sitting force everyone to get marginally better at figuring out how to reconcile the strange real-time play with the logic puzzle unfolding before their eyes, rather than focusing on the task at hand everyone kept grumbling stuff like, “Shit, which way is clockwise again?” and “What does ‘move past’ mean, again?” The constant tension of the timer and wolf sound kind of cool, and sure, conceptually they are. In practice, however, this is one example of a real-time element making a game worse rather than better.
And that’s just the basic game. It’s also possible to add an infiltrator option, meaning someone could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing and play actions that could sabotage everyone’s attempts to bring the sheep and shepherds home, though I have no idea why you’d play with this option more than the one time you’re in an experimental mood, since the game is frantic enough that the addition of the infiltrator makes it essentially impossible to win.
All in all, this is a strange one. It plays in a few minutes, meaning it might have worked well as a filler game, though the amount of mental energy required means it lacks the breezy quality that typify most fillers. Instead, it’s positively exhausting.
For my group, Space Sheep! was a divisive game. Everyone hated it — and I mean hated it — except for one person. And to be fair, that one person found it highly interesting. This leads me to suspect that Space Sheep! requires a “type” to appreciate it; a mad dreamer who opens a fantasy novel in hopes of finding a chemistry textbook. And if that person discovers Space Sheep!, he’ll really enjoy the puzzle it’s offering, crazy real-time sheep-chow elements and all.
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If you’d like to buy Space Sheep, Dan has two questions. First, are you sure? And second, why not buy it through Amazon using this link? You’d be buying Space Sheep and supporting Space-Biff! at the same time!