Four Little Pigs, Roasted and Stuffed
Allow me to indulge in my inaugural Old Man Moment by saying, hey, fairy tales used to be better. No, not back in my day. I’m talking way back, when the forests were thick and uncut, the sun only peeked through the pestilential clouds once a fortnight, and taking a wrong turn while returning home from the well might get you eaten by either wolves or Visigoths.
Strangely, Tim Eisner’s The Grimm Forest comes within an inch of evoking these older, more ominous stories, and all because this fairy tale’s got bite.
There’s a certain cheery naiveté to the opening of The Grimm Forest, not unlike the beginning of many of the best fairy tales. A girl delivers a meal to her bedridden grandmother; a mermaid fantasizes about love; a servant pleads with her fairy godmother to underwrite her trip to a fancy party; and four little pigs — the younger relatives of the original and more famous three — are tasked with being the first to construct three houses in order to be named as their kingdom’s royal architect.
Every play of The Grimm Forest is similarly carefree, at least at first. In order to build those houses, you need to gather the appropriate materials that any pig worth his salt knows how to work with. There’s straw, wood, brick, and — if you’re playing with all four pigs — a market where a combination of all three can be found.
In order to gather these materials, everyone selects a location in secret, then flips their cards for all to see. If you’re a lucky pig and the sole inhabitant of your chosen destination, you get everything there. If not, you parcel out everything so that all parties walk away with an equal amount. From there, you get down to the work of setting up those houses. Each stage of construction costs a little more than what was built before it, and there are some benefits to building a wall or being the first to slap the roof on a particular house. First pig to three wins.
And, well, taken like that, The Grimm Forest could almost be a kid’s game. It’s got some light guesswork. Planning, as you measure out what you’ll need in advance. Arithmetic, since you must total up how many materials you’ll need. Patience. A playful heart. Everything a growing girl or boy needs to succeed at second grade.
But then, like the best fairy tales, The Grimm Forest takes a turn. Then it gets dark.
Okay, not dark necessarily, but this is certainly where it gets interesting.
In addition to all that location jumping and material gathering, these pigs are also engaging in a protracted campaign of sabotage, diversion, and theft against their house-flipping rivals. Property will be smashed, resources will be stolen, and pigs will be spun around, flummoxed, and taken advantage of.
There are two sources of ammunition for your would-be vandal to draw from. The rarer and simpler option is the ally card, interlopers from other fairy tales that are usually rewarded for reaching the second stage of a house’s construction. These offer ongoing benefits — Aladdin gives you bonus resources if you correctly “wish” for sharing a space with other pigs, Robin Hood redistributes the wealth of the materially burdened, and Rumpelstiltskin loads you up with straw but can spin it into something else. Every ally has something to offer, and a big part of the game’s appeal is chuckling about how Puss in Boots steals, Hansel and Gretel eat everybody’s walls, or Pinocchio adds an element of bluffing.
Crucially, though, each pig is only entitled to a single ally at a time, not all allies are created equal, and picking one up means you can replace either your own or somebody else’s ally. Cue an arms race to be in possession of the best one at the table, while deploying sub-par selections to your opponents.
Allies are only the half of it. Far more important are fables. These babies are easily accumulated, popping off the top of the deck whenever you don’t want to spend one of your building actions on actual construction. From there, you have the option of deploying them along with your location at the start of each round — and that’s when the magic happens. If there’s a way for The Grimm Forest to be broken, there’s a fable that will do it. You can double how much you gather, swap locations after you’ve witnessed where everybody else is headed, steal pretty much anything from anyone — often dependent on trapping them at a location, but not always — or even slap monsters onto the table.
Man, the monsters. Like everything else in this game, they’re lavishly produced, represented by detailed miniatures when it would have been entirely acceptable to merely lay the card on the location in question. Wolves gobble up materials before they can be collected, Bridge Trolls extort a toll, and the Big Bad Wolf will actually wreck people’s houses — provided they’re straw or wood, of course, otherwise he’ll just huff and puff to no avail.
The best part is that all these elements, the allies and fables and your efforts to outguess your rivals and the need to amass a certain amount of resources, make The Grimm Forest both insanely chaotic and a weirdly deep game of undermining your opponents in precisely the right way at precisely the right time.
Here’s an example. In one recent match, Geoff was attempting to hay-bomb himself to victory. That’s what the cool pigs call setting up three straw houses in a row, which is possible because straw is the most abundant of the three building materials. Having better houses will break a tie in your favor, but only if you have three houses of your own. And at the rate he was going, Geoff was going to have three flimsy huts before I had two sturdy homes. It certainly didn’t help that he’d managed to knock my wooden walls down.
Time to wallow in the mud, then. Because I knew he was after straw and straw alone, every decision I made was geared toward undermining his supply. Wolves showed up to eat the harvest before he could claim it, a wishing well sent him to the forest for some worthless wood, and underworld connections robbed him of his precious building actions. For two rounds, three, four, he couldn’t seem to amass any straw at all. The capstone of my plot was fixed with a lowly Thoughtful Gift card. Just like that, I gave him one last cord of wood in exchange for his last bundle of straw. Fiddle-i-fee, who’s got houses three?
Yeah. It’s me.
Of course, the entire time I was dodging threats of my own. I avoided a dragon by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin, pivoted from two wood houses to one of wood and one of straw, and took care to sidestep the worst machinations thrown my way. It wasn’t easy, and I didn’t evade everything. But in spite of the chaotic mess that is The Grimm Forest’s gameplay, it was still possible.
I’ve always had a soft spot for games that task you with navigating a leaf safely through white water, and The Grimm Forest stands out as one that offers plenty in that regard, in addition to being unaccountably handsome and oh so dastardly. Like some of the best fairy tales, its soft exterior belies a certain griminess underneath. In this case, that’s a willingness to play fast and hard, be observant of what your foes are planning, and strike at the very moment that will injure them the worst.
The very opposite of the kid’s game it appears to be, then. It’s tough, punitive, and lets you embrace your worst inner self. Fantastical.