Sheepy for GOTY

(help)

Come Halloween season, I’m always on the lookout for games of the scary variety. Something not only frightening, but filled with building tension and jump scares and moments that will have everyone gripping the edge of the table in apprehension. Something unexpected. Something that will stay with you.

This year, that game is absolutely Neil Kimball’s Sheepy Time.

(maybe if I tell you about Sheepy Time, they will let me leave. maybe. maybe.)

Staying one step ahead of the nightmare.

Now now, I know what you’re saying. “Dan, how can a game about sleep sheep — whatever those are, but I reiterate, sleep sheep — how can that game be scary?”

Oh, my friend. You have no idea of the coils that tighten when you close your eyelids. Take my hand. It’s better to walk these paths together.

There is no calling higher than that of a sleep sheep. You’re the sheep that the world’s insomniacs invoke in order to slip into the numbing heaviness we call sleep, but which is really a coarse emulation of our yearning for death. Your task might sound simple: by counting your numbers as you flounce over an imaginary fence, defying gravity to pause momentarily over its impaling balusters, these suffering souls may fade into temporary stillness. But a sleep sheep is more than a number. A sleep sheep is also a ferryman. And the waters they carry their cargo over are meant to go unnoticed, for the waters that rasp the hull seethe with nightmares.

To be a sleep sheep is to exist in flight. Always fleeing, always one step ahead or behind, always coursing through a maze with only one hallway and one direction.

And it’s exhilarating.

(Sheepy Time reveals genius in its little details. often they're so small that they escape notice. your goal is to hop the fence without getting caught by the nightmare. but you only have two cards, plus bonus tiles called dreams, to do so. and here's the rub. when you hop the fence, you will want to keep going. because the more you hop the fence, the closer your winning score threshold gets for the next round.)

Two cards. That’s all you get. That’s all you need.

There are words we could use to describe this liminal state of existence. Phrases. “Push your luck,” perhaps, although luck is not a thing in this space, not truly, for every nightmare is foreordained and stems from the same source and can only be delayed or deferred but never defeated. As is appropriate for a dream-state, where the dreamer hopes to run but is stuck fast, or must don some clothes at school but finds themselves hopelessly naked, Sheepy Time revels in constricting your avenues. Two cards. Those are the tools at your disposal. Two cards, often with a pair of options apiece, but never with the flexibility a lamb wants to chart an entirely safe passage back to the fence. If the nightmare touches you once, you are affrighted. Another touch and you’re forced awake to discover that you have peed your pajamas.

Here is the rule that every sleep sheep operates by: if you jump the fence, you may escape into true sleep. But whenever the option comes around, whenever that door is cracked and the darkness of rest bleeds into the hallway, you may find yourself recoiling, consigned to another circuit rather than seizing upon your escape. Because here is the rule that goes unspoken: sleep sheep are always in contention one with another. They are enemies. Never collaborators.

To explain is to delve into the theology of the damned, but we must shield our eyes and look nonetheless. When a sleep sheep makes a jump that clears the fence, it accrues “winks,” a sort of collateral against the debt of sin it inherits second by second. Inevitably, every sheep will awake or perish at the hands of the nightmare — truly, when I call this inevitable, consider it inviolably inevitable — and all those winks will be wiped away, like an addict returning gladly again to the pill, to the vice. However, those sheep who survived with winks will feel their ultimate escape grow closer, crudely and imperfectly represented by the approach of a smothering pillow. The wheel turns anew. But. But! If a sleep sheep’s winks ever collide with that pillow… who knows. “Victory,” some call it. “Winning.” All you know is that it’s the final sleep for which you have yearned since the stars were congealed of flung refuse.

(between rounds, this is what happens: your goal threshold, represented by a pillow, gets closer depending on how well you performed. you also add new dreams to the board, which grant new ways to move. like, say, jumping forward to the next sheep, or becoming brave again if the nightmare has caught you once. these are essential to performing better than the other sheep.)

Purple pulls an unexpected win over pink’s unexpected win over yellow.

I will tell you a story.

Once, I thought my escape was assured. I had inlaid the hallways with sigilla and dreams of my devising, and stolen along niches built by my competitors. The pillow of final rest lingered near. When it approached, I let it fall upon my face, pressing the life out of me. I had won.

If not for the damnable rival, the enemy, the oathbreaker, who braved the hallway thrice more, always one step ahead or behind the nightmare. When her pillow descended, it was with greater force and conviction than my own. She awoke into slumber.

Yet there was another. Her earlier efforts had been pitiable. Her pillow was as far off as the horizon of a plain, always apace with her movements. With the rest of us already gone, there was nothing to stop her. She wheeled through that hallway again and again, dizzy with fear and coriolis alike, the nightmare, in the end, perched one step from the fence, ready to devour its pickets and throw all into darkness. Yet once more she flung herself over its teeth and, suspended, felt the scales of infinity tip in her balance. When she rested, it was with such force that the rest of us were vomited back into this cycle of haunting and rebirth. The door that was open was shut.

(honestly, I almost regret writing this review like this, because there are so many little details that show how perfectly Kimball has crafted this game. as one friend put it, "you hate the nightmare more than you hate each other." so when my wife and later her sister trumped my victory, we were all thrilled, all cheering, because of how much she was pushing her luck. seriously, this game is breathtakingly good.)

Scaredy sheep.

So the hallway must be inscribed once more, and traveled afresh, and populated with horrors beyond speech. This is the fetter of the sleep sheep, one great shackle with no bolt and no hinge, only the hollow where the innocent patter across the wrought iron floor, fling themselves over that fence, and, yes, “push their luck.”

Spare a thought for your sleep sheep. Only one can leave hell.

(p.s. Sheepy Time is amazing.)

 

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on October 12, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Dan, may God help you if this ever gets posted to reddit.

  2. This review has a distinct lack of baa-d puns. I’m curious, were you too sheepish to include any in your review?

  3. This made my day, i was grinning the entire time I was reading. You are probably my most-quoted boardgames journalist, I’m constantly impressed with the breadth and depth of your pieces.

    Having just watched Dave Chappelle’s “The Closer,” it’s fresh in my mind how humour can be an amazingly versatile tool. I’ve been challenged by quite a few of your discussions, offered the chance to examine my preconceptions as it were. I appreciate the opportunity!

    Thanks for giving me a belly laugh this morning, it’ll definitely be a surreal experience to play this again with my young guy. 🙂

  4. Well, I think I know what boardgame I’m getting my 6 year-old daughter for Xmas this year… Great review! (long time reader, first time poster btw)

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