I recently watched the new Sci-Fi movie Interstellar. Despite what my fellow reviewer Brian B says, it’s actually a really good movie. At the risk of minor spoilers, some of the main plot revolves around a spaceship crew dealing with the effects of a black hole and singularity. I won’t get into specifics, but a lot of sciencey terms are thrown around and I realized that a black hole would make for an intriguing theme for a board game.
Lucky for me I don’t have to invent one because designer Corey Young already did that with Gravwell: Escape From the 9th Dimension. Now published by Renegade Games, Gravwell tasks players with being the first to escape from a singularity that’s constantly trying to suck them back in. Does nothing escape a black hole? Let’s find out!
Gravewell is a card drafting and simultaneous action selection game for 2-4 players that takes about 20-30 minute to play. Gravwell plays best with 3-4 players.
There you were, minding your own business, when you got sucked into a black hole. On the plus side, you’re not dead. Unfortunately, you’ve been dumped into the 9th dimension and are low on fuel. You and your fellow players must each take the reins of your spaceship and try to be the first to reach the warp gate out of here.
In Gravwell, you have 6 rounds to make it to the warp gate. Each round you will be drafting fuel cards to play during the round. To move your ship, you must use the gravity of other nearby ships to slingshot yourself around the board. Be the first to make it out of the warp gate (or the farthest along after 6 rounds) and you win, trapping your friends in the 9th dimension forever.
Despite some rumblings I heard online about the quality of components in Gravwell, I had no issues with the game. The components are fairly simple, but that wasn’t surprising as the game isn’t overly complex.
Gravwell comes with 6 plastic spaceships, 4 in player colors and 2 grey derelict ships. While painted ships would have been cool, these worked fine. I do want to note that 2 of my ships had come apart from their stand during shipping, but I was able to fix them with a little bit of super glue.
The only other components in the game are a stack of fuel cards and the game board. The cards are printed on glossy stock and have large “element” letters in the center. These help decide turn order and ship speed. The game board itself features space-themed artwork and a giant spiral that acts as the ship track. As a nice touch, the spiral is numbered ever 5 spaces to help players quickly count movement in the game. Overall the components feel of good quality and worked well with the game.
How to Play:
While the gameplay in Gravwell is fairly simple, explaining it always isn’t. I have found the best way to teach this game is just to have players try a few turns. Once you actually get into it, it’s fairly intuitive.
Anyway, each player chooses a color and places their ship into the Singularity in the center of the board. The fuel cards are shuffled and a number of cards are dealt out (face down) equal to the amount of players times 3 (so 9 cards in a 3 player game for example). Then you deal out another set of cards on top of the first, but face up this time.
To begin the game, players take turns drafting piles of cards. If you dealt everything out correctly, each player should finish drafting with 6 cards in their hand.
Now, everyone secretly chooses a fuel card to play and places it face down in front of them. When everyone is ready you reveal the cards. Each fuel card has an element symbol in the center along with a number in the corner. The number determines how far your ship will move this turn. The element symbol helps decide turn order. When everyone has flipped their card over, the player whose element is highest in the alphabet goes first, followed by the player with the next highest (and so on). Depending on which type of card is played, up three things can happen:
Standard Fuel Card: Move that many spaces towards the closest ship to you. If you reach the closest ship and still have move points remaining, pass them by.
Repulsor: Move that many spaces AWAY from the closest ship.
Tractor Beam: Move the closest ship that many spaces towards you.
After each player has moved their ship, players choose another card from their hand and repeat. Players keep doing this until all 6 cards have been played that round, in which case the round ends.
I should note that each player has an emergency stop card. This card can be used once per round and will let players discard their chosen fuel card and just not move on a turn. This is useful in those situations where a fellow player chose an unexpected fuel card and you would have been rocketing 8 spaces in the wrong direction.
At the end of the round, players shuffle all the fuel cards and then deal out a new set of draft piles. A new round begins as above. The first player to make it to the warp gate wins. If no one has made it there by the end of the sixth round, the player that is farthest along wins.
As I said above, Gravwell isn’t a complex game, but its unique mechanics can make teaching the game a big rougher than it should be. After explaining the game to quite a few people, I’ve found that Gravewell doesn’t really click with people until after the first turn or two. But once they get a turn under their belt, expect to see the “ah-ha” moment as things just make sense.
The crux of Gravwell is the “nearest ship” mechanic combined with the simultaneous action selection. This is, coincidentally, one of the reasons I really enjoy Gravwell. There is a chaotic nature to the game that is just so enjoyable. Fuel cards move you towards the nearest ship. However, the nearest ship can change from the time you choose you card to the time you actually get to go, thanks to the clever alphabet turn order system. More than once, I’ve chosen to move 8 spaces, only to have the board layout change by the time I get to move, and find myself rocketing past the other ships going in the wrong direction.
It’s this use of other ships gravity that helps make Gravwell a unique and thematic game. No, there are not quotes or adventure cards; it’s definitely a game where the mechanics really tie to the theme. Much like Bruce Willis did in Armageddon when he used the moon’s gravity to slingshot his spaceship to the asteroid, so too will you in Gravwell. The only difference is that the other ships gravity will be moving around the board, sometimes messing up your well laid plans.
It’s this mechanic that also helps to make sure Gravwell doesn’t suffer from a runaway leader problem. You might be able to shoot yourself 10 spaces ahead of the nearest ship and end right next to the warp gate, but then what do you do next round? Unless you are lucky enough to still have a repulsor card, the nearest ship is going to be behind you. That means that you’ll be moving backwards away from your goal. Gravwell features a great game of a cat and mouse where you are trying to play all the optimal cards, but also trying to guess what you’re opponents will be doing. Since half the cards drafted are known, you can make educated guesses as to what your opponents will be playing if you are good with memorization. Myself, I usually just shoot from the hip and hope for the best.
While Gravwell is actually a really fun game, I don’t think it’s one that’s going to be played over and over again in one night. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy it, but eventually turns will start feeling the same. Each round is very similar to the previous as you are moving forward and backwards along the track. I think at its playing time of about 20-30 minutes, is really the sweet spot for Gravwell. Anything longer and it might felt a little drawn out as the turns would probably get too repetitive. So kudos to the game designer for finding the perfect length to use for Gravwell.
But it’s also these simple turns that help make Gravwell a great gateway game. It’s easy to learn nature help make it incredibly accessible. The rules take about 5 minutes to explain and after a turn or two, everyone will be right at home. I’ve played it with gamers and non-gamers alike and everyone picked it up with no issues and found it to be a really fun and unique game.
Finally, I want to mention that I do think Gravwell plays much better at three and four players than at 2. While the game does work just fine with only two, part of the fun for me is in the chaotic nature of not always knowing which ship will be the closest when it’s your time to move. With only 2 players, it’s a lot easy to plan your moves and figure out which ship is closest. For someone who is looking for a supremely tactical game, then 2 ships might be your sweet spot, but for me, I love the chaos. When you get up to 3 and 4 players, there is a higher chance your plans could be messed up, which is part of the charm of Gravwell.
I must say, I was pleasantly surprised with Gravwell. When I first checked out the game online, I thought it looked just OK and the track reminded me of a dreaded “roll and move” game. But I heard some good things so I figured I’d give it a shot. Let me tell you, I’m really glad I did. My initial thoughts on Gravwell were really off base as the game ended up being way more fun than I expected. I know see what others have known for a while. That Gravwell is a superb, creative and unique board game that’s easy to get just about anyone to jump in and play.
While Gravwell isn’t the deepest of games, I do think it’s a lot of fun and makes a fantastic family game. The theme, the easy to learn rules and the perfect mechanic to stop a run-away leader make it an easy choice to grab for a game night with the family. For myself, I think Gravwell makes a great filler game when I’m looking for something on the meatier side of the spectrum. I’ll be keeping this one on my gaming shelf for a long time. Go get yourself a copy; it’s a win in my book.
If you’d like to grab a copy of Gravwell for yourself, you can pick it up for about $35.
Final Score: 4 Stars – A really clever game that’s both easy to learn and accessible to just about everyone. Gravwell makes a great game when you are looking for something on the lighter side.
• Not a game you’ll play over and over in one night
• 2 Player version not as fun as 3-4 players.