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[Review] Krabcek

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tomvasel
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Joined: 03/23/2011

Recently, I had to admit that I didn't dislike abstract games as much as I thought. In fact, I rather liked most of those I play nowadays. But every once in a while I play an abstract game that's a bit so abstract that it's a bit difficult to wrap my mind around it. The game may work, to a degree; but it's too difficult for me to try to attempt any strategy that the game loses any fun for me. This, sadly, seems to be the case with Krabcek (Push the Button, 2005 - Paul Clark).

The gameplay of Krabcek is certainly unique, and there's certainly strategy and tactics in the game. It just wasn't an easy game on the mind for me. Games of Krabcek are short, and players have a limited number of options on each turn. But because each option is critically important, the game feels longer than it should, and it just doesn't flow very smoothly. I love the main idea of the game - how the size of the pieces effects which spots they may go in - but it just didn't really pan out in gameplay.

The game board is made up of sixteen squares that can form in millions of combinations (according to the website, www.krabcek.com). The squares are put into a framed board to form an interconnecting path of orange spaces, divided by brown walls. These orange spaces are three different sizes - wide, medium, and skinny, and are of varying lengths. The paths wrap around the board, and it is possible that not all paths are part of the same network. One player takes the white pieces (four "Skinnyboys", two "Middlemen", and one "Bigboy"), as well as eight "Gate markers"; the other player takes the matching black pieces. The board forms eight gates - four in the middle, and four on the sides - orange square spaces. Black places one of their black gate markers on one of these spots, then white places two gate markers, etc. Each player rolls a die, and the one who rolls lower goes first, using that number for their first turn.

On a player's turn, they roll a six-sided die and move one of their pieces EXACTLY that many spaces. Moving a piece onto the board counts as one space, and all players must bring their pieces initially through gate spaces. Players may only move pieces through spaces that are wide enough to hold them. Skinnyboys can go into any space, Middlemen can only go into medium and wide spaces, and Bigboys can only move into wide spaces. Once a player moves a piece, they pass the die to the opponent, who then rolls and moves one of their pieces.

Pieces cannot be moved into a space that contains a piece of either color, and therefore pieces can block others in the corridors. The only exception to this is that a player can land a Skinnyboy on a Middleman (forming a "Little Stack"), or a Middleman on a Bigboy (forming a "Big Stack"). These stacks cannot split up once formed and act as one piece - the larger of the two. Stacks cannot be formed on gates, either. Pieces also have the restriction that they cannot enter the same space twice during the same move.

If a player rolls a "5", they also can switch one of their pieces from a black gate to a white gate or vice versa. If a player rolls a "6", they can switch two of their pieces - both of them must be different sizes and able to go to the new space. In fact, the only way to get a BigBoy onto the board is to roll a "1", and then a "5" or a "6"; since each gate is not adjacent to any other wide spaces.

The game ends when one player makes a "Krabcek Tower", in which they combine a Skinnyboy with a Big Stack, or a Small Stack with a Big Boy. That player is declared the winner. A player can also win if their opponent can make no legal move with the number rolled on their die.

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: The game comes in a long box, reminiscent of many American games produced in the eighties. The board is a typical sized board, with a built on frame and indentation that holds the squares fairly well. The color choices on the squares fit a certain theme, but they were a bit bland. Having colors with a better contrast would have made it easier, I think. Even though the orange squares are divided by dull gray lines, I still have to emphasize to new players that it's the orange spaces to move on, not the brown (reddish brown) spaces. Still, it's neat that each board has so many permutations. The pieces are rounded plastic cylinders, with the BigBoy and Middlemen having ridges to hold the smaller pieces. The squares themselves are about double the length of a side of a Carcassonne square, and about the same thickness (maybe a little thinner). The whole game seems to have an American Thanksgiving motif.

2.) Rules: The rulebook is eleven pages long and takes great pains to show, via many examples, just how the rules work. I can't imagine anyone having any problems; the rulebook takes you by the hand and easily leads you through with pictures and more. There's even a whole page of tips, which I found incredibly useful and helpful. The game itself, even though the rules are simple, isn't the easiest to understand - it's a bit abstract, even for an abstract game.

3.) Abstract: Most abstract games are very simple and have a few simple rules. This one is the same way, but it doesn't feel simple. The theme is about different-sized people moving through a labyrinth of streets; but while it makes sense, the abstractedness takes over, and you think about moving pieces from space to space. The board can sometimes play tricks with your mind, as you try to follow the paths, as they wrap around the board and connect with one another.

4.) Choices: On a player's turn, their choices are dictated by the roll of the die. Depending on the number rolled, a player has to decide amongst their available options. This seems to cause some considerable downtime (at least in the games I've played), as players count out every possible move with every piece to make sure they do the optimal move. And of course, if a player can't move, they lose; so you better believe that players will not quit until it's absolutely positive that they can make no more moves. This is okay, I guess; but I wasn't always keen on having to think multiple steps ahead, because every move a player makes counts considerably.

5.) Luck: I don't mind luck in a game, although I'm less tolerant of it in an abstract game. I don't mind in Krabcek that players have to follow the die roll. That makes the game interesting and doesn't affect a player too much. What I do mind about the die roll are two things. For one, a player must roll a "1" to get a Big Boy on the board. If that takes 10+ turns to happen (which is often the case), it can be extremely annoying to the player controlling the pieces. The other problem is when a player is put into an end game position that comes down to a die roll. They can roll one number and win by combining their stacks. Or they can roll another number and lose, because they have no available moves. I don't like endgame situations that depend on a die roll in a game like this. I don't mind it in a war game or a game with theme, but in this, it just feels rather anticlimactic.

6.) Fun Factor: Some people may like the very high thought processes that Krabcek demands. It's a game that seems simple on the surface, but really has a lot of depth and strategy. It's just a little too high and confusing for me to enjoy much. That's not to say that the game is a bad one, but it's certainly not one that I will want to play often.

Krabcek is the type of game that I can admire and be amazed at the thought that has gone into it. A board game like this, with the myriads of permutations, is an amazing thing to produce. But for me, it's simply not that much fun to play. Perhaps this is because the higher strategic elements of it elude me. But I'm not going to go to the effort to figure it out, because there are hundreds of games out there that I do "get". If the basic idea of Krabcek interests you, take a look at it; perhaps you'll like it. For me, it just wasn’t my type of game.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"
www.tomvasel.com

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