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[Review] Shear Panic

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Some of the most delightful people to converse with in the board game world are the Lamont brothers, who use clever ways to promote their independently produced games. Their first game, Leapfrog, was quite an amusing game - I stated that "LeapFrog can probably be classified as a filler, although it's a filler that makes you think." I think the natural progression from Leapfrog is Shear Panic (Fragor Games, 2005 - Gordon and Frazer Lamont). The game is absolutely based on humor and fluffiness (no pun intended.) The sheep look like they've been imported wholesale from Gary Larson's Farside comic, and the gameplay, while abstract, has a silly theme.

This all adds together to make a game that is fun, easy, but has the tendencies to be deeper and longer if taken seriously. Opportunities are present for the game to get bogged down in the thought-provoking analysis that sometimes befalls abstract strategy games. Played in a light mood, however, the game works properly, as humor and fun make the abstract game much more palatable to most folk. In fact, I think this game will have dual appeal - both to folks looking for a game with some strategic teeth, and people just looking for a light, enjoyable time.

Nine sheep are placed in the middle of the table - two each of four different colors (one for each player), and one black sheep in the middle. Each sheep is on a square base, and the formation makes a grid of nine squares. Each player gets a control mat, with twelve squares depicting actions on it, as well as forty-eight "mutton buttons" (counters). A timer track is placed on the table, with a counter from each player placed at the beginning of it, as well as a timer piece. The timer track is numbered and split into four distinct sections, with two of those sections having a pen and a gate, and certain numbers circled twice to show "sheep panic". Two dice are included with the game, one a "return to the flock die", a die with multiplication or division signs on it, and one "sheep panic" die, showing the four sheep colors on four sides plus black and white. The player who most recently was shorn (haircut) goes first, with play passing clockwise around the table.

To start the game off, each player in turn order performs one "lamb slam". This means that the player rolls the sheep panic die and uses a sheep of the color rolled to move one space in any direction, pushing all other sheep one space in front of it. Regular turns then begin. On a player's turn, they choose one of the boxes on their control pad and carry it out - placing one of their mutton buttons on it - to show that they can no longer do that action for the remainder of the game. After the action, the timer is moved one to three spaces - according to the number associated with that action, and the player's turn is over (unless the timer button is on a sheep panic symbol, in which case they may perform another lamb slam.)

The actions a player may take are:
- Line push (two each of diagonal and orthogonal): A player can push any row or column one space, moving all the sheep.
- Lamb slam (2): The same as a normal lamb slam, except that the player may only push a sheep of their color.
- Wool rule (2): The player places an imaginary ruler to one of the four sides of the flock, and all sheep are slid until they bump into this ruler, or another sheep.
- Ewe turn: (1): The whole flock is turned ninety degrees in either geometry.
- One small step for Sheepkind (2): One sheep may move one space in any direction, as long as the spot it's moving to is open.
- Booiingggg (1): One sheep may "jump" orthogonally as far as they can in a single direction to the first available free space.

Many times one or more sheep will become separated from the rest of the flock. If this happens, the active player rolls the flock die and moves the sheep back to the main body of sheep. The direction they move the sheep (orthogonally or diagonally) depends on whether they roll a division or multiplication sign on the flock die, respectively. The player decides which direction to move them, as long as they rejoin the flock.

Depending on which of the four sections the timer is on the time track, the player scores points. On the first section, they score points if their two sheep are next to each other - 2 points orthogonally, 1 point diagonally. The same thing happens in the third section, except players get points if their sheep are touching the black sheep. (They're playing tag or something). In the second field, Roger Ram is placed at the front of the flock (he moves to the front if a Ewe Turn occurs). Scoring only occurs two times in the second field, when the timer passes through the gate or the pen. Players score points depending on how close they are to Roger. In the fourth section, the same thing occurs; but the shearer takes the place of Roger, and players score more points the farther they are away from the shearer. Even more importantly, the shearer "shears" - removes - the closest row of sheep from the game. After the final shearing and scoring, the game ends, and the player with the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: The scoring track is laminated colored sheets, the mutton buttons are small tiddly winks, and the control sheets are more laminated paper. But no one is going to care about that because of the cool sheep pieces. They look and feel very much like Christmas tree ornaments, and really draw a crowd when placed on the table. Each is mounted on a thin, flocked piece of plywood. Roger Ram and the shearer are two centerpieces for the game - totally unnecessary for the mechanics per say, but extremely invaluable to the theme. Fragor games has once again managed to put some really nifty components in a small (fragile) box, and more people will play the game because of it.

2.) Rules: The rulebook is written with a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor, several bad puns, and - of necessity - clear illustrations and examples. Full color pictures are shown, and details on each of the different maneuvers are given. The game is fairly easy to teach people - although it's a lot for teenagers to comprehend. Once players get the hang of it, however, the only question they have each turn is what maneuver they should pick, rather than what each maneuver does.

3.) Choices, Choices: I remarked after my first game of Leapfrog that I wondered if the game might be a bit scripted. That certainly isn't the case here. With each player having the option of twelve choices on the first turn, and several ways to do each - the game plays out differently each time. Of course, with only twelve options, a player doesn't have to think too long; but the potential is certainly there. In fact, a couple times in the games I've played, we've had to nudge at least one player to move it along. So far, I haven't run into too much trouble with this, but it is possible. Me, I revel in the choices and enjoy trying to figure out the best way to maneuver my sheep into scoring positions.

4.) Timer: The timing mechanism is very interesting. It adds a little to the choices a player makes on their turn, because they choose their action in part to how far it moves the timer. They may want to move it a certain distance to get a free lamb ram, but they also might be interested in moving into the next scoring field (or delaying it as long as possible. Either way, the game does have a set ending - the timer plods steadily along to the end. Games take about forty-five minutes, which is just about right for this style of game.

5.) Tactics: There's no real strategy in the game, mostly tactics, responding to what the player before you did. Or so it may initially appear. But knowing which actions to save until the end of the game is extremely crucial. Players cannot afford to have either of their sheep shorn at the end - or even worse: both. And I even participated in one game where a player managed to shear all of his opponent's sheep on the last turn, catapulting himself to victory. This, of course, is a situation most people want to avoid being caught in, so knowing when to play that critical "Ewe Turn" or "Booiinggggg" is rather important.

6.) Fun Factor: I probably wouldn't be much of a fan of the game if it had no theme. The game mechanics, while interesting, would seem a bit too bland and abstract for my tastes, and they wouldn't make much sense. But add in Roger Ram, "lamb rams", and the whole idea of a flock of sheep traveling together, and it fits like a glove! The moving of the sheep, the bumping of other sheep, the jostling for position, all of this causes laughter and a lot of fun. Killing other's sheep (for some reason, we enjoy that much more than "shearing". It's not the shearer (it's the butcher!) is also part of the fun, and scores seem to hold fairly close for most of the game.

For the toy factor of the sheep pieces and the funny theme alone, you should snag a copy. But the game is certainly deeper than it appears; the humorous sheep are only a cover for an actual rather clever abstract strategy game. Yet that game, I think, would not survive without the theme; and the theme wouldn't hold water without the mechanics. It's a classic case in which the theme matches a game perfectly, and it is a delightful filler because of it. Try it for yourselves!

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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