GTM #239 - Gloomy Graves
by Renegade Game Studios

Gloomy Graves - Jeffrey D. Allers’ Newest Game Blends Compelling Design with A Whimsical and Macabre Theme

Small box games are always more than they appear: not only packing hours of delightful gameplay into a compact package, but also a lot of thoughtful design, beautiful art, and great value resides in the box. Jeffrey D. Allers’ newest game, Gloomy Graves, is no exception. Gloomy Graves is a game that tells you on its cover that within this box, thar be dragons (but it’s okay, because they’re dead).

At its heart, Gloomy Graves is a card/tile laying game, with domino-style cards that are placed for scoring. The game is played in a series of rounds: In every round, each player takes a single turn, beginning with the start player and proceeding in clockwise order. On their turn, players carry out these three steps, in order: bury corpses, score graves (if they so choose), and draw cards. Once they have done so, their turn ends, and the next player’s turn begins. Each player adds together the point values of all the score cards they have, then adds bonus points based on how many different score cards they have at the end of the game.

In that description, the game sounds and feels familiar, and in some ways it is. It is straightforward enough to pick up, learn and play, but there’s a lot to this game, its mechanical design, and its art design that is delightful, interesting, and compelling for gamers. And there are, of course, also a lot of corpses. So very many corpses.

The game lifts elements from Allers’ previous designs which includes tile/card laying, as the design originally published in Poland as a farming game, Rolnicy (a follow up to another tile-laying, farm-themed Polish game, Heartland). As a publisher, most of our team really enjoys wheat and potatoes (in the form of bread and potato chips especially) but they bring us to the table to want to eat, and not necessarily play. As Renegade Game Studios’ Senior Game Producer, Dan Bojanowski explains, “While we love the gameplay of Rolnicy, we didn’t feel that our fans were looking for another farming game.”

Before ultimately landing on the fantasy gravedigger, we looked at several theme options: there was the bakery theme (that included donuts, bagels, and rolls which ended up with the Renegade Game Studios creative team ultimately craving lots of carbs), the sea life and coral reef theme (where the creative team may or may not have gone out for sushi after discussing the possibility), and a candy cart theme. After a brief break for snacks, Dan threw out an interesting theme idea that we were proverbially hungry (and thankfully not literally hungry) to explore further: the fantasy graveyard.

“We thought it would be interesting to set this game in that gravedigger’s reality — his day to day life of burying corpses.” Dan explains. Instead of epic fantasy wars filled with magic missiles and fire-breathing creatures, the idea of being left to clean up the mess was one that seemed novel and delightful. It also gave us the opportunity to thematically explore art that was dark and whimsical but not bloody and gory.

When the team started looking into what the art of the game could look like and stumbled upon David Szilagyi’s “Creepy Pokémon” series, we knew this was definitely the direction and the artist who could bring balance the macabre with the playful to strike the right thematic tone for the art. Renegade Game Studios’ Creative Director, Anita Osburn described what drew us to David’s art style: “His pen and ink style is very different than anything else we have used so I was very excited to introduce his edgy style to the Renegade line-up. David has amazing line work with some very funny humor.”

There’s something to be said about creatures that never existed being illustrated as deposed so humorously that delighted us as gamers. It’s the reason we thought other gamers might also find the humor and delight of the art and theme. The ludicrous juxtaposition between the epic fantasy battles with mystical creatures we, as fans/geeks/gamers all have read, watched, played in, or even just imagined, and the dose of what the practical reality of that universe would entail (in this case, a poor group of gravediggers trying to deal with the piling up corpses from the aforementioned battles) was a novel game theme. The art is unexpectedly charming. As Anita describes her favorite piece: “The stiffness of the unicorn corpses mixed with the rainbow manes are great. I can't help to laugh.”

Juxtaposition is an element present in the gameplay as well and presents itself with the strategic choices offered to gamers with tension being derived from the opposing choices players are faced with. When laying out the cards, players have two areas they must place their cards: the Private Crypt, where only they can place cards and can never exceed 3 squares in width or height, and the Communal Graveyard, where everyone plays cards into and that grows by exactly one square each turn.

Each turn as a player, you must play two cards — one to each aforementioned section. Your goal is to maximize your sections to score points and simultaneously take scoring opportunities away from your opponents with clever and strategic plays. As Dan describes, “One of my favorite things about the game is that there are two different places to place these cards — each with different placement rules.  It’s a really fun puzzle.”

Additionally, there are different types of corpses you may score on, but you may only score on a corpse type once during the game: determining when to score on a particular corpse type, knowing that doing so starts to limit your options later on in the game.

Other choices are equally meaningful: do you play a better card to score more points to the Communal Graveyard, thereby giving another opponent the opportunity to also score more? Do you play a points denial game, where you modestly score on your own points within your Private Crypt, hoping for end-of-game bonuses but actively undermine any opportunity to score big points in the Communal Graveyard (even at the expense of your own potential score). Do you choose to score on a specific corpse type when it’s safe, or do you push your luck and hope to score even more on your next turn, hoping your opponents don’t stymie your plans?

A fantasy gravedigger’s drudgery is a tactical gamer’s delight: when you make your move you may not be 100% sure it’s the right one, and that uncertainty means that you have to carefully weigh each choice.

Your approach may change turn by turn, and card by card. The meaningful options offered during gameplay means that a single strategy that carries the day in one game may not work the next, and that a varied and flexible strategic approach keeps every game feeling fresh and different. This small box contains a lot of re-playability and value.
All of this: the humorously morbid art, the compelling gameplay, and the accessible price point all come together in Gloomy Graves that we’re excited to bring to gamers. Grab a copy and experience the game’s charm for yourself!

Gloomy Graves plays 2-4 gravediggers aged 14+ in 30-45 minutes and will be available at your friendly local game store for an MSRP of $20 in February. Select stores will have Gloomy Graves for early release in January, so ask your store if they’ll be taking part!