They’re the forgotten, misunderstood outcasts of the avian world. Oft-maligned and ignored in favor of their more iconic cousin the crow, it’s the humble grackle that takes center stage in this new, abstract-strategy game.
What Is Grackles?
From Fireside Games and designers Sarah Graybill and John Shulters, Grackles is an abstract strategy game of putting colorful birds on power lines in as large of quantities as possible. For 2-4 players, it’s a quick-playing game that will rarely last longer than 20-30 minutes and sells for an MSRP of $39.99.
What’s in the Box?
With a box illustrated by Mateusz Wilma, Grackles is immediately eye-catching, featuring gaggles of the colorful birds perched on power lines. The game comes with:
- 180 Plastic grackle tokens (45 each of purple, black, blue, and green)
- 25 Board tiles
- 20 Rotate tokens (5 each of purple, black, blue, and green)
- 1 Rules sheet
There’s an immediate draw to Grackles in the clean, pretty artwork and, once inside the box, the pleasantly substantial grackle tokens, which not only offer more weight than cardboard chits would, but also feature a molded image of a grackle on one side (yes, both sides would have been nice, but that’s not a big deal). Each player is given a bag of 45 such pieces at the start of the game; it’s a good, wealthy feeling that makes you want to immediately begin to play and to start using your delightful game pieces.
My biggest issue with the box and its contents is, in fact, nothing to do with them specifically. Rather, the $39.99 price tag, which seems more than a little steep for their small-to-medium sized box and limited contents. That said, the price doesn’t affect the gameplay, so let’s take a look.
How to Play Grackles
The manual to Grackles, if you can even call it that, is a single, double-sided sheet, and it doesn’t even use all that space for rules. The goal is simple: be the player to get the most of their color of grackle onto the ever-expanding web of telephone wires.
To start, each player chooses a color, takes the grackle tokens of that color as well as the five reverse tokens in the matching color. Then, find the two starting telephone line tiles (noted by the black diamond that will link them) and place them in the center of the play area.
On each player’s turn, they have 4 actions and will choose 1 to take.
- Draw and place a tile: The active player draws a random tile and adds it to the board. The only rule is that the board can never grow beyond 5 tiles wide or tall, meaning that at the end of the game there will be a 5 by 5 board of tiles. Each tile displays the 4 player colors, and the arrangement of these tiles is the key to the game.
- Place your grackles: To choose this option, a player must be able to lay his birds in a straight, uninterrupted line from one space of his color to another space of his color. This will create a “line” of grackles that can be used to block an opponent and which you may be able to extend with the next action.
- Extend a line: To extend a line you must add grackle token from the end of one of your existing lines to the next space of your color. The line must be extended in the same direction as the original line: you cannot extend a line to the left or right.
- Rotate a tile: To take this action, you must spend one of your 5 rotate tokens (if you don’t have any left, you can’t take this action) and then may select a tile on the board to rotate in place in any way you choose.
And that’s the game. Players slowly grow the board, carefully arranging the tiles so as to allow them to place long lines of their grackles whilst simultaneously ensuring that their opponents can only place tiny, meager lines of birds.
Once all the tiles are in play, the board is set, and play continues until no player has any possible actions remaining, at which point the game is over and the player who has played the most of their grackles is the winner.
Will You Like Grackles?
Grackles is an extremely appealing little game. Beyond the aesthetics of the pretty box and lovely tokens, it immediately reminds me of such classic mainstays as Go and Othello. Both the board and gameplay is immediately familiar, making it easy to teach, and because it follows in the footsteps of such ubiquitous titles as mentioned, it’s easier to get players who wouldn’t normally play a “modern” board game to sit down and give it a try.
That accessibility is one of Grackles’ best features. I could see teaching this to kids who want to play something more challenging than Candyland. I could see playing it with my my relatives who have never heard of anything besides Backgammon. It feels like a kind, gentle little touchstone of a game. The only disappointment is that the one demographic that I don’t see taking to it is other heavy gamers, who would likely bypass it off the bat for something meatier.
I typically prefer my abstract games with a player count of 2, where I can focus on my opponent without the chaos of multiple players. In Grackles, however, I had the opposite reaction. The limited options in the game (play a tile or play birds, basically) becomes clunky with only 2 players. The lack of chaos or luck means that you find yourself in a tug-of-war with the person sitting across from you, and its a tug-of-war where you’re evenly matched. All you can do is hope they trip, which isn’t a great way to win.
With 3 or 4 players, things open up. Because you can’t focus on one other player, you find yourself trying to focus on all of them, and when that proves too much you do what the game wants you to do from the start: focus on yourself. Once you get to that point, it becomes less of a cutthroat race (which is when it’s least successful) and more of a puzzle with a mind of its own. Yes, your opponents are placing tiles and birds that mess with your plans, but you can’t control them, so instead you focus on maximizing and massaging what you’re given, contorting the tiles to give you the longest lines of grackles possible.
At the end of the day, Grackles is a mixed bag, but the core game is very solid and will please a lot of people and slot nicely into a lot of collections. I would call it a 3-4 player game instead of 2-4, and the listed price tag may turn a lot of people away, but if you’re looking to add something with broad appeal to your collection, this may be it.
To subscribe to GeekDad’s tabletop gaming coverage, please copy this link and add it to your RSS reader.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.