Grimslingers is outlandish. It’s Clint Eastwood wandering the wasteland of Fallout directed by Guillermo del Toro. This concoction of grit and cybernetics doesn’t just live within your mind’s eye, it’s plastered over every beautiful card courtesy of artist/designer Stephen Gibson. A triple threat, he designed, illustrated, and published this work all on his own before Greenbrier picked it up and expanded its reach. This tabletop version of Hugh Jackman is the real deal.
This is a game as odd as its setting. It’s partially a head to head dueling card game, and partially a story-focused overland adventure combating witches and heathens. Both modes of play receive equal focus and the game never forces you into a specific approach.
Competitive, cooperative, solo, multiplayer- it’s all good, partner.
The competitive duel mode has two to six players throwing down in the streets and spilling blood. As Grimslingers, you wield arcane spells and harness the elements alongside revolvers and shotguns. There’s a solid fidelity in the myriad items on display as you can wield oddball electronica blended with rusty old west tech. This bizarre sundry is extended to your floating robotic anima, always at your side to supplement your spellcraft as well as offer inane one-liners.
Alongside items scavenged from the field, your hand will primarily consist of a symmetric set of elemental spells. You select from these options each round, placing a card facedown on the table. A simultaneous reveal then occurs mimicing a high stakes draw. Elements will counter elements as everything unwinds in this relatively straightforward rock/paper/scissors mechanism.
There’s a nice flow to play as participants manage their character’s health and energy. You can sacrifice HP to pump up your EP which is used to reclaim cards from your discard pile and power rare signature spells. This movement of lifeforce to mystic energy and then to spells manages to capture the witchcraft theme in a subtle yet effective way. It’s one of the primary differentiators between this system and others of its type.
And yet that’s not enough.
The main challenge with the duel format is that it’s not terribly interesting. It’s certainly solid and offers an enjoyable experience, but it does little to push the boundaries of the genre or challenge its peers. It never manages to elevate itself above its competitors such as Codex or Android: Netrunner, both of which offer a much more expansive and deeper system of play.
Grimslingers, as a head to head game, is something you pull off the shelf for some quick entertainment and not a title you’re going to fall into and get lost in.
So what about the story mode? This is what drew me to Grimslingers after all, as I was hoping for a narrative adventure with some light yet strategically interesting card play in a hoot of a setting.
That’s exactly what I got.
While the system here is fairly light, it’s ultimately effective. You move a little meeple around a small map of the region. The paths of travel force you into random encounters and small skirmishes. When breaking away to fight you engage in a simplified duel against an AI deck that bites and shoots back. You’ll rip apart peculiar Jackalopes as well as ferocious Chupacabras. You’ll stare longingly into the terrifying art as the setting comes to life. It’s all very mesmerizing.
Let’s pause for a moment.
There’s a lot of momentum behind this newfangled approach where games aren’t just games but they’re stories too, interactive ones at that. We have a huge comeback in book-driven designs such as the resurging Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective and Legacy of Dragonholt. The Arkham Horror Living Card Game adopted this story focus wholeheartedly, taking investigators along for a multi-product ride full of twists and turns.
There are two primary ways that a table top game conveys narrative. The first is through scripted sequences of flavor text and setting. It’s the central vehicle of those aforementioned recent wonders. The second is the tried and true method of allowing players to organically create a story from kicking around in a sandbox. This is seen in the modern classic Merchants and Marauders where there is no prescribed narrative arc, there’s merely systems to put you up against the wall and present interesting conflict. This conflict leads to a natural series of events that present a cohesive narrative, although it’s one you forged from disparate parts and tamed, as opposed to dictated to you by a copywriter.
Grimslingers attempts to reconcile both of these methods. There’s a story booklet with scripted events that are triggered by player action. When you fulfill certain conditions you read a few paragraphs and push the narrative forward. The writing itself is also top-notch for this industry as it comes across as witty and capable. This is a substantial achivement that breeds investment and maintains a necessary level of charm.
These well-penned scripts are developed with purpose and build toward a reasonably satisfying climax. The resolution itself is one of the stronger elements of this cooperative mode as it takes the difficult path of leaving questions hanging in the air. It doesn’t spoonfeed the players or take them by the nose thematically, leaving you to ponder the nature of several characters and events that take place.
A selection of desert critters to chomp your noggin.
Within that light series of linked events you are free to wander the Valley of Death. You move along nodes on a map and will run into random encounters as well as dastardly foes to tangle with. The game checks off several RPG boxes by offering character progression and card turnover, which is reconciled well within the game’s system.
The challenges with combining these two methods of experiencing narrative is that this is a small product with limited content. It will only take about six hours to work your way through the Valley of Death campaign and replayability is light. Truth be told, the difficulty can be very swingy at low player counts – particularly solo – so you may find your cowpoke giving up the ghost in a showdown and needing to start the whole thing fresh.
The rough spots stem from a lack of maturity. The product itself is still trying to find its legs and establish a system for longevity. The story mode doesn’t feel slapped together at the last minute, but it also doesn’t feel fully realized. In that regard, Grimslingers comes across a bit like a proof of concept, albeit one that provides several dramatic swings and a hell of a frontier to wander through.
The pieces are all there. There’s a blissful setting that’s wholly unique. There’s a solid core system of dueling that can support a greater narrative tension. There’s even exceptional presentation from a visual and literary perspective. It simply needs to be all tied together and woven into something greater.
The big question is where is this going? The Northern Territory has the answer. This recent expansion offers a follow-up campaign that continues where Valley of Death left off. I’ll be making that trek through hellish land in the coming weeks and promise to get word back by telegraph on my experience. Hopefully the Chupacabras aren’t chewing on the line.