If I were to start thinking of cool stories for board games, I would probably start obvious, with some elves and orcs and big men with heavy swords. Then, since that particular idea has been beaten so far into the ground that it has popped up in China, I would move on to my personal favorite - animal people, ninja-turtle-style. And as a grown man with a little too much testosterone, I might also come up with a game where you look at a lot of naked women and then shoot people.
I would have to make a pretty long list before I got to steam-powered robots playing indoor football. But someone over at Privateer Press made that leap, and created Grind. Not content to come up with one hell of a wacky theme for a game, they went whole-hog and made detailed miniatures, a huge spiky ball, and a game board that looks to have been forged out of metal recovered from a nuclear bomb testing site.
I should mention at this point that I have rarely played a sports-themed game that I really enjoyed. I bought a copy of Battle Ball a few years ago, but I took out all the miniatures to make HeroScape customs and never even read the rules. I have played several others, and know that many of them have die-hard fans, but I find them slow and rules-heavy and generally a bit boring. So I admit that I was not all that optimistic about Grind. It's just not the kind of game that tends to appeal to me, any more than games about selling stamps or packing luggage.
Grind surprised me, though, in a good way. The rulebook scared me off for a long time - I've owned it several months, and finally finished the rules last week. The rulebook is long and full of small type that hurts my eyes (I may need reading glasses, but seriously, there's a lot of small type). There are lots of unique circumstances in the game, each covered by a block of text heavier than a garbage can full of oatmeal. I read the rules, put them away, read them again, put them away again, read them one more time and played the game wrong, read them yet again and then finally figured out how it works.
Turns out there's a tutorial on the Privateer Press site that actually tells you how to play. Once I looked over the tutorial, all those rules clicked, and I was more than a little irritated that I had spent that much time re-reading the rules when I could have watched a quick how-to on the Internet. And there are two handy reference cards so each player can keep up with all the stats and abilities that would otherwise require flipping through the rules every two minutes. So the game is not nearly as intimidating as I thought, especially because most of the rules are pretty intuitive. To put the final touch on my humiliation, my 15-year-old son picked it up in five minutes, and then declared that it would be boring if we didn't play with the more complicated rules. I'm either too old, or he's too smart. Probably both.
So here's how this works. Each team gets five steamjacks (huge steam-powered robots) and various interchangeable arms. On your turn, you activate your entire team, then pound the crap out of everything in your way to try to get this giant spiky ball into the opposing team's goal. There are two kinds of robots on each team, and you can outfit them with various cool arm weapons like magnets and interceptor fists and grapple guns. Each arm does something different, and some of them create great combinations when you put the right two together. Combine the power fist with the porn magazine arm, for instance, and you'll wind up with a robot that keeps hiding in the bathroom.
If you've played other Privateer Press games, especially Monsterpocalypse, the use of dice should be pretty familiar. You get a bag full of frustratingly tiny dice, all with pictures of explosions on them. There are white dice and red dice and blue dice, and you get different kinds of dice for different things. You get ten white dice every turn, and once you use them all, your metal monsters can't do very much any more. You get one red die every turn, but these add up, so that you'll eventually have five of them. And then you get blue ones at various moments throughout the game, depending on which arm you're using, what you're hitting, and whether your opponent is watching very closely. You get fewer dice if you drop these stupid tiny dice on the floor, because a die that small is virtually guaranteed to wind up under the fridge.
One of the reasons the game appears to be pretty complicated is that there's a lot you can do. These giant robots are pretty versatile, and they can throw the ball (or each other), punch the other guy's robots into the gutter, and dribble downfield (think soccer dribble, not basketball dribble. Seriously, this ball is like those old earthballs they used to break out in 7th grade PE so that we could slam them into the little nerdy kids and then put that huge ball on top of them until they got grass stains in their ear canals). You can call plays, combo attack, set screens and tend goals. These robots are damned clever. Compare them to your average YMCA kids' team - five coordinated steel warriors, or twenty fourth-graders hopped up on sugar and ritalin. I'll tell you which sport I would rather watch (hint - it's not the one where the players start crying if a shoe falls off).
I'll be the first to admit that there are lots of barriers that might keep you away from Grind. It's a sports game with a fantasy theme, which is a big divider right off the bat. It's got a very long and very detailed book of rules. It comes with ten really great robot figures, but they're an absolute bitch to assemble (I got a blood blister on my index finger, and lost two of the heads when they popped off). The dice are ridiculously small, so that if you roll them in a dice bowl (like I do), it can be tough to see what you rolled. Basically, there are lots of reasons for a guy like me to take a pass.
But if you can get past the chunky rules, the wacky sports theme, and the pain-inducing assembly issues, Grind is a bunch of fun. When it comes down to it, everything I like about a game is in there. You've got planning, positioning, strategy and tactics. You've got luck, but it's manageable if you play well. It's got killer art and awesome components. When you spend two turns setting up the play, then call a long-shot Hail Mary that turns into an Alley Oop slam-dunk for the win right at the buzzer, you won't care who's watching, you'll jump up and wave your hands around in exultation, at least until you bang your finger on something and break open that blister you got from trying to shove the robot legs into place.
It should go without saying that many people are not going to like Grind. People who like light rules and shallow learning curves are going to hate this like it came with a swarm of angry hornets, and if you prefer games that represent everything with wooden cubes, you'll never have the patience to assemble your robots. On the other hand, if you dig a crazy theme, and you like a healthy mix of strategy and tactics, Grind is worth a look.
Wicked awesome robot figures
Incredibly cool art
Planning, maneuvering, strategy and a little luck
Robots are a bastard to put together
Tiny, tiny dice