Dale Yu: Review of Gloomy Graves

Gloomy Graves

  • Designer: Jeffrey D. Allers
  • Publisher: Renegade Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 14+
  • Time: 20-30 minutes
  • Times played: 5, with review copy provided by Renegade Games

Gloomy Graves was one of the titles I was most looking forward to in early 2020.  Rolnicy is a game that has been talked about on this site before, but as it was a relatively obscure Polish release, it wasn’t the sort of thing that was easy to find.  The game now has a second life, and a theme change – instead of farming five different types of crops; now you are a gravedigger trying to arrange corpses of five different types (cyclops, unicorns, goblins, pixies and dragons).

The game is comprised of a big stack of domino cards – each side having one of the five types of corpses or an occasional gravedigger, which is a wildcard.  The cards are shuffled and two cards are drawn at random and placed next to each other in the center of the table to start the common graveyard. Each player is dealt a starting hand of five cards, and all players secretly and simultaneously choose one card to act as the start of their personal graveyard.  This leaves players with a hand of four cards, and the hand will remain at this size for the remainder of the game.

There is an array of scoring cards set up on the table; 4 cards each for the five different types.  Over the course of the game, players may score each type only once; but there is a bit of a race aspect to the scoring, because once a player claims a scoring card, that particular level will not be available for anyone else.  The game will be played over a number of rounds until the end of a round when either a player has collected five scoring cards OR the draw pile has been exhausted.

On a turn, the player must play two cards, one to the common graveyard and one to their personal graveyard.  There are a few rules that apply to all card placements and a few rules specific to the location. In general, new cards must always be placed on top of previously played cards (never under).  Gravediggers can never be placed directly adjacent to each other, and gravediggers can only be covered by other gravediggers (never by regular corpses).  

When you play a card to the common graveyard, one half of the new card must always be played so that it legally covers a previously played card; and the other half must extend the common graveyard.  Thus, the common graveyard will continually grow by half a card with each player turn. When you play a card to your private graveyard, the new card can be played either adjacent to or on top of previously played cards; however, when you play, you are always restricted to keeping the overall size of your personal graveyard to a 3×3 grid (1.5 cards in each dimension).  Once you have built out to a 3×3 size, you can only play cards on top of the existing shape. One other rule for your private graveyard is that you can have only one gravedigger in each row and column in your 3×3 grid.

After you have played both cards, you can now choose to score one type of grave – though it must be one of the types from the card just played (again, with the gravedigger being a wildcard).  To score a type, you sum up the squares in the largest orthogonally contiguous group of that type in the common graveyard with the number of squares in the largest orthogonally contiguous group of that type in your personal graveyard. If that sum meets or exceeds the target number on a scoring card, you can take a scoring card from the table  (8 graves for 2 VP, 10 for 4VP, 12 for 6VP, 15 for 10VP). Again, you can only score each type once – so you will have to decide whether you want to take a scoring card early while they are available or whether you should wait in hopes of a bigger score in the future. Once you have decided to score or not, draw two cards from the draw pile or from a face up display of three cards to bring your hand back up to four cards.

Again, the game continues until the end of a round when a player has scored all 5 types OR the draw pile is exhausted.  The VPs on your collected scoring cards are added together, and there is a bonus of 5/10/15 VPs for having 3/4/5 scoring cards collected.   The player with the most points wins. Ties go to the player who has the highest individual scoring card.

My thoughts on the game

Gloomy Graves is a surprisingly simple game that I have really liked so far.  There is a surprising amount of depth to the card play and scoring. As the game starts, sometimes it is helpful to work on a color that at least one other player is also shooting for – because this will help the common graveyard grow for that particular color.  If this happens, there is a good chance that you’ll be able to get a smaller scoring card quickly. Sure, this leads to fewer victory points, but it also can help you move towards the significant scoring bonuses for collecting multiple cards. There is definitely a bit of a race aspect.  It can be painful to be out of sync, having managed to get a total of 12 squares in a color, but then only having the 2vp (for minimum of 8 squares) left for you to get.

The way that the central common graveyard grows is interesting.  As the game progresses, the earlier played cards become fixed – because you can only overlay a square that is on the periphery of the graveyard. So there is a constant battle – as players score things early on, there will be aggregations of those colors near the center of the board.  Once they have been scored though, it would be in the best interest of those players to try to block off those areas so that they cannot grow any further in order to prevent their opponents from getting much larger scoring opportunities in those colors. This also adds a bit to the race pressure, because if you have a lot of a color, you risk losing contact with the area in the common graveyard if the other players block it off – and then you might not be able to score anything at all for that color.

I have found that there is definitely an art to growing your personal graveyard; though it definitely helps to be lucky to draw gravediggers early so that you have them to build from for the whole game.  Trying to put yourself in a position where it is not obvious what you are going for is hard to do, but can lead to big scores. 

I’ll admit, I’m not much for the theme.  I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, but I don’t particularly get excited about gravedigging.  But the art is thematic and well done, and I seem to be in the minority considering the graphic design.  IN the end, it probably doesn’t matter in the end, because the game is really good, and the cards are just essentially dominoes.    Each player does get a double sided player aid that summarizes the turn as well as reminding the bonus scoring; and the game is so easy to learn that it really isn’t needed much.

Games here now take fifteen to twenty minutes.  There is certainly a fair amount of luck involved because you have to draw the right cards from the deck to put yourself in a good spot; but in a game of this duration, it never feels overwhelming.   The box is small format, and if you’re really pressed for space, you could just throw the 100-ish cards into a baggie. While I’m not as much of a fanboy of Jeff as say Brandon Kempf, this one is a keeper for me.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y, John P
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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