While wandering the vendor hall of the Indianapolis Convention Center attending GenCon this year looking for a fantasy card game; vaccinated, masked, I turned a corner of the endless row of booths and saw the entrance to the gaming hall. Tables on tables and players upon players. Laughing, smiling, and gaming. I decided to step forward and cross the threshold between halls in order to check out the game being played. Immediately, I was stopped by a goat-wearing, pale-faced man with a bone claw in one hand. Next to him, three of the most gloriously hideous, mutated goats stood impatient. “Wait!” He says to me, “there is a troll blocking the way”

Ok, maybe that is, well, a bit of a stretch.

But I did round the corner and see the Studio Woe booth. They designed and produced the game “Gruff: The Tactical Card Game of Mutated Monster Goats”. In Gruff, the designers built off the Norwegian fairy tale, Three Billy Goats Gruff. In the tale, the three goat brothers attempt to cross a bridge to graze peacefully in the delicious fields beyond. The troll blocks their way until the oldest and biggest goat knocks the troll into the stream below.

The folks at Studio Woe took this tale, and well, mutated it

With a dash of imagination and creativity, they re-envisioned the goats as various biological and technological mutations called “gruffs”, complete with a crazed shepherd. Your shepherd and gruffs battle head to head against equally crazed shepherds with their equally mutated gruffs in a competitive battle until one shepherd is left standing.

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I will admit what drew me to Studio Woe both and Gruff specifically was the art of the gruffs. Fun, whimsical, and creative. The game grabbed my attention so I decided to play a demo and learn the background story along the way. The deck-building, fantasy style of the game, similar to Magic The Gathering and Pokemon still gave me pause though. After a second quick demo, the art and play style of the game won me over.

Setting up the fantasy card game

First, select your shepherd

Sample Shepherd Cards from Gruff: The Fantasy Card GameInitially, each player will select a single shepherd and three gruffs supplied with the game. First the shepherds. Each shepherd has two stats, Life and Crazy. Life is your health and the game is over once it reaches zero. Life also has a “threshold”. If your shepherd falls below the threshold, certain abilities are activated. Crazy on the other hand is how many spells or special abilities you can use. This stat moves up during the game based upon your gruff’s actions, spells, and abilities. As you become crazier, you are able to activate more spells and abilities.

Second, pick your “gruffs”

Guffs are your “flock”. Each gruff brings certain spells and abilities to use through their ability cards. There are 24 ability cards in the game for each gruff. From those cards, you select 8 to use in the game and shuffle them together to form the shepherd’s deck. The unused cards are set aside and not used.

Sample Gruff Cards from Gruff: The Fantasy Card GameGruffs, being the mutations created by the shepherds from the original three billy goats, contain three stats: fat, mean, and weird. Fat is the gruffs ability to absorb damage from the opposing gruffs. The more fat, the more your opponent has to attack in order to do damage to your shepherd. To attack, you use your meanness. The more “mean” your gruffs are, the more damage they can do. How weird your gruff is determines how crazy your shepherd can become. Every time you activate a gruff, the gruff’s weird score increases your shepherd’s craziness.

Last, set up the “bridge” for the fantasy card game

To begin, each player sets up their three guffs, horizontally, side-by-side in a single row, facing the opponent’s gruffs. The players should also leave space between their gruffs to show when gruffs are attacking. On the shepherd, attach a clip (included) to each of the starting stats: life and crazy. Next, place a clip on the starting stats for each gruff; fat, mean, and weird. These clips note the value of the stats throughout the game. Finally, place your starting ability deck to the left of the shepherd. The empty space on the right of the shepherd becomes the discard pile.

Next, play the fantasy card game, Gruff

The gameplay of Gruff consists of three phases: cleanup, activation, and tactical. Each player moves through each of the phases and then gameplay passes to the next player. After the 2nd player finishes the last phases, the round is over. The phases are:

First, the cleanup phase

In the cleanup phase, the active player begins their turn by attacking (if they chose to attack at the end of the last round), removing all conditions, and refreshing exhausted gruffs. The players ship this phase during the first round. Upon completion of the round, the player draws a card.

To resolve an attack, the gruff’s mean value plus any modifiers become the attack value. The opposing gruff’s fat value plus any modifiers become the defense to overcome. A gruff can either be active, exhausted, or readied to defend. The attack succeeds when the attack value exceeds the defense value of the defending gruff. The shepherd takes the leftover attack value as damage. The defeated gruff is now dead and flipped over. The shepherd takes all the attack as damage if the gruff is already dead. The defending gruff blocks the attack if their defending value is more than the attacking value.

Second, the activation phase

Following the drawing of a card, the player moves into the activation phase. Here, a player chooses a single gruff to “activate”. To do so, the player rotates the gruff 90 degrees into the vertical position. Once activated, the shepherd’s craziness is increased by the gruff’s weird stat. Then, the gruff’s special abilities take place (if they have them) like increasing fat, mean or weird.

Finally, the tactical phase.

With the selected gruff activated, crazy increased and abilities applied, the player moves into the tactical phase. Here, a player chooses to attack or move a gruff, grow a gruff’s stats, or resurrect a defeated gruff. Following the tactical phase, activated gruffs become exhausted.

  • Attack. If a player chooses to attack with a gruff, they have the opportunity to deal damage to the opposing shepherd and ultimately kill them. To attack, a player chooses from one of the activated gruffs and then slides that gruff forward to indicate the attack. In order to do damage, the attacking gruff must deal more damage than the opposing gruff’s fat. If he does, then the extra damage goes against the shepherd’s life.
  • Shift. The player can choose to move the gruff to the left or right, switching places with another one of the player’s gruffs.
  • Grow. The player can choose to increase one of his gruff’s stats, fat, mean, or crazy, by one.
  • Resurrect. The player can choose to revive a dead gruff to its pre-defeated stats and abilities.

With the Tactical Phase complete, gameplay moves to the next player. When that player finishes, the round ends and the next round begins. This goes on until one shepherd or all the gruffs are dead.

Reflections on the fantasy card game, Gruff

Before I address the game itself, I have to say first and foremost, the art is fantastic. Honestly, it’s what drew me to the booth at GenCon in the first place. The card art by Avery Coleman and Virginia Critchfield is a perfect mix of whimsical, inventive, and imaginative with a shot of “craziness” thrown in. Now I will remind you that I have not played competitive, fantasy card games before this as my kids and work ate any extra time when Pokemon, Yui-guo, and Magic, were released. As they aged and my time (and money) freed up, the barrier of entry to those games just felt too high.

It’s for this reason I really enjoy Gruff.

It’s not a collectible style game nor is it one where you have to continually buy expansions. The basics of the game are easy to pick up, especially after a short tutorial at Studio Woe. The base Gruff card game comes with 7 shepherds, 15 goats, and 225 associated goat ability cards. Enough for you and a friend to start playing quickly. There are even some suggested ability cards for each gruff on the website. If you wish to build your own deck, each gruff has 24 ability cards. This makes the ability card selection a bit less daunting while still giving the experienced choices. This also allows for a strong bit of replayability. You can play over and over again to find the right combination that fits your playstyle only to have your friend change up their style cause you to go back to the “drafting” board.

The mechanics of Gruff are a bit different as well.

The asymmetry of this imaginative card game introduces a bit of the unexpected to the gameplay. Each player is playing and planning based upon their shepherd’s strengths, their gruff’s abilities, all while trying to predict how the opposing player’s shepherds and gruffs will play and evolve. In addition, the unique position and timing mechanics create a constant state of attack and counterplay. At any given moment, the opposing player can choose to change the position of a gruff causing an attack to fail. Or a gruff can get fatter and/or meaner in a single round causing you to change tactics on the fly.

As far as setup goes, Gruff is pretty quick and easy.

Those wishing for a more competitive run might spend some time reviewing the ability cards and playing through some scenarios to find the right mix. If you are like me though, pulling the game out when friends come over or the kids return back from college, it’s pretty quick and easy to grab a shepherd, select your gruffs and snag some suggested abilities to go with them. This also allows for quite a bit of portability (great for business traveling).

A spectacular find at GenCon this year. Gruff is a unique card game that pretty much fills the competitive, fantasy card game gap in my collection. Old school magic and pokemon gamers might be concerned about the lack of depth you can get through the variety of cards but for the first time or casual gamer, it will definitely satisfy.

Oh, and more though

The folks at StudioWoe have been some of the best game designers I have interacted with. Whether it was at GenCon while they were (patiently) demoing and teaching the game or online through their Discord Channel or Facebook page, they have been fantastic in responding to my questions about gameplay.

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About Gruff: A Tactical Card Game

  • Publisher: Studio Woe
  • Number of Players: 2 Players
  • Designer: Brent Critchfield
  • Artists: Avery Coleman, Virginia Critchfield
  • Where to Buy: Online store
  • Cost: $15

Additional Reviews for Gruff:

Gruff: Clash of the Battle Goats

Gruff: Clash of the Battle Goats

Competitive, tactical card game with 6 shepherds, 6 gruffs, and faction rules in a stand-alone expansion.

Gruff: Rage Against the Trolls

Gruff: Rage of the Trolls

This stand-alone expansion adds 6 goats, 5 shepherds, and 4 troll boss-fights plus solo and co-operative rules.

Gruff: Stuff of Nightmares

Gruff: Stuff of Nightmares

A stand-alone expansion that adds 15 new goats, 8 new shepherds, 3 trolls, and a new faction of plushy nightmare goats called The Stuffkin.

Gruff: Whispers of Madness

Gruff: Whispers of Madness

A stand-alone expansion that adds 5 new shepherds, 15 new goats, 3 new trolls, and a new mechanic to the game: Sanity and Madness