Grackles are known to congregate on telephone wires and sing their noisy, tone-deaf songs (and poop on cars below). While you won’t be singing in this game (although you can, I suppose), you will be placing your birds on telephone wires and attempting to crowd out the other birds so you can achieve telephone wire dominance. Let’s flock to the gaming table and see if this one flies!
How It Plays
Grackles is a simple abstract game where you are placing tokens and manipulating tiles in an effort to claim the most spots for your birds on telephone wires. The player with the most birds on the wires at the end of the game is the winner.
So how do your birds get on the wires? On your turn you have a choice of four actions, and you can only do one per turn. The actions are:
1. Draw and place a tile. Draw a tile from the draw deck and place it on the table. Tiles must be placed orthogonally adjacent to other tiles, never diagonally and never in empty space. You cannot exceed a 5×5 grid, so once five tiles are placed in any row/column, no more can be added.
You can place tiles in any way you choose. Colors do not need to match in order to be placed next to each other.
2. Build a line. Play birds from your supply onto spots of your own color to form a line of birds. Lines may not run diagonally or at right angles. You can place birds on a successive line of dots of your color, or you can “connect the dots” by placing your bird on the dot of your color and then filling in all empty spots (regardless of color) between the beginning dot and another dot of your color in the same line. You cannot jump over another line along the way, including one of your own color.
3. Extend a line. If you already have a line going and an opportunity arises on a later turn to extend that line to another dot of your color, you may do so. You can only continue in the direction the line is already going. No turning at a right angle or going diagonally to continue the line.
4. Rotate an empty tile. You can rotate a placed tile as long as no one has played any birds on it. You can only do this five times per game and you have tokens that you must spend in order to do so. When you run out of tokens, no more rotating for you. You can turn the tile any way you choose.
Players keep taking turns until all tiles have been placed in a 5×5 grid and no more valid moves remain for any player. At that point, all players count their birds on the board and the player with the most wins. Ties are shared.
Happy as a Lark, or Dead as a Dodo?
I have not always been a big fan of abstracts. It wasn’t until the recent crop of outstanding abstracts like Azul, Sagrada, Battle Sheep, Seikatsu, and Photosynthesis that I began to get on board the abstract train. These games are so well-produced and engaging that it’s hard to remember that the theme is basically meaningless. I’m becoming a big fan of these games that force you to think in novel ways and patterns, all while delivering an experience that is family- and newbie-friendly.
So it was with some hope that I agreed to review Grackles. It looked like a candidate for space on my abstract shelf, next to titles such as the above. Sadly, Grackles won’t be joining these others in the pantheon of favored abstracts (for me). It’s not a terrible game, but it does have some flaws that make it less desirable for me to keep, especially in a house where shelf space is at a premium. But it’s definitely not all terrible news for these birds, so let’s start with the good.
Grackles does present you with some interesting decisions, and it’s thinkier than it appears when you look at the components. Your goal is to achieve several long lines of birds or, failing that, lots of smaller lines. It’s the number of birds you have on the board that wins you the game, not longest line or who has the most lines. So while it might be fun to try to manipulate the board so that you can put together a six bird line on one turn, it may not be worth it if it comes at the expense of several smaller lines.
It’s important to remember that you can always extend a line on a later turn, so it might be best to just put out a few birds now and hope that you can keep that line going later. Or, that you can start a new line somewhere else.
You do have some agency in the game, both to change your fortune and that of your opponents. It’s not simply “place chips and hope for the best.” You can rotate tiles during the game. You can use those rotations for your own benefit, or to kill someone else’s plan. The trick is that you don’t get to rotate and place birds on the same turn. So you can rotate that tile, but be aware that your opponent can rotate it right back, play birds to block you, or place another tile that wrecks your burgeoning plan. Fortunately each player is limited to just five rotations per game, so the game doesn’t devolve into, “You flip that, I flip it back, and we keep doing this for an hour until someone gives up and goes home.” You have to use those moves wisely.
Tiles can also be placed however you like; colors don’t have to match. This means you can block off opponents, or try to set yourself up for a big “connect the dots” turn. Also, once your birds are down, no one else can move them, and tiles with birds can’t be rotated. So once you set yourself up with birds on the wires, those points can’t be taken away.
Grackles is generally quick to play and it’s easy to set up and put away. It’s a great filler or weeknight game in those respects. It’s something that families can play and the kids can be competitive. The age on the box is 10+, but I would think that younger kids could play, particularly if they have some exposure to abstracts like checkers or Hey, That’s My Fish. Or the classic, Othello. In many ways, Grackles feels like a reworking of that classic game in that you’re trying to connect dots to achieve the majority on the board.
The game plays best at two players, which is nice. With just two, you have a good chance at planning and executing a strategy. With only one other person, the board state doesn’t change much before your next turn. You can use your rotations to greater effect, either for your own benefit or to slow down your opponent.
Which is a nice place to segue into the negatives of the game. Playing with more than two people is chaotic. You won’t be able to make many strategic plans and have them pan out. The board state will change too much before your turn comes around again. It becomes a more tactical game than strategic. It also seems that it brings out the meanness more and there’s more intentional destruction of others’ plans. I think it’s just because things devolve into, “Fine, if I can’t do this, then I’ll just mess you up. You messed me up, so let me repay the favor.” (Or maybe it’s just my group.) If you don’t mind this, fine. But if you’re looking for a more strategic game, don’t play with more than two.
Next, the game can be a little bit mean and unforgiving. I touched on this above, but the ability to rotate tiles means you can intentionally screw up someone’s plan. You can also drop your birds in the path of another player’s line (assuming you have the tile line up to do so), even if it’s not the best move for yourself. Whether it’s worth it to make a move that intentionally hurts another player versus making a good move for yourself has to be evaluated, but the potential is there.
While such a light and simple game shouldn’t lead to much analysis paralysis, Grackles is ripe for it in people prone to the disease. As you get into later rounds and the board gets larger and more crowded, it’s tough to visualize every possibility. What if she rotates that tile that way and then he rotates that one the other way? What might come out of the tile deck next? AP prone players can grind things to a halt. They shouldn’t, because the game is supposed to be lighter and breezier than that (it’s a 20-30 minute game), but we all know those over-optimizers who can kill even the lightest game. And this one will give them opportunity unless you get out the egg timer and force them to get a move on.
There’s also the problem that a mistake can get you killed. It’s hard sometimes to see everything that’s already out on the board and how your action might change things. If you overlook something, you can leave your opponent a chance to score big points without realizing it. (Hint: Look for the player who’s trying to suppress a smile and wiggling in their seat. Then go back and check your move again before you relinquish your turn.) While this is part of the game, it can feel very punishing, kind of like in chess when you discover too late that you left your queen wide open. And if you screw up, particularly late in the game when the board is getting full, your game is likely over. Some people thrive on this sort of tension, but I prefer a less stressful experience. This is the same reason I’m not a fan of chess.
Last, at least as far as gameplay, there’s no tiebreaker. Ties are shared victories. This is a personal annoyance on my part because I hate not having a tiebreaker. (At least one. If you get past that and the game is still tied, fine, but at least give someone a chance to win.) We’ve started playing that the tie goes to the person with the most rotation tokens remaining.
Now let’s talk about my big letdowns with the game: Theme and components. The theme of Grackles is very thin. In fact, it’s so thin that it’s easy to reduce the game to placing chips on dots. It’s truly an abstract game. Which is fine because most abstracts are essentially themeless, but if you’re expecting something along the lines of Battle Sheep or Azul, something that at least offers visual bang for the themeless buck, Grackles isn’t going to do it.
The components are the big hinderance here. They serve their purpose, but they don’t stand out. The tiles are thin and feel like they won’t stand up to heavy play. Other than a couple of illustrated black birds here or there, they are simply depict colored dots connected by lines. Nothing really looks like telephone lines and birds. (Except, oddly, the backs of the tiles, which are very attractive and thematic.) I will say that the color scheme is spot-on, representing the iridescence of the grackle very well.
The chips are functional, but small and very lightweight (no chunky, fun, heft to them). They remind me of the old-school Certs mints that came in a roll. The birds on them don’t stand out very well, either. They are just raised plastic, not painted or colored. Honestly, you could play with the flat, undecorated sides of the chips and not miss anything. The box is bigger than it needs to be, and the components pretty much just rattle around in there. There’s a divider, but no organization to speak of.
When you compare the quality of Grackles to Seikatsu (another bird-themed abstract game), Grackles is clearly lacking. The lack is even more glaring when you consider they both sell for the same MSRP, yet Seikatsu has heavier, painted chips, a lovely board, and a box insert that holds everything neatly. Other abstract games like Azul, Photosynthesis, and Sagrada all sell for similar price points and are also much higher quality. Their themes may be equally meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but they wow with presentation.
If the gameplay of Grackles was out-of-the-park awesome, this lack would be easier to overlook. But as Grackles’ gameplay is merely average for an abstract game, it becomes a question of value for money. For my money, the bar has been set much higher for this price point, and I feel like Grackles doesn’t compete.
Grackles isn’t a bad diversion. The game works and is fun if you enjoy light abstracts that tickle your brain a bit, and you don’t mind chaos and some meanness. But it’s not a great game. Nothing it does is terribly special, and with the lacking components and the (relatively) high price point, there are other family-weight abstracts out there that are both more interesting/engaging and higher quality component-wise for the same money. I’d say if you have an interest, you might do well to wait for a sale that brings the price-to-value ratio into more favorable territory.