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Review: Space Sheep

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spacesheep-cover

Let me start off by sparing you the details of a long era of galactic peace, distortion drives, sheeplings, a lambda sector, and a big bad wolf. Well, I guess I didn’t spare too many details, but the point is, there are a lot of sheep out there in space, and someone needs to lead them home before the “Wolf” fleet arrives.

Yeah, so, anyways, Space Sheep is a cooperative puzzle game for 1-8 players that plays in real time.

How It Plays

In Space Sheep, players are tasked with return all of the sheep, along with their shepherds, back to their matching home system.  It all begins with setup; players must choose a number of systems (between 4 and 8. More systems in play = more challenge), the strength of the Wolf (more strength = more challenge), a number of system cards (fewer system cards = you guessed it, more challenge), whether or not to use Allegiance cards, and so on.  The systems are placed in a circle with random (or pre-determined, if you need to ease up the challenge a little) “Instruction tiles” on each system, as well as a single sheep and a single shepherd (that looks suspiciously like a certain smuggler’s ship from a certain… okay, this is a star wars parody. It say so on the box. It demands to be known as a Star Wars parody. They look like the ‘Falcon) that do not match colors to each other or the system.

spacesheep-basicsetup
The cat is a key element to the setup of the game

Each turn, a player must choose 1 action; either activate a system (by discarding a card matching that system’s color), activate a shepherd (by discarding a card matching that shepherd’s color), or power up the Defense console.  In addition, they can also attack the Wolf.

Activating a system allows that player to move either the shepherd or the sheep (or both, if they’re matching colors) according to the instructions on that system. So, an instruction tile might say “Move 1 past the Yellow shepherd” or something like that, so you can move the ships (sheeps?) to the correct system. Activating a Shepherd allows you to simply move that Shepherd forward one system.  Any time a Sheep or Shepherd is moved, they swap places with the same type of ship in the destination System.

Powering up the Defense console basically involves discarding a card to console.  When the Wolf attacks, part of it’s damage is absorbed by cards on the defense console.

The goal is to get shepherds and sheep back to their home system (matching colors).  The catch is, play is “real time,” in a sense.  A sand timer is included, and every time it runs out, the Wolf attacks, forcing players to discard cards based on the Wolf’s strength. If players run out of cards, the game ends in a loss.

Fortunately, players can “attack” the wolf by discarding a card matching the system in which the Wolf currently resides.  An attack knocks over the wolf.  Once the wolf is knocked over, the Supreme Flock Commander can, at any time, flip the sand timer over. When he does, this obviously resets the clock, but it also moves the Wolf to a new system and stands it back up.

The Supreme Commander. He's serious.
The Supreme Commander. He’s serious.

Players must balance their focus between keeping the Wolf down to prevent attacks, and trying to solve the puzzle of moving ships around to get them back home. Which can be quite difficult.

An optional “alliance” mechanism is included, in which some players are Wolves in sheeps clothing, and are trying to slow everyone down and let the Wolf win (while remaining undetected, less they get ousted from the game).

Homeward Bound? (Futurewolfie’s take)

Space Sheep, we need to talk. I know you think you’re clever with your puns and your cover art. No subtlety is lost on us here, namely because from the obvious cover art homage and the bright orange stamp stating “this is a parody” we get it like a man falling down a mountain gets covered in bruises. I mean, I get it. We all love Star Wars, so why not parody it to get us to try your game? But your game lacks anything to do with Star Wars. I can’t “Ewe’s the Force” at all, or anything remotely close to it. That’s a big setup you’ve built that does nothing but disappoint.

spacesheep-castofcharacters
The full cast. Well 5 out of 8 colors represented, anyways

All right. I’ve gotten that out of my system. Lets talk about the game itself.

The game is a puzzle; not a terribly complex one, for the most part. You simply have to figure out how to move these pieces around to get them to their very clear destination. There is no single solution, but the more efficiently you can get everyone home, the less likely you’ll get eaten by the wolf, or whatever. The timing mechanism ensures that you will be stressed out and distracted while trying to solve this puzzle, turning it from a simple exercise in logic to a tough, frenetic challenge.

There are a lot of ways to customize the challenge of the game; increasing or decreasing the amount of systems in play, increasing or decreasing cards available, and so on. What really increases the challenge, though, is including more players. The game technically supports up to 8, but a big crowd makes the process quite difficult indeed. There is a lot to keep track of in the game, and you’ll need to coordinate with the other players to make sure you can get it done, all while not losing track of the Wolf who will of course be trying to ruin you the whole time. But, if you spend too much time fighting the Wolf, you’ll run out of cards to get your sheep home.

I feel sympathetic to the wolves. For some reason.
I feel sympathetic to the wolves. For some reason.

This is definitely the sort of game that will not appeal to some types of people.  Not everyone loves solving logic puzzles or is good at it, and the timing element adds a lot of stress and pressure, and not in a way that those people will find fun. Whereas a game like escape takes very simple mechanisms and a straightforward goal and adds frenetic energy with the timing element in a fun way, the countdown clock will just add more stress to a difficult puzzle.

As for me, I felt the game itself landed in the pile of resounding “meh.” The puzzle aspect was not confusing to me; I get puzzles, my brain works that way. Maybe I was just disappointed by the big promises made by the thematic dressing, but the challenge just didn’t feel all that interesting, and when I played with larger groups that included players less than excited about the gameplay, it was not terribly fun to me to watch them struggle to figure out what to do. Perhaps I didn’t “sell” the game well enough, but if the game was really fun, I wouldn’t need to sell it, just to play it.

This very fine bag is included... but only used to randomize the tokens during game setup. Too bad.
This very fine bag is included… but only used to randomize the tokens during game setup. Too bad.

If you have the right group, though, you could probably have fun. With a group in which all of the players understood the puzzle and could think it through and manage the wolf and whatnot, it could be an interesting challenge. It just didn’t suck me in enough in my plays to encourage me to want to play it more.

Another problematic element of the game is the components. Oh, the production value is fine – the cardboard is thick and sturdy, the sheep and “shepherds” are fantastically large wooden things that are way too big to be called Meeples (and the Wolf silhouette could be better). However, the instruction tiles, once you get past the basic “move 1 past, move 1 behind” instructions, are loaded with text.  Text that you need to read, examine, process, and figure out what they’re saying, while under the countdown timer.  It’s one thing to try and solve the puzzle with a time limit; it’s another to have to worry about figuring out what you’re actually allowed to do with the pieces, which is taking time away from actually solving the puzzle. Not that you couldn’t get used to some of these tiles over time, but many of them actually require constant re-calculation during the game. Add this on the fact that some players have to read this upside down, and the focus shifts from solving the puzzle to remembering the rules, which is less than cool.

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You have 10 seconds, go!

There’s also a very convenient player aid. And by “convenient,” I mean it’s a text-heavy card that is almost impossible to reference during gameplay because your time is counting down.

spacesheep-reference
You have 10 seconds. Go!

So, all right, if you have the right group of people, Space Sheep could be a decent logic puzzle made interesting and challenging by the stress of a countdown timer, and when your group is good enough you can add in the traitors to make it even more challenging. You have to be willing to patiently wade through the learning process, however, and you may end up just leaving certain instruction tiles out of the game.  Others who just don’t “get” the puzzle or don’t enjoy solving these types of puzzles, let alone under time pressure, will not be thrilled.

The Good Shepherd? (FarmerLenny’s take)

Space Sheep might be the most polarizing game I’ve ever played. It’s the kind of game that some people will like and others will think is a complete waste of time. I fall into the like category.

The reason is that I like puzzles. I used to complete Sudoku and crossword puzzles for fun (and still occasionally do). I used to have books of logic problems that required thinking through disparate statements or making charts, and I liked them. So keep that in mind when I say I like Space Sheep, because if you like those other kinds of things, you’ll probably like it too. If you don’t, well, I’d fly as far, far away as you can get–this game is not for you.

spacesheep-bigbadwolf
Plus I just like attacking Wolves. No reason.

That’s the bummer about the game, though–it does nothing to bridge the gap between players who like this kind of game and players who won’t. (You can frame this as a positive, I suppose: the game is unashamedly a puzzle.) While it can accommodate eight players, it seems best suited to either solitaire or coterie-of-enthusiasts play. This is Wolfie’s game, and I only played with groups in that context, so I didn’t get to try the solitaire game. But I imagine that would be my favorite way to play. While I thought the games I played with Wolfie and others were fun, the prevailing emotion around the table was frustration, and the frustration was born of confusion. Space Sheep isn’t a particularly difficult puzzle to solve most of the time, at least if you have the leisure of a sunny afternoon and some time to kill. Add in a timing element, though, and the game gets that much more difficult and frantic. Most players can handle a game like Escape, which, while a frantic real-time experience, is also fairly simple–the goal is clear, as is the means to reach it. (I should mention that some players can’t handle Escape. Different strokes for different people.) While my puzzle-loving brain thrives in that kind of frantic puzzle-solving environment, most of the others at the table didn’t know what to do and either shut down completely or willingly submitted to the cooperative genre’s bane: the alpha gamer. So it fits a very strange niche. It’s too frantic for the unpuzzler if you play the game with the timer, and it’s not interesting enough for the puzzle-loving gamer if the timer isn’t included. Like I said: polarizing.

Now, Space Sheep need not be the experience I had with the group I played with. In fact, as we were playing, I could imagine playing with my sister (another puzzle lover) and having a great time with it. Of course, she is the same person I could see playing round after round of Hanabi, just trying to get a perfect score. People like different things. And it just so happens that the group that will like Space Sheep is a fairly small niche.

spacesheep-tactics
Are you dazzled by the wondrous colors?

Wolfie’s quibbles are legitimate. The game doesn’t do players favors by offering lots of text to parse on the fly. The game is customizable with lots of options, which is a great feature, but I also cannot imagine ever including the traitor variant, even with players who like puzzles. The timing element adds enough of a challenge without throwing an active saboteur into the mix. I don’t mind the Star Wars parody skin–it’s as good of window dressings for a puzzle as anything else–but it doesn’t relate at all to the gameplay, if that’s a problem for you. Space Sheep has really cool components, but it might be a bit overproduced for the puzzle that it is.

All I’ve said here is, “Here’s the kind of gamer I am, and I like Space Sheep.” And with a game this polarizing, that’s all I can do. If you’re like me, you’ll probably like it. If you aren’t, you might want to join a different flock when this hits the table.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Stronghold Games for providing us with a review copy of Space Sheep.

Summary

  • futurewolfie's rating 6.5
  • FarmerLenny's rating 7
  • User Ratings (0 Votes) 0
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Summary

Pros

  • Lots of customization options
  • Nice, solid wooden sheep/shepherd tokens
  • A different sort of cooperative game
  • With the right group, challenging and interesting puzzle

Cons:

  • Instructions laden with text force players to solve rules before solving puzzle
  • Overdone theme disappoints in that it doesn't actually exist in the game
  • Just not that exciting
6.8 Average

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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