Time: 10-20 minutes
The first layer of family game testing here at Casa McD is the hardest. New titles are subjected to rigorous examination and play-testing by a team of the best 10-13-year-olds money can buy. If your family game doesn't pass muster with them, it will certainly be given further consideration, but it will have an uphill battle.
Gubs is the first game since Sleeping Queens to hit the tables and become a hit immediately. We began with a dozen 2-player hands, and spent the next few days demanding everyone else give it a try. Even normally jaded gamers (and I'm not singling out teenagers here ... no, wait, I am) managed to bestir themselves from their usual indication of intense approval ("yeah, it's fine") to call it "really addictive" and demand more hands. That's a pretty clear indication that GameWright has another success on their hands.
Gubs is credited to Cole and Alex Medeiros, with fantastic artwork by Israel Woolfolk. On the website, Cole tells the story of the game's evolution from a homemade project for family and friends, to self-publishing, and finally to the slick treatment given to the game by GameWright. Everything from art, to rules, to card design, to fun-factor, to play balance is spot-on. It even comes in my favorite packaging: the compact embossed tin.
A "gub" is kind of a bug-like fairy creature. They ride toads and giant moths, hide behind mushrooms, and face threats from all manner of fey creatures. A feather is enough to dispel a powerful attack, but a soap-bubble can trap them. The world and the characters mines the same kind of lore which made Spiderwick such a success, placing players in a charming world hiding just beyond our gen.
Gubs is a card game, and the goal is to collect as many gubs as possible before you draw a final letter card spelling out the word "G-U-B". Play is from a single deck of 70 cards, with each player starting with a hand of three cards, and one free gub face-up in front of them.
A gub must be played to the table to count for points, and each one may either be free, barricaded, or trapped. A free gub is just a gub card on the table, with nothing on top of it. These may be lured away easily by other players to become part of their gub lineup. If player places a barricade (toad, moth, or mushroom) on top of the gub, then that gub cannot be lured away. Gubs may also be "trapped" by gold rings or "sud spouts." Trapped gubs do not count towards the final score, but they also cannot be lured away once trapped.
These fundamental elements are put through myriad modifications by event, hazard, tool, and interrupt cards.
- Event cards are unique, changing the game suddenly by adding dangerous events to play. A Rumor of Wasps may force all gubs on toads back into the deck, while the Travelling Merchant forces everyone to pass their hands (except for one card) to the right.
- Hazards are the cards that can change the balance of play in an instant. A lure, for example, allows a player to take an unprotected gub from another player, but a super lure allows a player to take all free and protected gubs from another player. Cyclones can clear all the barricades from a target player. Lightning can kill the Esteemed Elder, the only gub in the game that can't otherwise be stolen or killed. These hazards are what give Gubs its unique feel and create radical, rapid turns of fortune. A player can go from leader to nothing in a single card.
- Interrupts are what make the vicissitudes of hazards bearable. These cards can be played at any time to negate an event or hazard, and are the key to a good defense.
- Tools are ways to manage your hand and your gubs, allowing you to break the ring enchanment, retreat all gubs and barricades back into your hand, sneak a peak at the deck or another player's hand, or even kill a gub.
Despite the diversity of cards and card types, this is not a hard game to teach or learn. The basics can be grasped in a couple of minutes, while the subtleties and tactics become clear after a few hands.
Everything about Gubs just works. The art, rules, and flavor text quickly convey the appealing, fun, magical world of the gubs. With just a hand of cards, you're drawn instantly into the life and challenges of a hidden world. The sudden turns of fortune can be maddening, but the balance of cards makes it quite fair. There's a brutal quality to way cards can be lost or stolen, and this can really irritate younger players, right up until they get to do it to someone else.
This is the kind of light, fast game that some call "filler," but I don't think that's quite fair. Filler games are usually warmups before or between bigger, better games, but Gubs stands well on its own and demands repeat play. We've gone through 8 hands in a single sitting, in part because it can play very quickly, but also because the mix of cards provides a fresh experience each time. This one is going to have a long life.