If there’s anything goblins really enjoy, it’s fighting. Kim Satô’s GoSu (published by Moonster Games) puts each player (from two to four) in the position of a goblin warlord looking to assemble an army and seize Goblin Supremacy. By combining goblins of three different levels from the five clans into a fighting force, warlords hope to achieve victory in enough Great Battles to do so.
Of course, goblins need structure or they’ll just run amok. Each player is dealt a starting hand of seven cards from the communal 100-card deck: fifty level-1 (“Bakuto”) goblins, five each from each of the five clans (colors), duplicated; thirty-five level-2 (“Hero”) goblins, seven from each clan; and fifteen level-3 (“Okzeki”), three from each clan. The clans themselves are Ancient Globan (white), Alpha Goblins (green), Dark Goblins (black), Meka Goblins (blue), and Fire Goblins (red); the colors and general feel of the clans generally correspond to their equivalents from Magic: the Gathering, as does the overall look of the cards themselves, but there’s really no tie between the games. Using these cards, players will assemble an array that maxes out at five columns wide and three rows high. But as with anything goblin-related, it’s not quite as simple as that.
On a player’s turn, they can take one of five actions: 1) play a goblin from his hand to his army; 2) mutate a goblin in his army into another one from his hand (or in the case of some Dark Goblins, the discard pile); 3) play one of their two activation tokens on a goblin with an activated ability (no goblin can have two tokens on it); 4) spend an activation token to draw a card — or both tokens to draw three; or 5) pass, ending their participation in the round. It is important to note that you cannot reclaim a spent activation token within a round unless a goblin’s ability allows it; otherwise you have to wait until the round ends, so use them carefully.
Playing your first bakuto into your army is free; if your army is later reduced to no goblins (generally this happens early on) any subsequent “first” goblin(s) is also free. Any additional bakuto is free if it is the same clan as a bakuto already in your clan, otherwise you have to discard two cards from your hand. In order to play a hero you need to have 1) at least one bakuto of that hero’s clan in your army and 2) a bakuto without a hero already “above” it in your ranks; there are no other costs. Ozekis have similar requirements, except you need both a matching bakuto and a matching hero and the empty space needs to be above a hero. Any goblin with a mutation cost (indicated on the card next to a yin-yang symbol) can be replaced by another one of equivalent rank by discarding that number of cards; unlike playing a goblin, there are no clan requirements, so you can use this ability to add a goblin of an unrepresented clan to either your bakutos or heroes (ozekis don’t mutate). The only restriction is that a given bakuto cannot mutate into the other copy of himself.
Once all players have passed for the round, the Great Battle for that round begins. Each level of goblin is worth a set amount of strength: two for bakutos, three for heroes, and five for ozekis. This makes math quick, as each full column (one of each) is worth ten, each two-thirds column is worth five, and each lone bakuto two; often a casual glance at each army can determine the winner without any real math being done. Whoever has the highest strength wins the Great Battle and earns a Victory Point, three of which are required to win the game. Certain ozekis have abilities that can grant victory to any player who meets their alternate requirements, so keep track of what’s going on in the upper ranks. If nobody has claimed victory at the conclusion of a Great Battle, everyone reclaims their spent advantage tokens and a new round begins.
What does not happen, however, is any drawing of cards. All card drawing after the initial hands are dealt is done via the abilities of various goblins (or spending activation tokens as an action). There are all kinds of abilities, so it helps to be aware of the options available to you. Some Dark Goblins have the ability to “trap” other goblins; a trapped goblin is turned face down, counting for neither clan nor strength, until the end of the Great Battle — although it can still be used as a support card when placing a goblin of a higher level. Other goblins interact with “free” cards; a card with no card on its right or above it is considered “free”, so there are only from one to three free cards in each army at any given time. Finally, the abilities of some goblins increase in strength if you are not leading in Victory Points.
A game of GoSu can vary wildly in time, as certain abilities can result in everyone drawing additional cards and potentially quite lengthy rounds. This can be especially annoying if those abilities happen after you’ve passed for the round and thus you have to just sit and watch everyone else play — and then you get crushed in the Great Battle since you had to stop developing your army. On the other extreme, a couple of timely destruction effects can quickly reduce a player to no legal plays and an easy victory in the Great Battle; this problem is especially prevalent in two-player games. Further adding to the fluctuating time requirement are the Dark Goblins who have the “zombie mutation” ability, as they allow players to dig through the entire discard pile to find a replacement; I recommend keeping the discards sorted by level to cut down on that issue.
The cards are sturdy enough to play without sleeves, and are wonderfully illustrated, but there are only 100 of them. That is a very tiny amount for the size of the $30 box that contains them (which is about 4″x6″x2″); even with any potential future expansions (the first should arrive in March 2011) there’s still a bunch of room in there. Overall I find GoSu to be a fun experience, but not one I personally want to play with any regularity. There’s just too much variance that can tilt the game towards one player without any real chance of the other(s) catching up, and later rounds are often forgone conclusions. Still, it captures its theme well and enjoyable enough when I’m in the mood for some chaotic fun with just enough strategy to keep things interesting.