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As citizens of Victorian England, players must decide whether to assist the police or the mad scientists stealing bodies from London's cemeteries by playing cards on the various graves. The catch? Players have secret goals and have to play their cards to make sure the right side wins... unfortunately, they only score points based on the winning cards remaining in their hand.
Grave robbing is a crime that is pretty much detested around the globe. Strange, however, that if enough centuries pass, grave robbing becomes an approved facet of archaeology! Well, the theme for Grave Robbers by Carlo Rossi, designer of Alchemist, does not aspire to such a noble undertaking. Rather, it is the seedier sort of grave robbing, with players attempting to defile the dead in search of bodies for scientific research. It is a very strange theme for a game.
Seven cards depicting graves are placed in a row. Each player receives 12 – 20 cards, depending upon the number of players. Cards depict either a detective, grave robber or a “London bobby”, and carry values ranging from 0 – 3. Players will alternate playing one or two cards per turn, attempting to cause a grave to be robbed or protected. These efforts will be driven by the two secret objective cards a player possesses, which will earn points if the objective is met. Objective cards generally challenge a player to keep two specified graves intact or rob them, or keep the majority of the graves protected or cause them to become desecrated.
A player’s turn is quite simple: play one or two cards alongside graves. If a player opts to play two cards, they must be played on different graves. The first card played to a grave must be face-up, with all subsequent cards alternating between face-up and face-down. Thus, players will have some clue as to the current status of a grave based on the face-up cards. Additionally, he can observe the actions of his opponents to discern what they appear to be attempting to accomplish. The “bobby” card has one alternative function: played as a “spy”, it allows a player to reveal a face-down card that is currently at the end of a row. There are times when this can be useful quite useful, both to get a better clue of a grave’s current status and to forestall having to play a card to a grave.
When the seventh card is placed next to a grave, an evaluation of that grave is conducted to determine if it has remained pure or if it has been desecrated. All face-down cards are revealed, and the cumulative value of all detectives is compared to the value of all grave robbers. “Bobbies” are added to the detective’s value, but each “bobby” must be paired with a detective in order for it to add its value. If the detectives’ value is equal to or greater than the robbers’ value, the grave remains safe. Otherwise, it is desecrated, and the grave card is inverted to reflect this status.
After the first grave is robbed, each player has one opportunity to play their “accuse” card upon a player whom they suspect has at least one secret objective that requires the player to cause the desecration of one or more graves. At the end of the game, points are gained or lost, depending upon the accuracy of one’s accusation.
The game concludes after eight rounds, or when four graves have been saved or desecrated. In either case, all remaining graves are evaluated, and the overall status of the graveyard is determined. If at least four graves have been desecrated, the graveyard is considered ransacked. Otherwise, it is secured. Victory points are then earned as follows:
The need to conserve cards of the appropriate type in order to score is reminiscent of the mechanism used in Reiner Knizia’s Honey Bears. However, there is much more control in Knizia’s game. In Grave Robbers, the ultimate status of the cemetery is not determined until the very end of the game, so a player may be left with a handful of cards that will cost him a considerable number of points. Only the “bobby” cards are certain to earn points, and that isn’t going to be very many. There isn’t very much control here.
At least the secret objective cards give a player something concrete to strive for, but even then the collective actions of one’s opponents as they pursue their own objectives will often result in one or more of these cards being unfulfilled, especially since they will likely be pursuing opposite goals. Achieving success in the game truly appears to be largely a matter of luck rather than strategy or skill.
The game reminds me somewhat of Bruno Faidutti’s Corruption, which was released several years ago by Atlas Games. It uses a similar mechanism wherein some cards are placed face-up, while others are placed face-down. I didn’t feel there was much control in that game, particularly in the early rounds. I get the same feel here, but to an even larger extent. Further, the actions a player can take are severely limited: play one or two cards on a turn. That’s it. There aren’t many options, much skill, or much excitement. Sadly, Grave Robbers is destined for the grave yard.