by Jon Gautier
I wasn’t in college long before I realized that whether I enjoyed a class often had more to do with the professor than the subject. A bad professor would turn your favorite subject into a semester long marathon of ennui. But a lively, funny professor had you marveling at the secret wonders and intricacies of prehistoric insect identification or some such, and looking forward to Wednesday afternoons from 1 to 3.
So too perhaps with games. Sure I love the ACW and the Russian Front, and sure I buy just about every game published on those topics. And I just as consistently avoid most ancients titles, which rarely interest me. But when a designer I like tackles a subject that I don't, I often check out his effort. After all, which is usually the better use of your game time: a bad game on a subject you like or a great game on a subject you don't?
Rick Young and GMT are pushing the envelope of this idea with Leaping Lemmings, a Euro of sorts the announcement of which immediately prompted all kinds of whines and snorts and groans and giggles from the musty old grognards of CSW. Understandably so. GMT is, after all, a wargame company, and CSW is a wargame website. Leaping Lemmings would not have blipped on the grognard radar if it hadn't been a GMT game from the designer of Europe Engulfed. But it is; and so, having had the pleasure of four playings of Leaping Lemmings (LL) at MonsterCon this past week I thought I'd chime in with a strong recommendation for this fun, clever game.
LL is a light-themed, simple game for 2-6 players that can be explained in 5 minutes and easily plays in under an hour. Each player controls a clan of cloned lemmings that, for some strange reason, have been programmed to dash from the safety and comfort of wherever they are, across a mostly open canyon (there are a few precious brush sanctuaries scattered about), to the edge of a cliff, where they leap to a presumably painful death. And if that isn’t sadistic enough (it isn’t) there are style points for those lemmings that catch a lot of air as they jump. Those that timidly slide over the edge do less for their master's bottom victory point line. The dash is fraught with danger from the hungry eagles that hover above and also from the other lemming players, who play event cards (called "special action" cards) that kill, embarrass, harass, waylay, confound, confuse and otherwise screw over their rivals. In addition to the victory points for the quality of the lemming leap, points can also be had by collecting "pellets", aka lemming chow (a least meal, perhaps?), which are scattered about the field (usually in places where the eagles are most active, of course), and finally by holding unused special action cards during the final scoring.
The mechanics provide a nice balance of randomness and choice. The random stuff comes out: in the special action cards, which are shuffled and dealt blind; in the lemming movement allowance, which is from 2 to 5 and changes every turn; in the victory point pellets, which vary from 0 to 3 in value and are set out face down; and most of all, in the movement of the eagles.
Ah, the eagles. The eagles are pretty much death to any unfortunate lemming that falls under their claws (chomp, chomp as the designer likes to say) and their movement is both random and player controlled. The eagle dice, which determine possible eagle movement for the turn are rolled as (usually) the first act of the first player of the turn (play rotates clockwise so that the first player in a given turn becomes the last player for the next turn). After the eagle dice are rolled, the game's randomness gives way to player choice, as the rolling player now moves the eagles as he sees fit, within the limits permitted by the dice. So your first choice in a turn may be to cause the untimely death by munching of a fellow lemming. But the eagles don’t always get their lemmings—sometimes a clever lemming can hide behind other lemmings or sneak through the brush. These clever lemmings scatter, but a smart eagle player can scatter his opponents’ lemmings away from their goal while scattering his own lemmings toward theirs. The eagle dice also govern longer term tactics in a more subtle way. You want to position a lemming for a favorable jump just when the dice are coming your way so you can direct the eagles’ attention elsewhere. But the random always lurks: sadly, people occasionally must cause an eagle to devour their own hapless lemming.
After play of the eagles, often but not always the highlight of the turn, the players take turns moving their lemmings. You may move one lemming each turn and tactics are important. Is it better to move one lemming every turn towards the cliff and get him there fast, or should you move a bunch of different lemmings slowly across the board, hoping for a big payoff at the end? Watch out, the game ends randomly after a set time, and the end will sneak up on you if you don’t pay attention.
And finally during your turn you can play a special event card which, depending on the event, can either help your lemmings or mess with your opponents’ lemmings. In a nice twist, some of the cards are written so that their events can help or harm, depending on the situation. Play the card one way and you might gain a point or two for yourself; play it another way and you may erase or deny more points from a rival.
All this is lots of fun. In a game of this sort I look for simple rules, quick set up, and quick play (both overall and between player turns). LL has all this. Even the worst analysis paralysis player can’t take more than a minute or two on his turn; most players move in seconds. So play is always coming around to you before you know it. I also look for clever mechanics, interesting but not overly complicated choices, and a balance of skill and chance. The eagles, special events and pellets provide all this. Remember, this is a light game, so your choices aren't supposed to be so numerous or complicated as to make your brain hurt. But the choices are there, as are the tactics.
Player interaction and tension are also important and LL provides here as well. LL games feature a lot of muttered oaths, shouts, and promises of revenge. As for tension, well, it's not life or death, but the games I played featured plenty of lead changes and some close wins. Most players are in the game until the end and games are often decided by the final scoring, when the VP pellets are revealed.
A game like this also needs some wit. LL’s special actions provide a lot of the laughs: while they are definitely rated PG and will not embarrass you in front of your 8 year old, some are themed around sex, scatology, reincarnation, and violent accidents. And if my description of LL hasn't made you smile or laugh at least once or twice at this witty game, I hope it is my poor powers of description and not your curmudgeonly nature. I played this with a number of serious wargamers and none of them failed to crack a smile as the game was explained and as play progressed. There were grins and guffaws a plenty.
So who should buy LL? Certainly any one who likes to play easy, fast, fun, interesting Euro-type games. I have no doubt it will find a following with the Euro crowd because it is a clever, solid design. And the crossover wargamers will play it of course: it's a terrific filler game that is as good as if not streets better than some of the stuff I've seen dragged out to pass an hour at a con (Bang! players, this means you). So if you play Clash of the Gladiators, or Ivanhoe, or Settlers, or Battleline, or Carcassonne to pass a bit of time, now you have another (and for me, better) option.
And for the wargamers who just will not stoop to this sort of thing there's one more bit of sales pitch: Leaping Lemmings is a stealth wargame. That's right you curmudgeonly grognard: LL has hexes; movement points; terrain effects (for both movement and defense); zones of control; and stacking. If this isn't the ideal game to introduce wargame concepts to your 8 year old, then I don't know what is. And here's something else, Mr. Serious Wargame Dude: when wargamers sit down to LL, it gets pretty nasty and violent. Sure, it's only lemming blood being shed, but the stuff flows in buckets and by game end there is a big pile of dead lemmings and the eagle claws are dripping with lemming gore. (Don't worry Euro crowd, the game can be played in a nice, friendly, high-scoring, unaggressive way also.) But wargamers will be surprised by the aggression that LL permits, cute lemmings or no. Hey, don't forget that Rick Young is an ex-Marine and a fine wargame designer. And if any one thinks that GMT is "losing their focus" on wargames, or going soft Euro, then they didn't see Tony Curtis floating around the EFS tables at MonsterCon, or Mark Simonitch demoing his new Russian Front game there. Both those guys really liked LL and no one can question their wargaming chops.
And if you still aren’t sold, then go in peace—LL just ain’t your cuppa and that’s OK too.