Thursday, July 26, 2007

Review: Shear Panic!

Imagine if you will that you are a sheep in a small flock. You spend your days staying as close as you can manage to the other members of your flock because that's what sheep do: they stay with the flock. Every once in a while a sheep might stray from the flock but that seldom lasts long. Every so often a handsome ram might show up in which case you rush to the front of the flock to get as close to him as you can. And when it comes time to be shorn, you rush to the back of the flock to retain your lovely fleece for as long as possible. All that rushing from front to back can be rather chaotic. In fact, ewe might say it's Shear Panic!

Shear Panic is a strategy game for two to four players. It's published in this country by Mayfair Games and designed by the Lamont Brothers. Typical playing time is around 45 minutes.


I'd almost be satisfied to write this section of the review and leave it at that. The components are that good. The caption on the box should give you some idea of what to expect: "The Best Game Ewe Ever Herd!" Inside you will find a sturdy score board, four player boards, four scoring markers, four sets of "mutton buttons" (wooden disks), and a very well made full-color rule book stuffed with corny sheep puns and silly illustrations.

All of that is nice enough but what is most impressive is that you also get a complete flock of nine hand-painted ceramic sheep, plus one hand-painted ceramic ram (his name is Roger), and one hand-painted ceramic shearer figure. The ceramic figures in this game are absolutely adorable. The sheep each sit on a square base that's roughly two inches square. They look like they could have been designed by Aardman Studios (Wallace & Gromit). They have that same whimsical feel: big eyes, vapid stare, dopey smiles. The game is worth its price for the figures alone. In fact, all of the artwork in the game is simply wonderful.

Game Play

This is a "perfect information" game. That means that players always know all available information. Nothing is hidden and almost nothing is random.

Each player has two of the eight white ceramic sheep (marked with a splash of color on their backs). There is also a ninth black sheep which starts in the center of the flock. The game begins with the nine sheep arranged in a square so that no player's sheep are next to one another. Players place their scoring markers and the white flock marker on the first space of the scoring track (which looks like a path winding its way through four fields). Each player's "mutton buttons" are placed near his player board which is placed in front of him.

Before the game begins in earnest, each player rolls the colored die and performs a "lamb slam" on one of the sheep whose color comes up. A lamb slam is one of the many moves that a player could execute on his turn. It means pushing a sheep of the appropriate color one space in any direction, also pushing any other sheep that might have been in her way. This serves to randomize the starting configuration of the flock a little bit but it also pays to think carefully during this phase because otherwise you could find yourself in a real disadvantage right from the start.

A player's turn consists of choosing one of the available actions listed on their player card, covering it up with one of their "mutton buttons" and then performing that action. This means that each action can be chosen only once during the entire game. Since the actions have the potential to affect the entire flock, a big part of this game is deciding when to execute which action and watching your opponents to see what actions remain available to them.

All of the actions involve shifting the flock in some way or another: sliding rows, rotating the entire flock 90 degrees (thereby changing who is in front and who is in back), hopping one sheep over another, things like that. Occasionally the flock will become disconnected and when that happens the flock must be regrouped. Usually the active player has some control over how the regrouping is done and in fact, players often will take that into account when they decide which action to choose.

Another effect of choosing an action is that it determines how far the flock marker moves along the scoring track. The scoring track doubles as a timer. As the flock marker progresses through the four different fields the game progresses toward its conclusion. Furthermore, the field that the flock marker is in determines how players score points on that turn. When choosing an action, it's a good idea to consider how far the flock marker will move since that will probably affect how and when points are scored.

When the flock is in the first field, players score points by having their two sheep near each another at the end of their turn. Roger Ram is in the second field and when the flock is in the second field, players score more points by having their ewes near the front of the flock. During the third field, players want their sheep to be as close to the black sheep as possible. Finally, in the last field, the flock is shorn and players score points by keeping their lambs as far back in the flock (and thus away from the shearer) as possible.


On the surface, this is a light and whimsical game, suitable for kids and adults alike; but scratch beneath the surface and you'll find a deceptively tricky game of analysis and careful planning. In fact, it seems that the more experienced and serious the game players, the longer this game will take to play because, like all perfect information games, it is definitely susceptible to in depth analysis and (dare I say) even analysis paralysis. This game rewards careful thinkers but at the same time, it's whimsical enough to be enjoyable by all. The sheep are so cute and cuddly that the game is nearly irresistible and the fact that it's also a solid game clinches the deal. This truly is one of "the best games ewe ever herd". I highly recommend it.


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