Animal Army – Shephy review

Cover

Essen 2014. An excited Tony Boydell, he of Snowdonia fame, comes up to me with a smile on his face as wide as can be. “I got it!” he says, an air of triumph in his voice. “I managed to get a copy of Shephy!” to which I responded “Eh?”. You know, like you do. He went on to describe it to me, a solitaire card game from Japan, released in ludicrously small numbers (even smaller than your average Sprocket Games effort) all about trying to gather as many sheep as possible. Sounded interesting, sure, and I lodged it in that part of my brain for games I’d probably never get the chance to see, let alone play.

Wind forward to UK Games Expo 2015. The Math Trade brings some excellent results for me, including a copy – miraculously – of this mysterious game. I receive mine on the Sunday, and immediately head for Boydell’s Surprised Stare booth. I show him the game, and he conspiratorially leans in to say one thing: “You’re one of us now.”

My name is Michael Fox and I am a Shephy addict. It’s not too late to save yourself. Run while you can.

Shephy is a game about gathering as many sheep as you can. What I didn’t originally know is that, according to the charmingly strange story on the back of the rules sheet, the game is actually set in a post-apocalyptic world where there are no humans – the sheep have taken over, but despite seemingly being the dominant force on the planet, there is still danger around every corner. Whether it’s meteors crushing part of your flock, overcrowding that sees some of your sheep fall off a cliff or, most terrifying of all, the rise of an ovine-specific Great Old One called Shephion, your target of getting to 1000 sheep in your fields is going to be quite the challenge.

So many sheep! The one in the bottom left is the Enemy  Sheep, rotated 1/4 anti-clockwise after each run through of the Event Cards deck.

So many sheep! The one in the bottom left is the Enemy Sheep, rotated 1/4 anti-clockwise after each run through of the Event Cards deck.

So, how does the game work? Well, it’s all about managing two things – the  “field” that will hopefully contain a maximum of seven Sheep cards, and the Event Deck that will both help and hinder you. The game begins with you drawing five cards from the stack and a single 1 Sheep card in the field. The other Sheep cards have values of 3, 10, 30, 100, 300 and 1,000, and cards can be combined through some of the Events that pop up, freeing up space in the field and allowing you to bring more sheep into your flock.

Each turn sees you choosing one of the Event cards in front of you which you must follow, place on the discard pile and then refill your hand to five cards. As you slowly work your way through the twenty-two Event cards, the actions you take may duplicate your Sheep cards that are already in play, introduce new ones and  even upgrade them to higher levels. Once you get all the way through the deck – assuming you actually manage to do so, for it’s pretty tough – you’ll rotate the included Black Sheep card to show that your enemy tribe has managed to increase their numbers. Play through the deck three times or end up with no sheep in the field at any time and the game is over. If you’ve got over 1000 sheep in your field, then you’re a winner (but you can continue to play as you bid to get an even higher score). Anything less and you’ve failed.

In all honesty, that’s pretty much it, and reading back it may appear at first glance that Shephy is a straightforward, basic affair. However, once you get past your first terrifyingly confusing play, wondering what the hell is going on and why you died after the eighth card, the game will get its claws into you. Trying to work out the optimal play will become an obsession – maximising the positive cards that are available to you while trying to rid yourself of the overpowered negative ones is hard, but certainly possible. Of course, some choices are pretty obvious – for example, if you don’t chuck out the Shephion card in the first round of play you’ll lose automatically, so the criticisms that the game does has an element of solveability (if that’s even a word) are valid. However, this isn’t really an issue – there are so many bloody awful cards that scupper your plans, any chance of solving the game is ruined most of the time, but not to the degree of every game feeling unfair. Just most of them.

Not all of the cards you deal with are awful, just most of them.

Not all of the cards you deal with are awful, just most of them.

Another part of Shephy’s appeal is how it looks – the designer (who goes only by the name of Pawn) is also responsible for the art throughout the game. The simple illustrations are silly and charming, especially the giant cubes of sheep that appear on the larger value cards that appear in the Field, and you’ll never see a more sweet representation of sheep mating in a game this year. Of course, actually getting your hands on a copy of the game is as much of a challenge as winning the damn thing, so seeing them in real life may not happen. However, if you manage to source a copy from Japan (because I believe that it’s still kind-of available over there) it’s well worth checking out, especially if you’re looking for a quick-playing solo game that is going to hand your arse to you almost every time. However, when you do manage to pull a win from the jaws of defeat, it’s an incredible feeling – and that’s why you’ll be as addicted to Shephy as much as everyone who has a copy of their very own. Now… back to the field – there’s a whole lot of Being Fruitful to deal with!

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