A few weeks ago, I got an opportunity to play Crows. So, as is my tradition when I finally get to play a game I’ve previously covered, here’s a review.
First, a quick overview. Crows is an abstract tile-laying game from Valley Games, playable by 2-4 players aged 10 and up. In the game, you draw tiles, place them out on the table, then position your shiny object in the hopes of attracting as many crows as possible. Your opponents are doing the same thing, and at the end of each round, crows flock to the closest shiny object (in a straight line). Trinket tiles can be used to break ties. Cemeteries can be used to get you extra points. Trash piles can be used to block certain paths. At the end of the game, the player with the most points is the winner.
COMPONENTS: I don’t have any complaints about the component quality. The game has 53 very solid tiles and 20 equally solid special tokens. The crow meeples are pretty cool, and come in a couple of different shapes – one standing straight up, and the other is leaning over as if eating something. The art of the tiles is appropriately spooky and definitely adds to the mood. The shiny objects are…well, they’re just little plastic beads, nothing special. It might have been nice to have something a little more interesting, but they do their job. The score track is pretty well laid out, but it might have been nice to get some bigger spaces in the early parts when everyone is kind of flocked together. It also might have been nice to find some other solution for keeping score, as the shiny objects tend to slip around on the very glossy board, making it susceptible to ruining the game with just a small bump. Overall, however, everything works very well.
THEME: Abstract games don’t always have the greatest themes, if they have themes at all. The theme for Crows is fairly unique – I don’t know of any other game that is about big black birds chasing after shiny objects. I’m very impressed with the way the theme holds the mechanics together. Using shiny objects to attract your crows is very clever and kind of funny. While it’s a little weird that a crow will ignore a shiny object that is closer, but diagonal, to get to one that is a long way from its current position, but in a straight line, all you have to do is remember the phrase “as the crow flies”, and it makes more sense. The only thing that’s really not addressed in the theme is why you’re trying to attract crows in the first place. It seems like kind of a silly theme, unless you’re a rabid birdwatcher. I suppose you could be collecting ingredients to make a pie.
MECHANICS: The basic mechanics of Crows are pretty simple. On a turn, you’ll draw a tile, place the tile, position your shiny object in such a way that you’ll attract as many crows as possible. That’s it. Well, almost – you also get some special tokens if you place your shiny object on an empty tree (no crows pictured). I’ll talk about that in a minute, but first I’ll talk about the placement mechanics. You just have to place your tile so that it touches another – you don’t have to worry about matching edges as in Carcassonne or Galaxy Trucker, so orientation doesn’t matter (I still found myself orienting them the same way – just the obsessive coming out in me). One nice thing about placing tiles is that you do NOT have to place your shiny object on the tile you just placed, unlike in Carcassonne. That’s one big problem with Carcassonne – if you don’t draw the tile you need, you’re out of luck until your next turn. Here, if a tile is going to be useless to you, you can always dump it in an out of the way spot, and then place your shiny object in a more advantageous position.
Some tiles put more crows on the table. In our game, we kept wanting more crows to appear, since it seemed like everyone kept creating murders. When you create a murder (six or more crows), two fly away and the rest scatter. So we were rooting for those extra crow tiles to come out. Also, you occasionally get trinket and cemetery tiles. The trinket tile didn’t turn out to be nearly as helpful as I thought it would. You also get a trash tile that you can swap out with a tile out on the board, but we didn’t ever really use ours. It seems that these tiles are best for moving trinkets or cemeteries, or for blocking someone else from getting a big score. I’d have to explore it more to really see how it works, but I’m not sure I want to waste a turn on placing a trash pile. At the very least, it’s another option.
Order in this game is HUGE. Going first might get you in the most ideal spot, but going last allows you to mess over EVERYONE else. Because of that, it’s very nice that the start player rotates from round to round. Also, the special tokens you can get really add some extra nastiness to the game. Some of the tokens are good for you – turning your tile into a cemetery, +3 points, moving crows around. Other tokens are really mean – cemeteries don’t work, crows won’t move this round, moving crows around. These elements turn this game from a fairly simple abstract until a fairly cutthroat in-your-face “take that!” game.
I really like the mechanics in play here. The weird thing about this type of game, however, is that, despite very simple mechanics, the potential for analysis paralysis is very high. Most of the game will be spent waiting for other players to make up their minds. Counting up your crows in between rounds helps to break up the monotony, but the game can take a while if you’re playing with someone who is pretty indecisive.
STRATEGY VS. LUCK: This game is an interesting balance between strategy in luck. There’s plenty of luck in the tiles you draw, but, as I mentioned, what you draw does not necessarily determine what you’re going to do. The big strategy for the game is figuring out the best place to position your shiny object, and it’s very difficult to do. You want the most possible, but you also want to prevent later players from stealing some of your crows, or prevent earlier players from getting big points. From turn to turn, what you’re looking for changes. The crows tend to bunch in one part of the board, so players all seem to be fighting over the same flocks.
The biggest effect luck has on the game is through the special tiles. There are only five types of tiles, some helpful, some harmful. Some seem really powerful if you get them at the right time, and sometimes you’ll hit a run where you keep getting the same one over and over. I’m not sure I really like the special tiles. They definitely raise the interaction level, but I think I wish that there were more options. On the other hand, that might make it too chaotic – with just a few, you can more easily tile count and figure out what might be left.
THE WIFE FACTOR: My wife is not a big fan of conflict, but she likes this game. I think it has to do with the abstract nature of the game, and the puzzle aspect of figuring out how to attract crows. She doesn’t like the nasty special tiles, particularly the one that prevents crows from moving. However, the art and components attract her, and she really likes the way it plays. It gets a pass from her.
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes. I really like the game, and I look forward to trying it again. In the only game I’ve played, we had three totally new players, and while we tripped over a couple of aspects, we were able to figure things out pretty well (the owner of the game, who also edited the rules, was nearby to help us through the few problems we had). I do want to see how it works with two and four players. The whole experience was very engaging, and while it was a thinker, I had a good time. Be warned that AP can be a problem, and it can be cutthroat, but if those things don’t bother you, I think you’ll really enjoy it.
Thanks for reading!