Designed by: Jerry Hawthorne
Published by: Plaid Hat Games
Playtime: 60-90 Minutes
Review copy supplied free of charge by Asmodee UK.
As a child – which is assuming I’ve actually progressed mentally from that point, which I clearly haven’t – I had freaking loads of teddies in the shape of monkeys and apes that had pride of place on my bed, their job being to defend me from the potential horrors that lurk within dreams and to act as unwilling test dummies for attempts at performing wrestling moves. Years later I found a drawing online of a teddy bear wielding a tiny sword standing over a young girl as a towering monster leans over them. It’s a beautiful little drawing, a perfect illustration of the importance of a teddy bear. And now here we are with a board game that brings this idea to life.
This is a breathtakingly gorgeous game that practically demands you look at it, admire it and drool over its beautiful, detailed miniatures and its spectacular artwork. The bag of minis you get look amazing once painted, as proven by some of the photos posted on Reddit and Boardgamegeek.com. Even if you don’t feel like trying to paint them they still look superb straight out of the box and really help to bring the stories to life. Also in the box you get some shiny buttons that act as currency, and all the cards sport lovely art. The only hiccup is that you don’t get an awesome insert to hold it all properly, or even any bags to put the decks of cards into.
These pieces are used to tell the enchanting story of a young girl who has just graduated to the big-girl bed, moving from the safety of her crib and its wooden bars. This move brings danger in the form of the evil Nocturnus, though, and thus it is up to the small girl’s faithful teddies to fend off the evil and ensure she gets a good night of sleep. Along the way Theodora, Stitch, Lumpy and others will deal with their child’s blanket being stolen, the dangers of bed wetting, dark forests and so much more.
Rather than a board you get a chunky tome of a storybook filled with maps on the left-hand pages, and rules and stories on the right. It’s almost like a choose your own adventure book that’s gotten brought into the modern age with sublime art and an ultra-cute narrative. The beginning of the right page always details any special setup rules for that portion of the story, and then after that, you’ll read specific sections based on what happens throughout the game while also making choices on how you wish to progress. Given the focus on child-friendly gaming it’s perhaps no surprise that’s it’s very, very hard to actually lose, instead the game gives you numerous ways to get to the end of each adventure.
Now, it’s here that we hit one of my very few criticisms with Stuffed Fables, which is that the story and the gameplay don’t quite mesh, at least not in my view. The rules, as we’ll chat about, are quite easy to learn, yet an age of 7+ is still recommended and I’d agree with that as there are a few tricky concepts, but the story feels more like it would connect with children around age 2-4 due to many of the tales dealing with things like bed wetting, or the potential scariness of moving to a big bed. That doesn’t mean that older children won’t still enjoy the cutesy narratives of stuffies (as the teddies are known) fighting enemies, using pencils as weapons and rescuing blankets in the name of defending their little charge, I just feel like the designers didn’t match the age needed to understand the gameplay with the perfect age for the story as well as they potentially could have.
My second problem? Well, as you read through the game some of the rules and wordings can be tricky to parse, which can slow the game down, especially if you’re trying to herd children through the adventure as well. My advice is to read ahead of time to become familiar with everything so that you never have to slow things down.
Everything you can do on a turn is controlled by five dice you draw randomly from a bag. White dice are rolled straight away to grant you extra stuffing which acts as health, while the black dice are added to the to threat track which determines when the bad guys get to do their bad guy things. With those out of the way you can check out the remaining dice; any color can be used for movement, so you just roll as many as you like and move that many spaces around the map, the only exceptions being special environmental hazards that can’t be moved through or that require you to spend a die of the matching color. Red die and green die are used for melee attacks and ranged attacks respectively, though you can only do either of those things if you happen to have a matching weapon. As for the blue dice they have no specific use, but do appear in various skill checks and other situations. Yellow die are again used in a lot of skill checks and special situations, but can also be spent to search for useful items. Finally, pink dice can be used for anything you want, but they don’t get any bonuses from cards.
Along the way, you’ll be fighting various nasty creatures, including creepy spider-like beings with doll heads and chunky bosses who will try to steal items and run away with them. Fighting them is as simple as rolling as many melee or ranged dice as you want, adding any bonuses from your weapons and then checking to see if the total is higher than the defense value listed on the enemy’s card. If it’s higher then the enemy is beaten, the exception being bosses who might take a couple of hits to put down.
As for the enemies they activate when the number of black dice on the threat track is equal to or higher than the number of baddies in play. When this happens you roll a black die for each enemy, consult its card and do what it says. They’ll always move towards the nearest possible target barring any exceptions stated in the book. and then they’ll attack using the range and amount of damage shown on their card while also dishing out any special abilities they might have, many of which force players to take a variety of status cards like being scared or torn. Players can store a dice on their character card’s for use later, or they can use it to defend against an attack by rolling it and reducing the amount of damage by that number. If they block all the damage they get to keep the die.
The enemies taking their turn also triggers all the dice that have been used thus far being added back into the bag, refreshing the stock.
On top of each Stuffy’s special ability, they also get three more skills that can be used by spending heart tokens, and these tokens get earned by doing Lost cards (more on them soon) or during events that take place throughout the story, such as investigating a spot or making a key decision.
But fighting doesn’t take up as much time as you might think, after all this is a family game about a little girl. Scattered around the maps are little icons that you can interact with to draw a card from the Lost deck, giving you little encounters with a variety of people, creatures and odd things, like a ticking time-bomb or someone being bullied. These cards offer simple choices, usually about whether or not to help out or investigate and all of them serve to strengthen the game’s messages, like how sometimes lending a hand will net you a reward in the form of a cool item while other times you’ll get a simple thank you, and both are fine. In fact, the end of each storyline has a “talking points” section which suggests things to discuss with any kids playing with you which is a fantastic little touch.
If there are not any enemies lounging next to the threat track then when there are black dice equal to the number of stuffies a Surge occurs, triggering whatever event the book tells you about. Sometimes it might be the arrival of baddies to fight, either a randomly generated encounter or a pre-determined one, and other times it might be having to do something like revealing a sleep card. These again can do special things depending on the story you’re playing.
There are group tests as well where everyone can contribute a die or dice of the correct color to a track next to the threat track. More co-operation opportunities come in the form of being able to “encourage” another stuffy by giving them a dice or even sharing your stuffing with them, and that’s important because while you can’t die in Stuffed Fables you can lose all your stuffing and collapse, leaving you a bit useless for a while.
You can even gather up new items for your Stuffy to equip. One way of doing this is using the yellow dice to perform a search action; if you beat the number listed at the top right of the page you get to draw the top item from the item deck for free. You can also visit shops in order to spend buttons that you acquire by beating up the bad guys. Whichever way you choose to get new stuff you’ll get to use pencils as weapons, glue to stop foes from moving and buckets as armor. Again, it’s all just so damn cutesy. I freaking love it.
As you move through each story, often swapping pages as you travel to a new area, you’ll get to trigger lots of different events that get read out by whoever is the Bookeeper for that round. The quality of the writing does tend to vary and has a few issues with swapping between the first and third person at times, but for the most part the writing is solid enough, especially when you consider it’s aimed at children. Your jaw isn’t going to drop at the marvelously crafted narratives or the complex tales of morality hidden beneath the surface or anything like that, but I can guarantee you’ll still be smiling the whole way through. I love it in the same way that at the age of 26 I still love Disney movies and animated films.
You even get special story cards that you don’t look at prior to embarking on a game, instead only grabbing cards as and when instructed by the book. This helps bring an extra layer of discovery into the game that my little nieces loved, and there are even divider cards that list what cards should be where so that you can re-assemble the discovery decks for later, or you can simply mix the cards in with the regular decks as you finish each story.
If I had any other gripes with the game it’s this; at about 60-90 minutes a single game feels a bit too long for younger children. I think 60-minutes should be the max, rather than the typical running time. With that said,, this is a relatively easy game to “save” provided you have a few bags.
It’s so easy to see why Stuffed Fables has become a huge hit. It seeks to create a fantastical child-like wonder through its tales of teddies defending their beloved child and succeeds at almost every step. Yes, I don’t feel like the age-range of the story quite matches up with the age needed to understand how to play the game, and yes, it’s not a particularly deep game nor one that has amazing mechanics, but none of these things stopped me from loving every moment of it. It’s a wonderful family game that’s easy to learn yet still satisfying to play, tells fun stories with solid life-lessons and looks beautiful as well. Best of all while it’s clearly aimed at children a group of adults can still have a superb time taking on the roles of brave teddies defending their child from the world.