There are lots of games where players race each other to a destination -- but what happens when simply moving forward and backwards is a challenge in itself?  Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension from Cryptozoic Games is part race, part puzzle as 2-4 players vie to escape a black hole where the laws of gravity no longer hold sway.

Each player has a spaceship, located in the Singularity -- the center of a spiraling path that goes for 64 spaces and ends at the Warp Gate.  (Two neutral ships are at the 26th and 36th spaces.)  The first player to move their ship into/through the Warp Gate wins; if no one does so after six turns, whoever's closest to the Warp Gate wins.

First, players draft cards.  A number of two-card Fuel cards are laid in decks equal to the number of players times three, with the first card placed face down and the other card face up.  During the first round, the youngest player selects the first deck; for other rounds, whoever's furthers from the Warp Gate chooses first; after that, players pick a deck going clockwise, and at the end everyone will have six Fuel cards, plus the Emergency Stop! card everyone has.

Next comes the Round, made up of six Movement Phases.  In each Movement Phase, players secretly select a Fuel card from their card to play, then reveal them all at the same time .  The revealed cards resolve in alphabetical order, from A to Z.  (Players can also use their Emergency Stop!" once per Round to cancel their own card.)  The players resolve their Movement Phases until out of cards; then, if no one has reached the Warp Gate, new decks are dealt and players draft and start new rounds.

But it's movement that makes Gravwell unique.  Instead of simply going in one direction, the Fuel cards move ships based on where the nearest ship is.  Regular Fuel cards (green; the majority of Fuel cards) move the current player's ship a number of spaces towards the nearest ship; Repulsor Movement cards (purple) push the current player's ship a number of spaces away from the nearest ship.  (If the closest ships are equidistant from the current player, the ship moves in the direction with the most total ships (not counting those in the Singularity); if that number is equal on both sides, the ship doesn't move.)  If a player would end their movement on another ship, that player's ship keeps going in its current direction until it lands on an empty space.  And Tractor Beam cards (blue) pull all other ships a number of spaces closer to the current player's ship,

This different method of moving makes Gravwell challenging, and a lot of fun.  Instead of simply trying to go straight ahead, players have to consider whether they'll go before or after the other players -- and how that will affect the card they play.  (It can be quite a blow to play a Green Fuel card that moves you eight spaces, only to find that by the time you play it the closest ship is behind you, sending you in the wrong direction!  Then again, that's what Emergency Stop! is for.)  Players also have to play all the cards in their hand, so strategy isn't just the best card to move one towards the Warp Gate, but the least damaging time to play what may very well be a bad card.  And the six-turn game limit keeps the game from going on endlessly as ships move forward and back.

I enjoy playing Gravwell.  It utilizes some familiar game mechanics and then tosses in a curve with its strange movement methods.  This game is challenging and fun.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

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