In 2003, the US finally got hold of a little game called Blokus. It was a simple game, many likened it to a board game version of Tetris. As we sit here a full decade later, Blokus has gained a fair level of mainstream success. It is now sold in mass market retailers, as well as still holding a place in the hobby stores.
In 2005, however, word started to come out (mainly thanks to Tom Vasel and the Dice Tower) about a Korean game called Gemblo. You can read Tom’s review here. Sadly, here in the US we did not get Gemblo. We did get another game, called Blokus Trigon…which tried to do some of the things Gemblo did. However, Blokus Trigon suffered by still maxxing out at 4 players, and the change to triangular pieces made the game much harder, and less fun, to play. Sadly, Gemblo did not make its way over to our shores, until October of 2012, when designer Justin Oh launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring over a run of Gemblo.
The campaign ended on November 2, 2012…and by mid January 2013, the game was in my hands. Here’s what you got in the box (I joined at the $35 level).
Now, if you were able to buy Gemblo off the shelf, you would get the board, rules, and 6 colors of gems: purple, green, clear, red, blue, and yellow. The extras gained through the KS campaign included: 2 alternate gem colors (hot pink, and safety orange), a bookmark, a solo puzzle book (think Tangrams), and a card expansion. There was also a small packet with 3 “gold” pieces, used for “advanced play” although advanced play isn’t explained anywhere. I take advanced play to mean “randomly throw these pieces on the board before the game starts as barriers to work around.” They could make for a neat variant, I suppose.
In fact, if there’s anything I need to complain about, it is the rules. The rule book for this game is 4 pages long, and filled with errors and omissions. To be fair, I understand that the rules have been translated from Korean, but it seems like there needed to be more care taken to ensure that there would be a minimal amount of confusion. A lot of basic steps seem to be missing, and there are references to things that are mislabeled. I think most seasoned gamers will be able to sort things out just fine… beginning gamers may struggle, especially with legal piece placement rules.
The basics of the game are fairly simple. The goal of the game is to play all of your pieces onto the board. As the game goes on, the amount of space you have is going to shrink. You try to block your opponents from making plays, while keeping your options as open as possible. The biggest catch to the game is how you are allowed to play your pieces.
Unlike Blokus, where you have to play a piece that touches one of your other pieces by one corner; in Gemblo your pieces are not allowed to touch at all! Any piece you play has to start exactly 1 hexagon away from any of your other pieces. One thing that these placement rules seem to allow is a more “maze-like” feeling to the game. You will be spending a few minutes trying to find just the right piece to try and swerve between other pieces. A legal placement also requires that no single other colored piece blocks the path between your pieces.
Overall, the game is quite beautifully made. The board is large, and has great detail. The pieces are really nice, although they don’t have the real gemstone look of the Korean original. I will say, though, that I am extremely glad I Kickstarted this game…because the clear pieces that are included have to be the worst idea in the history of gaming. I can ditch those, and use either hot pink or safety orange instead.
The big question comes down to this: is Gemblo better than Blokus? I’m going to say yes. Blokus plays extremely well for 4 players, not really well for 3, and works pretty well for 2. Gemblo plays well for 2, 3, 4, and 6. There is a 5 player variant…but the setup is so convoluted, I wouldn’t dare try it. If I could only have one in my collection, I would keep Gemblo (for now, I’ll keep them both, since I have shelf space).
I just hope that more people than just the Kickstarter backers will have a chance to play this game. I don’t know if there is a plan to distribute the game wider, but I certainly hope so. Just…fix the rules first, ok?