Teaching Time: 2 mins
Playing Time: 1-5 mins
Setup Time: 1 min
Value For Money: Mid
Sumo Gnomes was a Kickstarter run by Robbie Munn as his independent design and publishing company, Peculiarity in 2019/2020. I’ll start by saying that I’ve personally met Robbie a few times, he’s a great and outgoing personality and I look forward to catching up with him again once the convention system exists once more, and he ran a fun campaign that was only slightly delayed by the 2020 corona virus pandemic, something that he absolutely needs to be congratulated for.
Sumo Gnomes is a very simple game the theme of which you can probably guess from the name. Chubby little gnomes compete to knock each other off their tree stump dojo. Gameplay consists of rolling a set of four dice and choosing two (or three if you have a full matching set) to activate to move your gnome around the stump or shove you opponent’s gnome around it. Get knocked off the stump and you lose. The game suggests playing best of five rounds, but players are free to set their own line for victory.
Firstly, the game was supplied with very minimal plastic packaging, and all the wooden and card components are environmentally sound. Not only is doing this harder for a small publisher than accepting standard cellophane wrap on everything, it fits wonderfully with the theme of small (albeit rather violent) woodland sprites. The basic box contents consist of ten wooden dice, a rules pamphlet (and it is a pamphlet, the simple rules run to about three pages) and a set of beer mat style boards to represent player boards and the central wood stump dojo.
Although its great to see a simple game with simple rules, there are a few points in the rules that I would have liked to see outlined more fully, which would have been simple given that the back of the pamphlet has been given over to a repeat of the box art. There were only two sources of slight confusion that I came across (that spinning a grabbed opponent seems to allow any form of movement around the grabbing gnome is implied by the one example in the rules but not specified, and what exactly ‘nearest adjacent’ amounts to when a gnome has no path to be pushed back) but given the small volume of rules two points of confusion end up feeling like quite a lot. The components are great, the beermat boards have a splendidly rustic feel to them, but there is a small issue of practicality. For one thing, the game feels like it wants to be a pocket (or often in my experience, glove box) game to be pulled out during slow pub evenings, the issue with this is that the one thing that beermats are designed to do is to soak up beer, while I want the main thing that the components of my pocket games to be designed for is to repel beer. As a child I used to collect beermats, and I can’t say that the prospect of a game having the heady scent of stale ale that my collection used to be redolent of is an attractive one. This slightly confusing sense is increased by the fact that the game comes with a cloth carry bag to increase portability, with the bag even having the dojo marked directly on it meaning that you could dispose of the beermats entirely and just carry about the dice and bag. The issue there is that having printed the player board beermats, however environmentally it may have been done, it feels odd to leave them behind, and if there’s one material given to ugly creases when carried about in a soft bag with a set of dice, its beermats.
The game itself is extremely simple, which is both its selling point and its biggest weakness. Early games will generally only last about two rounds, three at a push. This is for the simple reason that once the gnomes are off their set-up positions, the vast majority of other positions allow for a one turn ring-out. In early games the opening player will tend to commit the cardinal sin of moving forwards, setting themselves up for being flung out of the ring immediately by their opponent. In fact, with inexperienced players there seems to be a huge first turn disadvantage for this reason. The main reason that this becomes a problem though is that once this fact is realized the game consists of players repeatedly playing to regain a safe space on the centre of the stump (the only safe point, and only safe if your opponent is in one of five relative positions) until one player happens to lack the dice to do so, at which point they are generally left with few enough options that they have to leave themselves in a ring-out position, and tend to get promptly ejected for so doing. It’s a weird change of pace for such a light game about gnomes knocking each other of a tree stump when you realize that your best move on a first turn can be to simply switch places with your opponent, and then switch places again. The upshot seems to be that early games can take a matter of seconds of immediate action, later ones can take minutes of almost total inaction.
None of which is arguably the point of the game. It comes with a pad for marking out win/losses in a sumo tournament which seems to be the place where the game would shine. The game can be taught in about a minute and having a group of friends around a table taking turns at the dojo, going from being foolish newcomers to wily veterans in the space of ten minutes is no doubt immense fun. The game is simple enough that onlookers can quickly comprehend when there is risk in the air and cheer or commiserate over uncooperative dice. I say seems to be because the game has had the bad luck to appear to be a game best played during casual meet-ups with groups of friends in a world where casual meet-ups with groups of friends seems like a hazy dream of a former life.
Looking at the game for some reason puts me in mind of two player tactical classics such as Hnefatafl or Onitama, which it absolutely is not. There seems to be very little reward in two players playing repeated rounds of Sumo Gnomes, rather its built for two people to face off, then move on to another match-up and another. I like to think that in the halcyon days to come where such a thing will again be possible, Sumo Gnomes will take its place in my life of a casual game for casual meetings. A party game in a world of self-isolation, Sumo Gnomes has had the misfortune of the sort of bad timing that its little chubby wrestlers no doubt know all too much about.