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Crab Stack Review and Instructions

How to Play | Review | Final Verdict | Comments

Note: We at Geeky Hobbies would like to thank Blue Orange Games for the review copy of Crab Stack that was used for this review.

How to Play

Objective

To be the last player who still has a crab that can be legally moved.

Setup

To begin the game every player chooses a color of crab that they would like to use in the game. All of the crabs of the colors chosen are mixed up and are randomly placed on the game board. Based on the number of players, only a portion of the game board may be used:

  • Two players: yellow rocks
  • Three players: yellow and black rocks
  • Four players: all rocks
Game board setup in Crab Stack
This picture shows the setup for the game board for a four player game.

Moving Crabs

During their turn each player moves one of their crabs. Each type of crab will move a different number of spaces based on their size.

  • Small crabs: 3 spaces
  • Medium crabs: 2 spaces
  • Large crabs: 1 space

Crabs must move all of the spaces associated with their size. For example a small crab will have to move all three spaces and can’t stop after moving one or two spaces. Crabs can only move across other crabs and cannot move across vacant rocks or through the water. A crab may not move back onto a space they were already on during this turn. Crabs must always end their turn on top of another crab.

When crabs are part of a stack, only the top crab on any stack is allowed to move. If a top crab moves, the new top crab on the stack is allowed to move once again. Stacking crabs must follow certain rules so any movement that would break the following rules is not allowed.

  • Large crabs can be stacked on top of any other crab including other large crabs.

    Crab Stack Large Crab
    The blue crab in the middle of the picture is a large crab indicated by the large disc size, larger crab drawing, and the thicker disc. Since large crabs can climb on any other crab, the large blue crab can climb on top of any of the crabs surrounding it.
  • Medium crabs can be stacked on top of other medium or small crabs.

    Medium Sized Crab in Crab Stack
    The red crab in the middle of the picture is a medium sized crab. This crab can be stacked on the bottom two crabs and the right crab because they are medium and small crabs.
  • Small crabs can only be stacked on top of other small crabs.

    Small crab in Crab Stack
    The yellow crab towards the bottom of the image is a small crab. This small crab can stack on top of the small blue crab on the right or either of the small green crabs at the top.

The Wave Rule

Crabs like to stay in a large group and don’t like to separate. In situations where the crabs are separated into two groups, a wave will hit the crabs and some of the crabs will be removed from the game. The players figure out which group of crabs cover up more spaces on the game board. All of the crabs from the group that takes up less spaces on the game board are removed from the game. For example there is one group of crabs that take up ten spaces on the game board while the other group takes up eight spaces. The group that fill eight spaces will be eliminated from the game.

Large group of crabs in Crab Stack
In this picture a wave is close to occurring. If the small green crab towards the bottom is moved, the crabs will be separated into two groups. When the groups are separated the group on the left will be removed from the board since they only occupy ten spaces compared to eighteen spaces on the right side.

If both groups of crabs take up the same number of spaces on the game board, the players count how many crabs are in each group. Whichever group has less crabs will be removed. For example two groups of crabs cover eight spaces on the game board. One group has ten crabs and the other group has twelve crabs. The group with ten crabs will be eliminated.

Wave in Crab Stack
In this situation both large groups will cover the same number of spaces on the game board once the small green crab moves. If the crab moves left, the right side will be removed since there will be thirteen crabs on the left versus eleven crabs on the right side. If the green crab moves to the right side both sides will have the same number of crabs so the green player will get to decide which side is removed from the game.

If the tie has still not been decided, the current player gets to decide which group of crabs will get eliminated.

Elimination And End Of Game

If a player is no longer able to legally move any of their crabs at the beginning of their turn, they are eliminated from the game. Once a player is eliminated they no longer take their turn. Any of the player’s crabs still on the game board stay in position until the end of the game or until they are washed off the game board.

The game continues until only one player is able to move at the beginning of their turn. This player wins the game.

If the game reaches a point where the remaining players keep repeating the same moves, the game ends in a draw and another game will need to be played in order to determine the winner.

Winning Crab Stack
If the blue player has already been eliminated, the yellow player can end the game on this turn. If they move their crab onto the medium green crab, the green player will no longer be able to make a legal move which would eliminate them from the game.

Review

This past week we at Geeky Hobbies received a review copy of the game Crab Stack from Blue Orange Games. I was excited to play the game since it looked like an interesting game that could appeal to both adults and families with younger children. While the game is not perfect, I have to say that I was far from disappointed.

Simple to Play

My biggest concern going into Crab Stack was how well it would work for adults. Since the game is recommended for ages 8+ I knew that the game couldn’t be that complicated. The problem with a lot of family/kids games is that while they are easy to pick up and play, they usually don’t have enough strategy in them to keep adults interested unless they are playing the game with younger children.

Not surprisingly Crab Stack is easy to learn and play. The instructions are printed on the front and back of one sheet of paper. They are well explained and can be read in just a couple minutes. I would expect it to take just a couple minutes to explain the game to a new player and it may take a couple turns to fully grasp how many spaces a crab can move and what crabs they can stack on. Once you understand those two concepts you should have no trouble playing the game.

The gameplay is easy enough that Crab Stack can be played by children. The recommended age of 8+ seems accurate. I probably wouldn’t recommend the game for children under the age of eight though since they might have some trouble remember the various rules in the game. While children shouldn’t have trouble playing the game, parents may have to give younger children a break by not always playing optimally. In order to play the game well you need to think through your moves and plan a couple steps ahead. Younger children may not plan far enough ahead so if an adult plays optimally they will likely always win the game.

There Is A Lot Of Strategy Under The Surface

If I had to classify Crab Stack I would say that it is an abstract strategy game. For those of you who don’t know what an abstract strategy game is, it is a game that mostly focuses on strategy over luck and theme. While Crab Stack does have some luck, your success in the game will mostly come down to the decisions you make in the game. Crab Stack kind of feels like chess/checkers but plays quite a bit differently.

Crab Stack has a lot more strategy to it than I was anticipating. If you want to be good at the game you need to think several moves ahead. Making one bad move can eliminate you from the game or significantly hinder your position in the game. You need to think through your possible moves and try to anticipate what you think the other players will do.

To illustrate how important each move can be I would like to tell you about the ending of one of the games that I played. The game was coming to a close with two of the players controlling most of game board, one player having a little control and the last player was almost eliminated. At this point one player made a suboptimal move. This move had a cascade effect over the whole game board allowing one player to take control of the board which lead them to victory.

Now if this player would have made a different move they likely would have won the game. All of the players would have ended up stacking their large crabs on top of one another. The top position would have probably changed at least five times but would have ultimately ended with the player who made the wrong move winning the game.

The end of that game illustrates the fact that other players can have an impact on your game. The most direct way that other players can affect your game is to cover up your crabs. If the players end up ganging up on another player, that player is likely to lose the game no matter what they themselves do.

The only problem I had with the strategy in Crab Stack is that the gameplay lends itself to analysis paralysis. If you are prone to analysis paralysis (overthinking every move), it could take quite a while to finish a game. You only have a certain amount of moves that you can actually make any turn but players who like to analyze everything may try to plan out what every other player will likely do. If you have a player that is prone to analysis paralysis you may need to institute a time limit on how long each turn can take.

Protect the Large Crabs

While all of the crabs have their own strengths and weaknesses, after a couple plays I think the large crabs are by far the most powerful in Crab Stack. While the large crabs move slowly, they can climb on any other crab. Large crabs are really important in the late game since they will likely be the only crabs you will be able to move in your last couple of moves. If you lose your large crabs before the end game I don’t see being able to win the game. The best thing to do is to try and eliminate or stack your crabs on top of as many of your opponents’ large crabs as early as you can.

Next to the large crabs are the medium crabs. In the early and mid game the medium crabs can be quite powerful. Since they have more flexibility than the large crabs, the medium crabs work well if you want to take control of a key position not currently controlled by a large crab. The medium crabs could also be used to initiate a wave to wipe out another player. By the late game they lose a lot of their power though because any large crab can neutralize them. As the board shrinks, the large crabs take over the game.

The weakest crabs are the small crabs. Although they have the most flexibility with regards to movement, they are just too weak to have a lot of impact on the game. Outside of causing a wave I don’t see the small crabs having much impact on the game. For the most part I just used the small crabs as a stall tactic if I didn’t want to move one of my large or medium sized crabs. I wish the game could have added some mechanics that would have given the small crabs more power.

Surf’s Up

Outside the main mechanic of climbing on other crabs, the “Wave Rule” can have a huge impact on the game. In one of the games I played, the wave rule eliminated a large group of the crabs pretty early in the game. Due to so many crabs being eliminated, one player was pretty much entirely eliminated from the game while another player lost a lot of crabs. The wave rule pretty much turned a four player game into a two player game.

While mechanics similar to the wave rule have been in other games, it works great in Crab Stack. The reason I like the wave rule is that it speeds up the game while also giving players a strategic decision about when or where they would like to trigger the wave rule.

The threat of the wave rule has an impact on the game since some players are going to want to activate it while other want to prevent it based on whose crabs will be on the losing side of the battle. The positions that connect two large groups of crabs together become very important in the game. Players will make moves trying to get their crab on the top of this spot in order to control the space to prevent triggering a wave. Other players will try to move crabs away from this space in order to try and trigger the wave.

What is interesting about the wave rule is that it can sneak up on you pretty quickly. Usually you are so focused on getting your crabs to the top of the stack that you don’t realize that the crabs are starting to separate away from one another. Soon there will only be one set of crabs connecting the two groups. If you don’t pay attention to what is going on you can easily be stuck on the losing side of a wave.

The wave rule is not complicated but it adds just enough to the game that it makes you think before you make a move.

Random Beginnings

Overall I liked some things about the initial setup of the game board, but there are some things I wish were changed.

The game board is set up by random draw. While the game comes with a bag to put all of the pieces in, the bag is clear so this doesn’t really work as a draw bag. We ended up throwing all of the crabs into one half of the box and having one player draw crabs without looking. Another player would then place the crabs on the board starting at the top and moving down in a pattern so the player could not influence where any crabs were placed. While it would have been nice for the game to have included a draw bag, this is not much of an issue since most gamers probably already have a draw bag that they can use or they can use the inside of the box like we did.

What I like about the randomized starting positions is that every game will be unique. Unless you play the game a ton, you most likely will never have the exact same setup for two different games. I like this variety since it prevents players from always pursuing the same strategy.  Since no board will be setup in the same way, players need to be able to adjust since each game will play differently.

The problem with the random start is that it adds a decent amount of luck to the game. I am generally not a fan of adding unnecessary luck to a game. Due to a good or bad draw, a player can be either put in an advantageous or disadvantageous position. For example in one game I didn’t stand much of a chance because all of my large crabs were pinned against one of the edges by another player’s large crabs. If I moved these crabs they would get taken immediately so I couldn’t move them. They ended up being cut off from the rest of the crabs and I was quickly eliminated from the game. There were also a couple situations where small crabs were worthless since there was no space they could be moved to.

Can't Move in Crab Stack
Here is a picture of a situation where a small crab was placed in a situation where it was never able to move. Due to the random draw the yellow player ended up only having eight crabs that they could actually move at the beginning of the game.

The random draw works fine for the game but I think a better option could be found to create a different board each game. While I have not tested this, I think a snake draft could be a house rule that could be good for Crab Stack. With the snake draft the first player would get to place any of their pieces on any of the available spaces on the game board. Each player would get to place their first crab. The last player would then get to place their second piece first as play would move back to the first player. This would continue until all of the pieces were placed on the game board.

I see some benefits and negatives from this idea. What I like about the draft system would be that each player would get to pick their opening positions. This would eliminate most of the luck in the game since no player would be forced into situations that they didn’t choose. The problem is that it would take a lot longer to set up the board in this fashion.

Random Thoughts

Here are some final quick little thoughts I had about the game.

  • The estimated length for the game is around twenty minutes. After getting used to the game, I think most games will take closer to fifteen minutes to complete. If you have a player that is prone to analysis paralysis though, I could see the game lasting more than twenty minutes.
  • I liked the components quite a bit. The artwork is well done and I think it will especially appeal to children. While I wish the crabs were actually shaped like crabs, making the crabs wooden discs makes them much easier to stack and works well for the game.
  • I wish there could be a better way to deal with stalemates. While I didn’t encounter a stalemate, I think it could be a problem especially if the players are really stubborn. Once the game gets down to two players I could see a lot of scenarios where players could try to create a stalemate instead of losing. If neither player is willing to back down, I could see a lot of games ending in a tie.

Final Verdict

My biggest concern with Crab Stack was whether it was going to be too simple for adults that it would end up being a boring game. While Crab Stack is simple to pick up, there is a lot more strategy hiding beneath the surface than you would expect from a family game.

I could see Crab Stack working really well as a family game as long as parents don’t always make optimal moves since adults are more likely to fully understand the strategy behind the game. Although it is a family game, I could see Crab Stack working with adults since it includes enough strategy to keep adults interested. Crab Stack is the type of game where you really can’t rely on luck. You need to be able to plan ahead and anticipate what the other players are going to do. Since Crab Stack is an abstract game it probably won’t appeal to people that don’t like abstract games.

If you think the concept for the game looks interesting and you don’t mind abstract games, I think you would like Crab Stack. I was pleasantly surprised by Crab Stack and plan on bringing the game to the table every so often.

For more information about Crab Stack, check out the official website.

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