Thursday 24 October 2013

Review - A Shepherd and His Dog

A Shepherd and His Dog

A Shepherd and His Dog
Designed by John Spittle
Published by Spear's Games
For 2 players, aged 6 to adult

A Shepherd and His Dog
Let the terror commence...

Halloween is just around the corner, so in the spirit (ha ha) of the holiday, I thought I would try to put a few spooky reviews on my blog over the next week. And what better way to start then a game about Freddy Krueger, and his nefarious night-time exploits?

Here's the story so far: Little Timmy has been put to bed. Because he couldn't sleep, he counted sheep. He has now drifted off, leaving himself wide open to attack from Freddy, the hideously disfigured dreamland pervert. The only problem is, Timmy's dreams are chock full of all the sheep he had to count before he dozed off, and they keep getting in the way. Before Freddy can get busy with the slicing and dicing, he needs to deal with those pesky fluff balls. As Freddy is a dream architect, he can manifest anything he wants to assist him, so he creates a slavering wolf, and a pen to round the sheep into.

The game is afoot. Or maybe a severed head.

I dunno.

Okay, okay. I'll confess. A Shepherd and His Dog isn't a horror game. It isn't a game about Freddy Krueger.

But it is a game about rounding up sheep into a pen.

A Shepherd and His Dog - sheep
The horror! The horror!

So, if that's the case, why am I featuring it in my Halloween special?

The answer is simple. When I thought about the most horrifying experience I have ever had as a gamer... When I thought about the most terrifying way imaginable to spend my time... I thought of A Shepherd and His Dog.

This is a strategy game where one person plays a shepherd with his trusty four-legged friend, and the other person plays as a flock of five sheep. There are little, pre-painted plastic playing pieces to represent all these characters, but the paint jobs are pretty bad. My shepherd really does look like Freddy Krueger.

A Shepherd and His Dog - shepherd
Freddy Krueger.

I'm pretty sure that the playing pieces are actually old Britain's toys, because I know I had exactly the same set of toys when I was little. It was a nice bit of nostalgia to see these old pieces; but that was about the only thing I liked about the whole sorry mess of a game.

Each head-to-head contest is played out on a hexagonal board. You place little plastic fences at one end to create a pen with five spaces, and there are two open gates printed in the bottom corners. The shepherd player is trying to round up all five sheep to herd them into the pen, while the sheep player is trying to get at least one sheep through one of the two open gates. (Seriously, farmers; shut your gates. It's common sense.)

A Shepherd and His Dog - the dog
Nice doggie.

From that description, the game sounds like something I would enjoy. I am fond of Fox and Geese, and Thud, and I have wanted a nice copy of Tafl for my games collection for a while now. A Shepherd and His Dog seems to fit nicely into that same category of two player asymmetric games.

But I don't enjoy this game.

In fact, I have trouble thinking of this as a game, because it pretty much plays itself. Players take it in turns to move one piece. The shepherd player moves Freddy or his wolf, while the sheep player gets to move one sheep. Sheep are not allowed to move next to the shepherd or dog, and MUST move away if they are adjacent at the start of the turn. This is the mechanism by which the shepherd player will round up the sheep. Basically, the shepherd or dog moves next to a sheep. The sheep player is then forced to move that sheep (if possible). This usually means the sheep has a choice of between one and three spaces to move to. The shepherd then moves adjacent, forcing the sheep to move again, and so on. There are almost no choices to make, and very few ways to break away from the shepherd player, who is always able to move adjacent to the sheep on his following turn.

Eventually, a sheep will get penned, and suddenly (for the first time), the sheep player will be free to pick any sheep to move. The sheep closest to an open gate will be selected, and there will be a mad dash as the sheep moves in a straight line to that gate, and the shepherd or dog runs to intercept. However, blocking a gate is exceptionally easy (as sheep cannot move next to a shepherd or dog), and once the interception has been made, the sheep will be forced back into the same pattern of being pushed towards the pen.

You then repeat this process until all five sheep are in the pen.

And that's it.

It is so repetitive. So boring. So maddeningly infuriating. So pointless.

It is probably the worst game I have ever played. And I've played the Chaotic trading card game.

A Shepherd and His Dog - the board
The board, with fences in place to create the pen.

The biggest problem is that it is a strategy game that takes away your chances to use strategy. Most of your moves are forced upon you, and there is nothing you can do about it. It becomes a mundane experience, as you simply move your piece into pre-defined spaces. There is maybe one in every five turns where you get to make a proper decision. The real choices are so rare that you become bored and disinterested, your brain switches off completely, and you start to miss the choices even when they do present themselves.

I suppose it is fitting that a game about herding mindless sheep should be so mindless; but this is one of those occasions when it would have dramatically improved the game if it was a bit less thematic.

And that's not something you hear me say very often.

Besides, if I'm going to play something about a horde of mindless creatures, I'm probably going to choose something with zombies in it.

That would have made for a better Halloween review too...


  1. What we need is a Second Edition of this game by FFG. Imagine, a constructable tiled board, 100 plastic sheep, six different farmers, 300 standard sized sheep cards, 450 mini sized cards depicting special herding moves, upgraded dogs etc. And then a few big box expansions adding more sheep, more men and more dogs (and fields).

    1. Yeah. And single miniature expansions for boss sheep.

      Thanks for this terrifying vision of boardgaming hell... It's starting to feel more like Halloween all the time.


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