Coral Ladder Hijinks — SQUID INC. Review

The Secret To My Success, a silly comedy save Michael J. Fox’s uncanny ability to elevate any movie he was in, instantly came to mind as I was playing a game with Jerod and Linda the other day. I’m not above swimming alone in the deep, straining to make any connection between 80s pop culture in my latest review. But unfortunately, the “comedic situations” in Success frankly speaking have not held up well, so dear reader, consider yourself spared from any connection between that stinker and the surprising success of today’s topic: Squid Inc. from WizKids Games.

Let’s get something out of the way first, and thank you for asking. Yes, Bradly, it is absolutely true that I wanted to cover this game solely because of the name without knowing the first thing about the mechanics. Come on, board gamers, if a designer and publisher is willing to stick out their necks with a dad joke word play on squid ink, would you really expect me to pass that up?

Of course not.

Squid Inc. (the game as well as the name) is super simple. Players take on rival companies, and try to move their underwater creature employees up their corporate ladder. Each run of the ladder has limited space, getting squeezed in ever tighter as you make your way to the top. Any employees at the bottom of the chain score only one point multiplied by their card value, but claw your way to the top run, and it’s a whopping seven points multiplied by your employee’s strength! I’m smelling a big seaweed bonus this year for that move.

With that as the overlay, let’s look at the basics. Squid Inc. is a 2022 release from WizKids! designed by Ivan Turner with “cute creepy” art (as The Jay Bell called it) by Matijos Gebreselassie. Two to four players each have a “mail room” where they can draft up to three employees in the “unemployment line” to work for them. Each employee has a different cost to put them into play — or instead of playing them, you can “dismiss” (discard) them for “clout” (the currency in the game.)

Dismissing some is definitely necessary, because you absolutely need clout to get employees to come work for you. But, you can’t just cycle through every employee looking for the perfect hire — you also need people.

People in the form of employees who have tons of power. They will let you bump people higher than them on the ladder and get you those sweet higher point multipliers.

People in the form of employees with cool special actions. Taking cool actions like bumping another player’s big pointer down a rung or two so your scrappy little workaholic can get ahead is funlicious.

I’m always looking for games that have choices that require that delicate balance — get clout? get people? run your engine? You gotta make a choice and they feel meaningful everytime.

By now, I’m sensing some hesitation in some quarters, and for others, I can see that twinkle in your eye from here. Before I go on, yes, it is true that this game is punchy as heck. Workers on the bottom runs are itching to get higher, and a lot of them have “take-that” style powers that will really mess with your board, or even better, screw up the best laid plans of your rivals. In fact, there were a lot of turns where the same employee got promoted and then bounced back down the ladder many times in a row, which can be a little frustrating for the mentor of that up-and-comer.

But for us, it was not much of a surprise. Even during the rules review, we could tell right away that there was a high level of interactivity. It might have bothered me more if it was a longer game where more was invested in the actions that by the chance of a roll or the drawing of a card interrupted our move. Linda enjoyed pulling off a little combo that made a big point swing happen, but after the game, admitted that the game would not be one to play with everyone.

While I agree that take-that games like this are not for everyone, there are a couple of things in the game that minimize the impact. In Squid Inc., the game time is short and the investment is minimal. Most of the cards take very little in the form of clout to get them into the workplace, and even the biggest cards can be moved over with a strategic play or two. Come to think of it, the whole process of gathering clout kind of mitigates the hurt. To get the clout, you have to discard cards that you and the other players would potentially want to play, so there’s a karmic balance that unfolds.

But note that we haven’t yet played with the full complement of four players, so take the above commentary with that caveat. I admit that I enjoyed playing it at the smaller player counts. The turns go so quickly. You can really get into a rhythm of glancing at the unemployment line and instantly picking between hiring or dismissing, and then moving the fulfilled employees right from the mailroom into the your workforce. When your turn comes around again, and if you have had a chance by then to rack up some clout on the right employees, you can really have some combolicious fun. I’m hoping to bring this to our next game night at the FLGS to get a full round of players.

The production of the game was pretty solid. The employees are represented by thick tiles that feel good to move up and down the ladder, and the clout tokens are standard white wooden discs that almost resemble mentos in their form. The artwork and graphic presentation has a soft palette of pastels that evoke the underwater theme nicely. The only slip for us was a rulebook that seem to assume a lot of knowledge about the gameflow that is not evident from the ruleset, but thankfully, we found a Jon Gets Games playthrough and instructional video that does an excellent job of teaching the rules.

As we were finishing up our last game, I could tell that Jerod was not as impressed as Linda and I was, even after romping to a big win. it’s a punchy game with a touch of engine building mechanics that give corporate ladder climbers a chance at some good combos. I know his tastes pretty well, and while he is certainly very good at these kind of games, it’s just not the kind of game that is going to be played at our family get togethers because of the punchiness.

But for me, the short playtime and easy investment sets it apart for a couple of reasons. At our FLGS game nights at Anubis, there’s a group of collectible card game players who really devour interactive games, you know the ones you see on every shelf at Target. They adore games with cards that reward gamers spotting cross-connections and combos. Squid Inc. has both, and if they asked me for a recommendation for a game to replace their favorite interactive cat game, I’d be quick to throw down Squid Inc. It’s got the interactivity they are going to want, while still having some euro sensibilities that I want.

Just make sure you put those new cover sheets on your TPS reports the next time you play Squid Inc. You did get the memo, right? I’ll go ahead and get you another copy just in case.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ

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