Sweet dreams are made of Zs.

It isn’t often that I’d describe a game as “delusive”. A game that looks like one thing, only to reveal upon hitting the table that it’s quite another. In this case I’m not certain it was done to manipulate but there’s no getting around it – Sheepy Time looks like a game for small children. From the adorable cover, to the cute little wooden sheep and fence, to scooting around on a track by playing number cards, I would forgive anyone for assuming things about it. Hell, one of my local game stores immediately stuck it in the designated kid’s section on sight!

Folks. No. Don’t be fooled. Sheepy Time is more. So much more. Yes it’s family-weight and you could probably play it with kids that aren’t completely new to games, but don’t dismiss it just because it may not look like your usual fare. It’s one of the best releases of 2021 and I will be absolutely furious if people sleep on it just because of an (understandable) assumption. Let me elaborate.

One of my favorite mechanical niches in board games is when your turn to turn choices appear limited but offer far greater control than you think. Reiner Knizia (Ra, Indigo), Donald X Vaccarino (Kingdom Builder), and RĂ¼diger Dorn (Las Vegas, Luxor) are all designers who specialize in this space, but I can’t name a designer who does it with every release because it’s a particularly difficult design space. This is probably because creating meaningful decisions with minimal levers is hard. If you give players 15 options they’ll probably find a couple they like, but how happy will they be if you give them 2?

This is the crux of most of Sheepy Time‘s decisions. You get a 2 card hand, no more, no less. You must play one per turn. Dream tiles on spaces add some spice to the proceedings by activating whenever you land on them, but only if you previously seeded it with Z tokens. You get said Zs by playing cards and (typically) forgoing your movement in favor of setting up said tokens. It’s a beautiful balancing act, with what looks like only 2 options turning into 3, 4, and sometimes more depending on utilization.

I wouldn’t call ST a push-your-luck game as much as I would a racing game, but both are so intertwined that neither would be wrong. Your initial goal is to get 40 winks (points), represented by moving your head token along until it hits your pillow token. Adorable! Rather than just make your way down a track to the finish line you’re competing in heats. Depending on how well you do you’ll earn the right to pull your pillow closer than everyone else, meaning in future heats you’ll have an easier time achieving that snooze and winning the game. Maybe you have a banger of a round and as a result you only need to get 30 winks to win the game next round, for example. The highest points of tension are the rounds where your pillow juuuuuuust barely looks reachable, where a win coooooould happen, where you miiiiiight be able to make it if the cards hit just so. You may be able to steal a win before anyone suspected and look cool as hell to all your friends, but it’s just as if not more likely that you’ll be left with nothing but a bad night’s sleep.

Of course this isn’t as simple as just running fast. This is a game about dreams, and you don’t get dreams without nightmares. The game has 3, all of which operate differently. In order of least to most swearing they’ll elicit from your table: the Wolf mostly runs forward but occasionally howls, scaring adjacent sheep. The Bump in the Night jumps bounces forward and back to fake players out. Then there’s the Spider, who tosses a web forward that halts sheep movements then zips forward to meet it. All of them have cards that are shuffled into the game’s deck and are automatically triggered whenever players draw them, meaning they’re essentially an additional adversarial force that everyone hates. The nightmares serve a dual purpose as both a constant threat and your round timer. Running into it or having it run into you spooks your sheep. Get spooked again and you’re handed a consolation prize as you’re woken up and kicked off the board. And if they eventually round the track and crash through the fence itself, the round immediately ends and everyone still running also gets the aforementioned consolation prize.

A lot of PYL games permit players to play too safely. One tiny step at a time, little incremental bits of info, then finally “ok stop stop stop” just as the heat is finally on. ST demands you take risks every turn. By only allowing you to call it a night and bank your points each time you jump the fence and complete a lap it forces risk-takers to actually take risk. Want to wring a few more points out of the board? Commit fully or don’t commit at all. No cowardly sheep allowed. Winks are for winners! But because the nightmare’s cards are shuffled along with everything else you can never 100% track how fast it’ll move. Some rounds end early, some come down to the last couple cards. You can see how fast the nightmare is moving, but it could move just once or multiple times in a row to zip around the back half of the track! You don’t know! You can’t know. And that elevates the tension far above what most games of its kind achieve.

When the running is done, regardless of outcome, everyone gets a short rest phase that’s equally brilliant. All those funky shaped wedge spaces need abilities on ’em and you’re the ones who get to decide what those are. Rather than force some kind of currency or bid into the mix, ST just offers an embarrassment of riches to its players and challenges you to choose carefully. Tiles you add will be pre-stocked with your Zs, potentially even an infinite supply, meaning you’re set up to use the tile you select over and over as the game goes on. But it’s still available to your opponents, and if they feel especially clever (or, y’know, the board is full) they can just take Zs instead of popping down a tile to immediately piggyback off of your decisions. As far as drafts go it’s as swift as it is smart, fundamentally impacting the rest of the game with a decision that takes mere seconds. Investing in particular powers is critical, but which ones? Do you want to intentionally spook your sheep for free winks? What if you could also land on a tile that made them brave again? Maybe a movement tile that could bounce you into other tiles for some proper comboing? Or my beloved Pipe Dream, a tile that has never once worked for me but tempts me every time it comes up with its promises of vast riches? There’s nothing you don’t want! Make it count.

This is also where player count changes things the most. At 2 you’ll build entire districts in your color, enhancing your intricate custom combos round to round. At 3-4 the board fills up faster and it behooves you to play the Z-game during the race a little bit more, borrowing the wedges of your opponents so you can better leverage their additions. The temptation and incentive to plop down a tile is always high, but sometimes the closest you can get to drafting that perfect piece is just borrowing it indefinitely. And, in a particularly sharp bit of design work, the board filling out faster at higher player counts accelerates its rounds as everyone benefits from big combos. This means at 2p you’ll play more, shorter rounds, whereas at 4p rounds are longer but you typically play fewer of them, keeping the actual play time about the same. As someone who often maligns games with wonky player counts that distort the experience or playtime I need to give credit where credit is due: ST is tuned amazingly well.

And honestly that’s true of the whole box. From start to finish, albeit more towards the finish as the board fills out, there is no point at which ST isn’t a blast to play. Despite all this cool stuff going on under the hood it’s never overwhelming, never unnecessarily opaque, never frustrating. Every turn is tense and over the course of each round it only ratchets up, yet it has an unceasing joyfulness about it. It’s clearly a modern design – minimal (though not nonexistent) negative player interaction, fancy printed wooden bits, a heavy focus on combos, what have you. But it also has a playful mood about the entire thing that many modern games have forgone. Great intention was taken in making every turn fun, every choice vital, every move satisfying. And the fact that it does all of this with a game that has a two card hand? It’s not just good, it’s genuinely impressive. Every time I play it I’m motivated to play it more, to introduce it to more people, to immediately shuffle up and go again.

It’s too early for me to say if Sheepy Time is the best game of 2021. We’re only a bit past halfway, after all. What I can say for sure is that of all the new-to-me games I’ve played this year, this is the one that’s made me the happiest.

A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.