Thursday, April 20, 2017

10 Questions + 1 About Jump Drive

Designer: Tom Lehmann
Publishers: Rio Grande Games
Players: 2-4
Time: 10-30 minutes (if this is taking you 30 minutes, you’re playing it wrong)
Ages: 13+ (10+ is a better guess)
Games Played: 20

People have questions about Tom Lehmann’s newest game… I, as your humble and ever-helpful game reviewer, have answers. Read on!

Q: Is Jump Drive just Race for the Galaxy Lite?

A: While Jump Drive shares some iconography, card art and structure with Race for the Galaxy, it is not the same game.

  • No Consume, Trade or Produce.
  • Your action choices do not dictate what other players may do.
  • Victory points “snowball” rather than remaining static. (In other words, a card produces victory points each turn.)
  • Jump Drive ends solely based on the number of points collected – when someone gets more than 50 points, the game is over.

The designer has clearly stated that while Jump Drive is billed as “an introduction to the Race for the Galaxy universe”, it isn’t “Race for the masses” and was never intended to be. Tom wrote: “Jump Drive is a ‘filler’ game, intended as a quick diversion while waiting for others to arrive or as a fun, fast ‘closer’ to an evening of other games. I believe it succeeds as this (your mileage, of course, may vary).”

As you’ll see, I think he’s absolutely right.

Q: Does it taste great or is Jump Drive just less filling?

A: Jump Drive is fast (the longest game I’ve played went 8 turns)… but is surprisingly meaty for a filler. You have to make real decisions about what you’re going to buy, the wisdom of exploring to find appropriate cards vs. the loss of a turn, and finding the synergy in what you have in your hand.

It’s not as layered as Race for the Galaxy – but Jump Drive is more than just “build the most expensive card you can build.”

Q: What about Roll for the Galaxy?

A: I consider all three of these games (Race for the Galaxy, Roll for the Galaxy & Jump Drive) to be part of a family thematically. Roll is probably the least like the other games in design – but they definitely feel related to each other..

Q: I don’t particularly like Race for the Galaxy or Roll for the Galaxy. Will I like Jump Drive?

A: I think a better predictor will be how much you enjoyed Tom Lehmann’s The City. Since there are only three icons on the cards (military, explore & chromosome), the common complaint about Race for the Galaxy iconography is pretty much toast. As well, I don’t think Roll for the Galaxy’s dice-spending mechanism has a lot in common with Jump Drive, so I don’t know that disliking it will be a good indicator of your potential to take delight in Jump Drive’s charms.

Q: Is this The City dressed up in sci-fi clothing?

A: No… and I say this as someone who LOVES The City and has played it 85+ times. While the basic structure of the game is similar, they are not identical. In our experience, Jump Drive has slightly smaller tableaus and more synergistic relationships between cards.

A question for discussion in the comments: if these games dressed up for Comic-Con, what characters would they be? (Come on, people, entertain me.)

Q: Does this game really just take 15 minutes to play?

A: Yes. Set up is easy (shuffle the deck, deal out 7 cards, each player discards 2 cards and the game is underway). Since the game never goes more than 7-8 rounds at a couple of minutes each, you’re totaling up final scores in 15 minutes.

It’s going to take you longer to read this review than it is to play the game.

Q: How short can you make the rules?

A: Pretty darn short.

  • Set Up: Shuffle deck & deal 7 cards to each player. Players choose 2 cards to discard.
  • Game Play: Players simultaneously choose a card or cards to play from their hand. They pay for the card(s) by discarding cards from their hand.
    • If you build a development, you get a 1 card discount.
    • If you settle a world, you draw a card after you pay for settling.
    • If you develop & settle, you pay full price & do not draw a card.
    • Players can choose to explore and draw/discard cards.
  • Scoring: Players score points marked on cards played.
  • Income: Player receive income (cards) marked on cards they have played and discard down to 10 if necessary.
  • Game End: When one or more players goes over 50 points, the player with the most points wins.

Q: Is there a single overwhelming path to victory in Jump Drive?

A: Absolutely not. I’ve seen a wide variety of winning card combos:

  • Focusing on collecting Galactic Trendsetters
  • Using military power to bring in big-point worlds
  • Building a technology engine that cranks out high-point developments
  • Keying off chromosome symbols
  • Each of the four world types has a workable growth path as well

Q: Isn’t this just another multiplayer solitaire game?

A: No. I’m sure that others can offer deeper analysis than I… but knowing what your opponent is doing – both the type of cards and the speed with which they are building – is important to playing well. My boys are learning that I like to increase my card income early and then develop/settle in the later turns to speed up the game… which means that their point-heavy engines need to get running quickly or they’ll fall behind.

You can have games where you just don’t draw the right cards… but since the game lasts only 10-15 minutes, I’m perfectly willing to live with that in exchange for a great game experience. (I’m also a fan of Harry’s Grand Slam Baseball and the aforementioned The City, both of which have the same “problem”. Of course, your mileage may vary.)

Q: You probably got a free copy of this game, right?

A: Nope. I went out and actually paid full MSRP at my FLGS for Jump Drive… because I didn’t want to wait any longer for it to arrive. I played the game for the first time at Gulf Games… and it was an immediate “must get” for me.

(Bonus Question – yes, if there were numbers on here, this review would be going all the way to 11) One of the Opinionated Gamers asked me if scoring was like The City… and if so, was it easier to calculate?

A: Yes, and yes. I had the privilege of learning The City from Tom Lehmann (back when I was running the Stained Glass Games weekend in central California) and the scoring method that is codified in the rules of Jump Drive is the method he taught us for scoring The City. It involves placing the victory point chips beneath each card… then simply adding the change in score rather than recounting each time. (There are plenty of victory point chips in the box, so this works really well. There is also a nice example on the back of the player aid cards.)

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Mole Rats in Space (Game Review)

  • Designer: Matt Leacock
  • Publishers: Peaceable Kingdom
  • Players: 2-4
  • Time: 10-30 minutes (if this is taking you 30 minutes, you’re playing it wrong)
  • Ages: 7+
  • Games Played: 8 (with a review copy provided by Peaceable Kingdom)

I could only assume/guess/surmise that the name of the new Matt Leacock game - Mole Rats in Space - had some distant relationship to:

a)    Pigs in Space (one of the great bits of weirdness from the Muppet archives) and/or
b)    Rufus the Naked Mole Rat (boon companion of Ron Stoppable)

And the villains of the game, a plethora of snakes… well, just ask Samuel L. Jackson or Indiana Jones about those slithery monsters.

Imagine my pleasant surprise to find out (thanks to the rulebook) that mole rats actually work cooperatively with each other… and that the main predator for them is… snakes. (On or off a plane.)

Anyway, you didn’t come here to read my ramblings about board game naming and pop culture. (Or maybe you did.) So, let’s get to the reviewing.

It’s Not A Tumor (aka Chutes & Ladders)

So, pretty much every time I’ve opened the board up to teach someone Mole Rats in Space, the first thing out of their mouth is “It’s Chutes & Ladders in space.” No, no… a thousand times, no.

Chutes & Ladders is, in no uncertain terms, one of the worst in-print games ever designed. The only reason for making your child play it is because you want to develop a deep-set streak of fatalism in their philosophical outlook. The “game” (and, yes, I used scare quotes on purpose) is deterministic – spin the spinner and move. Hit the wrong space (which you can’t control) and you go backwards. Hit a different space (which you also can’t control) and you are rewarded.

While Mole Rats in Space has a similar board structure with ladders that lead deeper & deeper into the ship (to where the escape pod is located) and suction tubes that move you down a level or into the deep inky airless vacuum of space, the game play is markedly different.

I’ll Take Cooperative Games for $500, Alex

Mole Rats in Space is the newest cooperative game from the dean of cooperative game design, Matt Leacock. His most famous creation is Pandemic

…what with three expansions…

  • Pandemic: On the Brink
  • Pandemic: In the Lab
  • Pandemic: State of Emergency

…and four spin-off games designed by Matt:

  • Pandemic: The Cure
  • Pandemic Legacy (Season 1)
  • Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu
  • Pandemic: Iberia

He’s also well-known for designing a pair of family-friendly cooperative games – Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert – both of which I’ve reviewed here on the blob. (You can click on the game names to read my reviews.) Matt also designed the official Thunderbirds cooperative game.

Yeah, he knows what he’s doing.

“…at a bar called O'Malley's, where we´ll plan our escape…”

The objective of the game is simple: get away from the horde of snakes that are slithering out of the air vents. In order to do this, your team of intrepid mole rats must gather four important items (duct tape, toothbrush, radishes and a map) and board the escape pod. Similar to Pandemic, you can lose in a variety of ways:

  • If one of your mole rats is sucked out of the space station, you lose.
  • If one of your mole rats is bitten twice by snakes, you lose.
  • If a snake gets in the escape pod, you lose.
  • If your team runs out of time (empties the draw deck), you lose.
  • [There is one additional way to lose when you’re playing in challenge mode… but I won’t spoil the secret.]

The set-up is simple:

  • Put one snake of each color (there are four of them) on their starting spaces.
  • Place the important items on their starting spaces.
  • Place the mole rat figures (with a med-kit in their backup) on their starting spaces.
  • Deal each player one card face-up from the deck.
  • The youngest player starts.

Each turn, a player moves (depending on the card):

  • His mole rat
  • Any mole rat
  • All the mole rats

The number of spaces is indicated on the card… but the player chooses the direction of movement.

Then the player executes whatever snake action is called for:

  • Moving one snake of a particular color
  • Spawning a new snake
  • Moving all the snakes of a particular color
  • Having one (or more) snakes of a particular color climb the closest ladder

If you end movement on a piece of equipment, you pick it up & put it in your backpack.

If you move over or onto a snake, you are bitten and must discard your med-kit and put your mole rat back on their start space. Remember: a second bite ends the game with a loss… so just don’t go there.

Like I said, this isn't a difficult game to learn. The simplicity masks some very tricky (and very enjoyable) problem-solving, though!

Mark’s Mini-Thesis on Cooperative Games… As Applied to Mole Rats in Space

For me, cooperative games succeed or fail on some simple questions:

Is there a coherent and/or compelling story arc to the game?

Yes. Gathering the equipment and getting to the escape pod while snakes multiply around you works like a charm.

Are there meaningful decisions to be made by the players?

Yes. Though Mole Rats in Space is the least complex of Matt Leacock’s cooperative designs, players have to balance priorities to successfully escape: getting the equipment, keeping the mole rats venom-free, and slowing the relentless march of the snakes toward the escape pod.

This is made easier by the “look ahead” that the group has due to the face-up player cards. I’ve enjoyed how my sons have spotted chain reactions that I missed – both saving us from certain doom and opening up ways to win.

Is the game system have enough randomness to offer a new play experience each time… while predictable enough to make the players feel like they have both strategic & tactical choices? (Note: I didn’t say that players HAD to have strategic choices – just that they felt like they did.)

Yes. While the board is fixed, the order that cards are drawn can have a big effect on player decisions.

Is the game susceptible to a player/dictator?

One of the problems inherent in cooperative games is having one player “direct” the play of the rest of the players to solve the puzzle. There are various ways to solve this as a game design problem: hidden information, real-time play, appointing a leader, etc... (Or my favorite home remedy: don’t let obnoxious people play games with you.)

If Mole Rats in Space has a weak point, it’s the alpha player problem. I think for the intended family audience that it’s unlikely to be an issue… but the potential is there. With that said, we haven’t experience that in our games with people who have played a number of cooperative games.

Note: I actually created this series of questions for my review of Matt’s Forbidden Desert

Challenge… Accepted

A nice touch is the inclusion of a sealed Challenge cards envelope which adds some additional cards to the deck, along with an additional way for the mole rats to lose their battle against the reptilian invasion. The rules strongly suggest that you need to win three games before opening the envelope… even thoughtfully provided checkboxes on the envelope to track your wins.

No spoilers here - but it’s not a radical change to the basic structure of the game. It makes the game a bit more difficult, which is a good thing as players get better at figuring out how best to play the game.

And in the End...

After 8 games, my sons & I are 4-4 against the snakes… and we actually won our first game using the Challenge cards. I think that’s an appropriate balance for a family-oriented cooperative game. We’ve also found that the larger number of players feels easier since you have a farther “look ahead” with what those pesky snakes are going to do.

Compared to the subtleties of Pandemic or even Thunderbirds, Mole Rats in Space is a pretty simple & straightforward game. While that makes it unlikely to take the hardcore gamer community by storm, it is perfectly suited for the family audience. The $19.99 MSRP makes it an affordable entry into cooperative gaming… and the simple gameplay makes it easy to teach, even to non-gamers.

The board and cards are nicely done, as are the plastic mole rat pieces. The cardboard pieces (snake tokens, equipment tokens, and med-kits) are thinner than I would like, but they work just fine.

More importantly, it’s one of those games that have the “potato chip” factor - as soon as you finish playing, there’s a temptation to immediately play again… especially if the snakes overwhelmed your intrepid team of mole rats.

All in all, I’m excited both for Peaceable Kingdom (who has put out a great entry into the co-op genre) and for new audiences who will find a world of family gaming opened up to them.

For those playing along at home, the pop-culture references include:

  • The Muppet Show
  • Kim Possible
  • Snakes on a Plane
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Kindergarten Cop
  • Jeopardy
  • “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” (Rupert Holmes)
  • “The One With The Embryos” - Friends
  • “The End” (The Beatles)
This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.