Bad winners are worse than bad losers. Just throwing that out there.
Roll for the Galaxy
Players: 4 (Plays 2-5)
Duration: 1 hour
Theme really is amazing. On one level Roll for the Galaxy is about sculpting a galactic empire through trade, technology and commerce but on another it’s just rolling dice and then moving them about! At the beginning of the game players are given 5 dice which represent the workers in their fledgling interplanetary kingdom. The sides of a die represent one of five phases (actions) that can be used during the game. The EXPLORE phase lets players gain money (used to put spent dice back in your control) or select technology/planets for future projects (both are worth victory points and may grant new dice or extra powers). DEVELOP and SETTLE let players build the aforementioned technology/planets. PRODUCE generates resources on planets so that the SHIP phase can turn them into victory points.
At the beginning of the round all players roll their dice in secret and sort them by symbol underneath a ‘phase strip’ that has the five matching symbols on it. They then choose one of the dice and assign it to one of the five actions on the phase strip in what’s called a ‘phase selection’. After all assigning has been done players reveal their dice. Players then use their dice according to the phase they rolled but only if that phase was chosen by a player during phase selection for that round. What this means is that you will be hoping that other players will select phases that you want or dice you rolled with that phase are wasted. This choice is where the real tension of the game lies and it’s very satisfying to see all your dice activated by other players. On the flip side it’s very sad when most of your dice are wasted that turn. Play continues until one player has 12 technologies/planets or until a certain number of victory points have been claimed from shipping (set by the number of players). The player with the most points is then the winner.
This game is pretty simple and once you are into the swing of things rounds fly by but it’s slow to get going. The rules seem pretty good but explaining them is another thing altogether and there was lots of head-scratching at the start when you are just rolling dice and looking at a load of symbols that don’t mean anything. Despite this I really liked this game. Phase selection is a key choice in mitigating the luck of your dice and it’s very tense when you lift your blind and see what other players have gone for (or not gone for). You will always have something to do it’s just a matter of how much!
There are plenty of other choices to make through the game too. Special abilities on tech/planets can combo nicely if you get the right ones and you can always fish for more if you don’t get what you want. In addition some grant you extra dice in different colours which might have a different combination of faces letting you specialise in various ways. It’s also worth noting that the components are really top notch with plenty of hard-wearing dice and sturdy tiles. In case you couldn’t guess I do like this game.
Mission: Red Planet
Players: 5 (Plays 3-6)
Duration: 90 minutes
Thankfully the poor devil who had to explain Roll for the Galaxy had an easier job with Mission: Red Planet which is a simple area control game set on the plains of Mars. Mars is split into 9 regions and the moon Phobos which is separate from the main board. Each of these 10 regions produces a different resource (worth either 1,2 or 3 points) which is hidden until a player lands some of their astronauts on them. At the start of the game players are given 9 character cards and a secret objective that can net them bonus points depending on some end of game conditions. A launchpad is set up with slots equal to one less than the number of players and one card drawn from a rocket deck is put on each slot. These rocket cards have a capacity and a destination for the rocket.
At the start of each of the games 10 rounds players choose one of their character cards and then reveal them simultaneously. These character cards put astronauts onto rocket cards but will have another effect as well such as launching a rocket prematurely, blowing up a rocket, picking up or looking at discovery cards (these attach to regions and affect end-game board state), moving astronauts and so on. The cards are numbered with the larger numbers getting to take their action first. Once these cards are used they can’t be used again until the player plays the character that brings them back to hand. Any rockets that are full immediately launch and at the end of the round they drop the astronauts onto their target region and a new rocket replaces them. Scoring happens at the end of the 5th, 8th and final rounds with points awarded for players that control a region. The number of points awarded then increases. At the end of the game those points are added to any end-game bonuses and the one with the most is the winner.
For me this game is the perfect balance of simplicity and fun but with the need to make some critical decisions. It can be so tense revealing those character cards, piling all your astronauts into that one key rocket and then hoping it doesn’t get blown up. When there are astronauts on the planet you then have to keep an eye on 2 fronts by making sure you are holding on to your key territories as well as filling rockets for further colonisation. My favourite character is the soldier which lets you kill an enemy astronaut and then parachute three others from Phobos onto any region on Mars. You can gain a lot of ground with this guy.
I love straightforward area control games and I would add this to El Grande and Tammany Hall as one of my favourites. These all have a very simple ruleset that you can pick up very easily but with their own subtle flavour. I would contrast them with Cthulhu Wars and Blood Rage which, for me, push the complexity a little bit too far and bog the game down a little. Mission: Red Planet comes highly recommended.