With some hot games getting a second print run and others making their initial splash, I’ve been able to try a fresh handful of new releases. It’s that time again to get candid with the cardboard by sharing my first impressions…
The Search for Planet X
The Search for Planet X is not going to change anybody’s mind about this entire genre of puzzly deduction games, but it just might be the absolute best of the bunch.
This is one of the few tabletop games in the market where the required mobile app deserves more complements than complaints. As we’ve observed in other great deduction games like Cryptid or Loot of Lima, the entire game can be broken for everyone if a player accidentally gives the wrong information. In this case, nobody has the opportunity to ruin the game for everyone, because the app does all the hard work of dispensing information to each player individually.
The mechanisms are very clever as well, as you have a few options for what kind of information you want the app to give you, but they come with varying costs. Cost in this case translates to time, and the more time your chosen action requires, the longer it will take for your next turn to arrive. Time is spent by moving your observatory marker around the circular board, and the player at the back is the one who takes the next turn.
To reduce AP, the board also has a rotating shield that covers up half of the spaces and limits your options for which sectors you can investigate. An exciting aspect of this rotating shield is that every time it reaches a theory symbol, players can each publish one theory which remains secret for a few rounds before flipping face up and being proven for points or disproven for penalties. The game urges you to take leaps of faith and cut some corners in your deductions, because the benefits of correct theories far outweigh the punishment of incorrect ones.
In fact, the points from well-timed, accurate theories can potentially be enough to win the game without ever discovering Planet X. Where most deduction games only reward the first deducer with the victory while everyone else is declared a loser, The Search for Planet X rewards all players constantly throughout the game. The victory comes down to a tight margin of points that represent an accumulation of each player’s brilliant discoveries throughout the game.
Don’t be mistaken, The Search for Planet X still succumbs to the usual genre tropes of being a low interaction, brain-burning logic puzzle. But for those who enjoy a good mental challenge, this one is the cream of the crop.
Current Rating: 8.5/10
I wouldn’t call myself a Red Rising superfan, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading the original trilogy back in 2018. I probably gobbled all three books up in less than two months. Unfortunately, three years is plenty of time for me to forget all but the major plot beats. To oversimplify things, I felt it was a better version of the Hunger Games. Actually, let’s desimplify a bit… I don’t remember as much now, but I dug up my non-spoilery remarks on the first book that I posted on Goodreads after reading it:
“Basically if you liked how the Hunger Games trilogy started (let’s be honest, book 3 was a let down), then there is no reason you won’t love Red Rising. It has a dystopian society with different classes of people (sort of like Hunger Games), but beyond that you will find an entirely different beast of a novel.
Red Rising is a brutal, blazing journey through an imaginative sci-fi world of futuristic Mars with an unstoppable force of a main character and his quest for justice against an all powerful organization—a story that I couldn’t put down.”
So with a New York Times Bestselling Trilogy as its theme, and the Stonemaier Games as its publisher, Red Rising is a juggernaut of an IP-based board game. Despite my history with the IP, I typically don’t come into these types of games with many expectations. What I appreciate most is when a design can evoke the feeling of its theme to where they feel inseparable. And to me, Red Rising the book series is a story of passion, brutality, vengeance, and thrills. Ironically enough, Red Rising the board game evoked the exact opposite feelings from its source material–namely apathy, gentleness, sympathy, and drudgery.
Those who are familiar with Stonemaier Games shouldn’t be surprised to find a low-interaction, conflict-averse design here, even with its conflict heavy source material. And I don’t take offense from the gameplay actively rebelling against its inspiration. All it means to me is that the theme can simply be tossed out the window like the core of a once-tasty apple so I can focus solely on driving the mechanisms at play. Sure, maybe keeping both the red EO card and other gray cards in your hand is a bad idea because EO and gray people don’t get along well in the books or something… but at the end of the day, we’re just min-maxing points here. Points points points, baby.
Players start out with five cards each and they spend the entire game perfecting their hand of cards to maximize their scoring potential. Typically, you’ll deploy a card into one of four columns to trigger its deploy ability, then claim a card in another column and trigger the column bonus. Column bonuses include moving up a point track, adding a point cube to a rectangle, taking a point gem, or stealing the point token. Additionally, final cards in your hand are worth flat points at the top and potential bonus points at the bottom. Those bonus points are usually positive, but occasionally negative. Points points points, baby.
If you don’t want to lose a card from your hand by deploying it, you can instead take the scout action which has you reveal a new card from the deck to place in any column and gain that column’s bonus. This action is basically the unwanted child of the game. But boy did I become well acquainted with this little guy.
Most the cards I was able to acquire into my hand contained deploy abilities such as, “Move an orange card from this column to another column” or “If you deploy this card on top of a red card, then gain it.” Yet I found these abilities to be so situationally specific (especially considering the deck contains at least eleven different colors) that they were relentlessly useless. My most frequent decision made in this game was as follows: Do I cling onto this card for another turn in hopes of its deploy ability becoming useful by mere chance, or do I trash it now to pick up something else that I don’t care about?
I also found the very act of reading these cards—spread across my hand and sprawling across the board—to be quite the chore thanks to the text-heavy deploy abilities and bonus point objectives. With all of these colorful, wordy cards, it’s a bit like gathering around fresh vomit from a sick unicorn who confused the library for a buffet. Only, that actually sounds more interesting than Red Rising.
I can’t recall any standout moments between my opponents and I… probably because we were too busy reading, squinting, craning, calculating, and peeking. And what was all that hard work and strategery for anyways? The last player simply used his final turn to steal the point token—you know, that certain special way to score points we were talking about—and cause a 70-point swing from an opponent to himself. Of course, this thief had no way of knowing that the cards in his victim’s hand where set up to score this poor sap 45 points by possessing the special token at the end of the game, plus another 10 points from the token itself. Nope, this victory-stealing decision had nothing to do with the winner’s brilliant play or the victim’s costly mistake. Instead, it had everything to do with plain, simple chance. But in the end, we all got tons of those juicy, sweet points points points, baby. And that’s all that matters, right? Oh, and those fancy game pieces, of course.
As usual, Stonemaier Games does a pretty production with the Red Rising components here. Our friend treated us to his deluxe copy which features dense metal player tokens, colorful individual card stands, and a custom plastic insert. Although it’s worth noting that the card holders are flimsy enough that all of us knocked our entire stand of cards over at some point during the game (some of us more than once), and two sets of the player colors are nearly identical shades of gold.
To be clear, I appreciate the folks at Stonemaier Games for their unmatched customer service, community support, and genuine passion within the industry. I don’t begrudge them, their games, or their fans. I think their fearless leader, Jamey Stegmaier, is a standup guy and a brilliant businessman. With my ever-changing preferences, I’ve simply found that Stonemaier’s style of games has lost its luster for me. Viticulture + Tuscany remains the only Stonemaier survivor in my collection, and Red Rising claims the title of being my least favorite of the bunch. Is Red Rising a bad game? Who can say? I imagine it’s probably great for most Stonemaier fans. All I know is that it’s bad for me; but I can heartily recommend the books to any who are interested!
Current Rating: 3/10
Blitzkrieg: Nippon Expansion
I love the Japanese faction (mainly due to Godzilla) and adore the new map included in this expansion to one of my favorite games of all time, Blitzkrieg.
The US map completely changes the flow of the game in a fascinating and unique way. Instead of having multiple “campaigns” or rows in a particular theatre of operations where the top campaign must finish before the next one down opens up, this new board has oodles of theaters with only one campaign each. The tug of war tracks are thus shrunk down into tiny but furious battles where a big knockout carries its momentum forward into the next theatre (the cube starts out 1-3 spaces in the direction of the previous theatre’s victor). The winner of the theatre also gets to decide where the cube goes next, thus opening up more space bonuses and giving their opponent first dibs on them. I really dig the huge ripple effect that one theater victory can have.
My only complaints are about the special weapons tokens:
First, why don’t these two new tokens have their movement values on them?! Put “1/3” on the Partisans token and “1” on the Inspired Leadership token. Simple as that.
Second, the rules don’t clarify how the Scientist should be used on the new map, but we just assumed that the Scientist can be played onto any theatre of operations (including those that haven’t been started yet) as long as it hasn’t be won/closed.
Third, the Partisans token is the worst special weapons token in the entire game—it’s basically an army token with either a value of 1 or a value of 3, both of which are worse than every other token which either has a higher value or a unique effect added. So I’m not sure what the point was of adding The Partisans to the game.
Despite my wordy complaints, they are ultimately minor gripes to a worthwhile addition. The Nippon Expansion is still a MUST OWN because of that insane map (and Godzilla, obviously).
Current Rating: 9/10
Railroad Ink Challenge
The new Railroad Ink Challenge won’t change anyone’s minds about Railroad Ink or roll & writes in general, but it is a noticeable improvement to the original games.
In particular, the special buildings allow for some nice small combos and incentives while the objective cards add in a little hint of competition and variety. When a route is drawn onto a space with a special building, that building triggers an immediate use-it-or-lose-it benefit. Residences grant points, Universities grant an extra free special intersection, and Factories grant an immediate duplicate of one of the white dice. The objective cards award more points to those who complete them first, and they range from filling in an entire row or column to connecting a specified number of exits with a single network. There are also 3 objective cards specific to each set of expansion dice.
Lush Green and Shining Yellow each have two unique expansions: one simple, one complex. For my tastes, the simple expansions (making forests for Lush Green and spreading cacti for Shining Yellow) are a bit too simplistic and similar to really stand out. Especially when compared to the River and Lake expansions of the Railroad Ink: Deep Blue Edition, these new ones somewhat pale in comparison. Yet with the added complexity that the new “Challenge” features provide, perhaps these toned-down expansions are justified.
On the other hand, the Canyons expansion of Shining Yellow provides quite an interesting wrinkle where players are allotted 12 total canyon bridges and must be careful not to get too ambitious over the 7 rounds of play, or they may find themselves boxed in by their own greed. We’ve yet to try the second expansion for Lush Green.
Ultimately, there’s no compelling reason to fork over the asking price for another entire set of Railroad Ink, yet here we are owning everything (thanks to the enticing Kickstarter), so we’re trying to enjoy the expansions and variations until they grow old. While my wife continues to enjoy the challenge that Railroad Ink provides, I find myself growing increasingly tired of roll & writes in general.
I find the act of playing a solid roll & write enjoyable in the moment yet forgettable and borderline regrettable after the game has concluded. Even with the competitive objective cards that Railroad Ink Challenge adds to the formula, I find these types of games to be the least interactive experiences in my entire collection. Each play of a roll & write feels like a lost opportunity to engage with everyone else at the table within a more compelling game.
The expansions are the main thing keeping Railroad Ink alive for me. They keep me from getting too bored with the formula and motivate me to try the ones I haven’t yet played. Yet the roll & write fatigue is getting real after roughly 70 plays across a dozen or so games in this genre.
Current Rating: 6/10
After being taught Barrage and playing through it once, I still don’t know what some of those resources are called, but I sure had a great time!
Barrage is hits the sweet spot for heavy-complexity gamers who love to roll up their sleeves and wrestle in the mud of cutthroat interaction. The rules themselves aren’t too unwieldy or overwhelming, rather the struggle to achieve objectives efficiently is where Barrage starts to cook the brain. Like many tight Euros, you’ll spend most of your turns trying to scrape every last morsel of progress out of your stuff; only in Barrage, everybody has their clawing fingers reaching into the same small, barren barrel all at the same time.
You may spend an entire meaty round (out of 5 total) building up a gloriously lucrative dam only for an opponent to come in next round and start rerouting all the water that was flowing into your energy cash cow from upstream. When water is in short supply (and money, and resources, and action options, and workers, and building locations), every move you take can have devastating effects on opponents.
Barrage certainly isn’t as punishing of a game as something like Age of Steam or Bus, though. There are plenty of paths one can take to accomplish their goals. Players can seek to increase their recycling resource pool, speed up their resource washing machine, fulfill contracts for bonuses, purchase wildly powerful construction upgrades, restock their money supply, load up on more water to trickle down now or later, and more. But every action, every decision, comes with a heavy opportunity cost and often a steep entrance fee, so you’ll frequently have to plan out multiple upcoming turns.
Beyond the solid asymmetry, tight economics, and deliciously brutal dynamics, Barrage carves out its own special thematic niche with the stacking dam tokens and overflowing waters and spinning resource wheel. These standout features are the frosting on an exquisite cake. Just be aware that this is a rich cake indeed, and those who prefer games that are gentler on the brain and feelings may struggle to get through this dense slice of strategy gaming.
Current Rating: 8/10
Article written by Nick Murray. Keep an eye out for his first published design, Social Grooming, which will debut in a Kickstarter bundle alongside two games from critically acclaimed designer, Reiner Knizia! Don’t miss out on this killer filler bundle coming in 2021! Subscribe to the Bitewing Games monthly newsletter to stay in touch.