Having played Race for the Galaxy, released in 2007, I would likely not have looked into its sequel, Roll for the Galaxy (2014). Race, for me, required way too much reading (text on cards), and in addition, required a strong familiarity with the benefits of each of those cards to be enjoyable (I did not, but might now, consider reviewing it here). This, of course, is a highly subjective impression of Race because there are gamers, and plenty of them, who revel in multiple layers of complexity, absorbing them faster and with more permanent comprehension than I can, generally.
Representing Rio Grande Games at the annual World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) this year, I was forced to not only learn Roll for the Galaxy, but to learn it well enough to teach it. This process began a few weeks before the WBC, and like Race for the Galaxy, I was, at first, a little overwhelmed by the amount of information it appeared necessary to absorb at the outset. It took me approximately three complete games before I fully understood what was going on, but I won that third game.
There is a section of the rules which speaks directly to Race players, immediately identifying the differences between Race and Roll. To wit: The phase order is different, there are no bonuses associated with just choosing a phase, players are not limited to one tile ‘build’ per phase, all developments are unique, the minimum number of workers necessary to place a tile is “1,” tile VPs are equal to their cost, there is no direct military conquest, trade prices are higher, and players may Trade multiple goods in a Ship phase. And, of course, there are dice instead of cards.
A lot of dice!!
Released in 2014, Roll has already spawned an expansion, titled Ambition, with more factions, more dice and new tiles. In the meantime, the WBC crowd was just getting used to the factions, dice and tiles of the basic game. With less than a dozen full games under our varied interest and comprehension belts, students and teacher lingered at the table, discussing the ebb and flow, the order of activity in the game. How you have to produce before you can ship (basic) and how the choices you make regarding phase selection are going to determine whether you win or lose (more advanced thinking).
Everybody gets a randomly chosen, and sturdily-crafted tableau of three colorful cardboard tiles at the start. One double-width tile and a single tile. On this tableau, at the very bottom, you will find instructions about how to proceed, before the game actually starts. These instructions are printed in a font size and color scheme that requires vision magnification skills beyond human comprehension. People at the demo were whipping out their cell phones and opening the flashlight app. Some of this had to do with the room lighting, which, in the vicinity of Cafe Jay, was muted, to say the least.
OK, so you have a tableau of three tiles at the start, and you want to create a tableau of 12 tiles, preferably stuffed with victory points. This is likely to sound very familiar to Race fans. From here on out, though, things go a little sideways.
There are five Phases, or actions in the game (and this is where you start losing people sometimes, because it’s moving into some layered complexity). These are clearly identified in the game paraphernalia, so there’s no real need, as you start your first game, to remember them. You will, with the aid of a player aid, know what they are, and how to use them. Your goal throughout the game, and the quicker you develop your efficiency, the better, is to remove tiles from a black bag (you will start the game by removing two), transfer them onto your construction zone and from there, onto your personal tile tableau, growing toward 12.
You will begin the game with five white dice; three in your player-selected, colored cup, and two in your dice area on your private board, next to your Construction Zone. A selected few of a dizzying combination of colored dice are in your possession – red, blue, purple, brown, white, green, yellow – and assembled into your Citizenry space, ‘Worlds’ and colored, dice-rolling cup. You will add a couple of dice to your starting collection, based on instructions drawn from the two starting tiles on your tableau. It will take a while to increase the number of dice you will have the potential to roll, but you’ll get there. The dice in your cup are rolled and you arrange them below a Phase board, matching symbols; dice showing a ‘ship’ face, for example, will be placed under the ship phase on the Phase board. Secretly, behind a cardboard screen with information about all phases of the game, you will take one of these die and place it on one of those five Phases, your choice.
Explore, Develop, Settle, Produce, and Ship. Again, this is probably sounding very familiar to Race players. All of these Phases are steps and procedures designed to get the tiles out of the black bag, onto your construction zone and on to the table. When one person has placed a 12th tile onto his/her tableau, players will complete that round, and the game is over. Player with the most VPs is the winner. All tiles in the tableau bear points, and there are points that can be awarded in game play, all of which are totaled to discover a winner.
It’s one of those situations where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The game’s dice, in particular, can be a little intimidating; all the colors, the benefits that each color brings to the table when it’s used, the means by which they’re acquired and used to aid that ‘black bag to personal tableau’ sequence that’s at the center of the action.
But when you get past all that fiddly stuff, and work your way through a couple of shaky rounds, the game settles down. Learning how to drive a new car with a new array of knobs and buttons to figure out is harder.
I taught a family – father, two sons and a daughter to play this game, and the 11-year-old daughter won. Dad, I was assured, does not ‘let’ anyone win a game, and having been there to watch what she was doing, I can assure you that with a little coaching help, she won that game, fair and square.
The learning curve is short, but with each successive playing of this game, you learn a little more about the ways in which the components, physical and conceptual, work together. Every step in that process brings you a step closer to stasis in a game, where your awareness of its mechanics and the goals fueling the process, allows you to use the process without being overwhelmed by it (the way I thought Race to be a little overwhelming).
Players would linger at the demo table and dump all of the black bag’s tiles out, examining each tile carefully to discover its benefits, and in the next game, perhaps, look for that particular tile that gave you “6” victory points, and an end-game bonus to boot. Or those yellow dice, which have three ‘wild cards’ on their six faces, making them particularly valuable when it comes to distributing dice for Phase selection.
Roll was a sponsored tournament event at the WBC this year, so there was a lot of interest in learning the game. At first, by fans of Race, but as the week progressed, by folks alerted to Rolls’ charm via word-of-mouth. It was easily the most popular game of the eight games on display in Rio Grande’s Cafe Jay. By the end of the week, people who’d enjoyed it were bringing their friends over and didn’t need me for the standard Roll demo.
A worthy addition to a game library, I’d say, and distinctly different than its Race predecessor. Don’t let the sheer numbers of components, or what appears to be a long list of instructions deter you. You’ll likely be dealing with only a manageable group of those components, and the relevant instructions are laid out in the cardboard screen, behind which you roll your dice. Even that is a little difficult to decipher at first, but once you get the ideas down, the graphics they use on the Player aid will make a little more sense.
It might take a while to get up to full speed with this game, dependent, as always on the relative speed with which individual players absorb and eventually utilize information to accomplish game objectives. It is, though, a lot simpler than it looks the first few times through.
It’s boasting a rating average just below “8” on BoardGameGeek from 4,241 respondents, placing it among the site’s top 50 games in both the general Board Game ranking (47) and Strategy Game ranking (27). This is a ‘thumbs up’ from a generally tough-to-please community, in spite of a large handful of detractors, who rated it down in the “1” through “4” depths (Haladras, the single “1” rating, saying it was “almost everything (he) hated in a box”). Generally, their concerns relate to the absence of interactivity, and what they appear to perceive as a ‘dumbing down’ of the Race for the Galaxy experience. Of particular note, and noted, as well, during tournament play at the WBC, is the fact that cheating is possible. When you roll the dice, you are supposed to use the dice faces that you rolled to make critical game play decisions. These decisions, hidden as they are behind a cardboard screen, invite the opportunity to cheat, which is particularly problematic in formalized tournament situations and virtually impossible to monitor. Suggested solution: Don’t play with people likely to cheat.
I join the community in ranking it high, in the vicinity of its average “8,” maybe even a little higher. During my week at the WBC, where I was normally on official duty from a flexible 9 to 5, I’d return to the demo tables late at night and attempt to engage night owls. I came home and immediately started poking around, looking to play again, and again, and again. Is there a better form of recommendation?
Roll for the Galaxy, designed by Thomas Lehmann (designer of Race for the Galaxy) and Wei-Hwa Huang, with artwork by Martin Hoffman, Claus Stephan, and Mirko Suzuki (who also contributed to Race) is published by Rio Grande Games. It’s playable with 2-5, with a box-recommended starting age of 13, and user-recommended starting age of 10. The playing time listed – 45 minutes – is about right. It’s a Meeples Choice winner (along with Castles of Mad King Ludwig and Splendor) and was a nominee for a variety of BoardGameGeek awards, including best 2014 game. It retails in the $50 range, although, as usual, it can be found for less by determined buyers.