Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday 3 October 2014

Of Mice and the Moon

Conduct scientific research! Undertake ground-breaking feats of engineering! Manage the greatest minds of the age! Get some dullard of an accountant to manage your finances whilst you prepare for the greatest endeavour of all time—getting to the Moon! The year is 1898 and Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India, has decreed that only the British Empire can put a man (or woman) on the Earth’s nearest celestial neighbour. The race is on for the honour of fulfilling Her Majesty’s dream, one that will see England’s many Clubs or Leagues desperately designing and building mad-cap rockets and launching them into space!

This is the subject for Rocket Race: A Steampunk Rocket Building Card Game from Triple Ace Games. Better known for its RPGs such as Sundered Skies, All For One: Régime Diabolique, and Leagues of Adventure: A Rip-Roaring Setting of Exploration and Derring Do in the Late Victorian Age!, this is the publisher’s first non-RPG design. It is set in the same world as Leagues of Adventure and was a big hit at UK Games 2014 where its Preview Edition of one hundred copies were quickly snapped up. Now the game is coming to Kickstarter.

The game comes in Standard and Advanced versions. In both, the aim of the game is to get a rocket to the Moon. To do this, a player must assemble a rocket, which must consist of a capsule, a propulsion system, and a steering mechanism, with up to three accessories. Their attempt can be affected by Events such as bad weather or sabotage, but eventually one League will ensure that Her Majesty prevails!

Rocket Race consists of fifty-seven cards, two six-sided dice, sixty cog counters, and the rules booklet. The cards are done in full glorious colour and depict the components and accessories that go into building a rocket, events that might help or hinder the process, and for the Advanced version, the Leagues themselves, plus their Workshops and Workshop Accessories. The components and accessory cards are each marked with a number that goes towards the Reliability total for a player’s rocket, plus a research cost used in the Advanced version. Every card is fully illustrated and titled, and many come with a piece of colour text. For example, the Capsule, ‘Martian Salvage’ has the text “I managed to secure one of the Martian landing capsules used in their abortive invasion from the Aegis of Terra. Oh wait, that’s supposed to be a secret. Forget I spoke.”; the means of Propulsion, ‘Giant Helium Balloons’ has the text “Do balloons float upward? Is the Moon not up above us? Then my logic is sound!”; and the Steering Mechanism, ‘One Hundred Hungry Mice’ has the text “The Mice will naturally be drawn toward the Moon, which is made of cheese, which in turn tip the craft to point in the right direction.”

In the standard version of the game each player begins with ten tokens, each representing his finances and resources he has to devote to the rocket building project. On his turn a player turns a card over from the deck and everyone gets the chance to bid or pass on it using their tokens. The highest bidder gets the card and has to put the tokens he bid to win the card actually on the card—this represents the card’s development time. At the end of the turn, any player with tokens on a card can remove a single token. Once a card no longer has any tokens, its development is complete and it can enter play. This applies not only to the components and accessories needed to build a rocket, but to Event cards too.

Once a player has assembled a rocket—complete with a capsule, a propulsion system, and a steering mechanism (plus any accessories)—he can launch it into the heavens. To do so, he adds the total of the Reliability factors on the cards and rolls two six-sided dice. If the result is equal to, or lower than, the Reliability total, he has successfully landed on the Moon and may bask in the glory of his achievements. If not, he has crashed on take-off, must discard a random card from his rocket ship, and begin again! The winner of course, is the first player to successfully land on the Moon.

Thus the standard version is a simple bidding game with limited resources and a simple balancing mechanism. Bid too much on a desired card and it not only takes too long to develop, it reduces the finances a player has to gain new cards. Thus smaller bids will invariably bring cards into play quicker and give a player greater control over his finances. Of course, a player can make bids to drive up the cost of card without any intention of buying it, but that might not go his way...

Where the Standard version of the game will support as many as six players, the Advanced version is for two to four players. It adds the Leagues of Adventure proper, makes use of cards that will enhance each League’s laboratory, and the advanced options on each of the Event cards. Each player is assigned a League and a workshop card. Each of the four Leagues—Aegis of Terra, Daedalus Society, Lunar Exploration Society, and Society of Aeronauts—sets a player’s starting values in three scientific disciplines, Chemistry, Engineering, and Electrics. Each  workshop has a track for each of the three scientific disciplines. Finally five cards are drawn from the deck—which now include the Workshop Accessory cards—and laid out in a row.

On his turn, a player can undertake two actions, selected from two sets of options. The first set of options are Launch, Scientific Research, or Event Acquisition, whilst the second consists of Component Acquisition or Discard. Launching a rocket works just as it does in the Standard version; Scientific Research allows a player to increase a single scientific discipline and roll for the chance to increase all three; whilst Event Acquisition lets a player take an Event card from the line. During Component Acquisition a player can use up the points he has in scientific disciplines to purchase components and accessories, whilst if he has not taken an Event card or any components or accessories, he can Discard a card from the line.

The Standard version of Rocket Race plays in about ten minutes. The Advanced version is double the playing length, and is slightly more complex. It also feels slightly more random than the Standard version, with less skill involved, whereas the Standard version gives the player some decisions to make in what to bid for and for how much. Both versions could benefit from more Event cards to encourage more player interaction. Nevertheless, both versions are decent fillers and both are let down by the flavour text that is printed just that little too small. (It should be noted that the publisher will address the size of the text with the new edition launched on Kickstarter and will offer more Event cards as stretch goals as part of the Kickstarter).

What Rocket Race really has going for it—and what it has not in spades, but in whole shedfulls—is charm and flavour. The cards themselves are a delight, beautifully illustrated, and the flavour text has a certain tongue-in-cheek humour.  Rocket Race: A Steampunk Rocket Building Card Game is an amusing, if simple diversion that brims full of derring do, erratic scientific endeavour, and of course, the best use of One Hundred Hungry Mice ever!

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