Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Review: Galaxy Trucker

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and gameplay is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, when I first started to see this game around, a bit of snobbery hit me and I didn't think that I would like it and I avoided the game for a little while. I thought that it would be silly and too light for me to indulge my gaming time in. It took a while for me to give in, but I finally checked the game out much later than I was aware of it.

The Overview:

In this game you play a member of Corporation Incorporated who has signed on to build a ship from pieces in the warehouse and to fly to a destination where they will use the pieces remaining in your ship to build plumbing and sewer systems. Along the way, you are free to try to make as much profit as possible by picking up cargo to sell from any planets you may pass, by rummaging through and derelict space stations you may come along and by defeating any space pirates for their bounty.

Really, that's all just insignificant back story for a game in which the plot does not matter much. You are building a ship and trying to ensure that it is able to survive any challenges that come its way during flight and trying to make as much money as possible en route.

The game is broken into three rounds. Each round the player builds a new ship, with each round's ship having the potential to be larger then the last, but each journey being longer and potentially much more dangerous, but with more rewards potentially available as well.

Each of the three rounds is broken into two parts. The first part is where you build your ship. This is done with a blank board with spaces for each of the ship components to be placed in. The components used to build the ship are on a bunch of tiles which are scattered face down on the table in front of everyone. Players all simultaneously rummage through the tiles trying to get the right components needed for their ship. A brief summary of the components is as follows:

Cabins: For holding crew members. Each cabin holds 2 crew members or 1 alien, provided that the cabin is also connected to the right kind of alien life support component.

Engines: The number of engines that you have determines your ships speed. Double engines add 2 to your ship's speed. But cost a battery each time that they are used as such.

Cannons: The number of cannons that you have contributes to the fire power of your ship. Also, they can shoot large meteors that are headed towards that line of your ship. Double cannons add 2 to your ship's fire power, but cost a battery each time they are used as such. Cannons that point to either side or the rear of the ship only at +0.5 to the ship's fire power, but can still be useful in defending against meteors coming from the sides.

Shield Generators: Protect the ship from smaller meteors and light cannon fire on 2 sides (tile orientation determines which two-sides the generator protects). Each time that a shield is used to protect a ship side, it uses one battery.

Batteries: Batteries store either 2 or 3 cells (uses). They are used to power Double Engines, Double Cannons and Shield Generators.

Cargo Holds: These components store 2-3 units of any combination of yellow, green or blue goods that you will come across. Good that you come across and make it to the end with can be sold for money.

Special Cargo Holds: These components store 1-2 units of red goods. Red goods are more valuable to sell than the other goods (and tend to be rarer). The special cargo holds can also carry yellow, green or blue goods as well. But regular cargo holds cannot carry red goods.

Structural Modules: These components don't do anything other than offer a variety of connectors and can be useful for building your ship.

Purple Alien Life Support Components: If connected directly to a cabin tile, it allows purple aliens to reside in the cabin instead of 2 human crew members. Each purple alien that you have adds +2 to your ship’s total weapon strength, provided that you have at least one cannon.

Brown Alien Life Support Components: If connected directly to a cabin tile, it allows brown aliens to reside in the cabin instead of 2 humans. Each brown alien that you have adds +2 to your ship's total engine strength, provided that you have at least one engine (and therefore speed).

Each tile has one of these components on it with various connecters along some or all of its edges. There are three types of connectors: Simple Connectors, Double Connectors and Universal Connectors. Simple Connectors connect to Simple Connectors, Double to Double and Universal Connectors can connect to either or another Universal Connector. And when laying tiles, you cannot have any connector against a smooth tile side (that does not have a connector on it).

Now, each player is simultaneously picking from face-down tiles and placing them on their ship from the same pool. If they pick a tile and decide not to use it on their ship, they can return it to the pool of tiles face up. Once a tile is laid down, it is locked in place and a player cannot change the tile or its orientation. This can be rather hectic since every player is picking from the same pool of tiles and each is racing to complete their ship first AND racing against a timer. The timer is player-determined, however, and is flipped over at any point by any player. So, if you are almost finished your ship and want to screw the other players, flip it over. Once the time runs out of the last timer flip (it is player-flipped once in round 1, twice in round 2 and three times in round 3), all building stops. You need to launch with whatever you have built, even if you are missing components.

After each ship is built, everyone does a spot check of each other's ships. Illegally placed tiles are removed, and everyone prepares for launch. The players place their ships in order on the flight day track in order that they finished building their ships. This gives a bit of an advantage to whoever is in first place.

The second half of each round is based on whichever player is in the lead (originally determined in order that people finished their ships) flipping over an Adventure Card. There are 3 sets of Adventure Cards, one for each round and each round potentially more dangerous, but potentially more rewarding. The first round consists of 8 Round One cards. The second round consists of 8 Round Two cards plus 4 Round One cards (making a total of 12 cards). The third round consists of 8 Round Three cards, plus 4 Round Two cards and 4 Round One cards (for a total of 16 cards).

When a card is flipped over, the person in the lead resolves the card first. The Adventure Cards vary in what can happen. If the players are lucky, a card with planets and available cargo will appear. Anywhere from 2-4 planets are listed on the card listing the available cargo on each planet. The first player gets their choice of planet and cargo, and the next player must choose out of the remaining planets and so on. It is possible that all planets and cargo will be taken by the time it is your turn to choose. However, if you stop, you move back a set number of flight days as listed on the card, possibly losing your position on the track to someone behind you.

Without listing all of the card types, there is a wide variety of things that can happen, both positive and negative. Some decisions that players will need to make on the card can cost resources, such as crew members. Others may cost you some of your precious cargo that you've collected.

However, the most interesting (and, in my opinion, fun) detriments that can happen come in the form of meteors and cannon fire that strike along your ship. The card will list which direction a threat is coming from (front, right, left or rear) and two 6-sided dice are rolled to determine which component along that axis is affected. Some threats can be blocked by using a shield generator that blocks that side of your ship. Some can be blocked by having a cannon aimed along that specific row of your ship and some are blocked merely by making sure that your ship does not have any exposed connectors along that row. Some threats, however, have no defense.

If your ship is threatened and cannot defend against the threat along the row rolled, then that component tile is lost and removed from the ship. Then the ship rechecked to see if removing that piece caused any other tiles to no longer be connected to the ship. If so, they are removed as well. Any items on the tiles are lost as well, be they crew members, aliens, cargo or batteries.

Once all of the Adventure Cards have been turned over, whichever ships still remain, make it to the destination. Bonus credits are given to each ship depending on the order that they arrived. Also, the ship with the fewest exposed connectors gains bonus credits as well. Any cargo that the ship still has is sold. Any, finally, any tiles lost along the way have to be paid for at the rate of 1 credit / tile lost (though each round has a cap on how much can be lost).

The process of building a ship starts again for the next round until all three rounds have been played. When the three rounds are finished, each player totals up the credits that they have accumulated and whoever has the most, wins.

The Theme:

Theme is generally a very important part of a game for me. While I can enjoy something abstract, theme makes me really get into a game and want to play it again and again. However, Galaxy Trucker does not really have a lot of theme in the actual game play. The rules have more theme to them than the game play itself. The rules are written with a sense of humor to them and seem to be in the line of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. However, while an entertaining, light read, none of it translates into the actual game play.

But I don't care. I still enjoy the game. The theme doesn't really pull it together, but watching my ship crumble and fall apart and hoping the other player's ships get it worse than me is fun. Perhaps I am a closet masochist, but I really enjoy watching my ship get beat to hell and I like watching my components fall off and trying to see what I can make it through to the end with.

Learning the Game:

The learning curve is low. There is a 16 page manual that uses a large font and has lots of pictures in it. The artwork is cute and silly, but, uh, not quite worthy of a Golden Geek nomination for best artwork. Anyhow, the rulebook also walks you through your first round of play and does an excellent job of being a tutorial. And after one playing, there really is no reason to ever look at the rulebook again. The game play is that intuitive. It is also very easy to explain to other players as well.

The Components:

The components are rather nice. While the bulk of the game consists of heavy cardboard tiles and cards, they are durable and efficient. Little colored wooden cubes represent the cargo that you can pick up on the various planets, and, well, who doesn't like more little colored wooden cubes? For extra fun, you can pretend that the cargo that you are transporting is actually the different diseases from Pandemic that you are going to unleash on the destination planet, or that you are rushing to deliver more support cubes to Nixon and Kennedy as their campaigns near an end.

Other components are little plastic figures to represent your ships on the track, little beaded green battery cells to place on your battery tiles to record how many you have and how many you have used and little plastic figures to represent your crew. The brown and purple alien figures are fine enough representations and serve their purpose. However, I have to admit that I am a thirty-five year old adult male and I find the little plastic human crewmember figures absolutely adorable. I love those tubby little astronauts.

Uh, anyhow, the components are good.

Playing the Game:

I had a lot of hesitation with the game and avoided it for a while for no reason other than I was being kind of snobby. But since I finally gave in and played it, it has impressed me with the amount of fun I have each time.

It is a game that you cannot take seriously. Sure, experience helps in knowing how to build a ship and how to build one quickly, but really there isn't too much strategy in this one. I am also a player who usually lets my gaming experience live and die by theme being incorporated into the game well. It is not in Galaxy Trucker, but that has not made me enjoy the game any less.

I almost prefer to lose at Galaxy Trucker. Well, that's not exactly true. But if I am to lose, I want to lose DRAMATICALLY. And that has happened to me many times. This game is not for every one, but if you have the right mindset, it really is a hell of a lot of fun.

It is not the kind of game that you can worry about winning or losing. It all comes down to the randomness of cards and die rolls. If you can live with that, you will do fine with this game.

My biggest problem with the game comes from the fact that you have so many chits and tiles. It wouldn't necessary be that much of a problem, but you begin with a large pile of tiles in the middle of the table, then have to push them aside for the second portion of the round, then put them all back and flip them all back over again at the start of the second round, only to push them aside again and go through that process once more. It isn't a big deal, but it is a mild annoyance that slows down an otherwise quickly paced game. It does also slow the game down even more if you have small table space and need to move everything off the table as you switch between phases of the rounds.

Does the Wife Like It?: The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group. Since a good portion of my game playing involves her either 2-player or as part of a larger group, her opinion tends to affect how often I get to play a game on my shelf.

While not nearly as much of a fan of this game as I am, she still tolerates it enough to indulge me in my desire to play when I pull it down from the shelf. Plus, I've indulged her in enough games of Pandemic to have built up enough capitol to pick this from time to time. I also can also suggest that I am in the mood to play either Galaxy Trucker or Cuba and I know that she will eagerly jump on this one due to her inexplicable hatred of Cuba. Marriage is all about the subtle manipulation combined with indulging in the other's likes enough to get enough capitol to then play the games you like. And, since she'll be reading this, she knows that I am joking.

The problem with her and this game is that she does not really seem to appreciate seeing everything that she has worked hard to build fall apart and crumble by the draw of a card and the roll of a die. For me, that is gangbusters and I enjoy seeing large sections of my ship destroyed. For my wife, not so much fun.

She actually wins most of our games, but I think the actual random destruction during the game play tends to be just a bit too frustrating for her to really like it.

The Pros:*Easy, intuitive quick-to-learn game play.
*Random destruction is good and fun, even if it happens to your ship.
*Adorable tubby little astronauts.
*Quick, good-paced fun.
*Finding out your wife's surprisingly expansive curse-word vocabulary when you turn over the timer before she is finished with her ship.

The Cons:

*The randomness can be frustrating for some players.
*Experienced players have an advantage in knowing what kind of ship building methods work better (though there are some viable fixes for this mentioned in the rulebook).
*There are a lot of chits to manage in the game.
*Realizing that your wife's expansive curse-word vocabulary is directed at you when you turn over the timer before she is finished her ship.


I did not think that I would like this game as much as I do. And, while not a deep game at all, I wanted to try to convince others like me who thought that they were better than this game to rethink it and give it a try. It is definitely a light game, but I find it lots of fun. There really isn't much theme in the game play itself, but that has not stopped me from enjoying it every time that it has hit the table.


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