Updated: Aug 24
We're used to cooperative games where we have to save the world but usually the threat we're combating is an alien invasion, zombie horde or deadly disease. The existential threat in Stop, Drop & Roll's game is quite literally more down to earth. In Earth Rising, the 1-6 players have just 20 years (ie: 20 turns) to avert environmental catastrophe.
The game is played on a circular board divided into six sectors: Industry, Agriculture, Energy, Infrastructure, Culture and Politics. The six player characters are each identified with one of the sectors but tho' you're always playing with all six sectors, you'll only be playing with all the characters if you're playing with a full complement of six players, unless of course you double up. The characters each have their own unique special ability that can be exercised as one of the four actions a player can take on their turn.
You start the game off with two unsustainable practices in each sector. These generate environmental strain, which is bad, but they do at least provide employment and so keep people out of poverty. During the course of play, you can disband unsustainable practices but that will push more people into poverty. Ideally, you want to promote sustainable practices which also provide employment and reduce poverty. Strain markers are placed out at the end of every turn, both for meeples in poverty and for unsustainable practices, and the totals can quickly escalate, so this is a game where you can expect players to have to do quite a bit of firefighting - using some of their actions to remove strain tokens. Mostly tho' you'll be making use of cards that are colour matched to one of the sectors and which show the sustainable/unsustainable flip sides of a practices token. A character can play a card of their own colour to the matching sector to disband the illustrated unsustainable practice if that token is on the board, or to place out the sustainable practice shown. You can take the same action in any of the other sectors but to do so you need to discard a second card of the same colour. You can also spend an action to draw another card and, crucially, to pass a card to another player. You can always make better use of a card if it's in your own colour, so this is a cooperative game where you'll often be passing cards between players.
Tho' Laurie Blake has come up with a fresh design and a novel look (with art by Rob Ingle), Earth Rising inevitably owes a debt to Pandemic (Z-Man Games), particularly in its use of cards and characters. That's true too of the 'Status Quo' cards seeded in the deck. Like Epidemic cards in Pandemic, the Status Quo cards put real pressure on players. They represent the forces resistant to change and they are invariably bad news. You will feel that saving the planet is a doddle until you start hitting the Status Quo cards. There are initially just three Status Quo cards in the deck (seeded in thirds) but three more start off in the discard pile. At some point someone is going to use an action to reshuffle the discards, in which case the Status Quo cards will almost certainly start showing up with notably increased frequency. And as the strain inevitably ramps up, there will be sectors where it tips the world into Ecological Collapse: even worse news because the Collapse tokens take up slots in the sector that can now no longer be used for sustainable or even unsustainable practices.
Players are ultimately aiming to eliminate strain from all the sectors so that they can flip the outer board tiles and place them inside the circle of the board where they will hold more population meeples (representing people being lifted out of poverty). But flipping the sector tiles isn't a one-way street. Unless your game runs unusually smoothly, you are bound to suffer setbacks - having to flip a sector tile back because strain has exceeded tolerances for the sector. This represents the impact of recession and it can have a cascade effect on neighbouring sectors. And we were previously doing so well saving the environment!
If the premise, cards and tiles for Earth Rising sound a little preachy, they probably are. The game packs a very clear ecological message and it's bound to make you think. Earth Rising will almost certainly educate players and reinforce their understanding of sustainable and unsustainable practices. And the publishers are putting their money where their mouth is: they've announced that 50% of any profits from the game will be donated to ecological organisations. However, this isn't just a worthy endeavour: none of the eco-propaganda stands in the way of this being a good and quite challenging game - especially, we found, if you play with just three or four players: and, remember, with four players 20 turns is just five turns each! Players need to work in genuine cooperation with each other and develop the synergy between characters' abilities to optimise the impact of the cards they draw to stand a chance of success. Some characters work so well together that you'll ideally want to organise players' seating so that they follow in the proper sequence. For example, the Grassroots Politician can look at the next two cards in the draw deck and rearrange them, while the Eco Investor can draw an extra card and either give it to another player or consign it to the bottom of the draw deck. This can be a particularly powerful combination, especially when it can be used to root out and defer Status Quo cards...