Updated: Aug 9
Designed by Nathan Woll and published by WizKids, Free Radicals is an utterly asymmetric euro game where the 2-5 players are controlling different factions that each utilise their own distinct game mechanics. The Free Radicals of the title relate to alien objects that have boosted technological development but the title also hints at the way play in this game differs radically from most others.
It's common in games to have asymmetric powers, either at the start or as the game develops. There are plenty of games too where players have different objectives or winning conditions. There are few games tho' where each player is utilising wholly different mechanics. Root (Leder Games) and Merchants Cove (Final Frontier) come to mind as rare examples. Free Radicals comes with 10 factions that are all competing for points on a busy shared central board where all are scoring in the same way, but each faction is played very differently. So, for example, the Paladins use a worker placement mechanic, Artisans rely on hand management using multi-use cards, Hoteliers' play involves puzzling out the optimal play of polyomino tiles and Couriers use a pick-up-and-deliver mechanic.
The faction boards are double-sided with a different faction on each side, so the two factions that share the same colour can't both be played in the same game. Even with that limitation, however, Free Radicals offers a huge variety of combos. We've yet to work through them all but from our plays so far at Board's Eye View, they all seem pretty well balanced. Some tho' are simpler and easier to play than others, and the main rulebook's broad description of each faction offers some guidance that can help players choose the faction with which they'll be most comfortable. Of the two red factions, for example, the rules describe the Farmers as 'a slow-building domino-based faction that does few actions in the early game then ramps up towards the end, making the Farmers great for beginners', while the Executives' are described as a 'Mancala-based faction with very few random elements' but warning that this mechanic 'can be unforgiving to mistakes'.
Whichever faction you play, players take their own rules sheet that explains their faction and how it functions. The rules are clear, so each player should know what they are doing. Unlike Root, however, where players really need to understand the mechanics of all the other factions in the game, you really don't need to worry yourself unduly in Free Radicals about the other players' asymmetric rules and mechanics. You can focus exclusively on developing and scoring for your own faction. This does mean that the game can feel like you're playing simultaneous solitaire. That's not to say there's no player interaction: you'll almost certainly find you're making use of buildings activated by other players, which will earn them resources and 'favor cubes' and it can be beneficial to advance an opponent or non-player faction on the game's Knowledge track, but Free Radicals doesn't involve a lot of player interaction and it certainly isn't a 'take that' game. For some gamers that will be a strong positive, for others a negative, but it does ensure that this game is accessible and relatively easy to teach despite its incredibly varied array of mechanics. You can play without first having to assimilate the rules for all the other factions.
Art is by Tomasz Chistowski. Each faction uses its own set of components, so, when you first open the box, there's a daunting array of cardboard to sort through. It's perfectly manageable tho' once you parcel together those for each faction. The iconography can be quickly learnt, and, for the benefit of colour-blind players some additional shape icons help to distinguish faction colours, tho' anyone with achromatopsia will still have to cope with keeping track of the coloured cubes from other factions, which you'll be collecting because they earn you set collection points in the end-game scoring.
In all our Board's Eye View plays, being able to choose your own preferred game mechanic proved to be a big plus with players. Free Radicals plays over 12 rounds and we enjoyed it as much with two as with the full complement of five. Tho' you're using all the faction colours even when you play with less than five, there are fewer turns so the game will be shorter. Expect a two-player game to run to around 45 minutes, and double that when playing with four or five.