Red Rising is the first Stonemaier game to be based on an existing IP. Designed by Jamey Stegmaier and Alexander Schmidt, it is based on the trilogy of sci-fi novels by Pierce Brown.
Put briefly, to avoid Spoilers, the Red Rising books are set in a dystopian society divided into 14 castes, from the lowly manual worker Reds to the society elite rulers the Golds. It’s a cross between Brave New World and the Hunger Games set across the entire solar system. Reading the books is in no way required to play and enjoy the game but it will undoubtedly add to the experience.
Red Rising is a fast and seemingly relatively simple game. Certainly, it is very easy to teach and learn, with a short, clear and delightful-to-touch rule book - now the hallmark of Stonemaier games. Each of the 2-6 players chooses a starting house from the six available, each of which will give a unique power. Everyone is dealt a hand of five cards. Each card depicts a character from the books and will be one of the 14 colours. They each display a base score, a deploy ability and an end-game scoring bonus that will be dependent on conditions being met.
A turn consists of playing a card to one of the four locations on the board, placing it on top so that it overlaps any cards already there. Placing the card will activate its deploy ability, which can range from allowing you to draw extra cards, banishing cards, advancing towards end-game goals and a plethora of other abilities. Then you must take the top card from a different location to your hand, and depending on where you take the card from you receive a bonus. If you take a card from Jupiter, you advance your spaceship one space up the fleet track; Mars allows you to take a helium crystal; The Institute allows you to place one influence cube in the institute; and Luna allows you to take the sovereign token and activate your special house power. Each of these will contribute in some way to your end-game scoring.
Play continues until two of the three end-game triggers have been met by one player or all three between all the players: reaching the magic number 7 on the fleet track, having 7 influence at the Institute or 7 helium in your supply.
Tho' the mechanics of play are dead simple, the skill and fun of the game comes from constructing a hand of cards that combo with each other to maximise your end-game score. The bonus scores come from having certain pairs of characters, certain colour combos, having achieved certain goals in the game... Again, the list is long - with 112 cards, all of them unique (although some end-game bonuses duplicate one another). The majority of points will come from your hand of cards and about a third will come from your final positions on the fleet track, Institute and helium supply. This means that rushing the game to a close should only be ventured if you believe your hand to be strong enough; relying on just high-scoring core value cards won’t be enough if they don’t play nice with each other.
Decisions on which, when and where to play a card are the heart of the game. You may have a card that fits perfectly with your other cards but its deploy ability is just too good to pass up on. Do you risk playing it and hope you can pick it up again when your turn comes back around? Will someone else snatch it up or bury it or, worse, banish it?
The different colours all generally offer a theme relating to the mechanics. For example, red cards work well together and allow you to collect more helium; the blue cards represent the pilots and help with the fleet track; pinks let you manipulate cards on the board; and orange cards allow you to treat them as any particular specific character for end-game scoring. Any card that lets you exceed your starting hand size of five is particularly useful; however, having more than seven cards in hand at the end will incur a penalty.
Player count also plays a large part in strategy. In a two-player or solo (against the very competitive Tull Au Toma) card churn is low and a more focused strategy can be employed. With the full complement of six players, the cards are in constant flux and a more adaptable approach is required. The game works extremely well and is fast flowing at all player counts once everyone understands the basics, and a game should last a little under an hour.
Shown here on Board's Eye View (with hands displayed open) is the Collector's Edition with deluxe components (metal cubes, card racks and gold embossing on some cards) but even in the 'retail' edition the component quality is exceptional. Card art by Jacqui Davis, Miles Bensky and Justin Wong depicts the characters from the first three books of the series, leaving room for the inevitable expansion focusing on the second trilogy... The metal cubes of the Collector's Edition can be a little difficult to tell apart under certain light but that doesn't significantly affect game play. The card racks are a very welcome addition, tho' they could do with more weight to avoid them becoming top heavy and prone to tipping over when the cards are in them.
For fans of the books, I’d say Red Rising is a must buy. Each card makes sense and is true to the source, so you'll appreciate that this game is a labour of love on the part of the designers. For those that haven’t read the books, Red Rising is still an interesting and fun game and maybe it will you encourage you to check out the series...
(Review by Greg White)