To say that I have been fascinated with Red Rising for a long time would be an understatement. I cannot remember when or where I first heard of it but despite not knowing Fantasy Realms, there was something that immediately appealed to me. The lush production, the to me unknown franchise it was based on, etc. But something told me to sit this one out and when initial reviews came in, it seemed to prove that my hunch was correct. A lot of the negative comments seemed to come from the expectation of this being a bigger, better Fantasy Realms and/or production issues with the Deluxe Collector’s Edition of Red Rising. Since I (at the time) didn’t know the former and weren’t too bothered by the latter, curiosity got me a couple of weeks ago and I acquired a copy. So let’s re-visit Red Rising with over half a year passed since its initial release and some detachment to Fantasy Realms.
I’ve opted for the Deluxe Collector’s Edition despite most reviews I’ve found arguing for the Retail Edition. In pretty much every respect, the Retail Edition is better (as we’ll see later on) but I do like some bling on my game. The most important things you get for your extra money are:
- Metallic cubes and fleet track token: Those are really nice… as long as you don’t play with more than three players. The colours are just way too similar and one easily mixes them up in all but the best of lighting. Since I didn’t plan on playing in larger groups, that wasn’t a problem for me. They do have a nice weight to them. The cubes of the retail edition are a different material and have more easily distinguishable colours. Note that Stonemaier Games now offers a separate pack of cubes for your Collector’s Edition if you have problems with the cube colours.
- Gold foiling on some cards: This is on every character card that belongs to the gold-class. It’s a nice flourish but I wouldn’t miss it if it wasn’t there. As many have noted, the printing process of the foiling causes the back of those cards to “show” the word “gold”. All cards have a structured back and in the area where the word “gold” is printed on the front, the structure is flattened on the back. If you hold and shuffle the cards, it’s quite obvious. In reality, I never had a problem with it during play.
- Card holders: those fall over in an instant. Tried them once and within two minutes, I put them back into the box never to be retrieved again.
- Plastic inlay: it’s nice, but not much to phone home about. Funny enough, if you don’t sleeve your cards, the area that holds the cards doesn’t work as well because underneath the compartment for the larger character cards are other compartments for the minimally smaller house cards and automa cards. Without sleeves, my character cards tended to tilt into that area. The area for the player colours looks nice but you still have to use ziplock bags, otherwise the cubes will be all over the place when you open the box the next time.
- A numbered copy: for me, this ruins an otherwise great cover! Why this is printed in an ugly font on a grey background that breaks up the overall design right on the front face of the game box is beyond me.
So despite agreeing with most reviewers that the retail edition is a) cheaper and b) doesn’t have the color/foiling issues, I was happy to get the blinged out version. But don’t get the wrong impression when you see the box: at its heart, this is a card game. It is not a board game with resource tokens, player boards, etc. One could probably replace the board with some cards to mark the location and tracks and fit the whole game into a box that is half its volume. However, each of the 112 character cards has individual artwork and they are quite beautiful. My guess is that the price of producing those cards needed to be reflected in a larger box because no one would pay the required cost to design and manufacture them for a smaller box. So it’s not form-follows-function but more form-follows-production-quality perhaps…?
Setup is quick: put the main board on the table, shuffle the (quite large) deck of character cards and put two cards on each of the four locations. Hand out a set of influence cubes to each player and put their fleet marker on the fleet track. Give each player a house card (it’s thick cardboard) with a special ability and five cards as a starting hand. Choose a first player and give them the starting player token. That’s basically it. As always, I’m glossing over some details in favour of describing the feel of the game. But there is no having to sort cards or anything else that would be complicated. Open the box, shuffle and deal some cards and you’re more or less ready to go.
When it’s your turn, you usually play a card from your hand and pick up another card. There is another option, but we come to that later. Your goal in Red Rising is to optimise your card hand and at the same time get victory points via the main board locations before the game ends. You start with an initial hand of 5 cards, each containing a base VP value, a unique name, a color/class it belongs to, an action that is triggered when you play the card (instead of keeping it) and some endgame bonuses if you have certain other cards in your hand at game end (or own certain resources) as well. The board on the other hand shows four locations that act as separate stacks for cards to be put on or taken off the top, each with an associated benefit.
So typically, you first check your hand for cards that you don’t need for scoring. For example, if a card has a base score of 20 VP but an endgame bonus of 15 for a card you don’t have, you could play that card and instead pick something that fits better to your other cards. The vast majority of cards tend to be 30 or 35 points if maxed out with a few being able to score 40 VP. You then choose one of the four locations and place the card on top of that stack, keeping the color and name of cards beneath still visible. When playing a card, the action printed on it is activated which does things like allowing you to move a card from one stack to another, snatch a certain card from the middle of a stack or give you an in-game bonus. Afterwards, you then pick up a card from one of the four locations: Jupiter gives you the bonus of progressing one field on the fleet track (which gives you VP the farther you get), Mars gives you a Helium-3 token (worth flat 3 VP), Luna gives you the Sovereign token (which some cards require for their ability) and activated your house-specific power (typically a bonus that other places on the board would give you), and finally the institute allows you to place one of your cubes in a pool (where the majority wins you the biggest points). As an alternative, you can draw a card from the deck and roll a die for a random bonus (more or less the same things you would get at other locations). So it’s “use card action when playing, get location bonus when taking card”. If you are already satisfied with your hand, you can instead reveal one card from the deck and place it on a location to gain that location’s bonus, which is called a “scout action”. This typically happens in the later stages of the game. The game ends when one player has fulfilled 2 of 3 criteria or all 3 criteria are fulfilled in combination by any number of players: collected 7 helium-3 tokens, reached the 7th field on the fleet track, placed your 7th cube in the institute.
That’s pretty much it. Play card, take card, try to simultaneously optimise your card hand and board bonuses. If I would describe that mechanism to you without showing you the box, my guess is you would probably expect a 20€ card game, let’s say 30€ because there is a board in there.
The game comes with an automa deck. As always, taste in automa is quite personal and you will have to figure out for yourself if it is something that you would enjoy. In general, it is what I like to call a clean-up-and-mess-up bot design. When it’s the automa’s turn, you draw two cards from the automa deck and perform both. The automa places a new card from the deck to one location, takes a card from one location and collects it in a growing personal stash, plus it sometimes gets the location bonus. It is very low overhead and fast. However, the automa is playing a different game than you: it doesn’t use the actions printed on the card and instead of collection a hand, it just collects tons of cards and get’s VP depending on what level you chose and if they are odd or even (the bot picks one as his preference at the beginning of the game). It also introduces way more new cards than in regular play. In my multiplayer-games, we tended to avoid drawing from the deck (random bonus is too unpredictable) or scout (other player has the option to get the card first). For me, the most interesting aspect of Red Rising is to have a limited set of cards and trying to find the optimum in them. With the automa constantly introducing new cards, this is lost.
If you like your automas to be quick, this is for you. If you want an opponent that feels like a human, this won’t satisfy you. Personally, I have stopped playing solo completely after I got a feel for the game, but others here on BGG enjoy it for it’s ease of use.
I feel lots of reviews I read give Red Rising a bad rep because it is not “advanced Fantasy Realms“. If you approach Red Rising coming from that avenue, you will probably be disappointed. There is something of it in Red Rising‘s DNA and I highly respect the authors for so vocally crediting it. I strongly believe it hurt the perception of their own game quite considerably. Fantasy Realms was more the catalyst, the initial thing they needed to give Red Rising its final shape. For me, the beauty of Fantasy Realms lies in its simplicity and crafting a hand that works together from whatever is available that game. You know that only a fraction of the cards will be in play and some will be locked on your opponents’ hands without you ever seeing them. So you have to figure out what is the best available combo you can construct. There is uniformity in action because you can do nothing but decide where to draw and which card to pick/discard.
In Red Rising, it’s more about balance. I found it quite easy to get a hand where almost all cards score their full amount of VPs but there being a simultaneous race about who manages to trigger the game end first. For that you need to use the right card actions and pick the right locations where to place and where to take cards to be just a little bit faster or more efficient. For example, if you don’t want someone to progress on the fleet track, you can deliberately take cards from there and never play your cards on that location. As a result, the other player cannot get that location’s bonus except by either doing a scout action (giving you a new card to pick first) or by playing a card and then drawing from the deck, hoping the die roll gives them the fleet track bonus.
I feel that there are the foundations of a good game in there, but it unfortunately just doesn’t come together. The idea of having a limited set of available actions that players can use based on the cards that are in play and having to give up the action if you want to execute it is the most interesting part for me. In theory, that should give you a different game each time you play. However, the type of actions printed on the cards rarely gave me a “wow”-moment and there are too many duplicates. Often it is about moving cards which becomes less relevant because there are so many ways to max out a card. In my games, we found that which location bonuses you trigger was way more important than the function printed on the cards. When it comes to the location, we quickly established a meta that it doesn’t pay off to collect Helium-3 because it is just 3 VP when you can get 4VP per action if you manage to get far enough on the fleet track and/or get the majority in the institute. Therefore Mars became the dumping ground where we played cards that we wanted to use the action of but not give our opponents the ability to score a good card action and get the location bonus when picking it up.
Luna equally felt unappealing quickly. There is a tuck of war element because whoever owns it at game’s end gets an additional 10 VP. But mostly it depends on your house’s special ability (which we felt unbalanced) if it makes sense to use Luna. If you have a house that gives you extra steps on the fleet track or in the institute, this can be helpful, otherwise it often felt like a waste going there.
What it all boiled down to for us is: there are way too many cards to really care about any individual one of them. It’s too easy to get a near optimal card hand and the game essentially becomes a rush for getting the most board bonuses while you are optimising your hand. Things get interesting when the market gets stale and no one wants to give the opponent an opportunity to pick up a good card at a good location. But it felt impossible to really prevent the opponent from gathering cards that help him/her score a good hand. In general, there are a lot of good ideas in there but each one feels diluted as if when put together, the ends didn’t meet, and they had to be trimmed down.
Red Rising is still fascinating to me, but not on a game level, more on a product level. The Stonemaier Games’ blog is very cool to read and you notice on every corner that this was a passion project for Jamie Stegmeyer (he even tell’s you so on the second page of the rules!). The production is lavish but flawed. Often in art, constraints are helpful: paint with only two colours, write but from a certain perspective, create a story with only two characters. I believe in the case of Red Rising, we have the rare case where the licensed product has helped the original franchise more than the other way round. While I read the blog and listened to interviews, it seems that the number of classes/colours/characters was the driving factor behind the game. Instead of being restricted, the author’s were “forced” to expand. There are 14 classes in the books, so you have to have 14 classes in the game. There are dozens of named characters, so you have to have lots of cards. The most telling anecdote for me is when initial play testing revealed that there were too many cards for the condition to have a single, named character to score max VP to be viable. The solution was not to reduce cards but introduce a type of card that allows you to mimic ANY one character and another type for ANY one color. This seems backward to me. Why then have the name-specific effect at all? The only reason I can come up with is because it introduces thematic tie-in from the books.
Then there are the usability issues: the clash in player colours, the tipping-over card holders, the fact that you cannot see the card action OR scoring condition of cards that are underneath the top-most card in a location (yes, the rules say you are allowed to pick them up at all time but really…?), the fact that the fleet track is hidden behind the large deck of cards (which is fatal because after the 7th field the score per advancement goes down!), … the list unfortunately is long. My favourite one: the card art and graphic design is gorgeous, but the automa deck is in a completely different style and really bland. Why has that happened? I am at odds with the large number of playtesters that are mentioned and the product I hold in my hand. Then there is the issue of the take-that element, the issue of gaining additional cards (or stripping other players of one of their cards) being so powerful that an official variant was announced where you are not allowed to force a player to discard a card if they still only have five cards on their hand (which improves the game tremendously in my opinion). I could go on for a long time. I have so many questions of why the game came out exactly the way it is and that absolutely fascinates me.
That brings us to the big question: so who is this game for? I would say for people that like lighter games and really liked the world of the books. I imagine a non-gamer or casual gamer going to a Target or FLGS, browsing the shelves and being absolutely delighted to find a game relating to their favourite book series. Note though that you are not really playing in the world of Red Rising as portrayed in the books. Everything is abstracted to a degree that it becomes unrecognisable. The institute, which has a central role in the first book, is just an area to pile majority cubes. The fleet is just a track that scores you more points when you advance on it. I, like many, heard about the game and as a result started reading the book series and enjoyed it. But coming back from the books, the only thing I really enjoyed about Red Rising was to see the beautiful character artwork and see the faces of the characters I only read about. That came as quite a shock to me, especially because the passion behind the project and the effort put into the production is so clearly on display. I wanted this to be great. But the result – for me – unfortunately is not.
Despite the often criticised production/usability issues, I would recommend to indulge yourself by getting the deluxe edition… if you want to have something nice that reminds you of the time you read the books. For all others, there is probably another game out there that fits your expectations of Red Rising, whatever they may be, better. So a definite try-before-you-buy recommendation. This might be a great game for you. Get in for the right reasons, not for your expectations of what this game might have could have been.