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[Review] Andromeda

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Joined: 03/23/2011

I haven’t played many successful non-war games that invoke a space theme. One of the most fun games I’ve played of this genre is Solarquest, a Monopoly variant - which shows the lack of good games in this regard. (I am, of course, not neglecting the all time great Cosmic Encounter). So any game that has a space theme is invariably interesting to me, and as soon as I heard about Andromeda (Rio Grande Games, 1999 - Alan Moon), I resolved to get a hold of it. As usual, I read the comments about Andromeda online and ignored them, snagging a copy of the game. The comments themselves were very varied, but a majority of them mentioned the “planet ring” piece included in the game - something that apparently is unique only to Andromeda.

It was very interesting to read the wide range of opinions on Andromeda on the ‘net, but I found that when playing the game with my gaming group and friends, that opinions were just as mixed. I loved the game, and will gladly play it anytime. Others in my gaming group, especially those who are heavy strategy gamers, despise this game and denounce the amount of luck in it. Everyone agrees on a few things, such as the unique planet ring (although derailing its use) and the beautiful components, but as to play, I think that it’s best suited for those who enjoy a fun time with a good dose of luck. Teens took to the game fairly well, but I found that adults playing the game for casual fun had the best time.

Andromeda is played on a large, beautiful board, depicting seven planets along with earth. I think the planets are supposed to represent actual planets in our solar system, but I’m not sure. Each player picks a color and takes twenty-six cubes of that color (called stations) and two transport cards of that color, placing them in front of them. One of these cubes is placed on the first space of a spaceship development track, and another on the first space of a technology development track. Each player puts four stations on earth, and 1 station on each of the other planets (two on each if only three players are playing.) A certain amount of cards are dealt to each player, depending on how many are in the game, and players place a station on the matching planet for each card they are dealt. Any leftover stations are removed from the game. Sixteen bonus cards are sorted out into four different types and placed face-up next to the table, along with the planet ring (which looks remarkably similar to an upside-down ashtray). The deck of eighty-four planet cards (12 for each planet) is shuffled, and nine are dealt to each player, with the remaining cards forming a draw pile. The oldest player goes first in the first round.

Each turn is made up of four different phases, with the starting player changing each turn - moving one clockwise. The first phase is the card phase, where the starting player deals to each player, filling their hands to their maximum number. Each player’s maximum number of cards is determined by the spaceship track (starts at nine cards). Following this is the transport phase. Each player may play one of their transport cards, in order, or pass. These cards can only be used once per game, then be discarded. The cards give a player one of two options: they may move two of their stations from earth to any one of the seven planets, or they may move all their stations from one planet to earth.

After this is the trading phase, which is mandatory for all players. The starting player picks any card from their hand and places it face up in front of them. Every other player then simultaneously picks a card and places it face down on the table - then all revealing them at the same time. These cards cannot be the same card as the one that the starting player placed. The starting player then places a second card (can be anything) and adds it to the cards he has on the table. The other players then once again select another card and play it face down simultaneously, again revealing them at the same time. These cards cannot match either card the starting player has played. The starting player can now repeat this process with a third and final card, or they can start trading. Once they trade, they must select one other player and take the cards that player has offered into their hand, giving that player their cards. The player whose cards were taken can either keep the cards they received, or leave them on the table for further trading. The next player clockwise repeats what the starting player did, etc., until everyone has taken cards. If this leaves only one person with cards, that person keeps the cards they offered for trade. Occasionally (I’ve never seen it happen), a player does not have any legal cards for trade, in which case they reveal their hand to all players, and then are excused from trading.

The final phase, the most important phase, is the action phase. During this phase, the starting player may execute three actions, after which the other players, in clockwise order, can take two actions. The different actions involved in this round often include playing “sets” of planet cards. A set is three to seven cards played - all of the same planet. When a player plays four or more cards that are of the same planet, they immediately receive a bonus card. There are four different kinds of bonus cards, depending on how many cards were in the set played (4, 5, 6, or 7). Each card has a point value that it’s worth at the end of the game, if the player still has it in their hand (2, 3, 4, or 5). These bonus cards can also be used as “jokers” and played as wild cards to complete “sets”, although if a set includes a bonus card, the player does not receive a new bonus card. All cards played in a set are discarded.

There are five different actions available to each player, and can be taken in any combination and order. They are...
- Spaceship development. A player can play any “set” of planet cards to move their station one space on this track. To move to each space requires a different number of cards in the set, and rewards the player by increasing their maximum hand size (up to thirteen!)
- Technology: A player can play any set of planet cards to move their station one space on this track. There are three spaces on the track, each giving the player an additional advantage in the game. The first space allows the player to trade four cards on their turn, the second allows them to trade up to three cards with the draw pile when using the Trade Planet Cards action, and the final rounds numbers up for a player rather than down.
- Trade Planet Cards: The player can discard up to two cards from their hand and draw the same amount from the draw pile. (more if they have the technology).
- Move Stations to Planets: The player can play a set of cards from a planet to move that many stations from earth to that planet. The number of stations they can move is half the number of cards in the set (rounded down).
- Establish an Economic Center: The player can try to gain points on any planet where they have presence by playing a set of cards of that specific planet. The number of attempts they have to do this is half the number of cards in the set (rounded down). The planet ring is placed over all stations from that planet, and the player mixes them up underneath. They then slowly pull the planet ring backwards, allowing cubes to come out an opening in the side of the planet ring equal to the number of attempts they make. If a cube from another player comes out - that cube is sent back to earth. If one of his own color cubes comes out, however, the player can place it on one of the three economic centers rotating that planet. These economic centers are worth a certain amount of victory points, and when a cube is placed on one, no other cubes may go there. When a player receives an economic center, or uses up all their attempts, this action is over.

When all three economic centers are established on three of the seven planets, the game ends after the current round. All players total their scores, receiving one point for each station they have on Earth, points for the bonus cards currently in their hands, points for where their cubes lie on each of the tracks, and points for each of the economic centers they have taken. The player with the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: As I stated in the beginning, the board is absolutely stunning, with beautiful, if inaccurate depictions of Earth and the planets. The cards are fantastic, showing the planets quite clearly, with wonderful artwork. All the artwork, from the cards to the box to the board is very invocative of the space theme, and the whole game really looks snazzy when set up. The cubes are - well - cubes, but the colors are attractive and stand out well on the board. There is a fantastic plastic insert that holds everything securely in the sturdy box, taking away the necessity of needing plastic bags (I obsessively use them anyway).

2.) Planet Ring: I’ve heard this thing called many names, from the Cosmic Hockey Puck (my favorite) to the Space Ashtray (sadly not dissimilar). It certainly doesn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen in a game before - and gives the game a certain distinction. It also adds a good bit of randomness without the rolling of dice. This component alone is what I can draw people into the game with.

3.) Rules: The rulebook is hands down one of the best I’ve ever seen. The rules are explained completely in eight full color pages with myriads of illustrations - you could play the entire game from the rulebook, without ever seeing the components. The game is also easy to teach, although the trading mechanic does not come naturally to most people. I found the game easy to learn, but it was a little difficult for people to figure out exactly what they should do, and experienced players have an edge (if only knowing what points to go for.)

4.) Trading: The mandatory trading phase is an excellent mechanic, and helps everyone to feel involved. Of course, there is a lot of moaning and groaning during this phase, especially when someone has to give up one of their precious bonus cards - but it is an aspect of the game I’ve heard very few complain about. The starting player has a lot of power, and can strategically get the cards he needs by watching what the other player play. This power is only magnified when he has the technology to trade four cards.

5.) Options: The options in the game are fairly large - and one has to make a lot of choices. Should they go quickly for a planet economic center, or build up on that planet, hoping for a better chance? Should they increase their hand size first, or work on technologies? What planets should they send their stations to, and when should they use their transport cards? Should they keep their bonus cards for the points depicted (thus using up a slot in their hand), or play them for maximum benefit? People who think that there isn’t strategy in the game are sorely mistaken.

6.) Luck: Luck plays a good role in this game. There is some in the cards that are dealt to each player, but it’s the “hockey puck” that causes most of the contention. A player can play a set of seven cards for the red planet, when they only have one station there, and their opponents have a combined total of twenty! Yet still, if they are lucky, they can take the most influential economic center, netting themselves a whopping 14 points! At the same time, a player can have a massive majority on a planet, and have horrible luck, not getting any of their cubes to exit the ashtray.

7.) Fun Factor: When both of the above situations occur, it’s not much fun for that player, and some players dislike the game for specific streaks of bad luck they’ve had. But overall, most people enjoy the game, and as long as a game doesn’t drag out (can happen, but usually doesn’t), the game is a fun, light romp.

Many people’s opinions of this game are that the luck is too high - but I disagree. Yes, there is a lot of luck in the game, but the strategic options are high, and can counter most luck. Yes, a player can have “flawless’ strategy, and still lose - but it’s rare. If you think so, I’ll gladly play you, and we’ll see who wins! At the same time, if this kind of luck in games disgusts you, then you’d do best to avoid the game. I think it’s a fine Alan Moon game, one that I’ll gladly play. Some disagree with me as much, and you might want to heed their opinions. But if you think a space-themed, light game with a good bit of strategy might be to your liking, then this should be right up your alley!

Tom Vasel

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