Board Game Review

A Rainbow of Card Shuffling (Red Rising Review)

This copy of Red Rising was sent to us by Stonemaier Games for an unbiased review. We are not paid for any media produced.

Books have such an insane influence on other media. It’s wild! From people’s perceptions of real life occurrences to the trends occurring in TV, film and more literature. One character from a book can change your whole perception on the world, or challenge an idea you’ve always had. The power of words is incredible. These influences stretch as far as board games, too! A few games have had clear influence and direction given to them from associated books. Be that the theme, narrative or underlying messages. Red Rising by Stonemaier Games, inspired by the novels by Pierce Brown, is a hand management card game for 1-6 players that takes about 45 minutes to play.

Gameplay

Red Rising is played in turn order, with all players having the same number of turns. The game ends once any one player has seven “points” in two of the three scoring elements. At that point, the game ends with the final player taking their turn and scores are added up. Whomever has the most points, wins.

All players take on the roles of unique houses, each with a unique ability. These vary but give players some direction as to what play style their house leans more towards. In example, House Jupiter gains the owner more opportunity to move along the Fleet track. Whereas House Apollo gives that player both the first and last turns of the game.

Each location on the board gives a unique bonus to players when it triggers and always leads players closer to victory. Jupiter advances players on the Fleet track, the Institute allows players to add an Influence to it, Mars gives Helium Crystals and Luna allows the player to take the Sovereign Token (also triggering their unique House ability).

Set Up

To set up a game of Red Rising, all players are dealt a house board and given the associated components for that colour: 10 Influence cubes, a ship on the Fleet track and a card holder. Then, the board is populated with two cards on each location. Then each player is dealt five cards. Finally, place the Helium Crystals and the Sovereign Token within reach of all players. The game is now ready to play.

Taking a Turn

On a player’s turn, they can either Lead or Scout. Scouting is the simpler of the two and doesn’t involve using any in hand cards. The player takes a card from the top of the deck, places it at a location and gains the location’s bonus. They do not trigger the deploy ability and therefore don’t benefit from the card’s values.

Leading allows players more variation and controls in what they do, to some degree. To Lead, the player deploys a card from their hand to a location and activated its deploy ability. Dependent on the card type, this may cause cards to be banished, moved, or may gain that player more bonuses. Once the deploy effect is done, they can then take the top card from any location other than those they deployed to, gaining that location’s bonus. Or, they can take the top card from the deck and roll the die to gain a random bonus.

Deploying Cards and Scoring Them

All cards have deploy and scoring abilities, along with a core value. The core value is the card’s normal scoring value and are the points you will gain as a standard. However, the scoring ability allows players to gain more points based on what is in their hand. Cards synergise in unique ways, and one card may trigger many scoring abilities! Some scoring abilities even result in a loss of points, too.

Deploy abilities can also be very situational. Some cards require specific cards to be on the board, whereas others need to be placed onto specific ones. There’s a trend across the colours and a consistency to what they do, so players need only a slight bit of background before knowing the basics. In example, yellow cards can manipulate and benefit from banished cards, brown cards trigger when placed on specific cards and silver cards allow players to utilise the scoring elements they have to gain alternatives. The most valuable cards are the golds, and these have varying deploy effects, but their scoring is often linked to being with other specific colours (dependent on who they are).

How It Handles

Red Rising is a game I expected to like. It’s the right recipe for a good game: hand management, synergising cards, gorgeous artwork and a smidgeon of variable player powers. I expected to like it. I did not expect to love it!

Who’s Who?

I’ve not read Red Rising. I know some of its background lore, but that’s down to research ready for this review. Realistically, I think knowing the lore for me may have slowed my play of the board game as I’d have geeked out on names characters and happenings… but I digress. I don’t know the story, but the cards themselves do give you an insight into the happenings and world of it. Be that through their abilities, tiered colours or trigger conditions, it leads to some interesting speculation that a fan of the novels would really appreciate. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m a missed market because I don’t know the ins and outs of the dramas within. If anything, I think it adds depth and character to the cards effortlessly!

One thing I did notice, even as someone who isn’t as Red Rising lore savvy, is who the main characters are. Mainly because they’re the names cards. It’s obvious which cards have more integral parts in the novels due to this alone… but that’s the only reason. Of the most obvious examples, my picks are the Masseuse and Evey. Both pink cards, both gorgeously illustrated and themed in the same stylings. However, the difference there again is the ability. Named cards’ abilities are very, very useful and often don’t follow the colour’s deployment theme. A small detail and I can see why they chose to put more emphasis on these folk… but at the same time, it makes them more coveted for more reasons. Could it create a power struggle across players? Probably not. Unless you were a die hard fan who needs a specific character to be complete, you should be safe.

Synergising Stylishly to Score!

Cards in Red Rising react beautifully together when synergised. A collection that compliments each element will aid you in achieving the “great score” of 300! However, and this is a big however, not all cards work in sync with one another based on colour alone! Deploy effects are pretty similar across colours, but scoring conditions don’t every time. Again, named cards have a uniqueness to them in terms of how they score, but not as much as their deploy effects. Quite often, they’ll want to be with (or apart from) another named card. Managing to achieve that will gain you big bonuses and makes for a very good scoring hand!

If it helps to have an example, Matteo the pink needs to be with Quicksilver to gain a tasty 17 extra points. Whereas the Conversationalist pink only needs to be with a white. Any white. It’ll grant a bonus 15 for doing so. Both have a top of 30 points, but one’s is far easier to achieve. There’s a fair few whites but only one Quicksilver. You’ve got no guarantee you’ll see both these cards or whether you’ll have access to them. So what do you do if you get one and can’t cash in? Deploy it! Gain its bonus and forget about it!

Lump’em or Dump’em

You’re never tied to the cards you get, and I think that’s a powerful thing to remember with Red Rising. It’s hand management at its purest: if you don’t like your hand, play cards and take others until you get that sweet spot combo! I’ve talked to folk who’ve managed an astounding 380+ score, and I can see how… but getting that level of synergy takes patience, tactics, clever deployment and just a pinch of luck with the cards available.

I’d only caution that you could get wrapped up on getting a specific card or combination. It’s never worth it. By the time you manage it, you may have missed out on several other opportunities. There’s a learning element to knowing when to quit a plan, but it’s a lesson that has to be learned.

Risin’ Solo

Red Rising’s solo mode is great. Can’t dress it up, it works. You as the player play the game as you would in a competitive mode. The automa (Au Toma) plays in a unique way – they collect cards, and earn points for the number of odd and even core values. Never for their scoring mechanic. It can be scaled for difficulty, with harder modes making each card have a higher scoring value for the opposition.

The longer a solo game goes on, the higher Au Roma’s score will be. It forces you to be decisive in how you’ll gain the scoring elements, and whether you’ll rush the game for a cheap win or go hard on attaining a top score across all three elements. Both are entirely viable, but it’s astounding how high a score the opposition can attain. You can manipulate different things to force their score to be hindered… but in all honesty, I cannot fathom how anyone could win on the hardest difficulty! Au Toma takes no prisoners.

A Good Meat-To-Bone Ratio?

If there’s one caution to have with this game, it’s its primary mechanic. The engine that runs this train. The game’s core principle and element throughout. Hand management. Some folk don’t like, even despise, this mechanic. It can be tolerated across many games as it is easily diluted by the other happenings throughout play. But this game doesn’t benefit from that – the hand management is so heavily prominent that it stands as the forefront of every turn, action and play. I don’t mind a bit of managing one’s hand, it lets you know what’s what for you and leaves little as a mystery. But if you’re not one for a five knuckle card shuffle, skip this one.

Final Thoughts

Red Rising is a game that’s great fun for those who love hand management. It takes the mechanic and uses it in its purest form, putting it as the primary focus for every players’ turn. The game looks gorgeous and is thematic at every turn. And yet, somehow, it doesn’t drown you in over complicated lore intricacies. It follows the Red Rising novels but doesn’t require the ins and outs of the books. I have loved playing Red Rising and it’s a game that will continue to frequent the table due to its unique feel and excellent deploy/scoring mechanic. A truly tactical, hand management game that is exactly what and hand management game should be. A game centred on managing one’s hand without complications.