Monday, April 17, 2017

GJJG Game Reviews - Mole Rats in Space - by Peaceable Kingdom

Mole Rats in Space
Designer: Matt Leacock
Publisher: Peaceable Kingdom
2-4p | 20m | 7+
GJJG Game Reviews - Mole Rats in Space - by Peaceable Kingdom

Game Overview:
In the last few months I've reviewed a few of Peaceable Kingdom's kid friendly cooperative games.  I started with Race to the Treasure, which was aimed at kids age five and up.  It was OK, but I felt it was too simple, even for young kids.  It didn't really offer many real choices or decisions.  Next up was Cauldron Quest, which was for ages six and up.  This was a much 'gamier' game, and offered a few more choices, but was still pretty linear and relied on luck.  But today I'm going to tell you about the newest cooperative game to be released by Peaceable Kingdom, and it's designed by a pretty big name in cooperative games.

Mole Rats in Space is the latest cooperative game for kids (ages eight and up) from Peaceable Kingdom and renowned designer, Matt Leacock.  Matt is known for designing some of the biggest hits for cooperative games, including Pandemic, Forbidden Island (which was my sons' introduction to cooperative games), Forbidden Desert, Thunderbirds, and the number one game on Board Game Geek, Pandemic Legacy.  With a catalog like that, a kids cooperative game comes with some pretty high expectations.  So, does Mole Rats in Space deliver the fun, cooperative experience we've come to expect from Matt Leacock in the family friendly package we expect from Peaceable Kingdom?  Read on to find out!

In Mole Rats in Space, each player is an anthropomorphic mole rat that is stuck on a space station with a bunch of snakes (cue a Samuel L. Jackson quote now).  The mole rats must escape the space station together and avoid the snakes.  The game borrows a lot from Snakes/Chutes & Ladders, but Matt Leacock puts a modern spin on this ancient classic.

Components & Packaging:
As usual, the components in Mole Rats in Space are top notch for a kids game.  As I've mentioned before, Peaceable Kingdom's games are all manufactured in eco-friendly ways.  Everything from the cardboard to the plastic figures are from sustainable sources.  And they don't skimp on quality to meet these standards either.

The game comes with four plastic mole rat figures (don't worry, they're not naked mole rats - they're wearing space suits) in four colors.  Each mole rat has a backpack that can be used to carry a med kit and other equipment acquired during the game.  The little chits used for the med kits and equipment are a bit thinner than you might find in other games, but they're sturdy enough and fit nicely in the backpacks.  There are also twelve snake tokens that are the same thickness, but bigger.  Nothing feels cheap, and everything has nice printing.
Awesome mole rat figures!
The cards are decent quality, too.  They have nice snap and shuffle well, although they're missing some premium features, like black core or linen texture, but in a kids game where you're only handling one card at a time and only shuffling once at the beginning of the game, the quality is more than adequate.
All the components are good quality.
The game board is nice and large, with clear graphics printed on the playing side and the Peaceable Kingdom logo and game name printed on the back.  This makes a nice presentation in the box when the board is folded up and put away.
Just lifting the lid is a great presentation!
Which brings us to the box.  The box, I think, is my favorite component (or maybe the mole rat figures, I can't quite decide).  The box is nice and thick, with an awesome insert that holds everything snugly.  The mole rat figures each have their own spot to sit, and the board holds the cards and tokens in place nicely.
Everything has a spot!
The outside of the box looks great.  It's obviously a kids game from the artwork, but the characters really grab your attention.  And if they don't, then the metallic lettering definitely will!  Peaceable Kingdom always has attractive covers on their games, and Mole Rats in Space is no exception.
Look at all those shiny letters!
Score: 9/10 x1

Rules & Setup:
Setting up Mole Rats in Space is a piece of cake.  Each mole rat starts on the side of the board with its color (although, as long as they start in a starting space, which one doesn't really matter).  Each mole rat also starts with its corresponding med kit token, in its backpack.  Four other equipment token and four snake token are placed in their designated starting spaces.  Shuffle the cards (after removing one for a two player game), deal one out to each player, and you're good to go!
All set up for a three player game.
The rule are also pretty simple.  Basically all the game is, is play a card, do what it says, then draw a new card.  Players work together on a board very reminiscent of Chutes & Ladders (aka Snakes & Ladders).  Just like in the classic kids game, there are ladders to climb and chutes to slide down, but the levels form concentric squares instead of a zigzag path, and there are dangerous snakes slithering through the corridors of this space station.
The rules are clear and concise.  Just what you'd expect from a kids' game.

The goal of the game is to acquire the four pieces of equipment and get all the mole rats to the escape pod at the center of the board, before a name finds its way to the escape hatch, a mole rat is bitten twice, or the players run out of cards to play.

Cards have one or two action on them and each player must play the card they have on their turn.  Most cards have two halves, one that moves mole rats, and one for snakes.  The mole rat action tells you to move either your own mole rat, all mole rats, or any one mole rat one, two, or three spaces.  Some cards give you a choice of how far to move, but most just tell you how far.  Snake actions have you move a single snake in a particular color, all snakes of a color, or one snake of any color one, two, or three spaces.  Or, some snake actions require you to spawn a new snake of a particular color.  There are also a few cards that don't have any mole rat actions and just have one or more snakes move directly to the nearest ladder and climb it.
This card lets you move your mole rat one or two spaces, and requires that you spawn a new red snake.
As mole rats and snakes move through the space station they may land on spaces that have different effects.  Passing through a space has no effect (except for mole rats passing through spaces occupied by snakes or vice versa).  Ending your move on a space though, causes that space's effect to happen.  If a mole rat or snake lands on a ladder it will immediately climb up to the space above the ladder.  Landing on a chute takes the character down to the Chute's exit, but be careful, some chutes vent into space!  These are good to move snakes onto, but your mole rats should avoid them.  Some spaces have equipment on them and if a mole rats lands here, it can pick up the equipment token and put into its backpack.  There are also spaces where new snakes will occasionally spawn.

If a mole rat and snake ever occupy the same space, even mid-move, the mole rat gets bitten.  The mole rat must discard its med kit and return to its starting space.  If a mole rat doesn't have a med kit because it's already been bitten, then the players lose the game.  So be careful and avoid those snakes!
Ladders go up, chutes go down.  Keep the snakes away from the mole rats and escape pod while you collect
the equipment and make your way to the escape pod.  That's the game in a nutshell.
That's pretty much it.  The game is easy enough for an eight year old to play with other kids, or as young as four or five to play with an adult.  There are a few details that aren't addressed in the rules, but they're pretty easy to surmise.  For example, the rules don't state which action to complete first, the mole rat or snake action.  We took this to mean it didn't matter what order actions were taken in, but you could make the game a bit more challenging by requiring the mole rats to always move first.  The rules also don't say if a mole rat can enter the escape pod before all the equipment is collected, but we assumed no.  Overall though, the rules are simple, clear, and concise.

Score: 8/10 x2

Playing Mole rats in Space is actually quite fun.  The mechanics are super simple, and the play-a-card simplicity still generates a number of interesting decisions.  Often times the best decision is pretty obvious, particularly for older players, but younger players will like deciding where to move pieces, and which pieces to move.  The game is still heavily driven by luck (card draws), and still has a pretty linear progression.  
Loading up the mole rats with equipment is quite fun, but sometimes feels inevitable.
Whether we won or lost didn't really feel like something we really had much control of.  The first time we lost it was because someone had to play a card that made all snakes of a certain color move to the nearest ladder and climb up.  There just happened to be a snake on the same level as the ladder to the escape pod, so we lost.  Our second loss came because we ran out of cards to draw, not because we made any choices that we shouldn't have.

There is a way to make the game more difficult though.  Mole Rats in Space includes a Challenge Pack.  This is a small envelope that says not to open it until you've won three games.  SPOILER: The More Venom challenge cards add in a few more challenging cards, including a few more spawn a snake cards.  This means there's a new lose condition.  If you have to spawn a snake of a specific color and can't because all the snakes of that color ate already on the board, you lose.
The 'More Venom' cards are only to be used after you've won three games.
Overall though, it wasn't difficulty that I felt the game was lacking, it was decisions that I wanted more of. You always have to play the one card you draw, so you do kind of feel like the game is playing itself, even though you do get to decide the directions to move. Yes, I'm an adult, so I'm looking for something a bit more complex, but even my seven and ten year old boys wanted something a tiny bit deeper. As my ten year old put it, it didn't seem fair for the snakes that we could always just move them away from us. Because of that, it felt like when we did get caught by the snakes (or they managed to climb a ladder into the escape pod) it was just bad luck and not anything that was controllable.

After playing a few times we wanted a little more teamwork and decisions, and it's really easy to change the game up for that.
His comments got me thinking, and the last few times we've played we've used a very simple variant that I came up with.  It's such a simple twist that I'm actually surprised that it wasn't included as an official variant that increases both the challenge and cooperative aspect of the game, and makes decisions sometimes a challenge.

So here's my super easy to implement variant:
  1. Each turn players have two cards in their hand, instead of one. You'll play one card and then draw back up to two.
  2. Snakes always move toward the nearest Mole Rat, if there is one on its level. If you have a choice of moving a snake that is on a level with a mole rat and one that isn't, the one on the level with the mole rat moves.
That's it! We felt it added a lot to the game, just having that extra decision to make about which card to play. We found we were actually discussing possible move sequences and cooperating a whole lot more. The base game was a bit easier this way, but more fulfilling. The challenge game was still pretty challenging.

A few things that can be done to increase the difficulty even more:
  • Start with more snakes out on the board.
  • If there are no mole rats on the same level as a snake they'll move toward the nearest ladder (up or even down ladders and let them climb down ladders).
Without this variant, Mole Rats in Space if still a good game. It's great for families and kids that are new to cooperative board games, and offers a casual, fun time that even adults won't mind playing occasionally. But if you're ready to move up to the next level and want some real cooperation, strategic planning, and teamwork, give my little variant a try. My sons and I feel it really makes Mole Rats in Space a great family cooperative game, and my rating below reflects the fun we've had with this variant.

Score: 8/10 x2

While Mole Rats in Space doesn't really teach any formal subjects, it is still somewhat educational.  The rulebook does have a short blurb about the naked mole rat, which may spur an interest in some kids to learn more about the diminutive creatures, but where the game shines is in what it teaches about planning, cooperation, and even a bit of teamwork (something that was lacking in the other Peaceable Kingdom games I reviewed).

In Mole Rats in Space, players really do need to work together.  Players don't have different abilities, but they will have to cooperate to move snakes out of the way (preferably by venting them out of airlocks) and collect all the equipment.  Players will have to work as a team to figure out who should go which piece of equipment.  With the variant described above, players will even learn how to plan a sequence of moves across multiple players for the best strategic outcome.
Cards like these offer some very strategic decisions.  You can move any mole rat (not just your own) and any snake three spaces.
Score: 7/10 x1

Unlike the other Peaceable Kingdom games I reviewed, my sons actually asked to play Mole Rats in Space multiple times.  Both, and especially my younger son, really enjoyed it.  And you know what?  I enjoyed it, too.  Even without my variant, it didn't feel like a chore to 'play another kiddie game'.  This isn't Pandemic, or even Forbidden Island, but there's enough going on that it'll even keep adults interested.  And I'm actually itching to play again with my variant.
The mole rats won and escaped!  Our win:loss ratio was about 5:2, so that's pretty good for a kids cooperative game.
Without my variant I see this as a game that will outlast most other kids games for both kids and adults.  With the variant, I can even see my gamer family pulling this out fairly frequently.  Of the Peaceable Kingdom games I've reviewed, Mole Rats in Space definitely has the most replay value.

Score: 7/10 x1

General Fun:
Despite the silly premise, similarity to Snakes/Chutes & Ladders, and simple mechanics, I really had fun playing Mole Rats in Space, and so did my kids.  Its not a game that I'll take to an adult game night, but it's definitely a winner for family game night.
We enjoyed Mole Rats in Space more than any of the other Peaceable Kingdom games.  This is a winner!
The whimsical miniatures and artwork complement the friendly gameplay perfectly.  From the moment you open the box to the last turn of the game, Mole Rats in Space provides an entertaining experience.

Score: 8/10 x2

Overall Value:
At only $20, Mole Rats in Space should be a no brained for your family, or as a gift for another family.  It's simple enough that non-gaming families will 'get' it, but there's enough going on that even gamer families will enjoy it.  And with my variant, it's a game that can last through quite a few plays and stay entertaining for several years.  You'll definitely get your money's worth out of Mole Rats in Space!
$20 is a bargain for the great components and great game.
Score: 9/10 x1

Final Thoughts:
As expected, Matt Leacock has created another successful cooperative game with Mole Rats in Space.  This time it's a game for the young'uns, and it works great.  I do wish a more highly cooperative variant was included from the get-go, but the two-card variant was just so obvious that I have to believe that it was almost a part of the game at some point.

All of the Peaceable Kingdom games I've played have been enjoyable experiences, but Mole Rats in Space is by far the most enjoyable yet.  It's fun for kids, interesting for adults, and simple to learn.  Mole Rats in Space offers up some interesting decisions, and encourages simple teamwork.  This is a solid entry for a family game, and the price, Peaceable Kingdom's ethical production processes, and quality are all incredible.  I highly recommend Mole Rats in Space to all families and think it is suitable for as young as four or five with adult help, and up to 12 or more with a more challenging and cooperation driven variant.
Ahhhh!  A purple snake is stealing our escape pod!
You can find Mole Rat in Space online at the Peaceable Kingdom website, your favorite online retailer, or a FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store) near you.  You'll love your copy!

Overall Score: 80/100

Mole Rats in Space HUGE Giveaway - 5 Winners!

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GJJG Game Reviews are independent, unpaid reviews of games I, George Jaros, have played with my family and friends.  Some of these games I own, some are owned by friends, some are borrowed, and some are print and play versions of games.  Where applicable I will indicate if games have been played with kids or adults or a mix (Family Play).  I won't go into extensive detail about how to play the game (there are plenty of other sources for that information and I'll occasionally link to those other sources), but I will give my impressions of the game and how my friends and family reacted to the game.  A score of 1-10 (low-high) is given to each game in six categories: Components & Packaging, Rules & Setup, Gameplay, Replayability, Overall Value, and General Fun.  Rules & Setup and General Fun are weighted double and Gameplay is weighted triple.  Educational games have an extra category and Gameplay is only weighted double. Then the game is given a total score of x/100.

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