Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
Alan Moonís Andromeda sends something of a mixed message. Its pedigree and rule complexity seem to target a gamerís market, while its high degree of luck pushes its appeal towards families. This may explain the fair amount of backlash the gameís received from the gamer community where, claiming any strategic considerations are overwhelmed by luck, Andromeda has been largely shrugged off. Iíd certainly think twice before recommending Andromeda to a gaming group, but for more casual and family-oriented groups thereís much to like.
The board shows a bunch of planets, each with three satellites on which players wish to establish economic centers (represented by colored wooden cubes). Players begin with some cubes already on these planets and can ship more from Earth during the game. Doing so, or virtually anything else in the game, requires the use of a set of identical planet cards. A common criticism is that players who get dealt sets have a tremendous advantage over those who donít. Such distributional anomalies should event out over the long haul, but there arenít enough deals during the game to normalize the results. Without a set, you canít do anything productive on your turn other than try to acquire a set by trading cards at random with the deck. So while other players may be lengthening their sets and making them even more effective, youíre spinning your wheels by no fault of your own. Economic centers are worth fewer points as the game progresses, so losing a turn like this is especially painful.
Which isnít to say youíre completely at the mercy of the deckó thereís a structured trading round in which players can swap cards with each other. This system is Andromedaís best mechanism. One player puts one to three cards up in front of him one by one. After each card, the other players must put up one of their own without duplicating any of the first playerís cards. The first player must trade the cards in front of him for the cards in front of any other player, who can keep the new cards or leave them on the table and stay in the swap meet. Other players in turn can choose to swap or keep their cards. The start player wants to make his set attractive enough to his opponents so that theyíll put up cards he wants, hoping heís trade with them. The second player can put up garbage and still be guaranteed second pick of the litter, while the last player has to attract a trader to make any swap at all. Of course, since you canít duplicate the first traderís cards, sometimes you have no choice about what to offer. You can actually be forced to offer cards that youíd really like to keep, so sometimes the trading round can actually hurt rather than improve your hand. Such cases are the exception, and can often be anticipated by a player and headed off at the pass by carefully choosing the order in which he plays his cards and getting the ones most likely to be forbidden by the first player onto the table first.
Players get two actions after trading is finished, except for the start player who gets three (a perplexing irregularity probably meant to speed the game). If you donít like your cards, you can discard two and draw replacements as one of your actions. This is necessary if you have no sets of 3-of-a-kind or better. Discarding such a set is a prerequisite for most other actions in the game and earns a bonus wild card. These cards are worth victory points, but can be spent instead to extend a set (in which case no wild card is earned for that set).
Players can use a set to shake the ďcosmic ashtrayĒ and try to establish an economic center at the planet shown on the set. All the cubes on that planet are gathered beneath a plastic shell and shaken. The shell is then slid to dispense cubes from a hole in the side. If the shakerís color comes out he establishes a base on the most valuable empty satellite. Any other cube gets sent back to Earth, and if a large enough set was used the player can shake again.
You can increase your odds by shipping more cubes from Earth to the planet shown on your set. The larger the set, the more cubes can be shipped. This option rarely seems to get used in practice, and for good reason. Shipping cubes increases your odds later down the road, but only if you manage to get another set of the same planet. In the interim, the cubes you ship might get sent back to Earth by opponents. Granted, those cubes might have prevented opponents from earning their own economic centers, but it still winds up feeling like you wasted your earlier turn. Using that same set to shake would have at least offered a chance to score an economic center immediately. Consequently, at least in our group, players only wind up shipping cubes to a planet if most of their other cubes had already been sent home.
What if you acquire a set of cards for a planet in which you have no interest, such as one on which all satellites have been claimed? Two technology ladders, each requiring increasingly large sets for advancement, provide alternatives. The first increases a playerís hand size. The second ladder offers victory points and more esoteric, cumulative abilities such as increasing the number of cards the player can trade.
For all the derision directed at Andromedaís randomness, thereís no denying the drama of the cosmic ashtray. Everyoneís breath catches a bit anticipating the ejection of a cube from the plastic shell. That shell can scuttle a playerís hard work in shipping many cubes to a planet by awarding the jackpot to a player with but a single cube, but that moment is exciting. Those qualities are part of what makes the game better suited for families than serious gamers.
So is the arbitrary scoring scheme. All planets are equally represented in the deck, yet some are more valuable than others. You might think this would make some planets more hotly contested than others, and so the point values would more or less balance out with the increased competition. But it doesnít work that way. You have to play the hand thatís dealt to you, and youíre just as likely to get dealt a set for a poor planet as for a rich one. Itís true that all else being equal a player is more likely to offer up cards for the cheap planets during a trading round, but all things are rarely equal. If youíve already picked up a set for a cheap planet, youíll hold onto those cards and offer up anything else in search of more cheap cards to lengthen your set. So the luck of the draw is given even greater importance, one again disillusioning gamers.
For all my talk about families, Iím concerned that Andromeda might be too fiddly for that audience. Things arenít as simple as they could be, and despite my appreciation of the trading system (a variation of what we saw in Money, and which I hope weíll see again) I fear it might weigh down the game too much for a casual gamer. The balance is a bit off for my own taste. IĎll still play it because of the trading system, but all the maneuvering it seems to encourage bows before the random influence of the cosmic ashtray. It really does boil down to a crapshoot. If Iím just going to roll the dice, I really donít need everything else that comes in the box. Do you?
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (firstname.lastname@example.org)