Review: Galaxy Trucker29 Sep 2014 0
Vlaada Chvátil has always been a designer known for taking risks. Look no farther than his tabletop magnum opus, Through the Ages, for proof of that. Here is a civilization-building game—complete with diplomacy, leaders, and wonders—that truly felt as sprawling as any Sid Meier creation ever has, but it was accomplished with nothing but cards. No maps, no little plastic soldiers, no dice. It was a pure eurogame masterpiece and, while there have been other civilization building games, none have matched it or dared to follow his lead and try to recreate what Through the Ages did sans map.
In 2007, the follow up to Through the Ages was released and, while I’m not sure what people were expecting, I’m positive nobody was expecting Galaxy Trucker. Where Through the Ages dared you to play without analysis paralysis, Galaxy Trucker dared you to play without drinking a beer. It was a farcical romp that involved little, if any, strategy and created its fun out random, wanton destruction. It was also one of the greatest board games ever created, and it’s a testament to its uniqueness that no other game has ever come along and tried to replicate it. Galaxy Trucker is, truly, a one of a kind experience on the table.
Seven years later and Vlaada is, again, doing something unexpected. Galaxy Trucker has now arrived on our iPads. It seems an odd choice for a digital game as the bulk of the board game is played simultaneously. There are no turns in Galaxy Trucker, instead everyone is frantically building their spaceship at the same time. How would this work on a digital device? Doesn’t Vlaada and everyone else at Czech Games Edition understand we want our board games asynchronous? Where did this rash come from?
Galaxy Trucker is really two games in one. In the first part, players will build a spacecraft of junk parts, trying to prepare it as best they can for the dangers present on the upcoming flight. The second half of the game is the flight itself, where all manner of terrors will wreak havoc with even the best-designed ship.
There’s little you can do about it once the flight begins. If you left weak spots in your defenses, you better hope a stray meteor or pirate gunfire doesn’t hit that part of your ship. It might not—but it probably will—and sitting on the edge of that razor, knowing that a certain card or die roll can determine if your ship will survive the flight are what makes Galaxy Trucker so damn much fun.
The ship-building portion of the game on the iPad works fantastically well. There are two different methods of ship building: real-time and turn-based. Real-time ship building is identical to the tabletop version. There is a pile of chits lying face down on the table, where you can select a token and see if it is something you want to add to your ship. You can reject tiles and put them back into the public pile, or you can add them to your growing ship, but once you do that it's permanently attached. In the pile, you’ll find parts like extra crew cabins, cargo holds, laser cannons, engines, shield generators -- all with different connectors, that don't always fit together. As you’re building and revealing tiles, your opponents are doing the same, so you constantly have to be on the lookout for parts you may need suddenly being thrown atop the pile of hidden parts.
Turn-based is a new system created exclusively for the digital app which allows for asynchronous multiplayer. In this mode every player takes their turn using action points to reveal and select tiles. You begin each turn with 9 action points, which you spend to draw new tiles (1AP) or place items onto your ship (2AP). Parts are shown in three rows at the top of the screen. The top row indicates tiles you’ve already seen on previous turns, the middle row are tiles that you’re opponents revealed since your last turn and are new to you, and the bottom row contains all the new tiles you have drawn on the current turn. It’s a completely different, but immensely enjoyable way to play Galaxy Trucker, and I’ve already heard people asking if they could convert their cardboard versions to play with the action point system (and I don’t see why not).
The second half of each mission is where CGE really made the game come alive. Whereas the first portion of the game is a fairly literal representation of the board game, the flight is where you realize that Galaxy Trucker is a video game. Your ships are shown in a pseudo-3D representation and the event cards are drawn on the left side of the board.
As events happen, the players’ ships are animated, playing out the events as they happen. Attacked by smugglers? Watch the laser cannons fire and see the baddies come onto your ship and haul away your cargo. Meteor storm? Here come the meteors smashing into, and breaking away, half of your ship. Abandoned ship? Watch your little astronauts head over to captain the new ship home for scrap. While the flight is really just a simple race mechanism, adding all this fluff really makes Galaxy Trucker pop on your iPad. None of it was necessary, and the 2D-into-3D effect is initially a little weird, but it really makes the game come to life.
So far, I’ve only been talking about the gameplay itself, which is brilliant on iPad. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The game comes with a lengthy single-player campaign that you'd expect from an RPG and not a silly board game conversion. The map is made of planets and asteroids, each with its own quests and routes. You’re free to fly the routes you want instead of being railroaded down a certain story path, and each route offers its own unique rules and dangers. I really can’t express how incredible the campaign truly is. I’ve played around 15 hours, and I still haven’t revealed half of the map yet.
The campaign keeps creating reasons for me to head back to old planets for new quests and routes. If you see 2 planets not connected somehow, don't worry, there will be a route between them eventually. I’m constantly being surprised by funny dialog or great mechanisms that fit the theme of each route. For example, the campaign appeared to be done completely in the real-time, simultaneous-play mode, but then I found a planet full of methodical robots and was told that all routes leading off that planet need to be in turn-based mode. So much evident time and attention has been put into Galaxy Trucker's single-player campaign, which is more remarkable because I don't think any of us expected the game to have one at all.
I could seriously say that Galaxy Trucker would be worth it for the single-player campaign alone. It’s that good. But on top of campaign play, there is single-player vs. AI mode, too, which is like playing the cardboard version against bots. To make it interesting, there are 12 different bots between easy and tough difficulty and the bots in this game are either cheating or I suck [I’m guessing it’s the latter. --ed.], because they are tough to beat in a head-to-head race.
Multiplayer is offered in pass-and-play mode (turn-based building only, obviously), or online. The online mode offers the same options as the single-player games do, and include an option to increase or decrease the timers to force building your ship in a quicker, more hectic manner. Multiplayer plays fantastic and feels closer to the cardboard game than I ever could have hoped for.
Galaxy Trucker game offers a lengthy and brilliant tutorial for those just getting into the space trucking business, and has a rulebook (Yardmaster, I hope you're taking notes) that was built from the ground up for the digital version. Also, each card can be expanded and the rules for that event are displayed on the screen during the game. No need to leave a game and check out the rulebook.
What I haven’t mentioned yet is just how funny the game is, and I’m not just talking about your ship blowing up. If you’ve ever read the rulebook for the cardboard version, you know that it is, quite possibly, one of the greatest rulebooks ever written, displaying a sense of humor usually reserved to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett novels. It’s dry and meta and all sorts of wonderful, and that entire sense of fun permeates this game’s writing and visual style. The campaign has some actual laugh-out-loud moments, and you can’t help but smile at most of the denizens of the galaxy that you’ll run into.
The game designer who gave us empire-building games without maps evidently prides himself on doing the unexpected and Chvátil has done that again. Here's a digital board game with a single-player campaign that will keep you occupied through the end of the year, and a game defined by its frantic real-time scramble for parts that has been perfectly reshaped into a turn-based one. This is one impressive game.
Galaxy Trucker isn’t a game for everyone. People looking for a sober and realistic space game will hate its light-hearted tone. People who only play games to win will hate it. Perfectionists who can’t stand to watch their creations explode will hate it. You shouldn’t hang out with these people. These are bad people who are just wrong because Galaxy Trucker is too good not to love. Honestly, I can’t find any flaws with the game, and can see myself playing it for years. Galaxy Trucker isn’t merely the best board game on iPad this year, it's the best board game on iPad ever.
Galaxy Trucker was played on an iPad Air for this review.