Review: Rocket Patrol

By Kelsey Rinella 23 Apr 2013 0
A close race. It LOOKS like a perfectly good game.

Rocket Patrol is an ill-designed implementation of a simple time-waster crippled by monetization. It's a moderately attractive adaptation of the basic mechanics of the card-based tabletop classic Mille Bornes, pleasingly re-themed to take place in space. Unfortunately, the adaptation changes the mix of cards and tweaks some of the rules in ways which virtually ensure that every game will come down to the equivalent of repeatedly drawing to an inside straight.

In Rocket Patrol, you race your rocket against exactly one opponent by playing cards which advance you a certain number of light-years. To win, you must play exactly eight 5s, four 15s, 2 25s, and 2 100s. However, you can only play your 100 cards after playing a Hyperspace card, and there are three hazards each racer can play on the other which both drop their rocket out of hyperspace and require fixing by a matching solution card before the rocket can advance. Some also remove a 25 or 100 from the target's progress. Though the game never explains the mix of cards it uses, it seems to have roughly equal numbers of every card except 5s, which mercifully show up twice as often as everything else (though the card pool doesn't seem to be limited in the way the physical game is, making counting cards irrelevant).

Rocket Patrol's menu Brilliant asynch implementation.

The problem with this setup is how rarely you can make a meaningful decision. Since the hazards never remove 5s or 15s, you take less of a risk playing those first. There's no disadvantage to being behind in the race so long as you're keeping up with the number of cards played. So most games start with both players playing all of the 5s and 15s they have available, then 25s or Hyperspaces into 100s. It's generally smart to hang onto hazards until your opponent plays a Hyperspace, then get a two-for-one by both dropping her out of it and requiring her to play the solution to that problem. This puts her in the position of requiring a specific card to make any progress. Similarly, if you've played everything but your 100s, you need a Hyperspace card. The game allows you to discard a card and draw a new one, which you will be forced to do repeatedly until you happen to get just the card you need. There's some hand-management strategy associated with the choice of which card to discard, but it's a terrifically unsatisfying pattern.

The developers alleviate this in two ways: there's a pair of cards you can unlock (for a modest fee), one of which is a universal solution, the Trouble Nullifier. Not only is this thematically hilarious, it's also crucial for making hand management more interesting and reducing the wait time before you can proceed when you've hit a hazard you can't immediately fix. They also built a new and interesting option into the game: you can discard your entire hand and draw a full hand of six new cards. There's a nice tension there between hanging on to the cards you've carefully husbanded and hoping to draw what you need with a single discard, and throwing your hand management work away and maximizing your chances of fixing the immediate problem.

Infuriatingly, each use of this ability requires a star (if you're human--the AI is always allowed infinite stars). Played optimally, a single game averages perhaps five or ten such swaps. You get a star for each game you win, and can buy more with real money. Given the rate at which they are used, anyone who plans to play Rocket Patrol more than a little would spend least by buying their infinite stars option, which is ten times the price of unlocking the full game! While the price isn't excessive, it feels deceptively presented--what they've called the "full game" should not be regarded as such, because it severely limits a player's ability to even have the option of making the most interesting decision the game offers.

Due to the simplicity and brevity of the game, it's an excellent fit for a phone. However, the portrait-only interface they've chosen for the app, while attractive, wastes a great deal of space and does a poor job of making salient information highly visible, so Rocket Patrol isn't available for smaller devices yet. There is one nice bit of design in there, though: the home screen lists multiplayer games in progress. No more Play Online > Game List before you can see your turns.

Rocket Patrol has the potential to become a perfectly decent time-waster with some tweaking. Maybe they could use the Trouble Nullifier to sort that out.

Review: Rocket Patrol

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