Monday, December 7, 2015

Quick Review - The Universe - Kickstarter Preview

The Universe
Designer: Freddie Ipson
Publisher: Diletostra
Quick Review - The Universe - Kickstarter Preview
Disclaimer

The Universe is a casual dexterity game designed by someone who goes by the pseudonym Diletostra (aka Freddie Ipson, Stiggy Vanderskeen, or Stiggy Vranziskeen).  Diletostra contacted me via Board Game Geek and insisted that I review his game, so, although I'm not partial to dexterity games, I agreed to give The Universe a shot.

The Universe is currently on Kickstarter for $35 until December 12 and is scheduled to be fulfilled in December (yes, that's a quick turnaround, but my impression is that Diletostra has a number of these ready to go).  The campaign's funding goal is $5000.  You can check out the campaign here: http://kck.st/1k2u6Bs

Overview

The Universe is a dexterity game where players have three ships (a D6 die, a marble, and a disc) that they flick or roll around a game board populated with 44 planets and a black hole.  Each planet has a marble bumper glued to its center and is worth positive or negative points (ranging from -30 to +30) if your ship lands on it, except for four planets that award a bonus round (more on that later).  The game is for 2-6 players (according to the Board Game Geek listing, although it only came with pieces for four players) and plays in a varying amount of time depending on how many rounds you play (recommended is 10) and how many bonus rounds are earned (theoretically a skilled player could get into an endless loop of bonus rounds for a game that doesn't end until everyone gives up).

Setup and gameplay is pretty easy.  Simply unfold the game board and choose a set of pieces in one color and a corner to shoot from.  After randomly deciding who should start, players take turns choosing one of their three ships to flick (or roll, or propel in pretty much any other manner) from a corner base into the center of the board.  There are two planets right in front of each base that must be cleared (although a ricochet back onto those planets is legal).  Ships are left where they land until after everyone has launched all three of their ships, after which scores for the round are calculated.  Planets are worth their face value, either negative or positive, however the D6 die is a multiplier so whatever face is up multiplies the score for the die's planet by that amount.  Clear off all the ships and repeat.

If a player's ship ends up on the central Black Hole space, that ship is lost for the following round.  If a player's ship ends up on one of the four octagonal shaped planets the player gets a bonus round.  In a bonus round a player gets the entire board to himself and gets to shoot his three ships again.  But this time all the planets are worth positive points and instead of using a D6 the player gets to use a D20.  Also, the Black Hole awards an additional bonus round instead of causing the player to lose a ship.  So, theoretically a player could play endless bonus rounds, earning up to 635 points per bonus round.  Finally, after earning a bonus round a player gets a small ring to 'own' a planet.  The ring is worth 5 points and is placed on the marble bumper for any planet.  In future rounds, if someone lands on a planet owned by a player the owner also gets the points for that planet (always positive for the planet owner).

There were a few scenarios that weren't exactly discussed in the rules, but the game is so simple that they weren't really issues.  The game doesn't specify that players have to launch their ships from the same corner every time, but we each chose a corner as our own base.  Also, we decided that if a ship landed on an octagonal planet during a bonus round they don't get an additional bonus round.  Another slight change we made was to pass a Starting Player token clockwise each round so that everyone had an equal chance at playing first.

There are also a couple of simple variants to the game included in the instructions that focus a little more on skill and not on points.  One is to place rings on each planet and players take turns trying to collect rings by hitting planets and collecting the rings of hit planets.  The other is a variant of the classic HORSE where players try to replicate each others' shots, earning a letter if they fail.  Neither of these variants have detailed rules, however they're simple enough to play.

Final Thoughts

I have to be honest, when Diletostra first contacted me about reviewing The Universe I wasn't thrilled with the game.  I looked at the pictures and videos on his website and replied that I didn't think the game would be a fit for my game group.  It looked too random and too reliant on chance as opposed to skill or strategy.  Despite my reservations though, Diletostra was persistent an insisted on sending me a copy of the game, claiming there was no way I could make an assessment of the game without playing it.  So I agreed to review the game since he really seemed to want to send me the game.  "You seem to really know your games and what works for you. Offering you a free game that you could really do whatever with."  A few days later I received a large box wrapped in brown paper.

That's one big package!
The first thing that struck me about The Universe when it arrived was the size.  The box is HUGE!  The Universe arrived in a pizza box for a 20" pizza (thankfully unused), so the box is almost 21"x21"x2". The inside of the box has a thin plasticy material glued as a liner and black craft ribbon with velcro as straps to hold everything in place (sort of).
It didn't arrive in 30 minutes or less, or piping hot, but it was free...
Inside the box is a folded game board.  It's actually a pretty spiffy design that works well to have a board without any folds or cuts in the middle that might impede the flow of pieces. It's a square board with a 45 degree rotated square in the center. The corner triangles fold under to make the board smaller. Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be quite small enough though.  The resulting game is still about 18" square and as I mentioned, the box is huge.  Unfolded the game board is 25" square. The board is printed on corrugated plastic (like what a political yard sign might be made of) with marbles glued on to the planets (two of which fell off in transit, a third fell off during gameplay - they were easily hot glued back on though). The components are marbles, dice, and discs in four colors (blue, red, green, and yellow). Plus about 50 tiny black rubber o-rings. Rules are a single side of a letter sheet, laminated. Plus, I received a business card with a tiny, unique painting on it and the designer's website handwritten on the back (however it was stuck to the inside of the box with a loop of packing tape so I couldn't see the website until I peeled off the card).
Rules, a bag of components, and two
rogue planets (broken marble bumpers).

Strapped in for safety.
Yes, that is a business card...

Overall the components are a mix of a cheap board, cheaply affixed marble bumpers, average quality dice, typical wooden disks, and nice colored marbles.  The biggest problem with the components, however, are the black rubber o-rings used to mark planets as owned.  The problem isn't the o-rings themselves, but the fact that they are all black.  So after a couple of bonus rounds there's no good way to tell who owns what planets.  Fortunately we had a kids educational game that had colored rings we used instead.

Four dice, four marbles, four tokens, a D20, the game board, and a
bunch of o-rings make up the components.

The game is obviously hand made and a project of love by the designer, however you know what they say about the eye of the beholder and love's eyesight...  Looking past the nice, but not particularly great artwork and poor graphic design, ignoring the quality of the corrugated plastic board, pretending the glued on marble bumpers don't have to be reglued back on occasionally, and forgetting that I really didn't think there was much game here to begin with, I played this with my family this past weekend and gave it a fair shot.

We played a full ten rounds, as recommended, and had three bonus rounds added in.  The game lasted just a bit less than an hour for four of us.  By the time the hour was up we were ready for the game to be over.  Final scores were 235, 285, 350, and -25.  As I suspected, the game was about 93% luck, 5% skill, and 2% strategy.  The only strategy in the game is to aim for higher point planets (everyone has a 25 point planet that is a fairly straight shot and can net 150 points if you land you D6 there with the six side up) and bonus planets (again, a fairly straight shot and not too difficult to hit with your disk).  Defensively you can try to knock opponents off of the bonus spaces, but generally you're better off to just try to get on a bonus yourself.  There is a bit of skill required to get your die or disk onto a high scoring space or bonus space, but it's not much.  And the marble is pretty much just a random shot in the dark.  Unless the board is perfectly level, doesn't have any warps or divots, and isn't jostled at all during gameplay, the marbles just go pretty much anywhere.  The marbles are best used to try to knock someone else's disk or die off of a good planet, or to just shoot and hope for the best.
Scores were all over the place...
There are a few things that could improve the game drastically.  First we have the components.  The o-rings for owning planets need to be colored.  There is no way to tell who owns what otherwise.  The game also needs to be on a solid board, not a cheap plastic board that will easily warp and dent, particularly if the marbles are to remain.  And around the border of the board should be either a slightly raised frame or indented gutter to keep the marbles from rolling off so easily.  And ideally, each planet would have a very slight recession around the bumpers so that the marbles would 'gravitate' toward a planet slightly.  The recessions don't have to be big (so there's still a chance of marbles stopping in open space) or deep (so that marbles can be knocked away from planets still), but a little something would help add some skill to the paths of the marbles.  The problem though, is that the game board is already huge as it is.  Making it solid wood would just make it that much more difficult to package and store.  And you need a solution that doesn't have obstructive seams in the middle of the board.  So I'm not sure what the right solution to this would be.
Marbles were just as likely to end up on a planet as they
were to just roll randomly around the board.
Another improvement would be to organize the points on the board better.  Right now there's an even distribution of positive and negative point spaces on the board (a few more positive spaces than negative, but everyone is equidistant from every type of space).  Right now there are negative spaces right next to positive spaces.  Most other dexterity games reward accuracy, combined with distance.  Higher point spaces are closer to a central target (e.g. darts or horseshoes, or crokinole), or further away from the starting area, but without going too far (e.g. shuffleboard), or being able to accurately hit a specific space (bags, skee ball, snapshot).  The Universe tries to combine many different methods and it results in a board that relies more on luck than skill.  A better organization of targets so that negative point spaces had to be maneuvered around in order to hit positive point spaces would encourage aiming and skill.  Better yet, eliminate the negative point spaces and make them all positive, but make more challenging spaces to reach worth more points.  Maybe have planets that are owned be negative to other players and positive to owners even if someone else lands on them (e.g. paying rent).  I also don't like the idea that bonus rounds can continue indefinitely, so some other benefit to landing on the black hole would eliminate that (maybe the black hole is 50 points, or just keep the black hole with its original penalty of losing that ship for the next round so there's still a bit of risk in a bonus round).

I do have to say that my family had fun playing The Universe.  We laughed a lot during the game.  However most of that was not because of the game itself, it was because we were doing an activity together.  My sons loved the game, but that was mostly the novelty of flicking pieces around the board.  They would have had just as much fun rolling marbles around the table trying to knock over dominoes.  The points were, pardon the pun, pointless in the overall entertainment value of the game.  It was just fun to roll the marbles and watch them trace wiggly, unpredictable lines around the board, or to flick disks at other players' dice and marbles.  The Universe reminded me of games I used to make up and play at fast food restaurants, like taking turns sliding a salt shaker across a table trying to see if you could get it to hang off the edge without falling, or flinging pennies to see who could get closer to a quarter.  The Universe has all the mindless fun of that, but on a huge, colorful board.  If this is something you think is worth $35 you can check out the Kickstarter campaign here: http://kck.st/1k2u6Bs

Preliminary Rating: 3/10
This review is of a prototype game.  Components and rules are not final and are subject to change.

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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.  Quick Reviews will only get a single rating of 1-10 (low-high) based on my first impressions of the game during my first few times playing.  Hopefully I'll get more chances to play the game and will be able to give it a full review soon.

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