Is That a Galapagos in Your Pocket?
John Clowdus is best known for his sharp two-player designs, including gems such as The North, Bronze Age, and the big one, Omen: A Reign of War. Instead of sticking to the script, his latest effort is a solitaire game that fits into your pocket. Even a small pocket will serve. How does it stack up? Let’s take a look.
It’s impossible to talk about Pocket Galapagos without acknowledging its form factor. Not only that it’s small, but also that it gets rolling with only the slightest nudge. For one thing, there’s no rulebook. Instead, a few cards introduce the setting, what the other cards look like, and where everything should be placed on the table. From there, the same cards used during play do all the heavy lifting. The phases of each turn, for example, are printed on the card that sits atop the draw deck. The effects of the four rows where you’ll be slotting cards are printed right there next to those four rows. Easy.
Much of this ease is due to the way Clowdus showcases his balancing act — which is a gentle way of saying the game resembles a budget spreadsheet with four inputs. Three, really, if you don’t count the turn tracker. At its most basic, your goal is to prevent two of those three species from hitting zero population at the same time. This is easier said than done: every turn, five cards appear from the (bottom of) the draw deck. Two of these will prove useful, occupying your bottom-most row to add population and activate helpful abilities. The remainder are then flipped face-down, revealing invasive species that first occupy and eventually overwhelm the other three rows. This portion of the game is deliberately testy. You’re never quite sure what will appear on a card’s reverse, whether its ability will prove harmful, or whether it will bring the game crashing down in failure.
Flexibility is the buzzword of the day. The more spaces you keep open, the less likely you are to find yourself cornered by a bad draw. This is familiar space for Clowdus, and the game’s most interesting decisions reside in territory he’s trod a dozen times before, bouncing cards off each other and finding the occasional niche where one didn’t exist at the turn’s beginning. At its strongest, the species native to Pocket Galapagos are restorative, gobbling up invaders or learning to tolerate their presence. Do their abilities reflect the biological traits of real-life rays and sea lions? No idea. But the paradox of nature, that it’s both delicate and resilient at the same time, is on full display.
It’s difficult to assess whether Pocket Galapagos succeeds as a solitaire game. At a technical level it’s certainly functional, and its player will have made a sequence of decisions that led either to survival or collapse. But it also feels more like a proof of concept than a finished plaything.
The best illustration of this is its approach to the advanced mode. In the game’s introductory mode, its only goal is to survive ten turns. Ramped up, you also need to reach a certain score threshold. But that threshold is so trivial that it doesn’t warrant much thought during play. This isn’t to say it’s trivial to win — on the contrary, success depends so much on which invaders are revealed when you flip your remaining cards mid-turn that a loss never feels more than an inch away. Rather, the threshold is trivial. As long as you survive those ten turns, you’re all but guaranteed to meet the proper score.
This raises a somewhat philosophical question: why have points at all? Do they exist to pat you on the head for actions you’re already undertaking? Or should they be present as goals to strive toward, perhaps accomplishments you might have overlooked while focusing on survival? It goes without saying that there are very successful games that follow either approach, so I’m not arguing that one or the other is the better decision. (Although, sure, I prefer the second, in which victory points aren’t awarded for every action you could take.) Here, though, Clowdus’s customary focus is more diffuse. Where his games usually revolve around precise goals, this approach feels more scattershot. Or worse, with entire ideas coming across as vestigial.
It’s an odd thing to play a title by John Clowdus that doesn’t elicit a strong reaction. Even his weaker games nearly always prove interesting. By contrast, Pocket Galapagos sets up easily, but also slips back into its box with hardly a complaint.
A complimentary copy was provided.