It’s the dystopian future and a group of attractive youngsters are the only ones who can stick it to the system. How very Young Adult! If you haven’t heard of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series, don’t worry, neither had I. Nor is any knowledge of the series necessary to play Jamey Stegmaier’s cardboard adaptation. Although that’s largely because this adaptation is more about professional networking than overthrowing the ruling class.
Bear with me while we discuss the minutiae of professional networking.
You have a hand of cards. Five, I think, but don’t hold me to that. Every card depicts a character from Red Rising. That’s my assumption, anyway, since this game is named Red Rising and Jamey Stegmaier’s favorite series is Red Rising, and any conclusion besides a direct connection seems tenuous. More importantly, these characters have victory point values. Multiple values, in fact. There’s their core value, which they’re always worth, and then there are one or two additional values that will trigger once they’re paired with the correct cards. Just to pull two random examples from the deck, Ragnar, an obsidian-suit assassin, is worth 20 points, plus an additional 10 if with an orange card and another 10 if with Sefi, a specific character buried somewhere in the deck; the Nanny is a brown-suit assistant worth 10 points, plus 5 more for each silver, white, and copper suit in your hand at the end of the game. To answer the question you’re probably already asking, there are fourteen suits in total. Yes, that’s quite a few. Yes, we will return to this.
Since these cards were dealt at random — and since the deck is rather thick — their likelihood of working together is infinitesimally low. Hence the networking. Red Rising’s central idea could be described as card swapping. You play a card to one of the board’s four columns and then take a card from another column. There are the requisite abilities to trigger and bonuses to earn, split between fleets and helium and influence, all of which have less impact than their evocative titles would suggest. Strip those away, though, and that’s the gist: play a card, gain a card. Under ideal circumstances, each swap brings you closer to a hand full of point-sputtering synergies.
It isn’t exactly a dystopian hellscape, although I’m inclined to be conciliatory toward Stegmaier’s adaptation on that front. After all, it accomplishes precisely what’s asked of most board game “themes”: a mnemonic, some art, references for the sake of references, there to function as a reminder for fans of the book series, so that when you draw Antonia, who earns extra points when held with The Jackal but loses points with Victra or Sevro, those who know these characters will say, “Ah yes, of course, that makes perfect sense,” and have an easier time dredging these particular characters from the deck or spotting them once they’re loosed into the wild of the board’s four columns. It may be disappointing that it says nothing about class struggle, oppressive systems, or how the adrift and the misplaced may find their place in rebellion, but it’s also not unexpected.
Leaving behind any hope for deeper insight, Red Rising’s card-swapping is packed with moments that are very gamey, but in the strongest sense of the word, requiring constant trade-offs, even sacrifices, to rack up a massive score. Players often reach a sort of second-act equilibrium: your hand is finally pulling in decent numbers, but with a few tweaks you could nudge them even higher. Now a leap is required. Putting out a particular card will let you take a chance on something else, but it’s only a chance. You’ll need to make three or four swaps before the whole thing comes together. The cards you want are right there for the taking, but that means they’re also available to your fellows. The card you’ve just played, the safe harbor of the decent hand you’re pulling apart, is vulnerable to being stolen away by a rival. How do you chart that course? Who do you toss away? What sort of equilibrium do you strike between taking a chance and concluding that your hand is good enough to win? Board games thrive on these processional exchanges, and Red Rising is full of them.
I’ve seen a few complaints over the thickness of the deck and the range of the game’s suits. There’s far more material here than you’ll plumb in a single session; drawing through half the deck takes longer than expected. It can also be easy to confuse golds and yellows, browns and coppers, silvers and grays. It isn’t uncommon to hope for a particular card and never see it. To be clear, though, that’s exactly what enables Red Rising’s most interesting exchanges. You’re here to fix a hand of disparate cards with limited and uncertain tools. If every card appeared in every play, this would be a game about building singular combos, not a game about stitching together something functional.
That said, Red Rising is just inflexible enough that it becomes brittle. I mentioned its length, which drags in the latter half, and the flimsiness of its bonuses, which are so minor that they almost function more like tiebreakers than genuine scoring opportunities. These are minor in the grand scheme of things, irritations rather than dealbreakers.
The real problem is how the game rewards massive hands. There’s a ding for every card over seven, but it’s a tiny deduction of 10 points compared to most cards’ scoring ceiling of around 30 to 40. The larger your hand, the more likely you are to meet the conditions on your other cards. This means it’s possible to begin a scoring avalanche that’s almost impossible to beat with a more compact hand of cards regardless of their quality. Of course, the answer is found in the play itself; abilities that let you end your turn with an extra card rather than simply swapping one for one become the most valuable commodities on the table. Whoever controls them will likely win. This could be the basis for a compelling game in its own right, certain cards acting as hot potatoes to round up or toss out at the right moments. But in Red Rising it operates more like an uncomfortable extra appendage, awkward and distracting, something you’re forced to pay attention to because somebody at the table keeps profiting from it rather than because you can cleverly fold it into your own plans.
It’s unfortunate to discover that big hands are nearly always superior to quality hands, especially in a game about putting together the perfect team. It’s almost like discovering that Ocean’s 34 would be inherently superior to Ocean’s 11, a flash mob descending upon Las Vegas’s hottest venues to dance their way into a mobster’s vault. Paired with Red Rising’s other problems, this adaptation reflects Hollywood’s weaker attempts to rekindle the spark of Young Adult fiction: pretty, well advertised, and entirely empty.
A complimentary copy was provided.