Checking the Rules: The Board Game
In Nathan Woll’s Free Radicals, the free radicals are not the sexy cyberpunk characters frolicking on the cover. A free radical is apparently what we’ve decided to name the hovering alien spacecraft that have settled over the surface of our planet. These artifacts are fonts of limitless knowledge. But where Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” posited that first contact was an exercise in linguistics, these free radicals are more interested in helping us do capitalism better.
In game terms, that translates to ten different factions each playing their own game. Keep those rules sheets handy. You’re going to need them.
Free Radicals has pedigree. There’s really no other way to discuss it. Each of the game’s ten factions is based on a different genre, sometimes even a single mechanism. Playing as the Couriers sees you traveling around the city to pick up and deliver goods. The Paladins require you to program your actions in advance. There are dominoes that double as an action selection system (Farmers), polyominoes that must be stacked (Hoteliers), resource conversion engines (Merchants), and the occasional round of mancala (Executives). Multi-use cards? Yep. Dungeon diving? Yes, actually. Deck-building? Sorta.
It’s the sort of game that couldn’t have existed until now thanks to how much it relies on an ingrained understanding of its many systems. Call it peak mechanical diffusion. It calls to mind Friedemann Friese’s 504, that experimental grab-bag that was more of a showcase about board games than a functional board game in its own right. But the more relevant touchstone is Cole Wehrle’s Root. Free Radicals is clearly intended as an actual plaything, not a guideline or a statement piece. At a deeper level, it’s not only about game systems, but about pitting them against one another, seeing how they interact in a competitive environment, like an industrialized Celebrity Deathmatch. Or like, well, Root.
The comparison to Root also highlights what makes Free Radicals so different and, by extension, so frustrating to engage with. Like Root, learning Free Radicals is an exercise in parsing board game rules sheets. Those who haven’t learned to translate the particular technical language that is rulespeak will flounder. Even among experienced players, the first round or two is filled with stumbles and take-backs. Root streamlined its overload by parceling out only a handful of factions at a time and giving them common parlance and goals. Free Radicals swamps you with ten factions right out of the gate, and there are so few parallels between them that knowledge of one rarely translates to understanding of another.
This highlights its largest departure from Root’s framework: rather than intersecting as often as possible, the sides in Free Radicals are isolated cells that communicate only remotely. The Hoteliers ostensibly billet the other factions, but their room arrangement puzzles don’t consider the needs of, say, the Paladins or the Artisans. The Underground stands in opposition to something, but it never gets around to undermining the play processes of the Executives or Merchants. The Entertainers hope to capture the city’s zeitgeist and therefore earn the favor cubes of their peers, but never by tailoring their streamed dance-offs to the desires of their audience. When somebody reaches out to touch you, it’s to ask what you think of an ambiguity on their rules sheet, never because they’ve done something that will unsettle the balance of power.
In other words, Free Radicals replicates Root’s fumbling learning stages, but with even more material, very little interconnection, and sans the depths that arise once its factions are mastered.
Okay, so Free Radicals isn’t very good at being Root. Is it any good at being Free Radicals? Let’s answer that question by looking at how its factions interact.
When they dare venture from their cells, there are a handful of ways one faction might reach out and brush against another. Some of these are superficial. Such as a prestige marker that seems intended to call out which faction is currently dominant, but in practice is tied to faction-specific actions and awards so few points that its presence isn’t anything to brag about. Or the knowledge track, a measure of how much data you’ve pulled from the free radical hovering over the city. This also doesn’t leave much of a mark; despite representing paradigm-altering information, it’s disappointingly relegated to a scoring bonus rather than having a tangible impact on how any of the factions operate. Most of the time, I forgot there was an extraterrestrial artifact floating overhead.
More importantly, the city also contains ten structures. Each provides its own action, plus a faction-specific action just in case you were worried there wouldn’t be more to learn. Instead of being available from the outset, these buildings must be “awakened.” The awakening process is both straightforward (spend the materials listed on a card) and awkward (your faction must also be listed). Once awakened, everyone is granted access to the building’s action.
All that alien knowledge, and the result is as banal as another real estate rush. And a rush it is. In addition to doling out a heap of points, a building’s awakening faction is repeatedly rewarded. Visiting a structure gives its owner one of your favor cubes — not a sacrifice on your part, but favor will factor into the final score in a major way — as well as a material bonus such as cash, a resource, or an extra card. I wouldn’t dare comment on the balance of a game as complicated as Free Radicals, but I will say that some factions seem to have easier access to these central structures than others, whether to construct or visit them. Add in some random draws and you have a game that rarely feels balanced, regardless of whether or not it is.
The effect is stilted. For most of its duration, Free Radicals is played heads-down, your own personal minigame put on ice for extended lengths while everybody else figures out their own puzzle. Lest you hope to plan your turn in advance, the availability of these buildings is constantly shifting. This forces everybody to adjust their plans on the fly, which in turn stretches out the downtime. The whole thing feels pokey. It’s like a prairie dog momentarily emerging from its hole, seeing its planned meal already picked clean, and so retreating until its next chance comes around. Repeat that process twelve times over two hours and you’ll have some sense for what it feels like to play Free Radicals.
I’ll put it this way. Free Radicals is conceptually exciting, proposing that all ways of life would be significantly transformed by the emergence of something truly mind-altering. But like its orbiting spaceships, it’s more interesting as an artifact than as a plaything. I love the idea of a game that leans hard on our ingrained knowledge of how board games function. This doesn’t quite achieve that dream. Its factions are too finicky, its plans too capricious, its interactions too remote. The result is a curiosity: hovering just out of reach, becoming all too ordinary once touched.
A complimentary copy was provided.