- Designer: Matt Leacock
- Publishers: Peaceable Kingdom
- Players: 2-4
- Time: 10-30 minutes (if this is taking you 30 minutes, you’re playing it wrong)
- Ages: 7+
- Games Played: 8 (with a review copy provided by Peaceable Kingdom)
I could only assume/guess/surmise that the name of the new Matt Leacock game – Mole Rats in Space – had some distant relationship to:
a) Pigs in Space (one of the great bits of weirdness from the Muppet archives) and/or
b) Rufus the Naked Mole Rat (boon companion of Ron Stoppable)
And the villains of the game, a plethora of snakes… well, just ask Samuel L. Jackson or Indiana Jones about those slithery monsters.
Imagine my pleasant surprise to find out (thanks to the rulebook) that mole rats actually work cooperatively with each other… and that the main predator for them is… snakes. (On or off a plane.)
Anyway, you didn’t come here to read my ramblings about board game naming and pop culture. (Or maybe you did.) So, let’s get to the reviewing.
It’s Not A Tumor (aka Chutes & Ladders)
So, pretty much every time I’ve opened the board up to teach someone Mole Rats in Space, the first thing out of their mouth is “It’s Chutes & Ladders in space.” No, no… a thousand times, no.
Chutes & Ladders is, in no uncertain terms, one of the worst in-print games ever designed. The only reason for making your child play it is because you want to develop a deep-set streak of fatalism in their philosophical outlook. The “game” (and, yes, I used scare quotes on purpose) is deterministic – spin the spinner and move. Hit the wrong space (which you can’t control) and you go backwards. Hit a different space (which you also can’t control) and you are rewarded.
While Mole Rats in Space has a similar board structure with ladders that lead deeper & deeper into the ship (to where the escape pod is located) and suction tubes that move you down a level or into the deep inky airless vacuum of space, the game play is markedly different.
I’ll Take Cooperative Games for $500, Alex
Mole Rats in Space is the newest cooperative game from the dean of cooperative game design, Matt Leacock. His most famous creation is Pandemic…
…what with three expansions…
- Pandemic: On the Brink
- Pandemic: In the Lab
- Pandemic: State of Emergency
…and four spin-off games designed by Matt:
- Pandemic: The Cure
- Pandemic Legacy (Season 1)
- Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu
- Pandemic: Iberia
He’s also well-known for designing a pair of family-friendly cooperative games – Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert – both of which I’ve reviewed here on the Opinionated Gamers. (You can click on the game names to read my reviews.) Matt also designed the official Thunderbirds cooperative game.
Yeah, he knows what he’s doing.
“…at a bar called O’Malley’s, where we´ll plan our escape…”
The objective of the game is simple: get away from the horde of snakes that are slithering out of the air vents. In order to do this, your team of intrepid mole rats must gather four important items (duct tape, toothbrush, radishes and a map) and board the escape pod. Similar to Pandemic, you can lose in a variety of ways:
- If one of your mole rats is sucked out of the space station, you lose.
- If one of your mole rats is bitten twice by snakes, you lose.
- If a snake gets in the escape pod, you lose.
- If your team runs out of time (empties the draw deck), you lose.
- [There is one additional way to lose when you’re playing in challenge mode… but I won’t spoil the secret.]
The set-up is simple:
- Put one snake of each color (there are four of them) on their starting spaces.
- Place the important items on their starting spaces.
- Place the mole rat figures (with a med-kit in their backup) on their starting spaces.
- Deal each player one card face-up from the deck.
- The youngest player starts.
Each turn, a player moves (depending on the card):
- His mole rat
- Any mole rat
- All the mole rats
The number of spaces is indicated on the card… but the player chooses the direction of movement.
Then the player executes whatever snake action is called for:
- Moving one snake of a particular color
- Spawning a new snake
- Moving all the snakes of a particular color
- Having one (or more) snakes of a particular color climb the closest ladder
If you end movement on a piece of equipment, you pick it up & put it in your backpack.
If you move over or onto a snake, you are bitten and must discard your med-kit and put your mole rat back on their start space. Remember: a second bite ends the game with a loss… so just don’t go there.
Like I said, this isn’t a difficult game to learn. The simplicity masks some very tricky (and very enjoyable) problem-solving, though!
Mark’s Mini-Thesis on Cooperative Games… As Applied to Mole Rats in Space
For me, cooperative games succeed or fail on some simple questions:
- Is there a coherent and/or compelling story arc to the game?
Yes. Gathering the equipment and getting to the escape pod while snakes multiply around you works like a charm.
- Are there meaningful decisions to be made by the players?
Yes. Though Mole Rats in Space is the least complex of Matt Leacock’s cooperative designs, players have to balance priorities to successfully escape: getting the equipment, keeping the mole rats venom-free, and slowing the relentless march of the snakes toward the escape pod.
This is made easier by the “look ahead” that the group has due to the face-up player cards. I’ve enjoyed how my sons have spotted chain reactions that I missed – both saving us from certain doom and opening up ways to win.
- Is the game system have enough randomness to offer a new play experience each time… while predictable enough to make the players feel like they have both strategic & tactical choices? (Note: I didn’t say that players HAD to have strategic choices – just that they felt like they did.)
Yes. While the board is fixed, the order that cards are drawn can have a big effect on player decisions.
- Is the game susceptible to a player/dictator?
One of the problems inherent in cooperative games is having one player “direct” the play of the rest of the players to solve the puzzle. There are various ways to solve this as a game design problem: hidden information, real-time play, appointing a leader, etc… (Or my favorite home remedy: don’t let obnoxious people play games with you.)
If Mole Rats in Space has a weak point, it’s the alpha player problem. I think for the intended family audience that it’s unlikely to be an issue… but the potential is there. With that said, we haven’t experience that in our games with people who have played a number of cooperative games.
Note: I actually created this series of questions for my review of Matt’s Forbidden Desert…
A nice touch is the inclusion of a sealed Challenge cards envelope which adds some additional cards to the deck, along with an additional way for the mole rats to lose their battle against the reptilian invasion. The rules strongly suggest that you need to win three games before opening the envelope… even thoughtfully provided checkboxes on the envelope to track your wins.
No spoilers here – but it’s not a radical change to the basic structure of the game. It makes the game a bit more difficult, which is a good thing as players get better at figuring out how best to play the game.
And in the End…
After 7 games, my sons & I are 4-4 against the snakes… and we actually won our first game using the Challenge cards. I think that’s an appropriate balance for a family-oriented cooperative game. We’ve also found that the larger number of players feels easier since you have a farther “look ahead” with what those pesky snakes are going to do.
Compared to the subtleties of Pandemic or even Thunderbirds, Mole Rats in Space is a pretty simple & straightforward game. While that makes it unlikely to take the hardcore gamer community by storm, it is perfectly suited for the family audience. The $19.99 MSRP makes it an affordable entry into cooperative gaming… and the simple gameplay makes it easy to teach, even to non-gamers.
The board and cards are nicely done, as are the plastic mole rat pieces. The cardboard pieces (snake tokens, equipment tokens, and med-kits) are thinner than I would like, but they work just fine.
More importantly, it’s one of those games that have the “potato chip” factor – as soon as you finish playing, there’s a temptation to immediately play again… especially if the snakes overwhelmed your intrepid team of mole rats.
All in all, I’m excited both for Peaceable Kingdom (who has put out a great entry into the co-op genre) and for new audiences who will find a world of family gaming opened up to them.
For those playing along at home, the pop-culture references include:
- The Muppet Show
- Kim Possible
- Snakes on a Plane
- Raiders of the Lost Ark
- Kindergarten Cop
- “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” (Rupert Holmes)
- “The One With The Embryos” – Friends
- “The End” (The Beatles)
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it…
I like it… Mark Jackson
Not for me…