- Designer: Nathan Woll
- Publisher: Wizkids
- Players: 2-5
- Age: 14+
- Time: 45-90 minutes
- Played with review copy provided by publisher
Well, I’m normally not a fan of asymmetrical games – at least I’ve not found one in the past that really caught my eye. I think that personally I get a bit frustrated with the repetition required to learn and master the rules/strategies of the different factions. Also, many of the asymmetric games that I have played are on the longer side (Gaia Project, Root, Terra Mystica, etc) which makes them less likely to come out the dozen or more times needed to play everything. This is not a fault of the game, this is more just what I like (or dislike) about games. Plenty of my friends love games of this ilk, and admittedly, whenever we do play them, they tend to crush me mercilessly given their superior knowledge of the intricacies of the game which have been gained from many previous plays.
Free Radicals is a game new to all of us, and for now, we all start on the same footing. In Free Radicals, players take control of one of ten fully asymmetrical factions, each with its own path to earn resources, power, and the knowledge stored in the “Free Radicals”, which are giant mysterious objects that appeared around the world, causing a huge evolutionary leap in technology.
As I learned about the game from my Wizkids representative, I was really interested after hearing the different mechanisms associated with the factions.
- Farmers (Red) – A slow-Building domino-based Faction that does few actions in the early game then ramps up toward the end, making the Farmers great for beginners and players that like saving up for big gains.
- Executives (Red) – for the player that wants control. This Mancala based Faction has very few random elements, but can be unforgiving to mistakes
- Artisans (Yellow) – Hand management fans will feel right at home with this Faction. The Artisans are a great Faction for those that like multi-use cards
- Underground (Yellow) – Deck-leveling is the key to playing The Underground. Those that enjoy customization will appreciate powering-up the different characters of The Underground.
- Merchants (Green) – Players who pay attention to their opponents and the true state of the game will do well. This Faction is also good for those that like Resource-conversion engines
- Hoteliers (Green) – a great choice for the player that likes puzzles. However, this Faction can sometimes put players into difficult positions
- Couriers (Blue) – Players that like to plan ahead will like The Couriers, along with players who like pick-up and deliver mechanisms.
- Entertainers (Blue) – This Faction is all about tactics and optimizing randomness. Players interested in making the best of a random draw each round will want to play The Entertainers.
- Adventurers (Purple) – This Faction is great for exploration. Players who enjoy discovering different routes to victory each game will like The Adventurers
- Paladins (Purple) – This Faction employs a programming mechanism and is also good for beginners. Players who want to plan ahead and don’t mind being locked in to their actions will want to play The Paladins.
Maybe this will turn out to be a game for everyone – I can play the exploration game that I want while John solves puzzles and James Nathan just goes for maximum randomness… Excellent!
So how do you play? Let me try to explain it like I teach it.
The game will be won by the player who scores the most points. The game itself will be played over twelve rounds. In each round, you’ll take a turn – mostly on your own player faction board, though some of the action will take place on the main board in the center of the table. Your overall goal is to score points. You can also use resources to Awaken Buildings, advance on the Knowledge track or collect Favor cubes from other factions.
To set the game up; each player must pick a faction. You can do this however you want; you can determine it randomly, you can roll a d10, use you favorite color, or you can have players pick them based on the mechanism they feel like playing at that time. There are 5 colors, each with two options; and the only restriction is that both factions of a color can’t both be in the game. (See above for descriptions of the factions). Take all of the equipment of your faction: board, cubes, double sided player aid and any unique bits your faction requires – hopefully your host has conveniently placed all the bits in separate baggies for you…
The main board is placed on the table. At the left side, you’ll see the score track. There are a row of 10 building that is found at the bottom of the board. The top half has a round tracker, a display area for 4 data cards and then the knowledge tracks, one row for each color. In this game, regardless of the number of players, all 5 colors will always be in the game as far as Knowledge goes.
All of the bits are placed as a supply. The three resources: black Carbon, white Hydrogen and silver Titanium, the credit chits, and the deck of data cards. There is also a Prestige token which starts in the supply, but once someone owns it, it will be transferred back and forth between the players. Depending on how you like it, the Favor cubes can either be in a central supply or each player can control their own color.
OK, back to the turn flow. The active player takes a turn. To do so, they follow the turn sequence printed on their player board. Essentially, each player board has a completely different “game” on it. So, just do your thing. Each faction does start with the same Prestige phase though – if you have the Prestige token at the start of your turn, you score a victory point. After that, each of the ten games does their own thing.
But, regardless of whether you are hand managing, pick up and delivering, polyomino-ing or whatever, you are still trying to do the same basic things. Almost all your actions will require you to play a data card (each of which has two colors on them). Some of the things you might do include:
- Draw more Data cards – a card with an asterisk means take a card from the display on the board or top of the deck, a card icon with a question mark means take the top card from the deck. There is no hand size limit.
- Gain Resources – take money, carbon, hydrogen, titanium from the supply
- Gain Favor – you are trying to collect as many cubes as you can of the other four colors; once you have them, you can never lose them nor give them away
- Awaken a Building – A building on the lower half of the board cannot be used until it has been Awoken, though there are two spaces for Awakening. To do this, you must first figure out how your game triggers this action and do it – then reveal a Data card from your hand that has your own faction color. Pay the resource cost at the bottom and then place one of your favor cubes in an available Awakening slot for that building on the board. Score points as shown on the bottom of your played card and discard the card..
- Visit an Awakened Building – once there is at least one favor cube on a building, you can visit it. For each control cube not in your color there, place a Favor cube of your own on the building; then take the action of the building in the larger box. If it is “your” building – each Faction has one specific building that is theirs – you can instead choose to take the special action in the smaller bottom box. Finally, the players who have control markers at the building take your favor cube and then also get whatever control bonus is found just underneath where their control cubes are. You can only visit a particular building once in a turn.
- Advance on the Knowledge track – you can advance a color on the track. To do so, you must pay the cost at the top of the column you are moving into, move the cube, and then score the points shown under the cost. If you move an opponent color past one of the three breaks, you also can take a bonus as listed in the gap between spaces.
Anyways, take time to read your double sided sheet of rules; each of which concisely tells you how to play your game. At the end of the game, after 12 rounds/turns, there is a final scoring.
- Knowledge – the color which has gone the furthest scores 7 pts, second furthest scores 3pts. If this is a non-player color, then no one gets points for that position.
- Favor – The player with the most Favor cubes from other players scores 7 pts, second most scores 3 pts
- Favor sets – for each complete set of four opponent favor cubes, score 2 pts
- Items – score 1 point for every 3 credits, resources and data cards left over
The player with the most points wins. Ties broken in favor of the player with the most items left.
My thoughts on the game
So before I talk about the game, let me give two examples of the ten different games to be played: The Farmers and the Merchants.
The Farmers (Red) play a domino tile action. The majority of their board is a 6×5 grid of spaces with a starting tile in the middle. Above this are three rows of 3 tiles, labeled Build,Crystallize and Trade. On a turn, they choose one of the 3 actions: Build (activate a building), Crystalize (place a crystal marker on a domino tile) or Trade (A → B). After that, you choose one of the three tiles from the action row you just used and place it on the board. Each domino has 2 icons on it, each icon refers to a different action – really not sure why the icons here aren’t simply for the actions. Anyways, you activate each of the icons on the newly placed tile, getting one action for the icon on the tile and one additional action for each similar icon in an orthogonally adjacent group. If you choose an icon group that has a crystal on it, you can choose to take the prestige marker instead. To end your turn, you replace the tile space which you just drew from.
The Merchants (green) play a resource management game. Their board has 5 markets, each a single column, each having 8 different shops. At the start of the game, you get a Stall marker placed on the “Gain the Prestige token” shop in the Green market. On your turn, you move your merchant to a new column, and then activate any Stalls you have in that column – you automatically get to take the action of that shop with the stall. Next, you have three action cubes, and you use each to take the action of a different shop in that market. This could get you resources, draw cards, activate buildings, visit buildings, gain knowledge, build more stalls, etc.
As you can see, these two players will be doing vastly different things on their turn, though in the end, they are still trying to get the same end result (getting stuff and points). When I first read the rules, I really couldn’t see how these different ideas were going to work together – would these separate games end up being a cohesive whole at the end?
After a few games, the short answer is: yes, it really does work. And I’ll freely admit to being surprised by that.
Over the course of the game, I find that I get absorbed in my own little world. My player mat has my personal game on it, and there’s nothing that anyone else can do to affect that. I love that sort of thing; being a card carrying member of the Gaming Sandbox club. Sure, there is a little bit of competition for the knowledge track and the buildings. It’s good to activate a building that other people want to use, as you’ll get constant little bonuses from it. Also, if you have the choice between multiple buildings, sometimes you might choose one over another depending on who gets cubes/bonuses, etc.
But overall, you’ll play the game in your own little world doing your things by your own rules. And your opponents will too. Some boards make it easier to get cards. Others make it easier to activate buildings. Maybe it’s easier to get the Prestige token or to get cubes from your opponents. In the end, there are only a few things that happen, and the key is figuring out what your board does well and how to maximize that advantage.
From what I’ve seen so far, the boards seem balanced, I have no way to really know that given my limited experience with any single faction (I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen any one particular faction more than 3 times) – but none of our games have ended up with a runaway situation. Each of us might be doing different things – or heck, we might have the same strengths – but we’re each doing our own little minigame to get those actions.
In the first few games, I found that I spent some/much of the game just concentrating on my board. Until you figure out how a faction wants to work, you need to just sit and think about your possible moves. Also, since you don’t really know how the opponent factions work, it’s not overly interesting to watch them think. But… once you are more familiar with the game, it’s a little fun to watch how your opponents play (and then silently judge them based on how you think they should have played!). There still isn’t too much interaction on an opponent turn – maybe you have to give up a cube or gain a small bonus from one of your buildings – but there’s enough to do to keep you from getting bored.
And honestly, sometimes it’s nice to have a game where you can chat with the non-active players as they puzzle things out. But, in our group, I’ve found that there isn’t much downtime as we each try to figure out the bulk of our next turn in that downtime, and once we see the current state of the board, we can usually quickly take our turn. As we all have isolated boards with different mechanisms, it’s easy to pre-plan your next turn while you wait. After all, there is really nothing anyone can do to affect your own player board.
The game moves along quickly in our group for reasons I mentioned above, and the twelve rounds are the right length to give you time to do the things you want to do without making the game go on too long. Initial games took a bit longer as we all had to read up on our boards and how to play them, as well as general questions – but familiarity now gets the games in around an hour.
Free Radicals is definitely a unique game in the collection – I’m not sure I have anything else that takes quite this asymmetric approach. Certainly not in the 1 hour time frame… and for that reason, this one is a keeper. It’s also the perfect game to pull out when no one can make up their mind about what they want to play. With this game, everyone can play the type of game they want. It would be even more perfect if they can come up with a social deduction, trick taking or dexterity expansion!
Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers
Steph: Works best with more players. When I played with 2players we saw some boring interactions and mechanics that were uninteresting. When I played with 4 players it was much more interesting and exciting. I am somewhere between the Love it and Like it ratings. I am looking forward to trying more factions though!
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Dale Y
- I like it. John P, Steph H
- Not for me…