Galaxy Trucker Review


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Posted by Nate on Sep 1, 2015

Of all of gaming’s big hits, Galaxy Trucker is one of the strangest. It’s an optimization game that rewards snap judgements far more than methodical planning, and it has a touch of chaos in its soul. None of those things feel like they belong together and yet here we are. Galaxy Trucker was one of the first heavy Eurogames to embrace some level of off-balance design. Along with its contemporary Agricola, it sought to mangle the efficiency-based conventions of the genre. Agricola did it with hundreds of cards in the box, and Galaxy Trucker did it with an insane real-time building mechanic and sharply random events. It also happens to be a very funny game.

Part of the game’s appeal is the setting, which should appeal to fans of Douglas Adams. The players are all the titular truckers, tasked with hauling cargo around space. The problem is that their company pays poorly, and the players are forced to build their own ships by racing through the warehouse and grabbing whatever components they can. This is where the real-time building comes in, a little like Carcassonne, except everyone takes their turns at the same time. This part is timed, and when one player is finished the other players have only so long to complete their ships. Regardless of how finished the ships actually are, the game then moves into a racing phase, where the players are seeded in the order in which they finished building.

The race is run by a deck of event cards. The lead player gets first crack at cargo found floating in space, but they also are the first one to get hit by dangers, such as space pirates, slave traders, asteroids, and other events. Getting smacked by an event knocks the player further back, or even destroys their ship. After the race, players get money for the cargo they are carrying, as well as for where they finished in the race, if they finished at all. There are three rounds, each with a progressively bigger ship to build and a more challenging race to run.

The overarching feeling one gets from Galaxy Trucker is hilarious futility. The dangers are numerous and deadly, often crippling some players for the rest of the round. One’s ability to face these dangers is dictated hugely by the building round, where one has to make decisions instantly about how the ship will be put together. Can I fit in this extra laser? How many engines will I need? Do I have enough space for crew members, so that there will be someone to actually fly my ship? Then there’s the issue of batteries, which power lots of different components that will be rendered useless if they have no energy. It’s a lot of decisions for even an experienced player, and there’s a feeling of helplessness as the player takes hit after hit from the asteroid field, realizing that they should have probably installed more shields.

Humor in games can be pretty slippery, often boiling down to jokey text or goofy illustrations. Both of those are present here, but the actual act of playing the game is highly entertaining. It finds humor in the mechanics, usually at the expense of one of the players. It never fails to make me laugh when someone’s ship is blown apart and they are forced to float off into nothingness, even if that someone is me.

More than the humorous graphics and silly rulebook, Galaxy Trucker does a great job at focusing on its themes through its mechanics. This is a vision of space that is deadly and uncaring, and the game goes out of its way to emphasize it. It’s a rather nihilistic game in that way, mocking the player for their attempt to impose order on chaos. There are also some mild statements about corporate responsibility, as the company employing the player openly shows disregard for the life and wellbeing of its employees, though this is expressed more fully in the rulebook than the game itself. Designer Vlaada Chvatil sought to recreate the structure of Galaxy Trucker in later games, especially in Space Alert and Dungeon Lords, both of which force the player to make all of their decisions before they can see any of the outcomes. It works to decent effect in those games, but here it works best, since the destructive outcomes pair so well with the game’s nihilistic view of the universe.

If there is anything that holds back Galaxy Trucker, it’s the complicated rules. The two-tiered nature of each round doesn’t help, since it’s hard to see how things interact without experiencing it. The rules recommend that new players play one round and then start over, and that is good advice. The complexity also means an experienced player will have a distinct advantage, since they will better understand how to build a good ship. There are ways to handicap someone, especially when using either of the two expansions. But then the expansions add still more complexity, so in the end they are experts-only affairs. Low player counts also amplify the skill gap. For that reason Galaxy Trucker works best as a four-player game where everyone is about the same skill level. That’s a disappointingly narrow window, and shows the fragility of the design.

But if you feel your group can put in the time to overcome the fragility, Galaxy Trucker is a great game. There is definitely room to get good at it, though it is perhaps more a function of knowing the rules well than any secret depth. More than that, those who commit will find a game that is truly funny. It is a weird creative detour into a hilariously senseless universe.