Reviewed by Joe Huber
JUMP DRIVE (Rio Grande Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 30 minutes; $24.95)
One of the luckiest chances I’ve had in my life is, thanks to travel for work, to have spent the better part of a decade in an irregular and informal playtest group with Tom Lehmann. As a result, in addition to getting invaluable feedback on my own designs, I’ve had the chance to watch, and hopefully in some small way contribute to, the development of many games. As a result, I got to see how Tom’s work on a Puerto Rico card game – scuttled when Seyfarth came back with San Juan – developed not only into a game, Race for the Galaxy, but a whole system.
Besides Race for the Galaxy, the best known of these games until recently was The City. However, The City was limited in its reach by the fact that it includes a large amount of text on the cards – and it was never released in English. (The German edition is likely the best known in the US, but it was also released in French, Dutch, and Polish.) As a result, there was some interest in seeing an English edition but fortunately, rather than simply translating the game, Tom aimed to design a game with most of the form of The City but using many of the ideas from Race for the Galaxy as well. The resulting game, Jump Drive, is being marketed in part as an introduction to Race for the Galaxy as a result.
The play of Jump Drive is similar to that of The City. On a turn, players may play one card by paying for it with cards from their hand. Then all players receive victory points for all of the cards in their tableau. If any player has reached fifty points, the player with the most points wins. Otherwise, players receive the cards indicated on all of the cards in their tableau, and the game continues. Typically, the game lasts six or seven turns, though five turns is not unheard of, and with inexperienced players eight turns is possible.
But while the previous paragraph could just as easily describe The City, the elements borrowed from Race for the Galaxy expand the range of possibilities significantly. Cards come in two major varieties – developments and settlements. If playing just a development, the cost is reduced by one card. If playing just a settlement, a card is drawn after. Or, a player may play both a development and a settlement – but receives neither the discount on the development or the bonus for settling when doing so. In addition, the concept of military is added to the game. Military settlements can usually only be settled if a player has sufficient military strength – but cost no cards. Finally, players may choose to explore instead of either developing or settling, adding two cards to their hand as a result, in addition to seeing additional cards to choose from.
I was not the greatest fan of The City. I thought it an interesting game in concept – objectively, I thought the game innovative in its simplicity. But while a good design – I never found it compelling. Many friends enjoyed it more than I did, so I did play it more than most games I feel similarly about, yet I never really warmed to it.
I then had the opportunity to play a prototype of Jump Drive in 2014, very early in its development – and before all of the elements of Race for the Galaxy had been fully integrated. And – I wasn’t any more impressed. My one chance to play the game in 2015 did not change my view. But when I played it again in 2016, the game really clicked for me – the Race elements had been integrated smoothly, and the resulting game shared the exponential ramp and correspondingly brief playing time of The City, but in a form I was enthusiastic to play.
Now, to be sure, there’s a significant element of luck to the game. As a result it’s entirely possible for the game to go off the rails – sometimes, the cards don’t provide a reasonable path. But the game is so short – with experienced players, lasting no more than about fifteen minutes – that it’s not an issue; I recommend finishing the game, then suggesting a rematch.
Fortunately, along with the luck, there are significant elements of strategy to the game. Nearing fifty plays, I’ve seen the game won with an income as low as one card a turn, and more than twenty. While it’s generally a poor idea to explore too often – usually more than once is a poor choice – I’ve seen someone win with two explores. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve seen the same players do consistently better at the game – not something I would expect if luck was the dominant element.
One big advantage, for those either overwhelmed by the iconography in Race for the Galaxy, or who had their opportunities to play the game limited because others in their groups had issue – there are only three icons. Further, most of the best developments in the game score based upon other player’s tableaus, in addition to your own – causing interesting variations in the value of these cards. This still is unlikely to be sufficiently direct interaction for those bothered by Race for the Galaxy – but it’s a very different type of interaction, helping Jump Drive to stand out.
The production of the game is quite nice – there are sufficient victory points for players to collect victory points each turn, rather than simply updating their pool, allowing for easier calculation of the change each turn. And the cards are well produced, with a good player aid for each player. With a retail price under $25, and online discounts bringing the total under $20, the game is reasonably priced. This was accomplished in part by re-using the artwork from Race for the Galaxy, which I noticed quickly – but which never got in the way of my enjoyment.
If you enjoy Race for the Galaxy, and would be interested in a shorter but similar game, I’d certainly recommend Jump Drive. I’d even more strongly recommend the game if you wanted to like Race for the Galaxy, but you or someone in your group was deterred by the iconography – there’s no player aid for the icons in Jump Drive because it’s simply not necessary. There still is enough complexity in the game that it won’t be ideal for many casual games, and enough luck in the card draw to put off those with an aversion to luck in games. If the luck in Race for the Galaxy is close to too much for you, I’d definitely recommend trying Jump Drive before buying it.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of game in the box for a reasonable price; at this point it’s cost me less than $0.50 per play, which for a game I’ve owned less than two months is remarkable. While not for everyone, I expect Jump Drive to be one of the more popular games of 2017, if not an award winner because short games never are. But because it’s a short game, I expect it to maintain a long shelf life – just like Race for the Galaxy. – – – – – – – – – Joe Huber
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