Q&Play: Mole Rats in Space…Space..Space…

The Inquisitive Meeple takes a reviews Matt Leacock’s new co-op for kids, Mole Rats in Space and then chats with Matt about the game.

 

The rundown

From Mole Rats in Space BGG Page:“In Mole Rats in Space, you and your teammates are mole rats on a research station that has been invaded by snakes. You need to collect your equipment and escape the station before you’re bit or time runs out.

On a turn, you carry out the instructions on the card in front of you, perhaps moving yourself or your teammates, moving one or more snakes, or adding a new snake to the board. Land on the bottom of a ladder, and the character (or snake) advances one level toward the escape pod; land on a chute, and you descend a level — or are shot out into the vast reaches of space where you die slowly of asphyxiation. Make sure that only snakes suffer this fate or you lose the game!

If you land on a snake, you’re bit and must return to your starting location; get bit a second time, and you die. Run out of cards, you die. Let a snake board the escape pod, you die. In case that threat of death isn’t enough for you, the game includes a pack of cards to add to the deck once you’ve triumphed a few times so that you can increase the challenge.”

The play

A co-op Chutes (Snakes) and Ladders set in space, with actual snakes trying to kill you. That is the premise of Peaceable Kingdom’s and designer Matt Leacock’s (Pandemic, Forbidden Island) new co-op game for ages 7+. Is it any good? Let’s check that out…

Mole Rats in Space, while perhaps the most complicated of Peaceable Kingdom games, is by far Matt Leacock’s simplest game and is very easy to play. On your turn, you play a single card, take the indicated action (usually two actions: moving mole rats and taking an action related to the snakes), collect 4 items and everyone needs to make it to an escape pod. However, true to Matt Leacock form, there are many ways to lose the game. The game does come with an advanced version that you can “unlock” (it comes in a separate envelope) after you win three games. This ramps up the difficulty (we haven’t tried it yet) and adds yet another way to die.

The toothbrush item in the backpack of the blue mole rat player.

The game is perfect for the younger crowd it is intended for – basically kids too young to play Forbidden Island and a little too old to play other Peaceable kingdom’s co-op games (ages 7-10 range). Despite only giving players a single card to use (no handful of cards to choose from), it is still quite a fun game. There can be tense moments during play, and in fact we are horrible at playing this game. We always die near the end of the basic game (watch out for those snakes!). I am sure that if I took over and wanted to play as an Alpha Player, we could win – but that isn’t the point, this is a game to enjoy with your children.

Let me also add that the production is top rate. Player pawns are plastic mole rats in space suits with backpacks that actually carry the cardboard tokens you are collecting. The insert is very professionally done as well. I was very impressed by the production, which is something I don’t typically say about games.

A Side Note: How does Mole Rats in Space compare to other Matt Leacock games? Well, this is the easiest of all of his games both to teach and to understand. Instead of having a handful of cards, like in Forbidden Island or Pandemic, you only have a single card to play. In between turns, there are no set ups for the next turn (no sinking island, no diseases to spread, etc), also there are no special action cards or variable player powers. There also isn’t any Action Points to spend. The only thing Mole Rats in Space has in common with other Matt Leacock co-op is the magic number 4. You have 4 things you must collect. Oh, and there are lots of ways to lose. You lose if you run out of cards, if one of your players gets sucked into the cold vacuum of space, if one of the players is poisoned to death by a snake, or if a snake gets into your escape pod.

Sample of some cards

Mole Rats in Space may not be for the adult only crowd, but it is a great game for mixed company. When it is all said and done, it may end up being the most played Matt Leacock game in our house, only time will tell. It is very easy to teach and can handle young ages. It also can have some tense moments near the end of the game (not to mention teachable moments “Maybe we should have gone this way…”).

Mole Rats in Space is one of the children games that parents won’t roll their eyes about when the kids in the house ask them to play it. If you have kids within the age range of 6 to 11 years old, this game is a must have for your gaming library.

The Qs

Thanks for joining us today Matt. We are here to talk about your newest co-op, Mole Rats in Space. Could you tell u the history/story behind this game?

Matt Leacock

Matt: Susan McKinley Ross (of Qwirkle fame) introduced me to Margaret and Donna of Peaceable Kingdom a few years ago. Susan had designed the game Hoot Owl Hoot for them and had great things to say about her experience. Each year after that, Peaceable Kingdom offered me the opportunity to do a cooperative game for them – and each time I came back to them completely empty handed. When they approached me last year, however, they were armed with something specific: a request for a new, “cooperative version of Snakes and Ladders on a mandala board.” Now, that sounded like a fun challenge to me (would it be possible to create a fun version of Snakes and Ladders??), so I set off to see what I could do. About a week later, I had a core game that was working and it actually promised to be fun. It’s amazing what constraints can do to fuel creativity.

I then spent the next six months or so developing the game with them. The setting shifted from an underground burrow to a space station fairly early on as PK thought a space game might have a wider appeal. At first this seemed a bit odd to me, but then I began to see all the possibilities. For example, in that setting, the mole rats could shoot the snakes out into the vacuum of space! And the isolation of space and a race for an escape pod also felt more dramatic than simply evacuating a burrow.

One thing we see in Mole Rats in Space, that you don’t see in other Matt Leacock co-ops is, no variable player powers. Was there ever a point where you were tried out unique player powers for Mole Rats in Space?

Matt: I briefly considered it, but didn’t develop variable player powers since including them would have increased the complexity quite a bit. (As it stands, Mole Rats in Space – as simple as it is – is Peaceable Kingdom’s most complex title.) I also didn’t think the game’s simple engine would support for “rule breaking” abilities.

One more question on a specific gameplay design choice. Could you share with us why you chose for players only have 1 card at a time over maybe 3 where they could plan more?

Matt: I did consider that early on, but abandoned the idea: the decision space that created was too large for 5-6 year olds to handle. Even as simple as the game is now (with one card) Peaceable Kingdom rated it for 7-12, the oldest age range in their line.

This is the first time you worked with Peaceable Kingdom, what has been your favorite part of working with them?

Matt: They’re so positive! It’s clear that they enjoy doing what they’re doing and have been incredibly enthusiastic about the entire project.

What was your favorite part of designing Mole Rats?

Matt: I enjoyed the testing process the most since I hadn’t tested games extensively with kids this young before. I brought the game to an after school program at the local elementary school several times and it was fun to just sit back and watch the kids work it all out. They were voracious players. It was fun to watch them really dive in – usually before the rules were explained in full – and attack the game. I learned a lot about what was obvious and what was not by directly observing their behavior.

For another test, I mailed out kit to a mom and her young son and asked them to video record their session so I could observe what was working well and what wasn’t. As I watched, I began to get really concerned that something was wrong. Could my rules have been that poorly written? It was only after I had a conversation with them that I realized I had only sent them 1 of the 2 pages of rules – they were filling in all the missing details on their own! That test really helped me understand what was intuitive to players (and what was not) if they didn’t have the rules to fill in the blanks.

Was designing the game for 7+ and still have it present a challenge for your normal fans, a challenge at all?

Matt: Yes, it was. My strategy was to come up with a game that was really accessible, with easy-to-execute actions and a (fairly) constrained decision space that still offered plenty of opportunities for cooperation and coordination. Quite simply, if you don’t cooperate and communicate in the game, you will lose. It’s fun to see kids make the connections and gradually discover on their own how they can work together, help each other out, offer help, offer ideas, and so on in order to play more effectively.

I also wanted to give the game enough depth that adults would really need to pay attention as well. Part of this was for selfish reasons – it’s important to me that I enjoy the game myself, especially when I have to play it over a hundred times to balance it! – but it’s also to ensure there’s some good replay value. Another thing we did for replayability was to introduce a special challenge envelope for players who have won the game 3 times. The challenge games are quite difficult and can be heart-pounding, even for me. We packaged it separately in the game, so players would have something to shoot for and also to ensure that new players didn’t accidentally mix the contents of the envelope into their first game.

What would you say the biggest lesson was you learned in designing Mole Rats in Space?

Matt: The importance of closely observing your playtesters. I went into playtesting with certain assumptions and watched players teach me the correct way to play the game several times. For example, initially I ruled that snakes bit you only when you landed on them. If you watch kids, however, the don’t want to go anywhere near the snakes, so I ultimately ruled that you couldn’t land on them or go through them, which made the game harder, but also met the players’ expectations.

As we wrap this up, is there anything else you would like to add?

Matt: I’m just happy to see it out into the wild, and I hope it exposes new people to the idea that cooperative games can be challenging, engaging, and fun.

The last word

Thank you to Matt Leacock for doing yet another interview with me. Also, thank you to Peaceable Kingdom for sending a review copy of the Mole Rats in Space for an honest opinion.

Mole Rats in Space can be found on Peaceable Kingdom’s website by clicking here. The game is available now for an MSRP of $20 USD.


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