Red Rising Board Game Review

Red Rising Overview

Red Rising is a hand management and combo game for 1 to 6 players where players control houses vying for dominance within a strict and rigid social hierarchy. The game is based on a book series by Pierce Brown. I had no knowledge of the series prior to my review, but I’m definitely interested in reading it now!

Interested in a video version of this review instead? Check it out on YouYube!

Red Rising Cards showcasing Darrow, Evey and Pax

Nearly everything in the game is pulled from the source material, but that doesn’t hinder the gameplay experience for newcomers at all. I would just bet that fans of the series would get a kick out of seeing named characters from the books in game form. Don’t worry, there are no spoilers in the game.

To secure your house’s victory, you will need to deploy agents from your house in order to draft new followers and acquire resources. The catch is, you might never get the agent you deployed back. Even worse, a rival house may poach them for their own plans. To take, is to give in Red Rising. That is, if you’re to have any hope of rising to the top of the pyramid.

Red Rising Components

For 40$, Red Rising is an incredible example of getting bang for your buck as far as the boxed contents are concerned. It certainly gives off the vibe of being a more expensive game.

You get a great-looking player board that is functional on the front and has gorgeous artwork on the back. There are 112 cards, and the real kicker is, every single one is unique. Each has it’s own art and gameplay effects. They are a bit bigger than standard cards and don’t feel flimsy, which is nice.

The full spread of everything that can be found in the Red Rising box

The six house cards are thick and durable cardboard, and every house also has a handful of plastic tokens. Cubes for influence, and a nifty ship token. The cubes are generic, but everything else is in tune with the game’s theme.

The Sovereign token is another nifty piece that depicts the social hierarchy pyramid inside an emblem, and it looks great. The Helium tokens are nice little red gems, and they are kept in a foxy shaped container in the center of the board. Finally, there’s also a large custom die and a nifty stack of scoring sheets.

Red Rising comes with two rule books. One for the standard rules and one for solo play, plus a set of 30 cards to run the game’s solo automa. Storing the game is pretty simple since the box included some plastic baggies to tuck everything in.

When it comes to component value, at 40$ Red Rising is clearly a golden elite among the shelves.

Pyramid Scheme

Did You Know?

The Red Rising Series by Pierce Brown features a society with a strict social hierarchy where people are judged based on factors largely out of their control. It has many allegories to real life racism and classism. While the game doesn’t explore any of this, it’s worth knowing where the game hailed from.

Every card corresponds to a color of the social hierarchy found within Red Rising’s universe. With gold elites at the top and red laborers at the bottom. There are seven cards of every color, with the exception of gold which has 21.

You start with a hand of five random cards. The cards starting on the board are also random and part of the challenge is to forge a strategy from what you were dealt and the ever-changing board state. In most cases to obtain a card, you must play one. Deciding what cards you can part with is core to the game.

The social Hierarchy Pyramid show casing the gold elites at the top and the reds at the bottom.

To win, you must forge a combo of house members in your hand and combine it together with your accumulated helium, the size of your fleet, your influence in the institute. There is also a bonus if you end the game possessing the sovereign token.

Every card is unique, even ones with similar abilities have different values and conditions. This means there’s nearly an infinite number of ways to score. I pursued a different strategy in every game I’ve played. I’ve never seen the same combo pulled off the same way twice.

Every turn is an intense strategic gamble. What member are you willing to deploy so that can take another? You could possibly regain the one you deployed, but someone else might take them first. They could also be covered up by another card before your next turn.

You can only take the card from the top of a pile in any location unless a card ability states otherwise. So you have to weigh each decision carefully. Not only is every card in Red Rising unique, each one also has multiple uses. They all have a static values on the top left that contributes points to your end game, but that’s far from all they do.

Many cards grant an effect when deployed. If for example you really want a card that is buried under a pile, and that card happens to be gray or yellow, Trigg has you covered. He can move one of those colors from any location and let you take it. Other cards such as Antonia might be antagonistic, allowing you to interfere with another player by forcing them to banish a card.

Finally, the bottom of each card has a benefit or ability that occurs during scoring that is also unique to them. Deanna grants you an additional 26 points if you have another red in your hand. Boneriders grants 15 points if you also have The Jackal or a Gray card, while the 4D Painter grants a big 31 points if all the cards in your hand are a different color. The array of combos you can build are huge, and it’s going to change throughout the game as the available cards on the board change.

Red Rising cards show casing the 4d Painter, Bonerider's and Deanna.

The only issue I have with the core gameplay is if someone manages to banish or steal a card from someone and it reduces their hand size to four. It is a death sentence with almost no way to come back from it. Thankfully Stonemaier Games put out an official variant that only allows such an effect to occur if it wouldn’t reduce your hand size below the default.

I really can’t understate the immense amount of variety in the game. There are obviously going to be some combinations of cards that will yield objectively higher scores. The trick is, you’re never going to be able to reliably build those combos, between the randomness of the board and the cards in every player’s hand.

Every card is unique, so if you need a specific one for your magnum opus, too bad. Red Rising is all about adapting, and it does so incredibly well. Every game is a surprise, and your opening hand is a world of possibilities.

Sourcing Resources

Building card combos is incredibly important, but cards aren’t the only thing that matters. Taking the deploy action requires you to play a card on a location, trigger its deploy effect and then take a card from another location or the deck, the locations matter.

Snagging a card from Jupiter grows your fleet which is worth points depending on how far you have progressed up the track when the game ends. Grabbing one from Mars earns you helium, and each one is worth three points. Drafting from the institute allows you to place an influence cube on it. Everyone gets points for having influence there, but the person with the most earns a higher rate that diminishes down the line of players behind them.

If there’s nothing on the board that you want, you can take a risk by drawing from the top of the deck instead and rolling the special dice to see what resource you acquire.

Solely concentrating on cards can cost you big time because those resources are also how the game ends. If a single player has 7 of any two of those resources, the game ends. If all three resources have reached 7 through any combination of players, the game also ends.

You aren’t merely building a combo with an indefinite amount of time. If a player is ever happy with their hand they can choose to scout instead. They neither play nor take a card. They instead draw from the deck and simply place the card on a location. That player still earns the location bonus as if they had taken a card from it.

The full Red Rising Board

By scouting, players continue acquiring resources at the cost of placing new cards another player may want. But it’s also a way to rush to the end of the game by meeting those resource conditions

Every game is a race, but also a game of chicken. If you take extra time to build your combo, you grant the other players the same benefit. If you rush to trigger the end game, you have to be confident that you built the best score the fastest. It’s another decision point to weigh in on and an important one.

Balancing your resource gain with the cards you want while also adapting to the board is an incredibly fun game of strategy with vast possibilities. The double-sided blade of players having a degree of control of when the game ends is brilliant. It forces players to wield that power wisely or cut themselves on its edge.

When in Rome

At the start of the game, each player is dealt one of six random houses named after ancient Roman Gods. As a big fan of variable player powers, I actually find the houses to be lacking. They generally function the same way. Whenever you gain the sovereign token, usually by taking a card from Luna, their abilities trigger.

A spread of all six Red Rising faction cards. Apollo, Ceres, Diana, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva.

They certainly have a strong effect on the game, but they feel like an afterthought. Half of them are uninteresting and can feel unbalanced at the same time. Apollo, Ceres, and Minerva are more advanced. I like the way they work as each of them gives you a bit more to think about.

Using Apollo’s scouting makes you ponder about covering up cards that you want to deny your opponent, or where to place them if you want it yourself. Banishing cards as Ceres puts a lot of control in your hands. You can deny other players the cards they might want from the board or reveal the cards you want by banishing those on top. Minerva forces you to further adapt to the whims of the dice.

Diana, Jupiter, and Mars simply grant you a resource, influence, fleet progress, or helium respectively. This is a three-part problem for me. First of all, that’s boring. Second of all, it can feel somewhat like an advantage against the three more complex houses.

Gaining resources is important and also linked to the conditions that end the game. Sure, Apollo, Ceres, and Minerva have strategic value. But it’s almost impossible to keep up with the resource gain of those three as they essentially turn Luna into a second location for that resource.

Thirdly, Diana, Jupiter, and Mars all shoehorn you into a playstyle as taking advantage of their power is so easy. Sure, you can’t target Luna all the time, but you don’t have to. Luna’s simply doubling up another location for you. Two Mars for…Mars, etc.

The thing is, that works sometimes. But the game has such a vast array of possibilities that it makes more sense to use the ability as a bonus instead of a focus, but that’s not apparent until you are much more familiar with the game. Those three factions, teach you bad habits. You don’t pick a faction, it’s random. So at least there is no way to consistently abuse one of them. At the same time, it can also make you feel like you got the short end of the stick.

Red Rising Player Counts

I played Red Rising solo, and with two, four, and five players. The game plays great at them all. I prefer it at two players, but there are advantages to having more. At higher player counts, the board state fluctuates far more, and the end game triggers are in a volatile state of flux. You see more cards from the deck in a single game than you otherwise would. It’s a lot of fun, and I’d never turn down a game.

I enjoy two players the most, however, because it has a drastic change in how the players interact. Cards that directly affect other players are less useful at higher player counts because it’s difficult to tell who’s winning. Likewise, cards that protect you from hostile effects are less useful as hostile cards are rare, and you are one of many targets.

A spread of tokens found in Red Rising.

With two players you can keep track of the other player’s moves and try to guess what kind of combo they are building. That means you can more easily hate draft or otherwise impede their progress. At higher player counts it feels much more like multiplayer solitaire, even if that’s not strictly the case.

The solo mode is incredibly solid too. You play the game pretty much the same way that you normally would. That’s a huge plus in my book. You run a straightforward automa named Tull Au Toma through a deck of AI cards.

Tull Au Toma doesn’t score the same way you do. But she does a great job of constantly changing the board state, potentially hampering you in the process. Hostile cards are less useful in solo, and defense cards will never be used as the automa doesn’t activate deploy actions. Aside from that, it’s a pretty great experience and serves as great practice for multiplayer.

Tull Au Toma does have several difficulties, and the higher ones are incredibly challenging to beat, which I appreciate.

Verdict

Red Rising’s incredible variety makes the game highly replayable. Every game feels fresh and will test your ability to adapt by building a winning combo between cards and resources.

There is never a go-to playstyle where you can essentially play on autopilot. It’s just not possible due to the way the cards and your hand are dealt. A more experienced player certainly has an advantage, but must still rest on their own laurels as opposed to an objectively powerful set of moves, and that’s fantastic.

A spread of Red Rising cards in a fan shape.

The skill ceiling may be higher, but Red Rising is still very approachable. The rule book is laid out properly, and the mechanics of the game are easy to understand. I lost to a new player in the same game that I taught him how to play. Don’t be put off by all the unique abilities, it’s truly easy to learn. Red Rising is a deep game, but that depth comes from your decision making rather than a bunch of mechanics, and that’s what keeps the game approachable.

A new player won’t know what all the unique cards do, but the trade-off is massive variety, and it’s more than worth it. It has a few hiccups, but nothing severe enough to truly hamper the fun it brings to the table.

Red Rising is well designed, highly replayable, and works great at all player counts. It has a strong theme and excellent components. It’s the full monty of things I like to see in a board game, and the speed at which it’s rising to my top shelf has my other games seeing red.

My Perspective On Red Rising

I love Red Rising! Its medium weight is just enough to keep me captivated. And the insane variety of combos and scoring methods ensures that I never grow bored of the game. I enjoy drafting as it is, and Red Rising just adds so much to the concept through its huge deck of unique cards, and the interesting hand management that I actively want to play it.

My focus tends to be on games that play well either solo or at two people, and not only does Red Rising do both, it also plays great at higher player counts. So if someone on game night grabs it off my shelf, I don’t groan in despair.

My biggest complaint comes down to three of the houses being uninteresting and also vaguely strong. It annoys me, but honestly, the extreme replay value and the fact I can have a great time alone, with my partner, or with my group more than makes up for it. I’m more than happy to have it on my shelf.

You may also enjoy my review of Spirit Island.

A copy of Red Rising was provided for the purpose of review.

Pros

  • An excellent strategy game of weighing decisions, and building combos
  • The deck consists of 112 unique cards
  • At every player count, I’ve tried 1,2 4, and 5. It played great
  • It has a solid solo mode
  • You get plenty of great components for the price
  • It’s highly replayable
  • It’s impossible to puzzle out a go to winning set of moves
  • Easy learn, hard to master

Cons

  • The cube tokens are generic
  • If your hand size is lowered below the default, you will most likely lose
  • Three of the houses are boring and possibly too strong

Who Like This?

  • You enjoy games with a lot of possible paths to winning
  • A game with high mileage that won’t grow stale appeals to you
  • You enjoy games such as Fantasy Realms
  • Fans of the book series
  • You want an easy to learn game that isn’t light
  • You’re looking for a great two-player or solo game
  • You’re looking for a game that works great at five and six players.

Who Wouldn’t Like This?

  • You want an aggressive game. The hostile cards are a bit rare.
  • You want a peaceful game. The hostile cards are still mean enough to hurt feelings.
  • Being reminded of racial or class inequality is a trigger for you.
  • You dislike adapting to random chance
  • You hate math