Jump Drive Review: Start Your Engines!

Roll-to-review-board-game-jump-drive-box-artGiven the Commonwealth Games are 100km away, you’d forgive me for mistaking Jump Drive for a board game about the determination and drive required to become a professional long jumper. Instead, what I found was a baby board game; essentially My First Race for the Galaxy. A 20 minute engine builder for 2-4 players, designed by Tom Lehmann and published by Rio Grande Games.

How to Play

Setup includes tabling a Survey Team card for each player, and then dealing out a hand of seven cards to everyone. Players then discard two cards each, and you’re ready to start. Gosh, I love card games.

The aim of the game is to be the first person to collect 50 credits. In the more likely scenario of a few players reaching 50 at once, the player with the most credits wins.

When it comes to cards, there are development cards, and planet cards. However, planet cards can be one of four different planet types, and if the planet has a red outline it means that it requires military might – and not income – to play it.

In playing a card, you must pay its cost, and in Jump Drive that means cards from your hand. For example, if a card costs 3, I need to discard 3 cards from my hand to play it.

Each turn players simultaneously play up to two cards; one development, and one planet. If you choose to play only one card, then you get a bonus depending on the type – planets cost one card less, while development cards net you an extra card draw. Alternatively, players can decide not to play a card but instead explore the vast universe, letting them look at a whole stack of cards, while only gaining two cards from that stack.

After everyone has chosen and paid for their cards, then everyone reveals what they played, and gain credits for their new card plus every other card in their empire. If no-one has reached fifty credits, then players draw cards equal to their income. This continues until we have a winner.

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The Good

Jump Drive is an engine builder on steroids, the game doesn’t last long, and the engines ramp up exponentially. Because of its quick pace it bypasses the narrative formula of beginning, middle, and end, and jumps right to the epilogue. Jump Drive doesn’t care for character development or world building, all it cares about is engines and building them in the quickest possible time.

To help with this there is a huge number of possible card combinations, and with random card draws, each game plays out differently. It makes the game more tactical than strategic. That’s a bum rap, as your strategy throughout the game evolves based on the cards you pick up. Picking up some more expensive cards early on can give you your strategic direction, alternatively you may pick up cards that give you points based on other cards – again defining your overall strategy.

Because the cards played activate simultaneously, there’s a lot of intricate and clever manoeuvres you can do. For instance, if you play a development card that reduces the cost of planet cards, you can take effect of that card on the same turn – not the other way round (Note: This has been corrected thanks to the wonderful Tom Lehmann). This opens the decision space up for what you can do on a turn and allows you to watch your opponent’s franticly check the rule leaflet only to see that it’s a legal move.

The number of combinations and the possible approaches to these combinations allows for a insane amount of strategies to victory. Whether you invest in income, military, or DNA, or to save up and get big cards, constantly get smaller cards, play two cards per turn or just the one. It keeps you engaged and guessing – or regretting – whether you’re made the correct play. It’s astonishing to me, how much depth is in this small package. Then again, it’s not about the size.

One decision point I forgot to mention is the use of cards as currency. This mechanic creates for some devilish decision making, as fans of Full Metal Alchemist would know: in order to obtain or create something, something of equal value must be lost or destroyed. However, what to keep and what to give up, will have you scratching your head for the whole 20-minute playtime.

I’ll talk about opponent interplay in ‘The Bad’ but I do enjoy the pressure it brings. Sitting across from someone attempting to do the same thing you are only faster, creates that feeling of a race. Well, in this case it’s more of a sprint.

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The Bad

If you remember my Power Grid review, Rio Grande Games has done it again; another atrocious rulebook. This time it’s not even a rule book, it’s just a double-sided sheet of paper, and yet they’ve somehow made a mess of it. After I was done, I had more questions than answers, and when you’re dealing with such a large combination of different cards, even a little bit of clarity around how they interact would be welcome.

Exacerbating this problem is that a lot of the wording in Jump Drive, is written in ancient Egyptian. What I mean, is that they have an iconography problem, and I’m not sure who they should call about that. Apparently, this is a huge problem with Race for the Galaxy, here – as someone who’s never played race – it was still very confusing. It all makes sense now, but it’s difficult to pick up on as a beginner and creates a barrier for entry when introducing new players.

In terms of gameplay, this game is the near definition of multiplayer solitaire. While there are some cards that interact with an opponent’s empire, in most games the only reason other people exist is to provide an oncoming ending condition. Otherwise, they’re either slowing you down, or throwing popcorn at you to hurry you up. On an unrelated note, we’re no longer serving popcorn on games night.

While there’s a lot you can do to mitigate luck, it’s still a core tenant of this game. If you start following a strategy of military, and then you never draw any military planets – that’s a Minties moment. Otherwise if you draw and play a few of the Daft Punk cards, also known as Galaxy Trendsetters, then you’re set for an easy victory. The breakneck speed of the game means that this isn’t too big of an issue, and most games come down to the wire.

Lastly, since you score every card in your tableau, scoring can a bit tricky. It’s made easier if you lay out your cards as suggested in the rule book, add the points for the current round onto the amount of points you got last round – and that’s your new round total. You do get issues with some cards changing their score each round, making you dive back into your engine and come up with a new score total.

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The Verdict

Everyone talks about Century: Spice Road being a Splendor killer. While I completely disagree with that, I’m also on the sidelines thinking that if any game were to murder Splendor it would Jump Drive, in the library, with the candle stick. Both are 20-30-minute no-nonsense engine builders, with Jump Drive having more bells, whistles and luck. The agonizing and constant decisions in Jump Drive make this game something truly special. I’m happy to give this game my Critical Hit rating and I am looking forward to getting my hands on the rest of the Race for the Galaxy series soon.

It turns out that engine building is another fantastic mechanic that I enjoy. Are there any engine building games which last a longer period? Like a 60-90 minute engine building smorgasbord. If so, let me know. I am very interested.

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3 thoughts on “Jump Drive Review: Start Your Engines!

  1. Anton Tolman April 11, 2018 / 12:17 pm

    David, thanks for the review. I was introduced to Race for the Galaxy a while back, and the iconography was just too much for me to get started. I realize that if I were to stick with it for a few games, I could get into it. I have played Roll for the Galaxy which seems simpler. It sounds like Jump Drive could work as well because it plays so fast, you could probably learn the symbols more quickly and move into enjoyment much faster.

    You asked about engine building — if you are into Euro games, I would really recommend you take a look at London (2nd edition). It is a Martin Wallace game, really wonderful. There is more player interaction than you describe here because to build a card, you have to discard one to a tableau that other players can access, so you are watching what they play and vice versa. Once you know how to play, it probably runs 60-120 minutes depending on AP. However, it also has this tense balance and interaction where not only are you watching what they are building, you are also struggling to maintain less poverty than they have as you rebuild London. That tension is, to me, delicious. It has engine building at its core — you literally build your city which functions like an engine and then you run it and it does what you have built it to do. However, every time you do this, your poverty increases, so you have to keep an eye on that. I think you might want to look it over.

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Norris April 11, 2018 / 8:33 pm

      Hey Anton,

      I think Jump Drive is OK in terms of iconography. There aren’t that many icons, but used a lot. Though the game is worth the small investment, in my opinion.

      Anyway, after you’re last recommendation went down a treat. I’m all too happy to take you up on this one. I’ve actually heard great things about London, and the way you describe it, it sounds right up my alley! As a bonus I know where I can get it for cheap!

      Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

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