Galaxy Trucker and chaos in games

(image by @ henk.rolleman BGG)
Time to tackle another game element: chaos. Your initial reaction may be to equate chaos to luck but I feel they two are very different things. Luck is when the outcome of an event – a die roll or card draw, for example – has a percent chance to result in a given outcome. When you roll a standard six-sided die you have a 1 in 6 chance of any number rolling up. You may not have control of the outcome but there are set odds going in and a random result coming out.

Chaos, on the other hand, is the lack of control in a game. A chaotic game often has little to no room for strategy, forcing more tactical play as you deal with your turns as they come up rather than planning ahead. Chaos may come from luck but there is often more than just luck at play.

I often refer to chaos when describing how a game feels with varying number of players. Alhambra is a great example. With two to four players you can attempt to make plans based on the tiles up for sale, what you believe the other players will purchase and what may be left on your next turn. With five or six there are just too many players going between your turns, making nearly impossible to plan ahead. You lose control over your fate, forced to play turn by turn rather than planning ahead. One of Alhambra’s core concepts is competing with other players for majority control of different tiles; too much chaos eliminates that strategic element and fewer turns per player gives more impact to lucky turns.

Don’t think that chaos is always bad, though. Galaxy Trucker uses chaos at its core to create a tense and exciting game.

(image by @ henk.rolleman BGG)

Not unlike Space Alert (another Vlaada Chatvil game), Galaxy Trucker has two distinct phases: real-time building of your ship and turn-based resolution of events. Assuming your ship survives you earn points based on your place on the distance track, your cargo and how nice your ship looks. High score after three rounds wins the game.

Building your ship is the bulk of Galaxy Trucker. Each player has a set of identical ship templates that vary from round to round. All of the available ship tiles are set face-down in a pile. One player starts the sand timer and all players simultaneously start building their ship. You grab a tile, bring it over your player mat, look at it and decide if you want to place it on your ship, keep it for later or place it face up back in the pile for others to grab. There’s a wide variety of ship components including engines, lasers, shields, cargo holds, crew cabins and more. At any time after the sand timer has run out a player may turn it over to signal they are done and take the 1st place marker. That player may not make any further changes to their ship and the rest of the players have one full sand timer’s worth of time to finish their own designs.

Each tile has zero to three connectors going out of each edge. Three-pronged connectors are universal and may hook into any other connector while one- and two-pronged connectors may not connect into each other; also, connectors may never connect to an edge with no connectors shown. Once you’ve placed a tile on your ship it may never be moved so there’s a very fun puzzle element when constructing your ship. You need a variety of components but must connect everything properly while other players are possibly taking the very pieces you could use!

(image by
Toynan @ BGG)

Once everyone is done (or time runs out) the ships are complete and are “run through the gauntlet.” First, players are ranked on the distance track in the order they finished their ships. Then a stack of event cards are dealt out and resolved in random order. You may find cargo to fill your cargo holds, space pirates that steal cargo or kill crew members, asteroid storms that tear your ship to pieces and many other crazy things. Most events are resolved in player order on the distance track and their outcome may adjust your position. For example, taking cargo typically moves you backwards on the distance track, meaning your turn order may be adjusted for resolving the next event. Other events – like space pirates – go in turn order and hit each player with some penalty (often losing goods or crew) until one of the players eliminates the threat.

The real excitement comes from attack cards. A meteor swarm, for example, will show a list of asteroids, their size and direction they attack. Your ship has a designated facing and a grid of numbers with sevens on the middle axis. You roll two six-sided dice to determine which tile on your ship will be hit. Some attacks may be defended with shields or lasers. If it isn’t defended (or is unblockable), small attacks will destroy a tile if there’s an exposed connector while large attacks will destroy the tile outright. The real key here is if that tile is the only link back to the core of your ship for other tiles, that entire portion of your ship will break off!

Losing parts of your ship is bad. Not only do you lose whatever was on those tiles (cargo, crew members, guns) you also earn negative points at the end of the round per tile. If you have no crew or no engine power your ship is a derelict and scores no points at the end of the round. Likewise, if your core is hit your ships explodes.

(image by kreten @ BGG)

Given all these dangers, building a solid ship is key to success. Your core is at coordinate 7,7 meaning odds are good attacks will trend towards hitting the middle of your ship. As you build you need to plan your components and connectors to ensure redundant connection paths and plenty of defense for the core of your ship. At the same time you must try to ensure you have enough crew members, cargo space, firepower, engines and shields to survive and avoid having outward-facing connectors. It is a lot to balance – especially given the real-time aspect – but I love the puzzle aspect of building your ship.

Unfortunately I think the game’s strength may also be its weakness. While you may peek at some of the upcoming events to give you a feel for what may be important (lots of room for cargo, more attacks from the left) I feel that you generally must make as balanced of a ship as possible. A well-designed ship should be able to weather most anything thrown at it, especially if you ensure you have a well-defended core and redundant connections. While you’ll never design the exact same ship twice you will always have the same rough idea for what you need: engines in back, shields in all directions, lots of forward guns, one gun on each side and then as much cargo and crew as you can cram in. I could see where many repeat plays of Galaxy Trucker may render the ship-building portion a little dull as it becomes a quick search for the best pieces rather than a fun puzzle-solving exercise.

(image by slith @ BGG)
As chaotic as the event resolution is, I find it also offers up some nice choices to make. Do you take cargo and lose a few days, putting yourself back in turn order? If you looked at what was in the deck, you may want to drop back and let someone else deal with a nasty upcoming event or maybe you want to stay up front for an even better haul. Knowing when to power up your shields and where to store your cargo in case part of your ship tears off also makes for some good fun. These little decisions give you some small control over the madness of running your ship through the gauntlet.

Chaos can be a great element for adding excitement and replay value to a game when it is built in to the game’s design. It can also be a negative when it turns up as an unintended side effect. Not all players are going to enjoy chaos in their games, but Galaxy Trucker proves that solidly-designed chaotic game can be seriously fun. The real-time puzzle element of building your ship offers a unique challenge you don’t find in other games and it is fun watching your ship suffer through waves of attacks. You just have to be willing to accept that your ship’s outcome is not entirely in your hands. I do recommend playing Galaxy Trucker before purchasing if possible. Either you’ll fall in love or never want to see it again! If you do enjoy the game then I highly recommend picking up the expansion as it only makes the game even more chaotic and fun.