The two games I credit with getting me into the hobby are Forbidden Island and Pandemic. Both are largely considered gateway games in the hobby and they certainly were for me. Forbidden Island kindly showed me to the gateway, gesturing to the land of board games beyond, but it was Pandemic that brought me back to the gateway a few months later, carrying dozens of pounds of semtex to blow it wide open. It then cackled wildly, throwing me through the smoking, ragged threshold and I haven’t been seen by my family since.
The biggest similarity between these two games, besides the fact that they’re designed by the same guy and that they share some basic mechanics, is that they are both cooperative games. Because it was two cooperative games that brought me into the hobby, I have a certain fondness for them. Plus, the idea of working with your friends rather than viciously being at each others throats is also appealing to me (surprising, considering that I’m a socially anxious grump that likes alone time). As such, when a new cooperative game takes the hobby by storm, I tend to pay attention to it, aiming to try it as soon as possible.
Rising 5: Runes of Asteros (which I will simply call Rising 5 for the rest of the review, for the sake of my fingers and your eyes) is such a cooperative game. While ‘taking the hobby by storm’ is probably too strong a statement, this is certainly a game that has gotten a good deal of attention over the past year, thanks in large part to its app integration and unique concept of cooperative deduction. Is it worth the buzz? For the most part, yes, though Rising 5 is far from a perfect game (gasp!).
First, let’s hear what this game is about. The planet of Asteros is in peril, with some sort of eclipse that’s about to occur that will open a gate, thus allowing an apocalyptic wave of monsters to burst forth. The solar system calls upon a team dubbed Rising 5 to go to Asteros and figure out a way to seal the gate for good, saving Asteros from certain destruction. Believe it or not, this was the least nerdy way to summarize the game’s premise. The introduction in the rule book laying out the game’s lore reads like it was written by someone playing some sort of sci fi Mad Libs. Despite this, I enjoy when a game attempts world building (one of the many reasons why Scythe is, at the moment, my favorite board game) so I’ll stop making fun of it. In fact, the game actually does a great job of imbuing a sense of atmosphere and a tangible sense that Asteros is a real place. This is mostly because of the phenomenal art of Vincent Dutrait.
Over the past few months, Vincent Dutrait has gone from a board game artist who I thought was perfectly fine, to one of my favorites in the business and Rising 5 is a HUGE reason why. This game easily has some of the best art I’ve seen in a board game. The characters, whose portraits adorn the bottom of the board, ooze personality and the different regions of the planet are all distinct yet cohesive. The enemies that come out to attack your heroes are masterfully painted, causing a burst of revulsion in my gut every time I flip them over and see their strikingly detailed and ugly mugs. There is a picture on the back of the rule book that I purposefully left face up on the table as we played so that I could glance over at it and admire its beauty, like it was a shiny new car I bought and left out on the front lawn for the neighborhood to see and get annoyed with. I really can’t say enough good things about the art in this game, so I’ll stop with a simple bravo, Mr. Dutrait, bravo.
Enough about the art. Your mother always told you to never judge a book by its cover, so we shouldn’t judge Rising 5 by its salivation inducing look and presentation. Granted, my mom also told me that gum would take like twenty years to digest in my stomach if I swallowed it, so maybe we shouldn’t listen to everything they say, but let’s humor them just this once. How does the game play?
Rising 5‘s elevator pitch is that it’s basically cooperative Mastermind. Mastermind is an old mass market game where one player set up a combination of colored pegs and the other person had to figure out said combo. They did so by placing different combinations of the pegs and the Mastermind would let them know which colors were correct but in the wrong place, which were correct and in the right place and which were flat out not in the code. It was decent fun, providing a nice logic puzzle for one player to chew on for ten to fifteen minutes, but that was the problem. It was just ONE player playing the game. The Mastermind/game master had one job at the beginning that took fifteen seconds, and then the rest of the game they were a glorified exam proctor. Rising 5 fixes this by making it cooperative, completely doing away with the game master. Instead of that annoying neighbor kid (you know, the one that invited you over to play Sega Genesis, said ‘Here let me try’ during the first level and then proceeded to beat the whole game), the game master is an app you can download for free on your phone.
You see, a major part of the game is taking the titular runes, represented by hexagonal tokens, and placing them in a specific order on the board. With the app, you are able to take pictures of these runes throughout the game and it spits back images correlating to mysterious astrological signs. Those astrological signs are secretly tied to one of the colored runes and it reveals similar information as in Mastermind: the rune is either 100% correct, correct but not placed correctly or not in the code at all. Not only do you and your team need to figure out which runes go with which signs, but also where the damn runes need to go. It’s a puzzling conundrum which requires deduction, logic and teeny bit of luck. It’s incredibly satisfying to crunch the combinations together as a group, trying to work out what runes need to stay and where they need to go. When you activate the app one last time and see that you indeed cracked the code, winning the game, it’s a triumphant moment of victory (at least until the app hilariously and abruptly cuts to a black screen, asking you to input some information so it can give you a grade for your performance).
Luckily, this logic puzzle is not the only thing that Rising 5 has to offer. There is an actual game built around the puzzle as well, involving some hand management and an action point system that you come to expect from a cooperative game.
This aspect of Rising 5‘s gameplay is very simple. Everyone has a hand of cards, with the cards representing one of the five main characters in the game. On your turn, you play a card/multiple cards of one character, taking as many actions with that character as cards played. So if you play two cards with the wizened sage Orakl, you get two basic actions with him. Those actions are equally as simple: you can move to a location, interact with a card at a location or attempt to solve the puzzle. Interacting with cards gives you free goodies or allows you to enter combat with a beastie, which is resolved by rolling a die and occasionally adding some buffs. Figuring out the most efficient way to use your cards is a fun dilemma, adding just enough meat to the bones of Rising 5‘s logic puzzle.
In addition, each character you use also has a special ability which you can trigger at the beginning of the turn. These abilities do even more to create a sense of personality for these characters. The aforementioned Orakl is the only character who can actually swap the runes and change their positions, making him a mysterious and mystical force that perfectly fits his character’s wrinkled, world weary look. If there was ever a Rising 5 movie (please don’t Hollywood execs reading this, it’s just a hypothetical), Orakl definitely looks and feels like the character whose death would definitely end the second act. There’s also the fierce Nova, whose ability to get a free combat perfectly captures her fighting spirit; the hulking robot HAL who can copy the ability of anyone at his location, thematically presenting him as a calculating machine programmed to learn and assimilate; Eli, whose magical ability to postpone Judgment Day by pushing back the tracker that triggers the game’s loss state hints at something deeper beneath her somewhat unassuming look; and finally Ekho, whose cocky yet charismatic expression perfectly matches his ability to lead the team and boss them around by sending them to different locations outside of their turn.
These thematic powers combined with the, again, stupendous art from Vincent Dutrait makes this team feel like an actual rag tag band of characters who truly need to work together to prevent a cataclysm from occurring. I couldn’t believe how attached I felt to them, considering the fact the game only runs around 30 minutes long and there’s not even any flavor text or anything on the cards. It’s maybe the most surprising thing about this game and something I definitely felt the need to mention.
Okay, so the art is good enough to be in a museum, the game’s central puzzle is rewarding to deduce, and the hand management is simple but fun. What do I NOT like about Rising 5? Well nothing is perfect (except Breaking Bad and pizza), and there are two big flaws with this game that prevent this game from being considered among the greats of the genre, like Pandemic or Ghost Stories. The first is the difficulty of the game, or lack thereof. This game is quite easy and that’s usually not a great thing for a co-op game. While I am not a cooperative game sadist, wanting every co-op game to kick my ass and make me call it mommy (did I just make this weird? I just made it weird, didn’t I), I do prefer my co-ops to be on the tougher side. That creates a sense of constant tension and, more importantly, hooks you back into trying it again so that you can finally beat it. That probably isn’t going to happen with Rising 5. You’ll likely beat it on your first or second try and there is rarely a feeling of having your back against the wall like other great co-op games produce. Again, this isn’t a huge deal breaker for me, but I know that it definitely is for a couple of my gaming friends. It is a little disappointing though, so keep it in mind.
The game’s second flaw is a bit more damaging for me, and that’s that the game feels quite same-y. Distilling the game into just three actions is great for introducing people and teaching it, but as you play the game it becomes quite clear that the mileage for those three actions is limited. Most of your turns devolve into either ‘move’ or ‘move and roll a die, hoping for good things’. It feels like if this game offered just one more plate to spin, maybe another sub objective for your team to contend with, it would not only have helped prevent some of this mundane repetition but also perhaps solve the difficulty problem too. If any game deserves and needs an expansion, it’s Rising 5.
With all that said, if you aren’t bothered by a somewhat easy experience that can feel a tad repetitive, you can do a whole lot worse than Rising 5. It’s a cool co-op experience that manages to feel different and unique from so many of the Pandemic clones that have flooded the market which, not to anger the cooperative God of Matt Leacock, is a good thing. If that sounds interesting to you, check Rising 5 out.