Matt Leacock is the pioneer of the cooperative boardgame, with his hit title Pandemic spawning the #1-rated game on Boardgamegeek, Pandemic: Legacy, and the core mechanic behind Pandemic appearing in two other co-op titles, Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, each offering a different challenge and level of difficulty. His latest title, Mole Rats in Space, brings the cooperative concept into a game for kids that will feel very familiar to adults of a certain age, because it’s kind of Chutes & Ladders but without the relentless boredom and mindlessness of its inspiration.
Mole Rats in Space places two to four players as mole rat astronauts on a spaceship of concentric tracks on the board, with ladders moving up one level and chutes that either move down one level or shoot whatever lands on them out into space. The players must collect four pieces of equipment and get to the escape pod in the center of the board (very similar to both Forbidden titles), while avoiding the snakes that are invading the ship. At the start of the game, there are four snakes on the board, but new ones appear over the course of the game, and I think it’s possible to end up with twelve on the board if you don’t use some of your actions to shoot them out into space.
On each turn, a player draws a card from the main deck and executes the action(s) on it, so the number of decisions is very limited. Most cards have top and bottom actions—at the top, the player will move his/her mole-rat, any mole-rat of his choice, or all mole rats some specified number of spaces, while at the bottom will be an analogous action for the player to move one or more snakes. The direction is up to the player, and if the player lands on a space with a ladder on it, that mole-rat moves up the ladder, with the reverse happening if the player lands on a space with a chute. There are four colors of snakes, so some cards will say to move one brown snake three spaces, or all teal snakes one space. Some cards have a bottom action that spawns a new snake of a specific color, and there are a few cards in the deck that only have a snake action, where you move any snake to the nearest ladder and send it up a level.
Players may lose the game in several different ways, as in Leacock’s other titles. If the players exhaust the draw deck before they get all four equipment items and all mole rats to the escape pod, they lose. If any one snake gets into the escape pod, they lose. And if any mole rat is bitten twice by snakes, the players lose. You get one mulligan on snake bites per mole rat, as each player gets a “medic” item that is discarded if the player moves on to or over a snake token, or if a snake token lands on a space occupied by a mole rat. A player who’s bitten once must discard the medic item and return to his/her start space, which is a serious handicap if it happens late in the game.
The key to the game is snake management, both in keeping them away from the mole rats and in trying to maneuver them on to spaces with chutes that will shoot them out into space, thus removing them from the game. There’s a natural tendency over the course of the game for the snakes to move towards the center of the board, which both increases the risk of one getting into the escape pod and of one of your mole rats bumping into one, so moving them down and/or out is critical. We’ve won the game several times, playing with two and three players, but it’s always come down to the last few cards, which I take as a sign that the game itself is very well-calibrated.
The beauty of Mole Rats in Space is that the small number of decisions available to players means that younger kids will be able to participate in the group planning. Any one turn involves looking at the active card, evaluating the two potential options for each action (move left or move right), and choosing one, bearing in mind what other cards players are holding. There’s also an added challenge once players have won the game three times, a sealed envelope that adds five more cards to the deck and an additional rule that gives the game one higher level of difficulty if you find the base game just a little bit too easy. (I won’t spoil the surprise, but it adds a new way to lose the game.) If you have any of Leacock’s cooperative games for grownups and want to play that style of game with your kids aged 6 and up, Mole Rats in Space is perfect, and you’ll never have to play Chutes and Ladders or, worse, Candyland again.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.