Molecular Review

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Our game group had a fun opportunity at yesterday’s meetup. We got to play Molecular, a new chemistry-themed game that will be launching on Kickstarter on June 28. So… did we form a strong chemical bond with it, or is it a little too free radical?

At its heart, Molecular is a tile-laying game similar to Carcassonne. Each player has a hand of five hex-shaped atom tiles, including Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen, and Nitrogen. The atoms come in a variety of configurations representing different sets of single bonds, double bonds, even a few triple bonds. The players will fit these atoms together to form a giant molecule, scoring points for each bond they form between atoms.

The players can also score points by arranging the atoms into characteristic shapes. Oxygen, carbon and carbon can form an ether for 3 bonus points, while a particularly complex arrangement of acid scores a mighty ten points. Each player has a small hand of goal cards, and the promise of bonus points helps push the molecule into a shape that looks plausible.

The third and final component of the game is a set of effector cards. This common deck represents catalysts, lab accidents, and other random events that can affect the molecule under constructions. Flipping an effector card occasionally has benefits, but usually just increases the amount of chaos in the game.

Molecular Madness

Unfortunately, “occasionally has benefits, but usually just increases the chaos” indicates a design problem running through Molecular. The basic game of assembling a big molecule together is fun. However, there are too many game situations where the player can not make a move that has a predictable gain.

The main problem is that each player takes one action per turn. This means that if you create a shape that will score bonus points on a goal card, then each of your opponents has a chance to score the same goal card before you do. There’s a penalty for repeating goal cards, so you can easily benefit the least from your own move.

There’s a similar problem in the tile play itself. If you use a single bond to connect a carbon that also has a double bond, your opponents will use the double bond before your next turn, scoring two points on your one point play. This disincentive made us avoid playing tiles with double and triple bonds until they clogged up our hands.

The effectors had the greatest disincentive, though. There are a lot of interesting tweaks to the basic rules in the deck, but very few of them benefit the player who turns over the card. Some of them are outright penalties, including the dreaded “lose a turn” card. After being stung a few times, we avoided turning over effector cards unless there was nothing else to do.

Chemical Re-Engineering

It’s tricky to review a pre-Kickstarter game like Molecular. Nobody expects the game to be perfect at this point — the full production process has not happened yet, and I’ve seen good games getting tweaked five minutes before the files were sent to the factory. However, it would be easier to recommend the game if it only needed a few clarifications and adjustments.

Molecular doesn’t have that yet. The core game is fun, but the game economy pushes players towards choices that slow play down and close off strategies. There are some fundamental fixes that have to be made before the game goes into physical production, and there’s no guarantee that these changes will happen amid the distractions and excitement of a Kickstarter campaign.

After discussing the game — and we liked it enough that we spent half an hour of precious gaming time discussing how to make it better — we decided that we would like to see our actions pay off on a more reliable basis. Taking two actions per turn might fix that, since a player could set up and pay off before opponents jumped in to score their own points. The effector deck should also get a significant rewrite so that every card presents at least a small benefit to the player who turns it over. A few changes like these and Molecular may become a game that any science-minded gamer might enjoy.

6/28 Update: Since this review was published, Inside the Box Games has done another iteration of Molecular’s rules that addresses a lot of the issues above. We haven’t had enough free time to play with the new rules yet, but the improvements look good and ItBG’s commitment to improving their game is even better.

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