Billing yourself as another game but faster, better, lighter is perhaps the bedrock of board game marketing. As Jim Jarmusch said in his famous quote on filmmaking, “nothing is original.” So, Gemini Gauntlet is Robo Rally but quicker. Maybe even better.
This is a Lynnvander release designed by Josh Derksen. I think Derksen is somewhat unheralded, perhaps due to the amount of struggles he’s had with flops like Super Camelot and Terminator: The Official Board Game. But he’s also designed the spectacular Terminator Genisys: Rise of the Resistance, the underrated Gascony’s Legacy, and of course, the legendary X-Wing: Heroes of the Aturi Cluster.
Gemini Gauntlet is more Gascony’s Legacy than it is a Super Camelot.
First, you have to get past that cover. I think the production of this game is actually solid, if not middle of the road. The illustration on the box, however, serves to highlight the game’s diversity, but it doesn’t emphasize the mirthful danger at the heart of the design. The action resides in the background of the Usual Suspects-like lineup that is the focal point of the illustration. Stylistically, the character artwork isn’t particularly inspiring, despite the laudable approach of inclusion. Get past it, as I said.
I love the little ships. They’re cardboard tokens glued to a small foam washer and set atop a cardboard base. It’s the second dimension forming a 3D superposition. They’re like one degree from miniatures and it’s nifty.
It’s helpful these ship tokens standout, as you will be moving them often. Around asteroids, over asteroids, through other ships, sometimes on top of other ships. What you’re trying to do is fly through gates in a dangerous cosmic race. You do this by programming movement.
The action mechanism is clever. Each player has an asymmetric board with their own set of maneuvers. This includes the expected straight thrusters as well as rotating along your racer’s hex-side. But there are more complex options such as jumping over the floating rocks or teleporting out to your flank. You also sometimes need to take a breather and spend an action or two repairing your banged up collision magnet.
How they’re divided is inspired. There are two rows of actions, and you can only program one from each row every turn. Fictionally, this represents your two-person team of racers at the control panel, working in unison to propel the pod forward. Mechanically, this creates interesting trade-offs that push you into taking more risks to squeeze out that extra space of distance towards the next gate.
For instance, a team like Deep 5 have strong rotational options on each row and strong maneuvering flexibility. But Akami Industries have less turning ability, as they’re unable to rotate twice in the same turn. The differences in team boards are more subtle than you’d expect, emerging over the course of play as you dig in deeper. Just when you need a certain combination of movements, it’s not there.
The damage system here is fantastic. And you will take lots of it.
Whenever you collide with another player or become smeared by an asteroid you take a damage token. These elongated pieces cover an action icon on the top row along with the icon on the row beneath it. This narrows those maneuver options even further, causing interesting dilemmas such as performing only one action this turn so you can heal, versus scooting towards your objective but in an unreliable or perhaps inefficient way.
Part of the brilliance is that repairing that damage never feels overly punitive. Since you’re often unable to program two perfect actions, sacrificing one of them to patch up your hull is not particularly punishing. This is a clever move as damage can pile up fast. Especially if you fly like me.
Gemini Gauntlet’s greatest trick is the dynamic board. The asteroids littering the surface move. After every action. In unpredictable ways.
Imagine programming a left juke then a full throttle forward as you try to squeeze through a gap. After you slide to the side one of the huge boulders tumbles into your path, wrecking your glistening paint job. It happens and it’s humorous. People point and laugh and then they hit a wall and you do the same. This is a light game, over in less than an hour, and you to take your lumps with a smile.
You also run into other players with frequency. This is entertaining and another focal point for tactical dilemma. Since everything is simultaneous – including executing your movements – tossing in more racers only improves the experience.
Collisions also frequently happen because the gates you must fly through dynamically shift with the asteroids, occasionally creating very narrow pathways you must ram through. Furthermore, each subsequent gate in the circuit is unknown until the leader pushes through their next target, creating unexpected shifts as everyone needs to then turn hard to starboard and scoot towards the freshly activated gate on the other side of the board. Sometimes the sequence creates a weird cluster of tight-knit finish-lines, which is weird and interesting in its own right. It’s unpredictable and it’s a wonky yet smart catchup mechanism at its heart. Since those behind the leader have knowledge on where they need to head, they can plan their maneuvers more effectively and prepare for the following gate.
Gemini Gauntlet is a strong design. Upon reflection, it’s one of my favorite programmed movement games right alongside the beefier Mechs vs. Minions. If I’d have played Robo Rally more than once in the past decade I’d dig into some deeper comparisons here, but I haven’t. There’s a reason why I haven’t. It’s interminable and loses momentum quickly. It’s also an awful physical artifact in its current incarnation. I do find myself missing blasters and combat here, though.
There’s a great editorial touch throughout this design. The thoughtful grouping of actions, the wild yet not overly fiddly movement of asteroids, the clever damage system. It all works together in unison. There’s even an optional variant to build your own ships, slotting in cardboard tokens and creating a custom action assortment. I find this isn’t worth the additional setup time, but there is a certain class of gamer that will love to tinker with this option. It becomes a little more worthwhile if you partake in the grand circuit that links multiple races together so you can re-use your creation.
There’s a lot to like here. As you can see, I’m quite pleased with this game. Yet, for all my adoration, this design doesn’t quite achieve the heights of my favorite racing titles. Currently, those are Rallyman GT and Flamme Rouge. This sits in a class just below that pair. I’ve struggled with why that is. The core mechanism here is distinguished, although perhaps less gripping and rich than the gear shifting of Rallyman or the exhaustion system of Rouge.
Gemini Gauntlet’s main issue, however, is that the drama leaks out of the design too quickly. Races often finish in unspectacular fashion as everyone is able to identify the winner multiple actions in advance. Usually someone emerges as the leader in the latter half of the mid-game and no one can catch them. This is usually because they beat everyone else to a choke point or evade a particularly malevolent asteroid cluster that everyone else kisses. Yet, it’s difficult to look back and identify those specific moments. It’s even harder to recognize them as they occur.
Rallyman GT and Flamme Rouge are less opaque in their climax. Even if the key moment is not near the finish line, you can recognize as you head into that upcoming treacherous turn that this is it, this is your one shot. Your one opportunity. Do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo.
That’s not to say that Gemini Gauntlet isn’t successful despite the misfire at the finish line. Racing games aren’t terribly common, and this is a solid one. It harnesses its programming action selection astutely and produces dramatic moments of collision and escape. The dynamic board state and shifting lanes are its special sauce, and the element that will keep me returning to the sport, even if I’m prone to pile up the damage tokens quicker than the W’s.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.