If You Ain’t Rollin’, You Ain’t Racin’: Cubitos review

Why do we go fast?

To feel the wind in your hair. To hear the roar of the engines screaming as you shift gears. To ride the edge between controlled sliding and losing control in the last turn before the end of the race.

Those are universal truths. 

But let’s face it, those may be great reasons to jump in a ’65 GTO and tear it up at the Capitol City Raceway — but these are not the reasons we play racing board games. There’s just no way that a board game could recreate any of the above.

So why are racing games so popular? From the traditional auto racing gaming to the thematic game involving grape growing, almost every gamer has at least one game where players compete to get to the finish line first, tires squealing as they do a figure eight on the pavement and get ready for a milk shower.  Is there a game out there that illuminates our obsession?

Let’s fire up the engine and find out.

Cubitos is the new racing game designed by master game designer, John D. Clair (Space Base, Mystic Vale) and published by AEG (Alderac Entertainment Group). In Cubitos, the time for the Cube Cup has arrived.

The world of the Cube Cup is a strange one indeed, where animals and fruit take on strange shapes and race against each other around four different tracks.  It’s basically a recreation of your REM sleep after two bowls of gumbo at 10:00 pm on New Year’s Eve. You and three of your friends will chunk dice, move forward on the track, and buy more and better dice to make the next turn the most powerful activation phase that the world has ever seen.

Or you’ll bust.

Cubitos has art from Jacqui Davis, Philip Glofcheskie, Ryan Iler, and Matt Paquette, and plays two to four players in about forty-five minutes. (We’ve played six times, thanks to an early review copy from AEG, and each game has been between 30-45 minutes.) Cubitos is not a gateway game, but is certainly appropriate for a family of gamers due to the combolicious nature of the different colored dice that you roll and can buy. I’d call it a medium weight family game for reasons we will discuss below.

GAMEPLAY:

The core concept of Cubitos is simple. You start with nine dice, whose faces give you either coins (to buy more dice at the end of the round) or feet (to move forward on the track.) You roll these on your player board, which is helpfully divided into dice for next round, dice you are rolling, dice you are activating that round, and your discard pile.

The game comes with four unique tracks on two double sided game boards, with lots of doo-dads and whiz-bangs spread out all over, things like rocket boosts to your movement, ways to get free dice and free coins, and even short cuts like in Beetle Adventure Racing, the world’s greatest racing video game ever.

But the real star of the show are the chunky little Space Base dice, this time in nine beautiful colors. Each of those dice have tons of special powers, conveniently laid out in cards that show the facings and powers and cost of the die, as well as listed in the rule book. Players can buy one or two dice each round, and try to combo up those powers to get them coins and movement or unique powers that can make the difference between winning the Cube Cup and going home first loser.

But how? How can you aspire to be first loser? Bust, that’s how. Each turn, players will roll all of their allotted dice (making the decision which dice to carry into that round is in itself a juicily crunchy decision in later rounds). If any dice show a dice face (most have from 5 to 3 blank sides, which give you nothing), they are moved to the “active” area until the end of the round.

At that point, it is time to punch your ticket for the push your luck party. Roll all of the non-active dice in your roll area again. Move dice with faces to the active area and rinse and repeat. That is, until you have three dice showing in the active area. Now, each turn after that is “pushing your luck” for real, because if ever all the dice you roll show a blank face, you will bust for that round. Busting is bad, very bad. You won’t get any benefits of any of the active faces as all of those dice geaux to the discard pile, and all your blank dice head back to the roll area to taunt you the next round. All you get is a bump in fame.

Fame, you say? Let’s not forget your fans. They adore you, just for being the gutsy racer you are. Anytime you bust, they cheer on your failure as if you were Stan Van Gundy, and give you a bump in fame — which gives you more money or more dice. Yep, it is your standard catch up mechanic, but with a twist. There are ways to get those bumps even without busting. Tricky little game, isn’t it?

PRODUCTION:

I love everything about this production. The artwork is futuristic and silly, the puns are puntanstic, and the dice are tiny little joys to roll. Stay away from tables with really hard surfaces, though, because you will be chasing those bouncy little buggers all over your kitchen floor. The cards are those plasticy type cards that AEG loves, and there’s tons of handy dandy storage boxes that make it easy to do the set up and tear down that is essentially the hardest part of this game. Well, maybe the hardest part is setting up those storage boxes, but you only have to do that one time, so chin up.

Last but not least, AEG is so hit or miss on rule books, but in this case, this is one hell of a good rule book. EVERYTHING is big and bolded and color coded and easy to find, and even has helpful illustrations of some of the trickier rules. Kudos!

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

If you define fun as a game with the first third consisting of a slow dance around the entrance as you try to score some extra coins, or cull some poor dice options, or get some free dice racers, followed by a middle third full of big swings and misses, and ended by a final third with giant leaps across the board as you wind up the engine you have patiently been building since turn one — then yeah, Cubitos is a bucket of dice funship for you.

I’ve played a bunch of pure racing games, and I’ve owned a few, too. After six plays, Cubitos has been the geaux to racing game in this house. My wife just adores the way that it only takes a turn or two to size up the available combos, and then start grabbing those dice to add to her pool. She squeals in delight everytime she has a lucky turn in the dice which results in hitting all of the dice in the combo. It makes her feel so clever to zoom past me and win right whenever I push the limit and bust or get the worst possibly unfair rolls anyone in the history of dice chucking has ever had. Not that I’m bitter or anything, it’s just a game.

I sold Formula D a few years back because frankly the base game was too boring and the advanced game too complicated for the fun quotient it delivered. I keep Downforce in the collection because I love trying out the new tracks, and betting on other people’s cars is so devious. Camel Up stays because it is so simple to teach, plays a ton of players, and has mechanics central to a lot of euros but so foreign to new gaming friends and family that it is a great introduction to our hobby.

But right now, I just want to keep playing Cubitos. The book gives you nine or ten track options with combos of all the cards to use, and we are heading to track number seven next. As soon as we are done with that, I will be curious to see if I can put together my own collection of cards for a particular track and try those out. Or look for fan made track / card combos on the internet.

But, what is important to you dear reader should not be that my family wants to keep playing Cubitos, but why we want to. I can only speak for myself.

Engine building is such a satisfactory mechanic, especially when there are a lot of payoffs. I’m less interested in building a long term engine and running it once at the end of the game. If I mess up any part of it, or god forbid there is player interaction that can screw with my best laid plans, then I feel like all that work is for nothing. That’s just not fun.

Instead, I like games that let me wind up and let that engine fly over and over. I want to see the engine I’m building take off, I want to see it in action, and I want to feel clever as the engine is revving. Cubitos hits those marks. It is a cacophony of desires coming at your fast and loud during the game, however. The first round that gives you double digit coins means you have to quickly sort through nine different options of dice to purchase, and do it without ruining the plans you have already laid. That’s fun for me, but I’ve seen it paralyze some players.

If there is a tiny bit of hesitation for me in recommending Cubitos, it is that one moment in time between moving the racer on the board and readying the board for the next round (the buy phase) because some players will stare at those cards and the myriad of options that 16 coins will provide and get locked up. What can I say? Remind them this is a racing game, and buy the dice on feel because mathing out multiples of one in six chances on four dice is going to crack your skull open.  BGG’s early weight rating puts Cubitos just a frog’s hair above a three, and that seems fair and yet not fair at the same time. Essentially, the game is rolling dice like yahtzee, grabbing the ones that show faces, and then deciding whether to push your luck.  The complexity is all in the dice that you buy. 

And, to be fair, there’s one more tiny little quibble. Because of all of the types of dice, cards, tracks, and tokens, there’s a lot to unpack to set up the game and box up at the end. To any euro or ameritrash player, it is not a lot to set up, but if the game will be marketed to families, it is a bit more than the usual fare. 

But either one of those picayune complaints are tiny and insignificant when compared to the thrill of those last glorious rounds in Cubitos. That’s when I’ve gotten past a few initial busts, rounded up a few Mt Dew Kickstart-infused dice buddies in just the right team colors (that yellow die will trigger my blue die to give me three coins and four feet! Oh yeah!), and I’m shaking those dice like momma’s rent depends on it. That one beautiful, amazing, splendiferous round where I will somehow against all odds roll twelve dice and over the course of pushing my luck five times will somehow, some way, hit on EVERY SINGLE FACE — that’s racing heaven.

CONCLUSION:

Cubitos is the best racing game I’ve played since Downforce, and probably ticks up a notch above it for my family. (Due to COVID, we have yet to play it with the rest of the Gumbo).  Cubitos combines things I love: chucking dice, short-term & long-term engine building, quick turns, and the thrill of cheering (or cursing) your opponents in real time.   Milk showers not included. 

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ

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