Trading Scars for Better Ones — RED RISING review

I’ve been holding on to everything

With arms above, I’m balancing

— Matt Nathanson, “Back Together”

The recent review copy that landed in my mail slot from Stonemaier Games came with the most trepidation of any game I have received in recent memory. I knew nothing about the book series by Pierce Brown called “Red Rising” before Jamey Stegmaier announced he would be publishing the game. But even more important to me was the fact that I had played Fantasy Realms once in the past, and in all honesty, was not that big a fan of the mechanism of trading cards from your hand to upgrade to better combos. Would the inclusion turn me off in Red Rising?

It’s an interesting quandary. Walk with me now on a journey through a game that gets a lot of attention on social media — not all of it deserved.

Red Rising is a 2021 game designed by Alexander Schmidt and Jamey Stegmaier, and published by Stonemaier Games. The game features art by Jacqui Davis, Miles Bensky, and Justin Wong. It plays from one to six players in about an hour, although our game times have ranged wildly from thirty minutes to over an hour, depending on how the cards came out.

Caveat: we have not played the solo game…we’ll let you discover that on your own. Second caveat: I began reading the series after receiving the copy of the game, and just finished book two recently. (Mini review: meh on book one, really enjoyed book two).


I could just do a copy-and-paste job from previous Stonemaier Game releases, right? We know their track record, don’t we?

Not quite. Red Rising has its hits and misses in terms of production. The cover art is pretty uninspiring, and while the artwork on the cards is very attractive, the fact that different artists and different styles contributed to those cards made the whole thing a little disjointed when you see them laid out on the table. Picayune complaints? (Of course, that’s what we do.) Overall, I enjoyed the Jacqui Davis produced cards the best, but that’s just personal preference.

The rest of the components were serviceable and what we expect from a Stonemaier Games release. I especially liked the simplicity of the retail edition that Stonemaier Games sent us (and obviously, I am not commenting on the upgraded edition that you can get from their website). While I am not attracted to the busy, distracting artwork on the game board itself, I am a big fan of the wolf-inspired GameTrayz container that houses the helium crystals. It looks sharp and is very functional and is a nice “wink” to fans of the series. The retail edition is good enough that I don’t see the need to upgrade, and oddly, the bar set by Stonemaier in previous releases works against them in this production.


Red Rising, an homage to Kennerspiel des Jahres nominated Fantasy Realms, is surprisingly easy to teach. It’s essentially a hand management game where trading cards with the shared tableau gives you bonuses and special one time powers, as well as helping you score points for the end game.

Players begin with a hand of five cards, and right off the bat, have to make some excruciating decisions about which cards to play, and which cards to keep.

On their turn, each player will lay a card down on one of four spots on the board. By doing so, they *should* be able to take the action promised by that card. It could be something as simple as collecting helium, or something more complicated like “banishing” a card on the board to a separate tableau. (Alternatively, if the player likes their current hand, they can just take one from the top of the deck and place it on one of the four spots on the board.)

Next, players will take one of the cards on the board into their hand (not the one they laid down) for playing or scoring later. This gives the player the bonus from that particular spot, one of four bonuses:

  • Moving up on the fleet track (where each space gives ever increasing amount of points at the end of the game);
  • Getting one helium crystal (worth three points at the end of the game);
  • Taking the sovereign token (which gives 10 points at the end of the game AND a special bonus for choosing the sovereign); or
  • Placing influence in the Institute (where each cube gives you points at the end of the game if you finish in the top three in influence.)

(Alternatively, players can just draw one blind from the top of the deck, and roll a special die to get a random bonus which could include one of the four bonuses above.)

Wash, rinse, and repeat this until the end game conditions regarding helium, the fleet track and/or the institute influence are met, and then count up the points.

Before I dive into my thoughts of the experience of playing the game, I am happy to report that at least in my mind, Red Rising’s gameplay thematically captures the interplay of the colors and characters from the book series about as well as a 45 minute card-game-with-bits could be expected to do so.


Like every Stonemaier Games release, and especially one tied to their first attempt at an IP game, there are a lot of opinions out there. Let’s cut through the noise and chatter, and go back to Matt Nathanson, one of my songwriting heroes, to explain why you should play Red Rising … and why you just might want to avoid it.

There’s no way I’d trade my scars

For better ones

There’s over a hundred unique cards in the deck on the board, and some of them will synergize well with the cards in your hand, but others will deter you from your goal of scoring the most points. In most games, you will perhaps see twenty five percent of that deck (and it is helpful to remember that some colors help you complete your combos, so seeing every card during any particular game is really not necessary). Like any card game, your first hand — probably your tenth hand, too, if your experience is anything like mine — will be bewildering to you.

There are a ton of different colors (14 different suits?!?) in the game, and you’ll recognize right away that each color has a theme to it. Green is all about chaos, gold about leadership and synergy with other “named” elite cards. Silver gets you helium, and Orange helps you pretend to have cards in your hand that you really don’t. You get the drift, all of the suits are all different and all of them are tied to the role of the colors in the book’s dystopian universe.

I don’t wanna be somebody I’m not

I just wanna be somebody amazing

Try as you might, you will not avoid this contradiction when playing Red Rising. When the game starts, and you stare at your hand, within seconds you will come to a stark and binary realization. You will inevitably really, really want to keep all five of the cards in your hand — or you will really, really hate what life has just dealt you.

Trust me. That’s just how luck runs in this game.

It’s all right. You can still be amazing, just look up from the cards in your hand, and look back at the board. Even though the siren song purring from your hand grows louder with each second, turn your attention to the four main areas on the board where the cards laid face up there are staring back at you. Hear them whisper about the potential they bring to give you more points than the cards in your hand. “Ignore those card bonuses”, they softly say.

Just. Pick. Them.

Everybody looks for love where it’s not

Everybody wants to know they matter

Each of those cards stand like silent guardians in front of four different areas of the solar system. You must become intimately familiar with each location as you explore the game. At the edge of your vision dances an image, tickling the back of your brain, posing the unanswerable question: “Aren’t one of those four spots unbeatable?” Your gut tells you that you could dominate Red Rising, if only you could figure out which location is the best! If one of them is in fact the best, I haven’t identified it in over half a dozen plays, which may speak to the game, or my own skill as a player. I’ll let you decide, dear reader.

I’ve been lost and I’ve been sinking

Broken, coming back together

Ah, that unexpected twist. After a few games, dear reader, you too will come to realize the wisdom Matt imparts. You’ll break your smaller combos for a shot at a better one. You’ll plan three moves back-to-back-to-back. You will feel the satisfaction of pulling off that feat, or the sting of another player Aja’ing (a card in the game that is thematically tied to a standout character in the books) your strategy into the ground, a pile of banished cards laughing cruelly back at you.

If you want your card game to be simple, where you’ll take a foundation of cards and build the highest, strongest pyramid from there, stay away from Red Rising. You’re not ready to trade your scars for better ones. Red Rising is not your game, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are plenty of other card games out there that won’t hurt as much to play. Find your enjoyment elsewhere, and hold your head high.

But for those of you intrigued by Matt’s teasers, excited by the potential of scanning your hand quickly, and strong enough to combat the desire to fall madly in love with your cards, then you should take a peek at Red Rising. If you can resist the temptation to hang on to your cards out of blind loyalty, if you can instead be strong enough to dismiss these disparate faces even though they could give you juicy points at the end in order to chain events for a chance at an avalanche of points at the end, then maybe, just maybe, Red Rising is for you.

Yes, you have scars, and yes, they represent experiences, good and bad. You’re projecting them onto your hand, I know. Those cards mean something to you. Trading those guaranteed cards in for the chance of getting better ones is a hard sell.

But that’s Red Rising in a nutshell: Give up to get more. Geaux outside the box to seek inner peace. Grab at two birds in the bush, and let go of the one turtledove in your hand.

Trade your scars for better ones.

Play Red Rising.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

Our thanks to Stonemaier Games for sending us a review copy.

4 thoughts on “Trading Scars for Better Ones — RED RISING review

Add yours

  1. I like this game. It has my favorite color on the cover. Red, JUST LIKE TOMATOES. Tomatoes Rising in da Gumbo!!!


  2. The return of Jacques Boudreaux! Finally! I always figured you were a green tomatoes person, because that’s the color of dem big piles of moolah you spend on beautiful board games!

    Ah well, in Mamou we don’t put da tomatoes in da gumbo, but to each his own! And yep, Red Rising is my geaux-to game right now…


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