Out of all the various track and field events, it’s the races that undeniably generate the most excitement. Witnessing the athleticism of the competitors who sprint down the track, hugging the lanes with precision. The way they fight their exhaustion for that last burst of acceleration as they make their way toward the tape at the finish line. The only thing that can make these events even more exciting would be if the athletes were all tiny cube-shaped versions of elephants, sheep, lions, and monkeys.
Clearly, John D Clair agrees with this analysis because that’s the premise of Cubitos, the push your luck bag builder from AEG entertainment.
At its core, Cubitos is a bag building game without a bag. Players start with a basic collection of dice and will purchase new dice throughout the game to improve their supply. The starting dice basically allow you to roll for money and have a limited chance to provide movement points. Players will roll the dice in their draw area, placing any non-blank die into their active zone.
Once you have three active dice you are now at risk for busting, which is where the push your luck element of the game comes in. If you roll all blank faces at any point after you have three active, you bust and can’t use any of the dice you’ve rolled already. This hamstrings your turn but does allow you to move up a separate fan track that gives condolence prizes such as increased rolling capacity and one-time-use tokens that are interchangeable for either money or movement.
What’s the point of this bag building you ask? Well, it’s to move your cubey animal meeple around a racetrack, avoiding obstacles like water hazards and trying to land strategically on bonus spaces that will allow you to get rid of your weaker dice permanently, or move up the fan track to get bonuses and rewards.
The various racetracks (there are four of them) also have shortcuts that require money or movement points to travel through. One such shortcut is expensive and will pin players onto a tiny island surrounded entirely by water that you can’t traverse without a special die. (During one game, my wife took a chance on the shortcut, banking on her ability to roll enough money to move away from the water hazard. This was a few weeks ago and the last time I checked she was still there, endlessly rolling dice in the hopes she’ll one day hit the requisite 15 coins.)
Every game, eight upgrade dice of varying costs are available, each with assorted powers such as the ability to swap in other dice from out of play and even dice that engage in “combat” with other players. That’s basically all there is to the gameplay itself. The rulebook offers a variety of dice sets you can start the game with and there are plenty of choices in the direction you can go on the race tracks themselves. (Do you take the longer route that gives bonuses or just barrel straight ahead?) The first person to cross the finish line or whoever crosses the furthest on the last turn is the winner.
Cubitos appears to be designed with a family audience in mind but coordinating all the interlocking dice powers can take a bit to get your head around, so this is probably slightly above a family weight game. That being said, some of the aspects of the special powers on the dice are very satisfying, like the ones that reward you with extra movement points if you’ve gotten far enough on the fan track. This makes busting early in the game a compelling proposition. Other dice powers, however, are less interesting and some seem pointless to purchase after the first quarter or so of the race.
This isn’t to say the game is complicated. For the most part, the rules are intuitive, and everything plays smoothly. One aspect of the game that is a bit clunky is the structure of the individual player boards. While this game is a bag building game, there isn’t a bag you put your dice into. Instead, you lay them onto a board that has four sections on it. As you play, you slide the dice you’re using into the appropriate section depending on what phase of your turn you’re in. I understand why this was done, since the draw phase has a rolling limit, but it is a bit fiddly to constantly be pushing dice back and forth especially towards the later stages of the race when most players will have a ton of dice sitting in front of them.
The components of the game are very good, from the dice to the player boards and racetracks, all of which have simple but engaging artwork. The worst aspect of the game is the included cardboard storage and token cubes. I appreciate that they’re included and that the company put the forethought into a storage and setup solution, but they are a pain to build and even worse when packing the game up. Several of my storage cubes are already damaged beyond repair. Thematically they do help make everything look like a racetrack when it’s all set up around the table, but overall it was probably unnecessary.
Speaking of the theme: While I suppose technically the game is thematically strong because it certainly feels like a race, I was a bit bewildered by what implications the design inferred. The special dice (and cover art, for that matter) seem to imply that the dice you roll are the competitors in the race, but they’re not; they merely serve to advance the animal racers on the track (described as the racers’ “support team” in the rulebook). Are the “cubes” players roll metaphoric expressions of the powers imbued in the similarly cube-like animal participants? If so, what does that make all the cube-shaped fans in attendance along the edges of the game board? And what exactly does that say about the roles the players themselves have in the game? Are we collecting these sentient cubes in our play area and then tossing them around to race and manipulate beings smaller than us? (I’m in a complete existential crisis at the moment. Please stand by while I collect myself.)
Once you get a feeling for the flow of the game, Cubitos plays quickly and there isn’t much need to refer to the rulebook even if some of the dice powers themselves can be a bit challenging to understand. At the end of every game, however, I did feel a little empty. I’m not entirely sure if I was expecting more than just a light racing game, but it does seem that something might be missing. Maybe it’s that players can occupy the same spaces so there isn’t a lot of blocking? Or maybe it’s that, for the most part, the racetracks are wide so there are never any terribly difficult decisions about which path to take? Or perhaps it’s because by the end of every race all the players have so many dice that movement points are the only important result and everything else becomes basically irrelevant?
Still, when someone asked my opinion of this game after the first few plays, the only word that came to mind was “fun.” Cubitos is just a lot of fun. Sure, some of the dice powers seem imbalanced, and, unlike The Quacks of Quedlinburg, the penalties for failing seem much more severe, especially early in the race. (Quacks allows you to pick your penalty so you’ll still be able to build your bag if you wish. Here the consolation for busting is always the same and the early rewards aren’t great so you can fall behind very quickly without even really pushing your luck that much.) Ultimately, I think John D. Clair was looking to make a lighter game that sits somewhere above family-weight without approaching too much complexity and I can’t really penalize a game for doing exactly what it wanted to do very well.
Final Score: 3.5 Stars – A straightforward design that combines disparate elements nicely into a fun and lightweight gaming experience.
• Solid gameplay components
• Comprehensive and well-written rulebook
• Turns are relatively quick and gameplay is fun
• Included storage boxes are a swing and a miss
• Some of the dice powers can be a bit confusing
• Dice management on player boards is fiddly