This star really shines
Be warned, if you dislike games that have a large amount of luck: there's nothing more to see here. Go home. Right, now that that's out of the way and all the chess players are busy with castling and en passant, I can talk about Andromeda without fear of being shouted down.
Andromeda is, when you come right down to it, little more than a game where you play the odds, and hope to come out on top. But it does it in such a fun way that you don't even realize it. It is the journey, not the destination, that is Andromeda's highlight; indeed, I am often disappointed when the game ends, and the fact that there is a winner is largely irrelevant to me.
The game is a blend of several different mechanics that might seem incongruent, but actually work together pretty well. One mechanism is the trade phase, where players trade cards with each other to acquire sets. The other main mechanism involves spending sets of three or more cards to attempt to gain victory points. These are essentially encapsulated in the two phases that form the bulk of the game.
The premise of Andromeda is that each player represents a faction attempting to establish trade posts on the seven rich worlds of some unspecified star system. The player does this by moving representatives (all right, they're little coloured cubes) to a planet and trying to move these cubes onto the planet's moons, which is where the trade posts (and victory points) are.
The board depicts the seven planets, each with three satellites. In the corner of the board lies Earth, which is essentially a glorified holding pen, though at least having cubes on it earns you some victory points. There are also two short tracks on the board, one which affects hand size (thus your ability to make sets of cards), and the other which has some subtle but useful effects in improving your odds of success. During the game you can spend sets of cards to advance along each of these tracks.
The cards each depict one of the seven planets, the significance of which is that if you want to do something with, say, the purple planet, you need a set of at least three purple-planet cards. Since the cards are dealt at random, players need to trade cards with each other in order to get these sets. This is done during the trading phase, where one player (the start player--this rotates around the table) offers a card up for trade. All other players secretly pick a card of a different kind, then all are revealed simultaneously. The start player now offers another card, and the other players have to offer a second card that differs from both of the cards that the start player played. This can continue up to four cards (depending on the start player's technology). Then the start player trades his or her offered cards with the offered cards from one opponent--presumably the ones that looked the most interesting. The opponent is now allowed to take up the start player's cards and keep out of what follows, or leave the cards on the table. What follows is that the player next to the start player now has the same opportunity as the start player--trade cards with someone else, or take up the cards in front of him or her. At the end, one unlucky player will have no choice but to take the only cards left on the table. This mechanism--which should be familiar to anyone who has played the card game Money--sounds complicated, but it moves along very quickly, and it keeps all players involved. Because one player's trash may be another player's treasure, it has the result of increasing the likelihood (and size) of sets of cards.
Which is where the other main phase comes in. Beginning with the start player, each player now can hand in sets of cards to move their cubes on the board--either from Earth to a planet, or higher along hand size or technology track, or from a planet to its victory-point-laden moons. The larger set that is handed in, the bigger the odds of success. It is this last option--planets to moons--that introduces the huge luck element that turns off some gamers. At the planet are all of your (and everyone else's) cubes that have been moved from Earth, but not onto moons yet. Over all of these cubes, you place a plastic device which looks very much like an inverted ashtray--a shallow cup with a hole in one side just large enough for one cube to come out. Shake it around lots--this is the fun bit--and move it so that one cube comes out the hole. If it's yours, congratulations, you've set up a trade post. Stick it on a free (presumably the most valuable) moon. If the cube was someone else's, it is sent back to Earth, improving your odds (but also improving that player's score by increasing the number of cubes on Earth). If you didn't succeed, and you have more shakes left--this depends on the size of the set you played--you can try again. Of course, if the planet's three moons are full, there's not much point shaking, because there's nowhere for your cubes to go. This provides a balance between going all-out on a planet to improve your odds: you will be left with a bunch of cubes lying scoreless on the planet's surface at the end of the game.
The end of the game is, incidentally, when three planets' satellite systems fill up. The current round ends and everyone tallies up their victory points, on the board and in their hands from 'bonus cards' that have been collected during the game from playing large sets of cards. (But only if you kept them until the end of the game, since bonus cards can also be used as any-planet 'wild' cards to make sets. This is another way of improving your odds.)
I've left out several details here, such as the use of transport cards, the meaning of the different technology levels, and several important numbers. These are all described in the rules on Rio Grande's web site, and they don't make a lot of difference to the flavour of the game, only the balance.
Speaking of balance, this is the largest criticism that I can level at Andromeda: it's not clear that the various scoring mechanisms are equally important. For instance, there are victory points to be had for higher technology, but none for increased hand size. If you go for broke with the planetary ashtray early on, you may get lucky and score some key victories before your opponents have had a chance to react. For this reason, the game works a little more evenly with more players, because it is harder for one player to get a huge majority of cubes on one planet. Having said that, I find that most of the time I am usually playing Andromeda with the minimum complement of three. It's a bit random, but so what? It's fun watching the cube come out of the hole in the ashtray, and cheering when it's my colour or cursing when it's not. And while I'm on the topic of fun--have a look at the cargo being carried in the ship on the front of the box: artist Doris Matthaus has filled it with all sorts of gaming references. Very cute.
It's unusual for a game to have so little downtime between turns, but with Andromeda you are always doing something, so the game doesn't feel as long as the 75 minutes it usually takes to finish. Andromeda is a game that should appeal to casual gamers and families the most. And if you think calling a game 'family' is a slight, shouldn't you be off playing chess right now?