How to play Radlands

Adam Fields
7 min readFeb 7, 2023

But first, a brief overview of why to play Radlands

I love board games.

My favorite games:

  • are quick to play once you learn the rules
  • have a tight decision matrix (at any given turn, there are only a few possible choices to make)
  • have good game balance (it’s hard to tell until close to the end who’s going to win)
  • have a good mix of skill and luck (there’s a possibility that a wildcard may throw all of your well-laid plans into disarray and you’ll have to refocus and salvage what you can)

My favorite overall two-player game has been for many years Rivals for Catan. But I’ve recently discovered Radlands by Roxley Games, and it hits all of these same buttons while being much faster paced and having more conflict. It adds another point to the above:

  • your resources take damage in a way that’s threatening

Rivals for Catan is mostly a race between the two players — you can take occasional potshots at the other player, but it’s usually difficult to do real damage to their infrastructure as they build out their city and you have to focus on building faster. Radlands flips that around — the objective is to totally wipe out the other player before they get to you first, and you have to focus on both building your defense and attacking your opponent’s.

The game is exceedingly well designed. The manual is a comprehensive reference but a bit daunting to dig into on the first run-through. It is unusal among games in that every question we’ve had about the rules has been explicitly answered somewhere in the manual. That said, it required some dedication to dig into the flow and play a few games to really understand how things work, so this is my attempt to explain a little better.

Setup / Board Layout

Each player has the same configuration — you control rival factions in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the objective is to destroy the other player’s three camps before they destroy yours. The play mats make this really easy, but once you’re familiar it’s not hard to lay them out yourself. There are six elements split into sections of the board:

The play mats are really nice and thick neoprene.
  • Three white water tokens per player, the main “currency” of the game. Each turn, your water is replenished, and you can spend it to bring cards into play from your hand, draw new cards, or perform card actions. The starting player only gets one water token on their first turn. Each water token has a “water drop” side to indicate it’s being used as water, and also a generic “minus” side to indicate that it’s just being used as a placeholder. The first player is determined by flipping a water token — if it comes up water side, you go first. The black water tokens are just “extra”, to be used by whichever player needs them. (Between the purple and blue boxes)
  • Three camps each with a column of people in front of them. Each different camp card has its own set of abilities. Camps can take two points of damage before they’re destroyed, and they can still use their abilities when damaged. There’s a quick intro game which specifies which camps to use, but in a normal game you draw six at random and can pick three to use from those. (Purple box)
  • People cards in the columns in front of the camps (you start with zero people and play them onto your board as actions in your turn). When you place a person on the board, you may do so either at the front or back of the column, but you may not move them later unless you’re doing so when placing a new card. Each different person card has its own set of abilities. People can take two points of damage before they’re destroyed, but they cannot use their abilities when damaged. “Punks” are special placeholder people which have no special abilities and can only take one point of damage before they’re destroyed. Normally only the frontmost card in a column can be damaged by your opponent, though there are some abilities that let you get around that. (Purple box)
  • An event queue which starts empty. As you play event cards, they enter the queue at certain points, and normally move up each turn (though some cards can affect that). (Red box)
  • 1 water silo card, which can be used to bank a water token for a future turn. (Blue box)
  • 1 raider event card which can be brought into play through actions on your turn. The raid is a special attack which bypasses all of your opponent’s people to damage a camp, but the opponent gets to choose which camp is damaged. (Blue box)

Turns

On your turn, three things happen:

  • Any events in the event queue advance one space, and any events at the end of the queue resolve.
  • Replenish your water to three available tokens (except the first turn by the first player who only gets one).
  • Take as many actions as you want, subject to the rules for “ready” cards and your remaining water.

Actions

On your turn, you may:

  • Play a person card from your hand onto the board by spending the required water (Green arrow below).
This card gives you a punk if you junk it, or you can bring it onto your board for 3 water. If you do that, you get a persistent effect that the first event you play each turn takes effect right away, and optionally you can draw three new cards and discard three cards by spending 1 water.
  • Perform a card’s actions by spending the required water (Red box, camps or people). Some cards have recurring effects or effects that happen only when you first bring the card onto the board, denoted in brackets (Blue box). Unless you have another card countermanding this rule, people always enter the board “not ready”, which means their abilities can’t be used until the subsequent turn. Generally cards that are damaged are also not ready. Camps are always ready unless they’ve already been used that turn. Some cards have two actions listed, which simply means you can choose either of them each turn (Red box below):
This card initiates or advances a raid if you junk it, or you can bring it onto your board for 1water. If you do that, on subsequent turns you can spend 1 water to get a punk, or 1 water to damage an unprotected enemy camp or person if you already have at least one punk on the board.
  • Play an event card from your hand by spending the required water. Event cards have a black and yellow border. Events enter the queue at the number specified on the card — some may take effect right away, some may have to wait a few turns. Other cards may affect gameplay based on whether you or an opponent currently have events in the queue.
A typical event card, this card damages an unprotected opponent’s person of your choice if you junk it, or enters the event queue at space 1 (take effect at the start of your next turn) at a cost of 1 water if you play it.
  • “Junk” a card from your hand at no water cost, you immediately do the junk action listed on the card. (Purple arrow on all of the above cards)
  • Spend two water tokens to draw a new card from the deck into your hand.
  • If you have not already banked a water token on a previous turn, you may spend 1 water to take the water silo and bank one for a future turn.

Card effects

These are all of the possible effect icons that a card may have:

handy dandy reference card

The turns are short — with only three water tokens as a baseline and only a few possibly scarce ways to get more, the number of things you can do on each turn is limited, and you have to plan ahead. It’s not quite as resource-constrained as Photosynthesis, but it’s close. The game moves fast, and the combinations of cards that show up in each particular game make synergies in unexpected ways.

That’s more or less it, though there are some other tidbits in the manual. I found that the confusing parts got less so after playing a few rounds. Go play! I hope this was helpful!

NB: There is a May 2023 rules revision that tightens up two possible scenarios (camps can no longer heal themselves, and if you are out of slots when placing a person, you can optionally destroy one of your existing people to make room). These revisions won’t be in your printed version of the rules if you have an older set.

A note about editions. Amazon only seems to sell the basic version of the game, which is cheaper and fine, but the cards are coated paper and the water tokens are thick cardboard. Roxley direct sells: 1) a Deluxe edition which upgrades the cards to flexible plastic and the water tokens to thicker plastic versions, and 2) a Super Deluxe edition which includes the play mats, and nestles the portable Deluxe edition in the middle of a nice box that fits the mats as well, so you can take just the smaller box with you if you’re traveling. The Deluxe editions are a nice upgrade.

Feedback is welcomed! Leave a comment here, or find me @fields@hachyderm.io on mastodon.

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