First Looks at Space Games

Every year after Origins, I post thoughts on the board games I played. But since I don’t want to give them “official” ratings after a brief introduction, I use a 10-point scale instead of my usual letter grades. Origins isn’t the only time that I get introduced to games, though. Whether because my regular gaming friends don’t own it, it didn’t grab our attention, or something else, it’s common for me to try a game once and never come back to it. So here is an Origins-style report on my first impressions of a few space-themed games I tried within the past year or so.

Eclipse boxEclipse (9/10): This was a huge deal last year, and I can see why. Only its high price kept me from buying it myself after learning it. This is a space exploration and combat game, with a lot of rules and playing time of at least a few hours. However, it has elegant Euro-style mechanics and a good balance.

The most important mechanic is your personal board that shows your empire’s abilities. Cubes cover up certain spaces, and get removed as your power grows. Once these are in your supply, they can be used for things. But each round, you also add cubes to your board as you take actions, and the spaces they cover up make activity progressively more expensive. In fact, if you have certain markers out on planets you control, that increases the base cost for you. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Hansa Teutonica, while playing nothing like that at all. In short, this system of cubes is an elegant way to represent your empire’s technology. The central system of the game is easy to follow, despite the complexity of your options.

The board also has an area representing the abilities of your fleet. There are a wide array of upgrades available, so that everyone will evolve differently as they play. If there’s a frustrating thing about the game, it’s that despite the length and variety, it ends shortly after you explore beyond your own starting territory and to start competing with others. It’s an understandable trade-off: This keeps the game length predictable and ensures that it won’t keep going once the winner becomes clear, but don’t expect the drawn-out space battles or sprawling empires of a visceral older game. That’s what should make it fun to keep replaying, though.

Merchant of Venus boxMerchant of Venus (2/10): This is a new release of a classic 1980s space-trading game. Having tried it, I have no idea why anyone thought it deserved a new version. It’s a simple roll-and-move game in which you move your spaceship along tracks based on your dice results. Lots of complexity is grafted on, but it doesn’t change the fundamental weakness of the core mechanic. Roll poorly and your turn is wasted. There is no good way to catch up after falling behind, except hoping for luck. And since people who pull ahead earn more powerful moves and rewarding trade routes, getting a few lucky early rolls is key. The only good thing about this game’s interminable length (we abandoned it a couple hours in) is that it lengthens that beginning rather than letting you fall behind right away.

I tried the modernized rules, but even that couldn’t fix this system. I understand how people could feel nostalgic for this game from 25 years ago. There are a lot of star systems to explore, with aliens and items to excite a kid’s imagination. Unlike Eclipse, a game like this gives the winner time to become powerful and fight to an overwhelming victory. But arbitrary, boring ones like this are what convinced mainstream America that board games are only good for kids. There’s a reason that games like Eclipse are the popular ones now.

Space Cadets boxSpace Cadets (4/10): This is a cooperative real-time game that I really wanted to like. Everyone has a different role on the ship, such as pilot or engineer, and they do their jobs by playing mini-games. From dexterity challenges to working out puzzles, how well you do during your timed actions determines how strong your ship’s shields will be, whether it can fire laser blasts, or how it will fly.

Most of it felt boring and unimportant, though, which is the complete opposite of what I expect from a real-time game. Not everyone acts at once, which does mean one person can take on multiple roles if you have fewer players (it takes 3-6), but also means that you’ll spend time doing nothing while someone else puzzles over their own mini-game. Worse, if you don’t end up needing much energy or firing power in a certain round, then the only thing that player did do during that several-minute period was useless.

It’s possible that I would have enjoyed the game more if I’d known more about how the whole thing played. To avoid overwhelming me with all the rules at once, the other people I played with just taught me a few pieces I needed to know for my role, and then I picked the rest up as I went along. For that reason, I kind of want to give this game another chance. But on the other hand, it was the most boring, uninvolved gaming experience I’ve had in a long time. I don’t feel very motivated to find out whether I’m wrong.

Box images are from Board Game Geek. Follow the links for details and photographer credits.

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