A few years back, I threw in on a Kickstarter from Dante Lauretta — the man behind the OSIRIS-Rex mission to the asteroid Bennu and budding game designer — for a game called Xtronaut. It was a superb game, simple to learn and play, but with deep strategy. It was an excellent introduction to the issues of space programs and my then-seven year old loved it. (Still does.) Here’s the review from 2016.

Next up from Xtronaut was Constellations, in which you trade and collect cards to create constellations and put them on the board or night sky. A review for that is forthcoming. It is, as well, an excellent game and tremendous fun. It’s been a hit at the local game store when we’ve taken it over to be played, and with the family. So it was only natural I would back the Kickstarter for Downlink: The Game of Planetary Exploration.

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We got the game in smack on time. Lauretta and his team have been doing rocket science for a while and they’ve got project management down to an art — the products are as advertised, high quality, and on time, every time. A few weeks back, Dr. Lauretta asked me to do a review of Downlink which we’d only really had a chance to play twice with my crushing schedule this last few months.

First off — again, the card quality is high, as is the board. They use a few cardboard chits for spacecraft, colored wood blocks for the resources you need to judiciously manage (more on that in a moment), and specialty dice to see if you can launch your rockets, move your spacecraft, or downlink data. The box is similar tough and nice-looking.

Next up, the rules. Downlink is a complicated game with a lot of moving parts. My daughter and I spent half the first game trying to figure out what we were doing, and still weren’t fully sure at the end. She won, by the way. The second time, we were more ready for what we had to do, and again…she won. The second time around, however, there were still some issues with understanding exactly what we were doing and when. Partially, this is because the rules are a bit hazy on what happens in Phase 2.

At the start, you choose which discoveries you wish to make from three cards drawn for each player. You can do one, some, or all of the missions. They have certain “downlinks” you need to achieve in certain scientific fields. You get this information or “downlink” from sending a spacecraft with attendant science packets aboard to target worlds. You also have 6 “playing cards” for a hand that allows you certain types of actions: these are split into T for technical, M for management, and C for cost.

On a turn you have four phases: 1) you can trade up to two cards with a five card “marketplace” or discard up to three cards and draw from the playing cards. My daughter and I thought, as first, you could trade with other players, as with Xtronaut, but that’s not the case. So far so good…

Phase 2 is where everything gets really complicated: first, you have to have a T, M, and C to discard to do anything else. This probably accurately tracks with the issues of putting together a mission, but instantly limits your actions, and can be confusing, since you have to get one of each just to throw them. If you don’t, you can’t do anything that turn.

Having tossed your “triplet”, you can take three of a plethora of actions — build a rocket, a spacecraft, or a science package, but they must be able to connect with each other through color-coded connectors. This reflects what payloads can work with what kinds of craft. It’s accurate. It’s also confusing and sometimes frustrating when you find out your package won’t connect to your spacecraft, or the spacecraft to the rocket. Rockets can also only launch from specific sites, arranged around the edge of the playing board, which has paths to various planets and other celestial objects. You need a lot of table for this game. Two people playing at a 4×5′ table barely had room for everything.

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You can also enhance your ground systems for benefits, move resources to components still on Earth, launch the rocket, or move the spacecraft, or downlink data from the science equipment by rolling a number of dice equal to the resources on that particular asset. You get points for launching, moving your spacecraft, arriving at your destination, or downlinking data. For every discovery made, you get points; you lose points if you don’t complete a discovery.

This is where the novice gets hammered. All of these actions cost resource cubes. You have to make sure you have enough to get to your target and still have enough to send data. Most of the time, that means sticking to one rocket and spacecraft mission at a time, or you will blow through the resources and have a dead spacecraft that can only move with gravity assist cards, or gets to the location and cannot do anything. There’s a lot to keep track of, and it’s easy to get lost.

Phase 3 is easy — did you get the data? Did you succeed in making a discovery? If so, get the points for the discovery.

Phase 4 is similarly easy — refresh your cards to six.

The goal is to hit 30 or more data points to win or the players run out of cards to fill a six card hand. At that point, everyone gets one last turn.

The box says for ages 10+ and that’s a pretty solid bit of advice; the daughter is co,ming up on nine and has been playing adult games for a while — this was the first one she had real trouble with the rules, as this is a complex game with a lot of moving bits and bobs. As I started to get what was going on, things went better, but there were a lot of discoveries not made, spacecraft wandering the solar system with no energy or resources, and a lot of frustration with our lack of understanding. I think with another play or with more adults at the table scanning the rules to get a different understanding of the flow of the game, I suspect it will play better, but the first time or two might be enough to put people not used to intensive resource management and attention to detail off.

So is it worth it? Yes, but you really need to read the rules and take your time the first game to grok the resource management. You need to dump a ton of resources on anything going far out into the solar system or it’s just going to sit on the board forever. For the hardcore strategy and resource management gamer, it might be a delight, and while I appreciate the realism of difficulty that the game is attempting to capture, we found this a lot harder than the other offerings by Xtronaut. (My daughter won the game the second time by waiting for a certain card to come up that allowed her to get downlink data without ever reaching her destination, thus completing discoveries without even getting off the ground.)

There’s a premium edition coming up that hopefully takes some of these elements of the game into consideration for rules errata or changes. Dr. Lauretta and the guys and gals at Xtronaut are particularly good at taking comments and suggestions to heart, and I’m a strong supporter of these STEM-oriented games.