Board Games


This was one I stumbled onto on Kickstarter — Dante Lauretta, an planetary scientist at University of Arizona and the head of the OSIRIS-REx mission, while doing the massive amounts of waiting that come with the space program, and some of the members of his team decided to build a game based on their experiences in rocketry. The game hit its goal with little issue, and arrived today, only a few months behind the initial expected date (which is pretty good for most Kickstarters.)

Xtronaut: The Game of Solar System Exploration is a board game for 2-4 players. Each player attempts to build a launch vehicle, choose a good payload for the mission they’ve drawn — be it a lander, orbiter, or rover — and attempt to get the necessary delta-v to reach their goal. Each mission gives you “data points”. Reach 10 data points first, and you win.

It’s a simple concept and execution, and has a nice educational aspect to it, which is why a bunch of education and space science-related groups have gone gaga for the game. But how is it as the game? Turns out, pretty good.

I tried two games with just myself and my five-year old daughter (the minimum suggested age is 7.) She was able to grasp the basic concept — pull a mission card that give you the necessary delta-v, and the number of data points received for the size of the spacecraft for the mission; build a launch vehicle with a first stage booster (and possibly extra boosters), a second stage lifter, the payload spacecraft, the fairings to protect the same, and using gravity assist. These elements are drawn from a player hand of five cards, drawn from a deck of cards that include other “action cards” that allow you to salvage parts (dig through the discard pile), draw extra cards, or financial audit another player to steal their cards. There are also cards where you lose pieces for “national security” (the result of the Air Force commandeering one of OSIRIS-REx’s boosters) and Government Shutdown. These add a nice sense of the bureaucracy surrounding trying to get your robot into space. The rocket you build and its mission go on a simple gameboard — one per player — where you track your build, your data points, and the delta-v you have. Once you have enough to go, you discard all the cards, draw a new mission, and start over (unless you have SpaceX’s Falcon booster…that’s reusable.)

The two-person game was fun, but adding another player really brings it to life. With the kiddo and wife, we had a very competitive game  that lasted about 45 minutes. We all really enjoyed the game and I’m hoping some of the stretch goals expansions hit the market soon.

Is it worth it? Oh, yeah.

Style: 3 out of 5. While the cards and boards look nice, and are purposefully simple in their graphics, the cards could have been of better stock. They’re a bit flimsy after the cards for the Thunderbirds game, but that’s hardly fair…Modiphius does superb production value on their stuff.

Substance: 5 out of 5 — the game is deceptively easy, but there’s a lot of strategy to it. Have a high energy mission? You really want NASA’s SLS booster system, but there are many cards for it, as it is still a rare launch platform. Want to get ahead for your next launch? SpaceX’s Falcon is the way to go. Maybe auditing that guy next to you to hopefully nab that Atlas second stage is a good idea. Maybe a trade for that right fairing is the way to go. the rules are simple; the game play can be hard.

It’s worth it.

Here’s the Xtronaut website highlighting space outreach and the OSIRIS-REx probe, and here’s the just-posted link to buy the game through Amazon.

The excellent folks at Mödiphiüs did a Kickstart for this game a while back. My daughter has stumbled onto the new CGI version of the show, and I remember the original Gerry Anderson Supermarionation version — even had all the Dinky toys when I was a boy — so buying the game was a no-brainer. Everyone starts their review the same way, so I’ll not break with convention…

5…4…3…2…1…Thunderbirds are go!

Designed by Matt Leacock, Thunderbirds is a cooperative board where the players work together as members of the International Rescue, stopping disasters in space, and around the globe, as well as stopping the evil machinations of the Hood, with their cool-ass Jet Age craft, the signature of any Gerry Anderson show (Fireball XL-5, Supercar, UFO, Space: 1999, and others.) I’m told it’s similar to his famed Pandemic, which I’ve yet to play.

Each player has a character from the show and their signature vehicle under their command, and during your turn you can take three actions: move to a location, stage a rescue, plan by pulling F.A.B. cards, or scan for issues using Thunderbird 5, in geo-synchronous orbit. there are other operations which don’t cost one of your actions. Each disaster has certain requirements, or gear/vehicle/character benefits if you have those units present. You roll dice, and if you get a Hood silhouette, his piece moves along a track toward victory (unless you thwart the three “schemes” he has going.) The other way to lose is if you get overwhelmed by disasters and they reach the end of their track, which they progress along on each player’s turn.

The disasters stack up pretty quickly, and the trick is to plan out how you’ll get what gear where so that you can knock out the disasters as fast as possible, while ending the Hood’s machinations. It’s tough. I played this solo and did pretty well, then with the family (including said five year-old girl) and we won with a half-full disaster track.

Substance: 5 out of 5. There’s a lot of meat to the game — you have to work together, plan carefully, and decide how to use the various bonuses you get from tokens. I suspect this is a game that will be a lot of fun to play repeatedly.

Style: 5 out of 5. The entire set is high quality, from the linen finish on the cards, and the box, to the board map, to the wee plastic Thunderbirds pieces. The pictures on the cards are screencaps from the old show, and the characters stick very well to the functions they played in the show. For instance, I got stuck with Alan, Thunderbird 3‘s pilot, and this turned out a great thing, as it allowed me to nab the various space-rescues that came up. It really evokes that Space Age flavor that sci-fi had at the time, where we were going to be in space; rich people weren’t the devil, but millionaire inventor philanthropists saving the world with their unique inventions; and gear looked fab!

Is it worth it? The set runs about $70 most places you look, (I found it for much cheaper online…) but the quality of the manufacture and the good game mechanics lead me to say yes. If you are a Thunderbirds fan, abso-friggin’-lutely!

Another game that came in from Noble Knight yesterday was Castle Panic by Fireside Games. It’s a cooperative game where players try to defend their castle from rampaging monsters. You have a six-walled tower, with six protective walls, and six zones to defend. You draw five cards, which allow you to hit the monsters at different ranges — archer, knight, swordsman, or castle (where you need a barbarian to take out the monsters before they knock the whole she-bang down and you lose.

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It’s a deceptively simple game. The cards give you zones you can defend at the respective distances, and you can trade between players to try and strategize to stop the creatures. The actual doing is a lot harder. The few times I’ve played it, it takes between 45 minutes and an hour and a half. It’s great fun, there are a few expansions available, and at $30 is a steal. Definite buy.

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I decided the fam has been playing enough board games i needed to get a few that weren’t quite as complex as, say, Supremacy or Firefly even. We’ve got a four year old that’s pretty bright for her age, and was really engaged by Munchkin, so I looked for games with easier base games in subjects she might like.

She loves cars and motorcycles, and racing, so enter Formula D — a later edition of the French Formula Dé board game by Asmodee. It’s supposedly for 10 and older, but we found the simple rules were easy enough for Sofia to grasp, and she quickly started to understand the ideas behind “slow in, fast out” and how to shift appropriately.

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The game has two boards for the race — Monaco and a street race we haven’t tried yet. Wee toy cars are placed on the board, and each player gets a marker box with a shifter from 1-6th gear. Each gear has a corresponding die that is rolled for your speed per round: a d2 for first, d6 with 2-4 for second, d8 for third, d12 for fourth, d20 for fifth, and d30 for sixth. Your car can take a certain number of wear points. Downshift to hard, brake to hard, overshoot a turn too hard and you lose these. Take a turn far too fast, you wreck and are done. It requires some canny reading of the distances to start working the shifter to your advantage.

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The advanced game breaks the wear across tires, engine, etc. and there look to be characters you can play. There’s even weather rules. When the kiddo is old enough, I suspect we can start tacking on the harder stuff.

Would it be more “realistic” to play each other on a gaming console? Sure, but there’s a certain fun to sitting at the kitchen table, throwing different types of dice and chatting while playing a game. It’s tactile, it’s teaching her (subtly) probabilities and how to judge distances, etc.

I found a copy with no troubles at Noble Knight for $35. There’s four different expansion packs, each with two new and different tracks at $30. It’s a great example of how simple rules can still lead to complex strategizing. If you see a copy, and you’re into board games and racing games, it’s a buy.

I picked up a copy of Gale Force Nine’s Firefly: The Game board game a week ago. I’ve yet to play it with others, but there is a “solo” option that I tried out. The game is nicely made, with high production values. There’s a board loosely based on the Quantum Mechanix Map of the Verse, five Firefly-class miniature pieces, a Reaver vessel, and an Alliance Cruiser; there’s a collection of different game card decks — this seems to be a new trend in board games, having a dozen decks of cards for things.

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Play is simple you take jobs from various contacts, try to do said assignments, and meet the requirements on a “story card” to win. Doing a quick trial as a solo, I found that the difficulty for some of the jobs require you not to just leap into misbehavin’ — but you want to get together a crew with the widest variety of skills you might need. There are some “short cuts” you can take — gear you need to pull off the job with ease (two words — “hacking rig”) or specific crew members. Resolving jobs has you roll a d6 — if you get Serenity, that counts as a six and you can roll again and add the amount.

It looks like it could be a lot of fun and the learning curve looks to be relatively low. The flavor of the show comes through very well in the game materials and play — Browncoats should love it. The game runs about $40 and I think it’s worth it, especially for Firefly fans. There are also a pair of card expansions for the game already available.

This is another from the oldie but goodie category. Easily my favorite strategy game of the 1980s, Supremacy was a high-complexity board game in the style of Risk. The players chose a bloc that they controlled — Europe, America, South America, Russia, etc… The game includes an economic track that allows the player to buy and sell resources, or use them for their military. You can build armies, navies, and most powerful of all — nuclear weapons and weapons satellites. The player’s territories provide them with resources per turn, and playing the market can be very important in your ability to keep your fighting forces active and to keep yourself flush.

We often found that players would collude in market manipulation to profit from resource trading. Many would reflexively avoid using nuclear weapons, as 12 of the sinister black mushroom cloud figures on the board means everyone loses (MAD.)

Here’s the board:

There were some good expansions that included submarines and “fortune” (natural disasters, etc. to help keep the market moving), and a few that were less useful (including massive maps and larger units for the wargamers who didn’t like dealing with child choking hazard-sized pieces.)

Some black mushroom goodness:

The goal is to either eliminate the opponent through conventional or strategic war, or bankrupt them through economic means. The average play time is between three and six hours, depending on the number of players. This is not a “hey, let’s just bust out a board game” sort of thing; this is a “let’s spend the day playing Supremacy” sort of thing.

To my knowledge, Supremacy Games is defunct and this is no longer produced. If you find it on eBay, or someplace, it’s a good addition to the pile if you are a board gamer. It’s stuck firmly between the light strategy game of Risk and the heavy sims of SPI and other wargames.

Back in 1986, Milton Bradley gave us their “Gamemaster Series” of “light” wargames. Unlike the high-complexity stuff you would have gotten from SPI or other wargame manufacturers, these were low-complexity rules that supported high-complexity strategy fun. Easily my favorite of these was Shogun, later renamed to Samurai Swords to avoid copyright issues with James Cavell’s novel and a game based on it (the most recent version was called Ikusa.) There’s a whole backstory of whuy the name changes, who owned the game when, etc…but we’re interested in the play:

The game consists of a large mapboard of Japan, broken down in to provinces which have corresponding cards to show ownership. Players split the cards evenly, populate their provinces with a spearman. They also get three armies (represented by a daimyo figure that corresponds to the army on another small army board. They also get a figure carrier fashioned to look like a fortification into which plugs a cardboard screen with all of the important rules on it. The plastic pieces include three daimyos, samurai (bowmen and swordsmen), and ashigaru (spearmen and riflemen.) Set up takes a bit of time, and does involve some strategy in the placement of units and armies.

Play is quick and easy. Each turn, you count the number of provinces and get a number of koku (money) to build fortifications (nifty fortress bases and castles), hire a ninja to assassinate your enemies, build your units. Order of play is decided by picking wee katana swords with a number of pips on them. The randomizers are d12s. Average play time is about 2-3 hours depending on the number of players and they quality of play.

The game is deceptively simple from a rules set standpoint: collect your money, build your units, etc., attack your enemies, repeat… The fights are ordered from the ranged weapons — bowmen and riflemen, to the daimyo, through the swordsmen and spearmen. Organizing your armies and standing guard in the provinces takes a lot of care and planning, and even the best plans can be laid low by chance. We’ve had some excellent games where it seemed one player was neigh invincible, only to have one single battle go awry and the player be taken out of the game early.

Quality of the Shogun and Samurai Sword sets is lovely — good cardstock, nice plastic figures, excellent artwork. I can’t say for Ikusa but I’m assuming it remained the same. If you find it on eBay or elsewhere, it’s a definite buy.

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