My first impressions of The Expanse Board Game (WizKids, 2017) were less-than-favorable. In the few weeks since I have been able to sit back and reappraise my feelings towards the game. I now see that I focused too much on theme and not enough on game play. If I remove many of my feelings about the theme, the game that emerges is a good influence-placement game using the theme of the The Expanse TV series.
I will be the first to admit I am not a hardcore fanboy of The Expanse, but I do like the TV series (Seasons 1 & 2) and have enjoyed the first few books. I came to the franchise backwards, seeing the TV series before I started reading the books. In several ways my perception of theme is colored by the TV series. The Expanse Board Game draws almost exclusively from the TV series, so in my first impressions I inevitably compared the two. In my first impressions I didn’t like the game because I kept trying to see the game as a replay (or version of) the TV series. The Expanse Board Game, though based on the TV series, is actually a very different look at the franchise. I should have paid more attention to the front matter in the rule book:
The Expanse is a game of politics, conquest, and intrigue for two to four players. Players spread their influence through the solar system onto important Bases using characters and events in the Expanse Universe, and must make clever use of their special faction abilities to gain an edge.
But even this summary is a bit misleading as I believe there is little “politics,” no real “conquest,” and very limited “intrigue” in the game. What The Expanse Board Game does deliver is a (sorta) asymmetrical influence-placement game based on The Expanse Universe.
Politics – When I see a political game I expect negotiation or a focus on indirect warfare (the Diplomatic, Intelligence, or Economic factors). The Expanse Board Game has no real negotiation element, a bare nod to diplomatic (i.e. the UN Diplomat cubes) and only a limited nod to economic (each factions key resources).
Conquest – Unless one conflates the definitions of conquest and influence there is no real conquest in The Expanse Board Game. Even when there is “confrontation” the result is limited to removal of fleets or influence cubes. Sure, fleets must be rebuilt but the relatively non-violent nature of the confrontation does not make it feel like a conquest to me.
Intrigue – Intrigue to me comes across as some form of secret plans or the like. Certainly, there is an element of secrecy in The Expanse Board Game but even that element is minimized as the game has almost no hidden information. Indeed, the game is mostly open information with cards on the Action Track visible to all and Kept Events remaining face-up in front of the players.
Asymmetrical Abilities – What The Expanse Board Game does well is using theme in the asymmetric abilities of the factions. From the UN being able to use superior planning to take the second card on the Action Track at no cost to the Martian battleships and the like, the use of theme to differentiate the factions is the most successful part of the game. This trend continues to a degree in the Faction Special Tech Cards that enter after different scoring rounds. These special abilities all are keyed to the placement – or
removal – of influence.
Influence – What The Expanse Board Game comes down to is influence. The game
is actually very simple; have the most influence at the right time for Scoring. Influence has two elements – orbital control and bases. Given the somewhat secret element of Bonus Sector selection, the players are challenged to have the right influence at the right times in the game. Players may find they need to “shift” influence around during the game as they try to guess (or manipulate) where the next Bonus Sector will be scored.
Rocinante – The Rocinante was actually the part of the theme I had the most trouble wrapping my head around. In the TV series the Rocinante and crew are the focus; the narrative element through which the story is told. In The Expanse Board Game the Rocinante has a far different role. With control of Rocinante going to the faction with the lowest Control Points, the ship becomes more of a pawn than a true protagonist. It is a bit disconcerting (disconnected from theme?) to see the ship only be used as a fleet (albeit one that can’t be removed) with special abilities that only come into play during Scoring. The special abilities also still very limited. Of the four, I actually find the Amos Burton ability the most powerful (“Remove 1 opposing fleet in the Rocinante Orbital for each friendly fleet there (including the Rocinante)”) which, to me, again doesn’t quite square with the TV Series where James Holden (special ability – “Place 1 influence anywhere”) comes across as the central character. I also have a bit of thematic dissonance when the Rocinante is controlled by the Protogen faction. So great is this dissonance that I have to rationalize the situation by telling myself that the Rocinante was not really being “controlled” by Protogen but more properly is being “manipulated” by the corporation.
Reappraising The Expanse Board Game
By reducing my expectations of theme, my respect for The Expanse Board Game has actually grown. The game is about placing influence – and little else. It uses the theme of The Expanse Universe to derive the asymmetric abilities of the factions. The Rocinante – a ship and crew with a key role in the TV series and books – has a lesser role in this game. In the end, The Expanse Board Game delivers what it promises – an Expanse-themed influence-placement game playable in around 60 minutes.