Expanded Play of The Expanse Board Game (WizKids, 2017)

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Courtesy WizKids

The weekend RockyMountainNavy Game Night this week was The Expanse Board Game. I wrote before about this game and how I see as the consummate Eurogame. To date, we had not played a full 4-player game. That was remedied this weekend.

For the game, the Middle RMN Boy went first as the United Nations (UN). Youngest RMN Boy was the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) and I took ProtoGen. Since ProtoGen is not used in the 3-player game it was a new faction so I took it so as not to burden the others. For the Oldest RMN Boy it was his first time playing The Expanse Board Game so we gave him Mars since that faction plays the most “direct” of the four.

Scythe taught me that I must be careful with new factions, especially with the Middle RMN Boy and his Autism Spectrum Disability. He has difficulty quickly grasping a new faction and their powers jso it is safe to let him play a “known” power. There was no way I could allow him to pick up ProtoGen for the first time. Oldest RMN is a video gamer so he should groan new situations but as we will see the game is not balanced between players of different experience levels.

I gave Oldest RMN a rules walkthru as the others were cleaning up after dinner. We also placed him last in the turn order so we could talk about the other player’s actions and let him see a bit before his first turn.

Getting through the first three Scoring Cards took over an hour as we all were slow relearning (or learning) the game and analysis paralysis kicked in. The Middle and Youngest RMN Boys brought the Cold War directly to Mars, all but eliminating Martian influence at home. The OPA had established dominance in the Outer Planets and took the first two Scoring Cards in that Bonus Sector. The OPA ended up far ahead of the others in CP.

After the fourth Scoring Card, the only Bonus Sector left was the two The Belt. The fifth Scoring Card came out pretty quickly but all tried to avoid it as we jockeyed for influence in The Belt. The draw deck dwindled down until there was only one card; the last Scoring Card (the game immediately ends when the last Scoring Card is turned up). None of us were ready, and the game ended with a runaway OPA victory (99 pts against UN and ProtoGen in the 60’s and Mars in the 50’s).

There were many rookie mistakes made. Oldest RMN Boy was more focused playing Events than Action Points and as a result fell far behind. He ended the game with eight influence cubes still on his player card. As ProtoGen, I waited too long and ended the game without playing either of the Protomolecules.

Taken as a whole, the game was a bit disappointing. We played for nearly 2 hours and a lot of it was boring. Given our slower pace of play and analysis paralysis there was just too much downtime between each player’s turn. The Expanse Board Game strikes me as a game that is best played when it is played; familiarity breeds speed. The Expanse Board Game is not alone here; in my experience other games like Terraforming Mars or Scythe (especially Scythe) need to be played often to maintain familiarity and understanding of the game mechanics.

I was also mildly surprised to see that this game was the fifth logged play of The Expanse Board Game. This makes it one of my five “nickel” games in the past sixth months. Amazing, considering I only rate it a 7 on BoardGameGeek (just slightly above my 6.41 average). Maybe that’s because I want The Expanse Board Game to work even when it doesn’t.

 

#FirstImpressions #TheExpanseBoardGame (WizKids, 2017)

From the publisher’s blurb:

The Expanse, a board game based on the Syfy television series of the same name, focuses on politics, conquest and intrigue similar to the board game Twilight Struggle, although with a shorter playing time. The card-driven game uses key images from the show, along with action points and events that allow players to move and place “Fleets” and “Influence”. (BGG)

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Authors collection

It is not often that a publisher’s blurb captures a game so completely as WizKids has done for The Expanse Board Game (TEBG). After purchasing the game and playing it a bit, I am torn in my feelings for the game. To me, TEBG feels very much like a “classic” Eurogame – in a negative connotation of the definition; great mechanics with a pasted on theme.

The BoardGameGeek Wiki defines Eurogames as follows:

“Eurogames (or alternatively, Designer Board Games or German-Style Board Games) are a classification of board games that are very popular on Board Game Geek (BGG). Though not all eurogames are European and not all of them are board games, they share a set of similar characteristics. A game need not fit ALL the criteria to be considered a Eurogame.

Most Eurogames share the following elements:

  • Player conflict is indirect and usually involves competition over resources or points. Combat is extremely rare.
  • Players are never eliminated from the game (All players are still playing when the game ends.)
  • There is very little randomness or luck. Randomness that is there is mitigated by having the player decide what to do after a random event happens rather than before. Dice are rare, but not unheard of, in a Euro.
  • The Designer of the game is listed on the game’s box cover. Though this is not particular to Euros, the Eurogame movement seems to have started this trend. This is why some gamers and designers call this genre of games Designer Games.
  • Much attention is paid to the artwork and components. Plastic and metal are rare, more often pieces are made of wood.
  • Eurogames have a definite theme, however, the theme most often has very little to do with the gameplay. The focus instead is on the mechanics; for example, a game about space may play the same as a game about ancient Rome.”

TEBG hits all of these points, but with mixed results.

TEBG does a good job of capturing the feel (theme) of The Expanse TV series. Using Eurogame mechanics the players place influence (tracked using small wooden cubes) on various bases throughout the Solar System. To place influence usually requires a fleet in the orbital above the base. Although the game mechanics are simple, each player/faction has unique asymmetric abilities which allow them to “break the rules” in thematically appropriate ways. For instance, while is usually cost 1 Control Point (CP) to take the second action card, the United Nations (UN) player has Planning as their initial Technology which means the first two action card slots cost 0 CP. As the game progresses, more thematically-appropriate technologies are gained by each faction.

“Combat” in TEBG consists of removing influence or fleets (which can be rebuilt). This is not a cooperative game; ruthlessly building your influence while reducing your opponents is the real core mechanic.

TEBG uses much artwork from The Expanse TV Series. Although this makes the game appear like The Expanse, some of the artwork does not have a clear connection to gameplay. For instance, the action card Scopuli can be used for 2 Action Points or as an Event by the Martian Congressional Republic (MCR) or UN. The Event states, “Place 1 influence on each Saturn Base where you do not have influence.” I do not see how this is related to the Scopuli in the TV series which is [SPOILER ALERT]:

…a Martian light transport freighter from Eros that was in service to the OPA. One of its crew was Julie Mao and it was attacked by the Stealth Ship Anubis. It was later used as a lure in the ambush and destruction of the Canterbury.

To me this is a thematic disconnect. I think Scopuli should be used as an Event to the advantage of the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) or ProtoGen. Granted, most of the action cards have a picture that ties well to the event described, but I think to make the connection one must be a real fanboy. If a player is not knowledgeable of The Expanse the immersion into the game will not be served by the graphics.

The full impact of all these design and graphics decisions is an area control game that looks like The Expanse. The game comes across as very functional; simple game mechanics with some asymmetric differences in a kinda staid, plain package.

Finally, I have an issue with the component quality in TEBG. The board uses a non-glossy finish that, while good for pictures, has already shown rubs and scratches after just two plays. I also have a major problem with the Quick Start Rules which use white text on a semi-transparent background over a starscape page. The font, smaller than that used in the main rule book and the third layer of printing has lost all its edges and is nearly impossible to read.

It is going to be interesting when The Expanse Board Game lands on the Family Game Night table. All of the RockyMountainNavy Boys know a bit about The Expanse, but none are fanboys, Thus, the success of this game will stand not on theme alone (which appears to be much of the buzz around the game) but on its ability to blend graphics and gameplay into a enjoyable gaming experience.

 

#SciFiFriday – Chain of Command by Frank Chadwick (@BaenBooks)

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Courtesy Baen.com

Military science fiction is often a hit-or-miss proposition to me, even more so with space combat which is often so “fantastical” that it becomes unbearable. But I am also a longtime fan of Frank Chadwick’s games (see his BoardGameGeek Ludography) and seeing how his latest book, Chain of Command, is being published by @BaenBooks (whose military science fiction I tolerate more so than other publishers) I gave it a try. It also didn’t hurt that I listened to the Bane Free Radio Hour (Episode 2017 09 29) where Mr. Chadwick discussed his book.

What really drew me to this book was Mr. Chadwick’s inspiration. As he writes in the Historical Note at the end of Chain of Command:

The inspiration for this novel grew from James D. Hornfischer’s stirring and detailed account of the naval campaign in the Solomon Islands (including Guadalcanal) in the second half of 1942–Neptune’s Inferno, but I never intended to shift the events of that campaign wholesale into deep space. A few incidents may be familiar to students of the historical battles, but my main interest was in how officers and sailors–as well as the admirals who lead them into battle with varying degrees of success–responded to a war which took them unaware and psychologically unprepared.

Mr. Chadwick goes on to list several books that further influenced the story. I was very happy to see Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea listed for I had thought nobody actually read these books anymore.

With all that in mind one could be forgiven for worrying that Chain of Command is just another “WW2 in space” story but I am happy to report that the book successfully overcomes that challenge. The science fiction technology tends a bit more towards the “hard science-fi” edge with just enough handwavium to explain away the science fiction. In many ways, the fantastical technology in the book traces its lineage to today’s technology which makes it all the more believable and relatable.

If military science fiction is your thing and you have even a passing interest in World War II naval combat, then Chain of Command could make a good addition to your reading list.

SciFi Friday – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Courtesy unternet.net

I recently reread Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and was struck by the depiction of CYBER WARFARE and ASYMMETRIC PRECISION GLOBAL STRIKE in the book.

– SPOILERS AHEAD –

Like the time Mannie has Mike play with the Warden’s atmosphere control – SCADA attack? Indeed, Mike is in effect a giant SCADA for the moon….

Having Mike control all communications – INTERNET censorship?

Having Mike impersonate others – Identity theft?

Using rocks as WMD placed precisely on target – Asymmetric Weapons and Precision Global Strike?

These are just a few. Go back and read the book yourself and see how – in 1965 and 1966 – Robert Heinlein was already predicting warfare of today (and maybe still tomorrow).

Miniatures Monday – Minicraft Scale Space

Courtesy Airfix

I am working on two models on the weekends that both are space-related. The first is an Airfix Vostok rocket in 1:144 scale. The model commemorates the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight in 1961. The final assembled Vostok 1 measures just under 10 inches high and a little less than 3 inches across at the base. The kit also comes with extra parts to make three different launch configurations (Yuri Gagarin’s Vostok I, the Luna, and the modern Soyuz launch version). In addition to a display base, the model includes a cosmonaut (about 1/2 inch tall) to give the display a sense of scale.

My second space-related kit is the Dragon Models X-15 twin-pack.

Courtesy DragonUSA

This model  allows you to build TWO of the famous X-15 craft. You have our choice of flight or pre/post flight configurations. It is nice to get a small-yet-detailed look at this famous spacecraft. Be sure to also check out NASA ebooks online, to include their one on the X-15.

I have recently switched over to 1:144 scale because I simply don’t have the space for larger models.  The price point is actually real nice too (usually under $20).

Wargame Wednesday – Carriers in Space

Courtesy loomingy1 via Flickr

Michael Peck, writing for Foreign Policy National Security Blog, had a very interesting interview with naval analyst Chris Weuve on the concept of aircraft carriers in space. Basically, Mr. Weuve discusses what is “right” and what is “wrong” about aircraft carriers in science fiction.

After reading this article I think it is easy to say that Chris would probably agree that starship combat games that use vector movement (such as Mayday, Power Projection: Fleet, Full Thrust, etc.) are far more realistic than ones that don’t. The article also explains why it was so easy to base Star Wars: X-Wing off the Wings of War series (WWI and WWII) and make it appear “cinematically correct.”

Good comments for designers of science fiction games to keep in mind.

Threat Tuesday – Countdown Continues….

AP Photo

This March 28, 2012 satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe shows North Korea’s Tongchang-ri Launch Facility on the nation’s northwest coast. The image appears to show preparations beginning for a long-range rocket launch in North Korea despite international objections. An analysis conducted for the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies says the image shows trucks and fuel tanks, and work underway on the gantry next to a mobile launch pad. (AP Photo)

Threat Tuesday – NorKs in Spaaaaace!

Those wacky NorKs are going to try again to put a satellite in orbit. Gotta give them credit; they certainly don’t seem to want to give up even after their failure in 2009. They also are apparently trying to be public about this one too. Something to do with “transparency” and being a “respectable” member of the international community. North Korea? Ha!

AP Photo

In this March 20, 2012, satellite image taken and provided by GeoEye, a satellite launch pad in Tongchang-ri, Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province, North Korea, is shown. North Korea last week announced that scientists will send a satellite into space in April on the back of a long-range rocket. (AP Photo)

AP Photo

WIDE VIEW OF TOK101 OF MARCH 23, 2012 – In this March 20, 2012, satellite image taken and provided by GeoEye, a satellite launch pad, a white strip near a junction of three roads seen in the middle, in Tongchang-ri, Cholsan County, North Pyongan Province, North Korea, is shown. North Korea last week announced that scientists will send a satellite into space in April on the back of a long-range rocket. (AP Photo)

NorK 2009 Launch (SatNews)

Press reports are saying this will be a Taepo Dong 2 SLV. This may be the same rocket that the NorKs tried to launch in 2009. The major difference this time is the likely launch trajectory; almost due south according to the NorKs. This trajectory means they don’t have to fly over Japan to get to orbit – a small technicality that has previously upset the Japanese – and is also very useful for an “earth observation” mission like the NorKs have proclaimed.

The problem is that the US and it’s allies don’t see the Taepo Dong 2 as an SLV, but rather as an ICBM. In 2009, the National Aerospace Intelligence Center (NASIC) published their Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat Handbook where they made the case the Taepo Dong 2 is an ICBM. In particular, NASIC stated:

North Korea is developing the Taepo Dong 2 (TD-2) ICBM/SLV, which could reach the United States if developed
as an ICBM. Although both launches of the TD-2 ended in failure, the April 2009 flight demonstrated a more
complete performance than the July 2006 launch. North Korea’s continued progress in developing the TD-2 clearly
shows its determination to achieve long-range ballistic missile and space launch capabilities. The Taepo Dong 2
could be exported to other countries in the future.

That “export to other countries” is a worrisome part given the NorKs proclivity to sell arms to shadier nations of the world. The Taepo Dong 2 might be “old tech” but just how much technology do you need to lob a nuclear warhead at a city?