Narrowing #TheExpanseBoardGame – or – Expecting too much from theme

IMG_2055My 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.

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Courtesy syfy.com

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.

#TheExpanse Ships in #TravellerRPG

Watching “Home” (The Expanse, Season 2, Episode 5) with the Rocinante at high-g burns got me back to thinking about the ships of The Expanse and how they could be portrayed in tabletop RPGs. I previously looked at the Epstein Drive and how it might be translated into game terms for use in Traveller RPG or Cepheus Engine or Orbital 2100.

**WARNING – Minor Spoilers Ahead**

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Courtesy SyFy

Going all the way back to the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, the small shuttle Knight gives us some insight into the technology of The Expanse:

It wasn’t long before Alex called down, “Okay, Boss. It’ll be about a four-hour trip flying’ teakettle. Total mass use at about thirty percent, but we’ve got a full tank. Total mission time: eleven hours.”

“Copy that. Thanks, Alex,” Holden said.

Flying teakettle was naval slang for flying on the maneuvering thrusters that used superheated steam for reaction mass. The Knight‘s fusion torch would be dangerous to use this close to the Canterbury and wasteful on such a short trip. Torches were pre-Epstein fusion drives and far less efficient. (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 3)

From the book we know that the trip covers 50,000km. Working with classic space travel time equations, we can compute the Knight is traveling at about 1.0368 m/s or just over .1G acceleration.

Later in Chapter 5 we see the Knight running flat-out at 2G acceleration. At this speed the same 50,000 km trip should take only 53 minutes, which is a bit shorter than the approximately 70 minutes obliquily stated in the book. At this point it is unclear if the 2G speed is the upper limit of the teakettle or the fusion torch at low power.

The Knight does eventually clearly light it’s torch:

“Roger that, XO. Bleeding-g burn-and-flip laid in. Angled approach course so our torch won’t burn a hole in the Cant. Time to rock and roll?” Alex replied. (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 5)

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Courtesy NBC Universal

Here we have to interpolate the fusion torch acceleration based on Holden and his apparent weight. When lighting the torch Holden weighs 500 kilos. Assuming he is an average 75 kg to begin with, this works out to almost 7G. Interestingly, from the novella The Drive we know that 7G is the instrument limit on Solomon Epstein’s ship that he installed his new drive on, indicating that the fusion torch may have an upper limit of 7G.

In summary, we can say the shuttle Knight has maneuvering thrusters (teakettle) that operate efficiently at .1G. The shuttle also has a fusion drive (torch) that can accelerate it at up to 7G.

The Knight‘s torch drive could deliver a lot of thrust, but at the cost of a prodigious rule-burn rate. But if they could save the Cant, it wouldn’t matter. (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 5)

The missiles that are fired at the Canterbury are also very impressive:

As if in answer, six new objects appeared on his radar, glowing yellow icons appearing and immediately shifting to orange as the system marked their acceleration. On the Canterbury, Becca yelled out, “Fast movers! We have six new high-speed contacts on a collision course!”

“Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, did that ship just fire a spread of torpedoes at us?” McDowell said. “They’re trying to slap us down?”

“Yes, sir,” Becca said.

“Time to contact.”

“Just under eight minutes, sir,” she replied. (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 5)

For these six missiles to cover 200,000km in 8 minutes means their acceleration has to be around 150G!

In Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 51, Holden tries to remember how fast the Roci can go:

He tried to remember the Roci‘s maximum theoretical acceleration. Alex had already flown it at twelve g briefly when they’d left the Donnager. The actual limit was one of those trivial numbers, a way to brag about something your ship would never really do. Fifteen g, was it? Twenty? (Leviathan Wakes, Chapter 51)

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Courtesy solotalkmedia.com

In the episode “Home” if I caught the screen correctly it looks like the Roci was accelerating just over 17g. This again is in line with the book; and way faster than the 6g of Classic Traveller or Cepheus Engine and far ahead of the technology in Orbital 2100 where the alternative Nuclear Pulse Fusion Drive tops out at 1.2g! Compared to the Traveller RPG or Cepheus Engine universe, the ships and weapons of The Expanse are way faster and likely far more deadly too.

As late to the game as I am, I look forward to reading more of The Expanse series and seeing what further ship secrets are hidden within.


PS: The math for figuring time and acceleration is actually easy, but to help there is an EXCELLENT site at http://www.transhuman.talktalk.net/iw/TravTime.htm that does the math for you!