This weekend, Terraforming Mars (Stronghold Games, 2017) landed on the table for the RockyMountainNavy Game Night. Surprisingly, we had not played this game since November last year. Even with the long hiatus, we found gameplay to be quick and satisfying.
Elysium takes players almost to the opposite side of Mars’ equator, with vast lowlands for oceans in the north and a dry, mineral-rich south. Place a tile on Olympus Mons, the highest peak in the solar system, to gain three free cards! [Stronghold Games]
We played a three-player game. For corporations I had Thorgate, Middle RMN Boy Interplanetary Cinematics, and Little RMN Boy took Ecoline. I started out strong, using my corporations power advantage to build power production that I was able to convert to Steel and oxygen using the Steelworks and Ironworks projects. As such, I was able to build a moderate lead in the Terraform Rating (TR). Meanwhile, Interplanetary Cinematics built a few cities, and Ecoline focused on greenery.
The game session played fast as we all rapidly developed our game engines and pushed the Global Parameters (Oxygen, Temperature, and Oceans) ahead quickly. We probably pushed ahead too fast, because we ended in Generation 11. While conducting the final scoring, I became painfully aware that I had no cities and no greenery tiles laid. As a result, my moderate lead quickly disappeared and I came in a very distant second place.
Overall, this is the fifth time we played Terraforming Marssince I acquired the game in September 2017. Playing time is advertised at 120 minutes but all of our previous games played at 150-180 minutes. This time was different with game time coming in at almost exactly 120 minutes. That is, 120 minutes to set up, play, and pack away the game! The quick play did not mean the play experience was less satisfying; on the contrary, the shorter playtime made for a more intense game. It is also amazing that after five plays this the first time I can remember that we actually made it through the Project Card deck and had to reshuffle. Little RMN repeatedly exclaimed, “I haven’t ever seen this card before!”
If I remember correctly, some time ago I was listening to the Ludology podcast with designer Geoff Englestein and he mentioned that he was happy if someone played his game five times. I too am surprised that since my boardgame renaissance started in late 2017 that Terraforming Mars has entered into my BGG Five and Dimes category (i.e. games played at least five or ten times). Putting aside children’s games, fillers, and other “lite” games, Terraforming Mars joins Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear and The Expanse Board Game as “fives” in that time. Given the excellent game play and enjoyment of Terraforming Mars, I feel confident in saying it will reach Dime status before too long.
The unusual part of the month was the many kids games. You see, Mrs. RockyMountainNavy is teaching/tutoring young kids and she incorporates gaming into her time with them. Actually, she incorporates gaming into MY time with them, as she is usually talking with the parents while the RMN Boys and myself play games with the kids. She has two students right now, a kindergarten and 4th grader. This is why games like Animal Upon Animal or Ice Cool and even Math Dice Jr. appear on the play list. All told, there were 4 games I played with the kids for a total of 23 plays – that’s basically half of the plays this month. The kids gaming has also changed my buying habits; right now we are usually searching for the best deal on various games and buying them for the parents. Mrs. RMN also wants to take several to Korea when she visits family later this year and see’s her brother-in-law who is fading fast from Alzheimers. She figures the “kids” games will be good for him too.
I expect February to be pretty similar. Actually, I hope to get a bit more family gaming or some 2-player games in too.
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.
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 Gamestrikes me as a game that is best played when it is played; familiarity breeds speed. The Expanse Board Gameis 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 Gameto work even when it doesn’t.
In preparation for the arrival of a few new games this Christmas, I was updating my BoardGameGeek collection pages and noticed my profile page. There are two lists given, one is my Top 10 and the other my Hot 10. Looking at the two lists, I realized I had a methodology for creating the Top 10 list (based on my personal BGG rating) but I did not have a system for the Hot 10. Giving it a bit of some thought, I decided to use my Logged Plays as a guide. The resulting list is actually a good reflection of my year in gaming.
My logged plays games are a bit unbalanced. From January to July it featured one or two wargames a month. Beginning in August, the RockyMountainNavy family started family game nights every weekend. In the last five months of the year my gaming changed from wargames to more family boardgames. The pace of gaming also accelerated; so far in December I have already played more games that all of January to July put together. So here is my Hot 10:
As much as I play wargames solo it is actually rare that I play solo games. Agricola: Master of Britain is an easy-to-learn yet hard-to-master game that uses interesting cup mechanics to reflect shifting allegiances of tribes. I also like the escalating victory conditions that constantly force you to achieve more – sometimes more than is possible.
Scythe marked the real birth of family board gaming in the RockyMountainNavy this year. One of the heavier games we played this year, we have not played in a while and need to get this one back to the table soon.
Probably the only “real” wargame in my Hot 10. At first I was a bit surprised this was in my Hot 10 but then I thought about it; I really enjoy this CDG-design and the shorter play time means it can land on the gaming table more often.
At first I was a bit negative on The Expanse Board Game but I have warmed to it. I want it to land on the table a bit more but in the last game Youngest RockyMountainNavy Boy was ruthless on his brother who swore revenge. So far he hasn’t had a chance, but when it comes I’m sure it will be glorious to watch.
A lucky thrift-store find, I posted earlier how this is actually a reskinning of the Kinderspiel des Jarhres-winning Ghost Fighting’ Treasure Hunters. A fun cooperative game, it probably will be superseded in a future Hot 10 by Pandemic and demoted to the kids collection for Mrs RMN to use in her teaching.
Given the short play time and our usual Dynasty play where we play three games in a sitting one could argue that this game is artificially high in my Hot 10. I disagree; Kingdomino fully deserves to be the Hot 10 leader not only because of my logged plays, but it is landing on the table with the RMN Boys even without me. Even the video-gaming oldest RMN Boy will join in!
So there is my Hot 10. This list helps me recognize what I have sensed all year; as much as I am a wargaming grognard this year I became more of a family gamer. This has resulted in many positive changes in the family. Not only do we spend more time socializing together, we also use games to guide our learning. The boys have learned so much more about the American Revolution and space exploration thanks to gaming. Even Mrs. RMN, a non-gamer, is touting the value of board gaming to the parents of her students.
November proved to be a weird gaming month. Due to family visiting I actually lost out on two (2!) weekends worth of gaming!
The obvious hit game of the month was Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier Game which we played with our visitors. We still have not beaten this game, though we came close in a full-up four player session. I personally played a pick-up game of Bananagramsagainst the niece. Not shown her are the several Ticket to Ridegames the RockyMountainNavy Boys played with the niece and her friend. As usual, TtR served as a excellent gateway game to introduce tabletop boardgaming to a new player.
The RockyMountainNavy household is a bit busy this holiday with family visiting. Unfortunately, this means the last weekend Game Night was cancelled due to travel. However, this week (and especially thanksgiving Day) saw some games landing on the table. For some reason, the Red Planet Mars seemed to be our theme….
Thanksgiving Eve the RMNBoys and myself played a 3-player game of The Expanse Board Game. The game was slow with some analysis paralysis as the boys tried to get their heads wrapped around the game. The game ended a bit early when the sixth Scoring Card came out before the fourth or fifth had been played. At the end of the game I was a bit worried because Middle RMN Boy (on the Autism Spectrum) reacted a bit negatively to the ruthless play of his brother. I (belatedly) realized that The Expanse Board Game is a bit more on the “ruthless” side of gaming and not like other games we have played recently. The contrast was all-the-more apparent since the previous games Middle RMN Boy had played were the cooperative Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier Game or the very family-friendly Ticket to Ride. To further exacerbate his loss, he had played the OPA which probably has the most “indirect” asymmetry of the three factions. Maybe I should have encouraged him to take the more militant MCR or the diplomatic UN. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to another play of The Expanse Board Game on Thanksgiving Day. Middle RMN insisted that he play the OPA again and I did not get in his way.
After the first game, we had talked about how the game encouraged being ruthless and how it was not his brother being mean, but the design of the game. I was hoping he understood. After the game it was very apparent that I had little to worry about for he was just as ruthless as his brother. In the end, Little RMN ran away with a victory but Middle RMN and myself were in a virtual tie. The boys both want to play again, and I too am more comfortable playing with them as Middle RMN Boy now seems to “understand” the game and not take it personally.
Thanksgiving Night ended with a full game of Terraforming Mars. Little RMN again proved to be ruthless and gave us no mercy with another runaway win. This was the second full-play of Terraforming Mars using the regular Corporations and the boys are exploring various strategies and getting better at playing Action Cards. As we were putting away the game, we looked at the Corporate Era cards. The rule book states that using the Corporate Era cards will result in an extended game; elsewhere I have read using these cards results in a more “confrontational” game. For that reason I was not planning on introducing these cards until after a few more plays. However, after The Expanse Board Game the RMN Boys are in a bit of a “confrontational” gaming mood and want to play the Corporate Era variant.
Although our Thanksgiving games ended well enough, it reminded me that playing with Autism Spectrum must always be in the back of my mind. When introducing a new game, I need to ensure that the tone of the game is presented up front to avoid negative emotions. I am happy to do this because – at the end of the day – I get to game with two of my greatest gaming partners.
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.