The Cardboard Hoard: Initial Thoughts on Epic Space Games
Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to play a number of “epic” space opera board games -- the kind that consume an entire table in plastic bits and take well over three hours to play. While I’ve never had a chance to play any of these games a second time, I thought it might be worth exploring, comparing, and contrasting what my initial thoughts of each were.
These five games are Eclipse, published in 2011 by Asmodee, Firefly: The Game, published in 2013 by Gale Force Nine, Forbidden Stars, published in 2015 by Fantasy Flight, Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition, published in 2017 by Fantasy Flight, and Xia: Legends of a Drift System, published in 2014 by Far Off Games.
Eclipse - The crunchy Euro of your intergalactic dreams
I played this at Granite Game Summit with six players, and it took over six hours to finish. It was definitely epic, not only because of the time commitment, but due to the slow build up of fleets to the crescendo of late game combat. However, of all the games on this list, this one still had the most “Euro” feel to it despite the combat. While there is dice chucking, as well as randomness in the exploration of new space tiles, the game’s main engine lies in its player board, where lots of resource cubes need to be carefully managed. One thing I wish I knew going in was that upgrading ships without upgrading their shields was not a viable strategy, as my armada of “glass cannons” was easily dispatched when I finally made my big attack.
Firefly - Picking up and delivering on (low conflict) theme
This is one of the shorter games on this list, as my play of the first mission was about 3 hours. It’s also admittedly the least epic game here -- and one of two games on this list where players each control one ship, instead of an armada. At its heart, it’s really a pick up and deliver game, where players can choose safer legal cargo, or higher risk contraband cargo. That said, it integrates the Firefly theme beautifully, from it’s components, to its art and design, to its integration of nearly every character in the ‘Verse. While objectively not the most exciting or rewarding game to play, especially considering the time commitment, for avid Brown Coats such as myself, a lot of its faults are easy to gloss over for the chance to pilot our own Firefly class vessels for a few hours.
Forbidden Stars - 40K ways to exterminate your enemies
I got to play this at PAX Unplugged at four players, with two veterans and one other rookie, and it took around four hours to play. While the Warhammer 40K theme is wasted on me, as I’ve never played, this is still one of the best epic space experiences I’ve had. The game has a lot of neat little twists, from the moving warp storms which change where players can move each turn, to the blend of card and dice combat, to -- most importantly -- the action order mechanism where each square unveils in the opposite order in which it was assigned. It was clever and engaging, and I felt I had a good handle on it from the beginning. While the four different factions were unique, they felt balanced, as everyone seemed to have their chances over the course of the game I played.
Twilight Imperium: Fourth Edition - My war sun is bigger than yours
I would have called Forbidden Stars my favorite of this group, had I written this before playing TI4. This, like Eclipse, is another game I got to play at six players, and took over six hours to play. I loved every minute of it, and can’t speak highly enough of it. It fired on all cylinders, and I very rarely felt there was any downtime. The agenda phase, which was basically its own minigame, was such an interesting break from each turn’s action phase, and the things we voted on really mattered, making the political game impossible to ignore. And in the action phase, I never felt limited in what I could do, due to the bonuses of the strategy cards. I cannot wait to get a chance to play it again, if only so I can confirm this is one of my favorite games of all time, and my first experience wasn’t a mirage of some sort (especially since I won the game I played). I will note that, as with Forbidden Stars, there is no exploration in TI4, so that may be a disappointment to 4x purists.
Xia: Legends of a Drift System - The galaxy is your ship’s oyster
The other game on this list where you only control one ship is Xia. Like in Firefly, you can win the game through picking up and delivering goods, but this game is much more of a sandbox game, that will also allow victory through mining, smuggling, and fighting. I got to play it at Origins, and it took about 3 hours, although we only played to 5 points, and you can play to much higher if you choose. This is most likely the most random game on this list, with dice rolls controlling both movement and combat, and random tile flips during exploration. One thing I loved, in addition to the open world nature of the game, was the way you outfitted your ship with polyomino pieces that determined your speed, strength and shields. One thing I am told is fun, that I did not get to experience in the game I played, is the fear of drawing the Xia Star, as it was out on the first turn of our game, and hence easy to avoid.
While each of these games is unique, and has its own merits and charms, they all share the “epic experience” factor in common. Regardless of the game chosen, that is a feeling I hope everyone gets to enjoy at some point while at the gaming table.