“Time for some thrilling heroics!” – Jayne, The Train Job
Recently got a chance to play this a couple of times, and being a fan of the show since I was introduced to it (and binged it in two nights), there was no way I wasn’t going to give it a shot. Even more so, as Craig and I had worked some on the basics of a similar (not the same, and probably not as good an idea) game a few years ago. This review is of a purchased copy belonging to Craig, for disclosure, rather than a copy submitted to the Gamers’ Table by the publishers. Though I will say, if the publishers want to send us things, we are always happy to give it a GT look and an honest review. For the tl;dr version of my review, consult the teal deer below.
The Aquamarine Ungulate says: Good game. Shiny. Fun 2-4 player (more with expansion) 2-hour crime/capitalist competition, evoking a real feel of being a ship captain in the ‘Verse. Verdict: if you liked the show, Buy.
To start, it’s a many-against-the-game competitive setup, so more competitive than a co-op game, but less competitive than Monopoly – your fellow players might best be seen as rivals, rather than opponents. You won’t have a lot of opportunities to mess with your opponents directly, but there are some ways you can make their life uncomfortable on occasion. This changes with an expansion pack, but as ever, expansions are optional, so if you’re looking for something closer to the co-op end, this might still be your cuppa, while you more competitive types will enjoy the ability to turn pirate in the expansion. Running time will come down a lot with familiarity; you can help make it happen more quickly by looking at discard piles when it’s not your turn. Even with two new players out of four, we had the round-the-table time down to about five minutes or less by the end of their first game. Having four players doesn’t double the time for two, if you remember to look at the discards ahead of time. On later playthroughs, with players familiar with the game, we had games under two hours most times.
Out of the Box
The box is what you’d expect, fitting well into the graphic styles used in the DVD and RPG and so on, and the production values are of highly professional quality. The components are of sturdy board stock, heavy cardstock (for the ship cards and the Reaver/Alliance card), and good quality cards – and plenty of them. The paper money is well-designed and of great quality, double-sided and clearly distinguishable by colour. The graphics are all fully-licensed, so the game is replete with images from the show.
As with too many games, the insert is great for shipping and poor for storage. This isn’t necessarily something they can do anything about, but soon I’ll have a post about the really great system Craig put together to store the game. Here’s a job for a bright young industrial designer: come up with a gamebox insert that is as cheap as the current forms to produce and ship, but effectively enables both shipping and storage functions. You could make TENS of dollars!
The information is generally presented in a clear and legible way, with one caveat: the font colour/size for the planet/star names on the Contact cards (light brown on medium brown, in maybe an eight-point font, I’m eyeballing that?). The contrast needs to be just a little more, maybe the text in a cream or light sand colour, or outlined with dark brown. In an incandescent light, or with an off-white shade, the distinction is much less clear than it is under a CFL, and it’s not very clear under a CFL. I’m mentioning what seems like a small issue because it became a big issue for me in my second game: I couldn’t read the pickup/destination data on my Contact cards, meaning I had to ask another player to help me figure out which jobs went where. That’s a pretty significant info giveaway.
Graphically, the game borrows from late 19th C. through art deco designs, and gives an attractive and comprehensible look, with clear iconography and, in the tradition of modern games, all information present on the table on cards or counters. The board is beautiful and easily comprehensible, and you’ll learn to hate going into the cool, orderly blue radial graph of the Alliance sectors, and yet fear the more chaotic yellow Border regions in an entirely different way.
The rulebook is well-written, but could really use a solid index. I won’t go into detail about the issues we came up with in playing that we couldn’t find in the rulebook, as they’ve all been addressed in the 7-page FAQ put out by Gale Force Nine, and I’m sure will be edited into the next edition.
Lastly, the plastic pieces are of decent quality; the sculpt on the Firefly pieces is quite nice, as is the Reaver cutter. The Alliance cruiser in this box was a little wilted, but it’s nothing a bath in good warm water wouldn’t fix. It suffers a bit because of its faithfulness to the original somewhat improbable design. There are resin high-quality models available, but I’m not sure of the details of those right now.
Onto the Table
The footprint promises to be pretty large, and (spoiler) it is. We tried to set it up on my card table, and we overflowed, with only two players. With four, we’d have needed side tables or trays for each player, so be aware you’ll need a decent-sized space for this one. Despite that the board isn’t quite the same size as the Arkham Horror board, the need for accessible discard piles for twelve different decks means its tabletop presence is similar. This is another area where Craig’s storage system comes into play – he designed it so that it would also form a useful caddy to make playing the game less expansive, and yet keep everything visible and accessible.
Setting up doesn’t take as long as it seems the first time. Easily the slowest part of setup is choosing Jobs, especially on the first time someone is playing, because you simply have no idea what to do, what’s a reasonable payout, and so on. These times come down considerably with playing time and familiarity; we can set it up in under ten minutes now, after just a few games.
Set up the game as usual up to the point of dealing out Contact cards, then take one player’s set of cards, spread them out on the table, and have an experienced player assess the Jobs presented. Then shuffle them up back into the Contact decks and draw a new hand for that player, and once they’ve selected, go back to the game.
Into the Black
Play proceeds pretty simply once the game is started. Each player has a Captain and a Firefly, and will need to do Jobs to earn money as a basic mechanic. The game is also guided by a Story card, selected before the game starts, which outlines the victory conditions. These take the form of Goals, which specify actions/states that have to be completed or in effect to allow tackling the next one. The Story about stealing the Crown Jewels of Britain from Earth-that-was, for instance (“The King of All Londinium”), has three Goals. The first involves finding a master counterfeiter to make a fake Crown. The second is to hack into a security firm to get the travel itinerary, and the third is to make the swap.
The basic mechanic for most of this is simple: a Test involving one of three different skills (Fight, Tech, Negotiate), each represented by icons on Crew and Captain cards and some equipment. If the Test requires an eight to pass, and you have four of the icons of the Test type, then you’ll need a four or better on the die. Easy as lyin’.
There’s also Misbehaving, which means drawing a set number of cards, and choosing which of two options you’ll attempt, or hopefully finding that you’ve got the key to unlock that card automatically. Misbehaving can go competely smooth (like when Craig drew three straight cards which were Proceed if you have a Hacking Rig, the only piece of equipment he had at the time), or it can go entirely pear-shaped (like when Craig drew the worst Misbehave card in the game on his first attempt in our first game: unless you have River, it’s automatically botched).
On a given turn, a Captain has two actions available, which must be chosen from Buy, Deal, Work, and Fly. Buy is obvious: you’re at a planet or a marketplace, and you buy stuff, including Fuel, Crew members, Equipment, and Ship and Drive upgrades.
Whenever you do a Buy action, buy Fuel. Set yourself a minimum number of, and buy to that number whenever you’re not at it. I favour five or six, myself, because it allows me to go a little longer between Buy actions.
Deal is where you get your Jobs, and where you can sell Cargo or Contraband you’ve picked up (once you’ve completed a Job for a Contact, anyway – that makes you Solid, a useful state). There are (in the basic game) five Contacts – Amnon Duul, Harken (or “Harken the Alliance Jerk”, as I’ve come to call him), Badger, Patience, and the dangerous but lucrative Niska. A Deal action allows you to pick up three Jobs from them, and choose to keep or discard back down to your hand limit. Discarded Jobs will be available to other players Dealing with the same Contact, so there’s some strategy here in choosing Jobs not only for your own purposes, but for keeping the best ones away from your rivals.
When picking Jobs, especially initially, consider the possibiities for chaining them. For instance, if your Job from Patience involves dropping off something at Hera, and Badger’s offering a pickup at Aphrodite, then this is probably a good pair to choose, assuming you’ve got the requirements.I hit a very lucrative string when I found three Jobs from Patience (I think), which were Crimes taking place at Space Bazaar (two) and Motherlode (one). Since these places are two sectors apart, and I had a Drive Core allowing a two-space Mosey, I was able to do three Jobs netting ~$2000 each on three successive turns.
Work is the third option, and involves advancing a Job – either starting it or finishing it – or attempting a Goal from the Story card. These are usually straightforward, and involve simple actions like picking up or discharging Cargo, Contraband, Fugitives, or Passengers. Occasionally, the Job will be a Crime, and will have Misbehaving as its sole tasks.
Fly is the last choice, and is what it says on the tin: move your ship. You can either Mosey, which is quite safe but very slow, or Full Burn, which uses Fuel and involves drawing Nav cards. And the Nav decks are where the game makes the board come alive. The Alliance Nav deck, particularly, will have a good chance of making you want to go Reaving. The purplebellies do get in a Captain’s way. I’d like to add that, although I recognize from the original material that there’s a reason why, it’d be nice to have more women Captains. Of the seven in the basic set, only Nandi offers a chance to have a woman in the hot seat. It’s not a big thing, but it’d sure be nice.
Assume it will take you twice as long to cross a given piece of Alliance space as it will Border space of the same length. Not just the Cruiser, but all kinds of other things pop up that can stop you dead in space. So if it’s five sectors through Alliance space, allow two turns/Fuel to get there; if it’s five through the Border, you have a much better shot at making it in one turn/Fuel.
The Captains are a nicely diverse group, some Moral, some not, and with a pretty balanced set of skills (so far, I’ve found Nandi’s to be so-so, but her Companion designation helps a lot; Burgess’ Fancy Duds are nice, and his cargo pilferage is a side moneymaker). The Crew are a mixed bag, with some really top options available (Kaylee’s three Tech icons and re-roll Tech Tests, Simon’s medical skill bonus, and Inara’s Negotiate re-roll have all been useful to me already in two games), and some who will just suck down your money and be dead weight. All of Serenity’s crew are here, and they tend to be a very, very skilful bunch. They do mostly (ahem, Jayne) have the drawback of being “Moral”, though.
All Jobs are categorized as Legal or Illegal, and some of either kind may additionally be Immoral. Doing Immoral Jobs makes your Moral Crew and Captains unhappy (Disgruntled, in the game). Re-Gruntling them can be important, because a second Disgruntling means they quit. A second Disgruntle on your Captain means your whole Crew gets the sack, which can be (ahem) most inconvenient.
There are also Nav cards which pose this same Moral/Immoral choice, as in whether to stop and check out a drifting wreck. Stop, and your Moral crew get re-Gruntled. “Say a prayer and slide on by,” and they get Disgruntled. Having Moral crew is, generally, a disadvantage in the game, but if you have a Moral captain, you may as well get Moral crew too (Mal, Monty, and Nandi are Moral; Womack, Corbin, Burgess, and Marco are not, Womack spectacularly so), because you’re going to tend to avoid the Immoral jobs so as to not risk your Captain.
When hiring Crew, try not to double up on Professions (the green tab in the lower right corner of the picture). Having two Soldiers doesn’t get you double the bonus on Jobs with a Soldier bonus, and every crew member sucks up part of the take when they’re paid their Cut. Aim for a mix of icons and useful skills. Remember, too, when choosing Jobs, to consider the Crew’s Cut in your calculations of profitability. Harken’s Legal Jobs, for instance, rarely pay over $1000, and with any Crew of three or so, that’s going to mean a net take of about $200, max. And there are Jobs like that which can be money losers. 買者自負! (‘mai zhe zifu’, plus some tones that the show never bothered with)
Definitely Coming Back
Finally, some overall impressions. I really enjoyed the game; I’m a big fan of the show, and both Craig and I found that we were impressed with the way the game quickly put us into the position of a Captain in the ‘Verse, making hard choices about where to spend limited money, which Jobs to take, and how to get there. Despite careful planning, we both found there were times we almost ran out of Fuel, or picked up a Warrant on an unexpected non-smooth Misbehaving card. We regularly found ourselves quoting the show in various situations; by maybe the third turn we ever played, Craig was cursing the Alliance for constantly getting in his way.
Playing time is reasonable, and I think that with familiarity it will come down to a very pleasant two hours for a four-player game, maybe better if all four players are very familiar with it. What slowed us down for the most part were a) not knowing what a good choice was in the first couple of games, and b) not being familiar with the basic cards, and thus needing to spend time reading before getting to the consideration time.
The design is good from a pure design standpoint, too. The mechanics are simple: easy to teach, and easy to remember. The information is presented in a clear and recognizable manner, with the exceptions noted above, and literally by the middle of the first game, four experienced gamers had no trouble bringing the round-the-table time down to a few minutes. The resources over which players compete are nicely balanced. We found that the resource most limiting us was time, which is to say, “having only two Actions in a turn, and they can’t be the same one!” This is not a bad thing.
I like very much that almost all the cards that make the game move forward – Nav and Misbehave cards – have choices on them. That is, almost all let you choose whether you want to try and Tech or Fight or Negotiate your way out of a situation (well, two of them, for any card), meaning you can take multiple paths through the game. In my second game, I lucked into a situation where I had five Tech icons between Captain and Mechanic (Corbin and Kaylee), so almost any Tech Test was a lock for me, especially with Kaylee’s “re-roll a Tech Test” ability. As long as I had two gun icons (I had Two-Fry and a Sniper Rifle, a bit of luck of my own, as his special ability is to reduce the number of Misbehaves needed), I was able to do most things, or work around them with Tech and Negotiate. Not always – sometimes you really need a good firearm and someone who can use it – but usually.
Where I think there’s a possible flaw, and this is a hard one to avoid in most competitive or semi-competitive (where you can’t directly affect your rivals) games, is that once a player gets out in front, it can be very hard to catch up. In our second game, stealing the shiny hat, Craig got a completely lucked-out result in the first turn, picking a Niska Crime Job that involved three Misbehaves – and as noted above, they were all defeated by his having lucked into a single piece of Equipment on his first Buy action. That put $4000 in his hands on the second turn, and we were never able to catch up. He literally was trying to steal the shiny hat (the third Goal) at the same time I – the first of the other three – was just able to do the first Goal.
It’s quite possible that this is fixed by the Pirates expansion, and as I say, it’s a tough problem to avoid (Robo Rally lost its joy when we realized that it had this problem; the best way to avoid it there is to make your checkpoints have a crossing pattern).
I’ve heard people say that they don’t fancy the game because it feels like a series of fetch quests to them, and I can see how someone might think that on first couple of plays, but it wasn’t my experience. The option to do Crimes, plus the series of what felt to me like realistic decisions for a Captain in the ‘Verse, felt very much in the spirit of the show, and provided a new way to enjoy the material, creating our own stories with the limited material we got to experience from the abortive run that Fox allowed the show.
Having played the game a number of times since I wrote this review, including with two of the expansions (we only got Blue Sun last week, and haven’t played it yet), I can say I enjoy the game very much, and that the expansions so far have added interesting and enjoyable options to the game. Most of the people we’ve played it with have also enjoyed it, and have been willing to replay, which I take as a good sign.
I’ll be adding reviews of the expansions within a few days, as well as posting pictures and design drawings for the storage/play system Craig came up with, and which reduce the game’s tabletop footprint to a much, MUCH more manageable size. Instead of taking up almost as much space as the board with the 30-odd different card piles, the caddy allows all that to fit into a footprint not much bigger than the game box. It’s still large, and with the Blue Sun expansion board, a little unwieldy for a card-table setup, but the space taken is much diminished with good storage.