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Academy Games Takes Us One Small Step to Team-Based Worker Placement Awesomeness

Candice Harris
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Board Game Publisher: Academy Games, Inc.
Academy Games has a solid reputation for tastefully blending entertainment and education to deliver engaging historical games, such as its area-control hit 1775: Rebellion from its Birth of America game series.

I caught a short, but enticing glimpse of its latest 2020 release One Small Step on BGG's livestream for Gen Con Online 2020. It looked and sounded super interesting, so I was naturally very curious to experience how it played. Uwe Eickert and the Academy Games team graciously sent me a copy so that I could race to space and share some thoughts with the BGG community so that you can determine whether One Small Step is a game to keep on your radar.

From gallery of candidrum
One Small Step is a 2-4 player team-based, engine-building, worker placement Eurogame designed by James DuMond and Gunter Eickert that's based on the U.S. & Soviet space race and that was fittingly launched on Kickstarter on July 16, 2019 — exactly fifty years after Apollo 11 launched to start its journey to land the first men on the Moon. In One Small Step, players split up into two teams of one or two players, and play as either the United States or Soviet Union space agencies competing to develop their space programs, launch missions, and be the first to achieve a Moon landing.

One Small Step is played over a series of rounds until the end of the game is triggered. Players collect various resources and optimize their engines to launch satellite and crewed missions, increase their agency's knowledge, and advance along the Moon path. The first team that reaches the end of the Moon path receives bonus victory points and triggers the end of the game. The team with the most VPs wins the game and represents the nation that progressed humanity's knowledge for the future most.

Each team has a player board (Agency board) for storing and organizing resources, workers (two Engineers and two Administrators), personnel cards, advancement cards and most importantly, mission cards. Successfully launching missions gives you all sorts of rewarding bonuses, upgrades, victory points, and advancements on the Moon path.

Each round of One Small Step is split into seven phases that will be repeated until a team lands on the Moon and triggers the end of the game:

(1) In the first phase, Countdown, both teams simultaneously advance their missions one space toward the Launch stage. There are three stages on each team's Agency board that hold mission cards in a launch queue: T-Minus 2, T-Minus 1 and Launch. As a result of the countdown phase, players will be attempting to launch any missions shifted to the Launch stage at the end of the round.

From gallery of candidrum

(2) Next, in the Replenish phase, each team refreshes their permanent resources and places four new event cards on the board. Now's a good time for me to talk about the resources in One Small Step.

There are nine different types resources split into three thematic categories: Agency resources (funding, material, personnel), Satellite resources (boosters, navigation, sensors), and Crew resources (capsules, landing, life support). Most often, you gain resources from rolling special resource dice; there's one die for each resource category. We did have some bad luck here and there with the die rolls, but nothing that was ever too detrimental. There are different actions in which you can spend any type of resource, or you can convert resources, or you just stock up because you'll likely need them at some point.

From gallery of candidrum

For each resource, you can gain temporary resources (white circular tokens) that are discarded when they're spent or permanent resources (black square tokens) that are reusable each round. A chunk of the engine building in One Small Step involves efficiently upgrading temporary resources to permanent resources since permanent resources give you way more bang for your buck when playing cards and launching missions.

(3) After the Replenish phase, each team will Draw 2 Cards. The Administator department/player can draw either a Satellite Mission card or a Crewed Mission card, whereas the Engineer department/player can draw a Satellite Mission card, Crewed Mission card, or an Event card from the Event deck. On each team, you can draw one card and then decide which card you want to draw next.

Whenever you draw a Mission card (Satellite or Crewed) you will immediately place it on either the T-Minus 2 stage or T-Minus 1 stage on your Agency board. There's no limit to the number of Mission cards that can be placed on each stage, but strategically it's an important decision as you are penalized for failed missions. For each Mission card added to the T-Minus 2 stage, you also get to roll the red (Satellite) resource die and get a free resource.

From gallery of candidrum
Earth spaces
There are two types of Event cards you can draw: Development and Personnel. Development cards are always placed in your team's shared hand while Personnel cards are played face up to the right of your Agency board. You can have only three Personnel cards at a time, but you can have unlimited Development cards in your hand.

(4) Next you'll jump into the Workers phase where teams alternate taking turns in placing workers on either Earth action spaces or Event cards on the board. A là traditional worker placement, your opponent(s) will inevitably beat you to an action space you are needing to use and it's not uncommon to experience lots of cringing and groans during this phase.

Each team has two Administrator workers and two Engineer workers, and the majority of the action spaces can be taken only by the specified type of worker. If you place a worker on a card, you immediately take the worker action on the card, and at the end of the round, you also get to keep the card...again, Development cards go into your hand and Personnel cards go face up to the right of your Agency board.

The Earth action spaces also have an area for specific types of workers, but they are also upgradeable so they get juicier and juicier as the game progresses. One of the bonuses for successful mission launches is to upgrade Earth action. This is always a tough decision because you're not just upgrading it for yourself, but your opponents also have access to the stellar spaces as a result of your upgrade benefit.

From gallery of candidrum
Card spaces

One Small Step comes with handy action summary sheets that summarize each Earth action and the corresponding upgrades, but the iconography is so well done that it will probably be easy to remember after you play the game once.

The action spaces, whether on card spaces or Earth spaces, vary and give players plenty of options. Many allow you to gain resources, convert or upgrade resources, play Development cards at a discounted cost, gain bonus tiles, place hazard cards on your opponents' missions, advance on the Media track, and even take an action on a space that's already occupied with another worker.

I should note that all but one Earth action space has one action for an Engineer worker and a separate action for an Administrator worker beneath it. This means if you place an Engineer on a space, no one else (including your team) can place an Administrator on the action beneath it. This lends itself to tough decisions, as if it wasn't already challenging managing the limitations of having only two of each type of worker and how to best place them based on your available options. It's great!

I mentioned hazard cards and the Media track above, so let me briefly explain how the Media track works and I'll save the hazard cards for later. The Media track thematically represents how supportive your country's population and government are of your space agency's ventures, but in terms of gameplay it determines who has initiative in the phases of the game that aren't played simultaneously.

From gallery of candidrum

The Media track ranges from -3 to 8. If your Media value is 5 or more, you may reduce your Media by 5 to gain a Media bonus tile that usually provides resources and/or a special ability. If your Media value is at 8 and you need to gain Media, you must reduce it by 5 and take a Media bonus tile, then continue gaining Media as usual. This loop creates some interesting decisions because turn order can be very important especially in the worker placement phase and during the last phase of the round when you're launching missions.

(5) & (6) In phases 5 and 6, teams can use their Personnel cards and/or Play Development Cards from their hand respectively by spending the indicated resources, then taking the corresponding action. Since the Personnel cards are face up by your Agency board, your opponents may have some idea of what you might do, but the Development cards are in your hand which can create some suspense and sneak attack power plays in later rounds. Personnel and Development card actions usually involve gaining some resources, or gaining Media, but some cards even allow you to draw a mission card and immediately attempt to launch it which could be powerful for jumping ahead on the Moon path and snagging benefits before your opponent(s). Resources can be tight so sometimes you'll lean toward passing on one or both of these phases to save your resources for launching your missions.

(7) ...which brings me to the final phase, Launch Missions! This, ladies and gentlemen, is what you've been prepping all round for. In the Launch Missions phase, teams alternate launching one mission at a time from their Launch stage in initiative order.

As I mentioned earlier, there are satellite missions and crewed missions. Each mission card has a minor success requirement and reward, as well as a major success requirement and reward. If you don't have the resources necessary for the minor success, the mission fails and you'll have to take the penalty listed at the bottom of the card. Alternatively, if you are successful with the minor success requirement, you can optionally choose to spend the resources needed for the major success in which case you'll receive the mission rewards for both the minor and major success.

From gallery of candidrum

Successful crewed missions will allow you to progress on the Moon path, which is the timer for ending the game, but usually you'll want to start with mainly satellite missions to build up resources and your engine a bit. Each space on the Moon path has a bonus tile for the first player to land there, so timing can be important if you want a leg up on those bonuses.

From gallery of candidrum
Satellite mission card with a revealed hazard
At different points in the game, you might have to gain hazard cards which you'll have to place on your mission cards, and sometimes you'll get to draw them, take a peek, and place them on one of your opponents' mission cards. They're just enough of an unexpected element to make you sweat a little, but it's rarely catastrophic. You might need to spend an extra resource or lose one of your minor success rewards, assuming you're successful. But if you do have any hazard cards on a mission, you will need to spend the required resources in addition to the minor success requirements or else you fail the mission. The good news is that if you can survive the hazard(s), they usually come with a victory point which is a nice way to balance out the sting of having to spend extra resources.

After both teams have attempted to launch all missions in the Launch stage, you jump back to the Countdown phase and do it all over again but gradually improving your engine and working through three eras/tiers of Event cards that are increasingly more interesting. Between that and upgrading worker placement Earth spaces, the game definitely builds up and progresses well.

There are also Advancement cards you can purchase with resources and special Advancement tokens which either grant you a one-time benefit or on-going special ability which can spice things up even more.

From gallery of candidrum

All-in-all, I found One Small Step to be extremely enjoyable. It's a great two-player game, but from my experiences it especially shines when played with four since the team interaction is refreshing, unique, and challenging in a different way from most Eurogames. I'm sure some will love the team play and others won't be into it.

Playing with teams does tend to make the game run a bit longer since there's a lot of discussing and strategizing on both sides, but that doesn't bother me if everyone is engaged and having fun the whole time, which was the case each time we played with teams. I also found it surprising how competitive it gets when playing with teams. I felt myself caring more about winning when I had a teammate than I usually do playing games in general. A few rounds in you'll see people on both teams using their player aids to cover up their mouths and be discrete while plotting moves like football coaches covering their mouths with their playbooks as they relay a critical game plan in the final minutes of a tight football game.

I got some Manhattan Project vibes from One Small Step with the different types of workers and also the feeling of racing to progress on the Moon path ahead of my opponents. I really loved the decision space when choosing which worker placement spaces to upgrade — and having upgradeable worker placement spaces combined with the different types of workers really spices things up.

I didn't touch on it much, but I also really appreciated all of the historic facts and flavor throughout the rulebook and on the cards. If I can walk away from the table with learning something new and at the same time grinning from having an excellent gaming experience, I'm generally going to be a fan...and that is the case with One Small Step.

Here's the Gen Con Online 2020 demo hosted by Eric if you're interested in hearing more about One Small Step from the mouths of the creators:

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