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Ken Stewart
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(Img by Multidej)

Theseus: The Dark Orbit is a great game. It is a shining example of a simple basic game design that reveals layer after layer of depth after each play. Though I have already played the game about ten times, I feel like I have barely scratched its surface. In this review, I would like to share what I have discovered so far.


(Img by wolverine1977)

Layer 1 : Movement

Movement of pieces in board games is generally done in one of several ways-- movement of all pieces being equal (like in Checkers), movement being based on a piece's identity or special qualities (like in Chess), or movement being based on a randomizer (like in Monopoly). In Theseus, though pieces all basically move the same (one piece moves one space), this movement is further modified by the number of other pieces in the same location (including opponents pieces). A piece in a location with another (for a total of two pieces) will move two spaces; if there are two other pieces together with it, then it moves three spaces; etc. This essentially means that not only does a player control how her pieces will move in future turns, but she also can affect how her opponent's pieces will move. This is the core mechanism of Theseus, around which all other aspects of the game function.


(Img by mrkvm)

Layer 2 : Freedom

In contrast to the constrainted movement, the other main mechanism of the game – placing special action cards – is surprisingly open-ended. If a piece lands on a location where the player has a card waiting, then she can install it on not only the current location, but on any empty spot in the game. This allows players to set up elaborate traps for their opponents to run into in future turns. This freedom is offset by the ability to trash the player cards if the opponent lands on that space before she can install them. What this leads to is players forming elaborate strategies with the cards they have waiting, while at the same time trying to guess what their opponents are planning and denying them the cards they need. When all the cards are used up, players can choose whether or not to advance the end-of-game marker; when this reaches zero, then the game is over.


(Img by balint77)

Layer 3 : Transparency

Unlike most board games that feature cards as a main gameplay mechanism, there is no hidden information in Theseus-- no hands of cards, no sudden reveals, no special objectives. The only unknown is which cards will come up next on a player's deck. While having no control over which cards will appear next may discourage some, it is actually very liberating not to have to manage a hand of cards while at the same time planning movement and card placement. Also, since the players know exactly what each other has at their disposal, it is easier to plan ahead and strategize. Although this complete transparency may appear to encourage analysis paralysis, in reality because there are only up to three moves a player can make during one turn (for their three pieces), the game still moves at a swift pace.


(Img by The Innocent)

Layer 4 : Asymmetry

Although the core mechanisms in Theseus are shared between the four included factions (I have not played the fifth Pandora faction yet unfortunately), their action cards and strategies are all radically different. The Marines' cards revolve around setting up elaborate ambushes and trying to force the opponent into heavily fortified positions; the Aliens are the opposite – much more aggresive and agile. The focus of the Scientists and Grays is drastically different from the previously mentioned factions-- their goal is doing research and forcing the opponent into positions in which they can 'study' the opponent's pieces. Although the Aliens' and Marines' gameplay strategies are more straight-forward than the Scientists and Grays, in the hands of experienced players all factions seem quite balanced.


(Img by Maciej Mutwil)


I really adore Theseus: The Dark Orbit. It is a great example of a simple mechanism being expanded and enhanced without much added complexity. The card abilities, though varied and thematic, are not overly-complicated or overbearing (they even have detailed explanations on their backs). Though there is a lot of thinking and planning involved during each turn, games do not generally last for more than a half hour. This is fantastic, because it allows players to easily fit in more plays, giving them a good understanding of the game without a massive time commitment. My only disappointment with this game is that it has not gotten more buzz around the community. Theseus deserves more attention that it currently has, and I sincerely hope that my review can help it to gain some interest.
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Arthur Rutyna
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Well, I have it on order, and although your review isn't the one that is swaying me to purchase the game, it is good to hear another vote of confidence for this game. So thanks!!!
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Randolph Bookman
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This is a game where you have to have think 2 or 3 steps ahead and out smart or at least out play your opponent. If I move here. That forces these moves for him and then that means I will be forced to take one of these actions. What's really great is when you have to set up a move that gives your opponent points and then too late they realize you've set up a trap 2 moves ahead.

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Robert Masson
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This game is really growing on me. At first I didn't like the random feel of it, but now I'm starting to see how it all fits together. Great review!
 
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Dan Conley
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Love the onion imagery! So true. I am really digging this game and it is just going to get better. So many approaches, so much to try...and then there's that unplayed fifth faction!

Thanks for the review! Truly an underappreciated gem of a game.
 
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Robert Masson
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I think it isn't getting rave reviews because it feels random at first and people normally rate a game based on first couple of plays only and don't revisit their ratings later after the depth is understood.
 
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Chris M
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botanybob wrote:
I think it isn't getting rave reviews because it feels random at first and people normally rate a game based on first couple of plays only and don't revisit their ratings later after the depth is understood.


Personally, I found that there are simply a lot of problems with the game that seem to stem from a lack of play testing. I really wanted to like this game. In fact, I like the idea behind it, but it lacks consistency and balance. After 7 games of playing, we encountered scenarios that were not called out in the rule book. How can that happen after only 7 games? The factions each have different strengths (which for the most part seem to be balanced), but that's not the balance I'm talking about. I'm talking about that bonus card that lets you install a card from the top of your deck. If only one is available, the person who gets it wins the game.

I think the most frustrating part, though, is not what I mentioned above, but the fact that the game lacks consistency. What I mean is that when my friends and I have had questions about how to resolve a rule or a specific interaction that comes up in a game, we have one person who thinks we should interpret literally and one person who thinks we should interpret based on the designers' intent. This happens in every game (not just Theseus), though, right? What makes this a problem specific to Theseus? It's the fact that the designers released an FAQ that interprets some of those rules literally and some of those based on the intent. Due to this, there is no way to take the designers' rulings and apply those to future scenarios or interactions. How are we supposed to know, as players, if we should interpret one scenario literally or try to assume the designers' intent since both types of rulings have precedence?

Those are just some issues and, quite frankly, I think they added that bonus card as an afterthought just prior to release without testing it. I also think they added Pandora as an afterthought because most of the questions we have had stem from Pandora.
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DARRYL KOPMAN
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I think I know how you'll respond, but here it goes....

Is the game too simple? The developer is marketing it for ages 8+. My gaming circle is composed of guys in their 30s and 40s. My experience with games below age 12+ is that they're fun for 2 maybe 3 plays, but then the novelty wears off.

Thanks.
 
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