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Subject: Space Corp: First Flight rss

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Paul Dobbins
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Herndon
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It’s Micro-pseudo Con 2018, and Jason is primed for a first play through of John Butterfield’s Space Corp [SC], red hot off of GMT’s presses. Paul, John and Joe(drafted into the 4th slot while in transit) comprise the rest of the foursome. Sometime around 11 AM we’re underway.

Initially, we were intimidated by fear of alleged long, slow play, but we discovered it plays relatively rapidly, with four players, through the first era, “ Mariners.” A full game of SC has three eras, played on three separate game boards, in essence, the game is regenerated era by era, by adding new wrinkles while retaining limited legacy elements. In a manner reminiscent of Twilight Imperium, players compete to be the first to achieve combinations of technical and exploratory milestones; in SC, these are called “contracts”, and they regenerate in altered form each era. Contracts are tracked on the multi-era "Business Display". BGG has a handy player aid that provides a handy reference for players sitting across the table from the actual display.

Mariners comprises the push from earth to Mars and the asteroid belt beyond. For newbies, it is a chance to learn the game mechanics while scoring opportunities are quite modest, i.e. mistakes are low cost. I have seen a criticism of SC, or perhaps rather a longing, for more variety in the starting factions, something akin to the divers companies in Terraforming Mars. Each faction has an HQ display that is used to store game components (team cubes and stocks of bases) and tracks what is termed “Infra”, manna-like variable resources established by the play of “upgradeable” resource cards. There is one fixed “research” Infra, and three slots for typically era specific cards of different magnitudes and flavors: move, build, explore, produce, and so forth. There are also, by era 2 and beyond, genetic adaptations and technological breakthroughs that augment HQ capabilities. There are limited numbers of adaptations and breakthroughs (cards) available in each flavor, so players are unlikely to end up in the same configurations, with the same capabilities.

SC has three era specific draw decks, and a 4 card tableau designated the "Offer". During a turn, a player holding seven or fewer cards in hand may perform a Research action to draw 2 (or possibly more cards) from the Offer, and/or so long as there are no more four cards in his hand, draw a card from the deck at turn's end. There are no limits to hand size, but the 4 and 7 hand-size card limits on, respectively, draw and Research, keeps that small draw deck in play longer than otherwise would be the case.

By the way, you better get your Infra right, but part of that is using the other players' Infra to advantage (I didn't catch on to this until the 3rd era, D'Oh). In Mariners, you want Move upgrades. Thereafter, variants of Move plus something else useful, including Explore and Build. Radiation shielding is also helpful.

The evolution and development of the players’ HQs provide considerable diversity from era to era, so any notion of factional sameness at the start of the first era goes by the boards pretty fast. Moreover, each of the three eras has a distinct feel, with era specific map, cards and rules. The second era, “Planeteers”, ramps up scoring in dramatic fashion as players move beyond the asteroid belt and pass through the heart of the solar – the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – to the Oort Cloud (spoiler alert, brace yourself for plenty of Uranus jokes -- gamers, you know); in our game, Joe was prodigiously quick to grasp the essence of the game and jumped out to a huge lead by the end of the 2nd era. I was running about an era behind as regards learning essential gameplay, but I started to get a grip by the end of the third era. Jason and John were running pretty strong from about mid 2nd era through the end of the 3rd era. Jason finished very strong for the win. Joe dropped out after Planeteers so he could join another game just starting up (and boy, he had us whipped anyway).

An interesting wrinkle in the draw deck is a number of cards called "Edges". An Edge is typically a powerful card trick that allows a player to impose fairly dramatic effects on the game and other player(s). One Edge allows a double move, another shuts the other players out of a particular action, e.g. "Build" for a turn, and so forth. I have seen some complaints about Edges on BGG, holding that they are too powerful. Hmm, powerful they are, but everybody will cop several over a three era game.

Another card deck wrinkle is the "Time" card. A Time card allows a player to either double an action value or perform two actions on the same, original value. Basically, one uses cards and Infra to generate enough points to execute a given action; thus, "action value", not unlike manna in MTG.

We played the third era, “Starfarers” 3p, to very good effect. What was noticeable is the slower deck with three versus four players. Regardless, that deck goes empty pretty shockingly fast, triggering end game/era play. If you manage your cards and Infra right, you can play on for quite a while with no draw deck. I was caught cards short in Mariners, cards long in Planeteers and cards short again in Starfarers. The card advantage I had in Planeteers (ha! I was ready for a grand finish) went for nothing because two players passed to end the era well before I had played out of options. Card management is therefore somewhat dependent on who and how how other players are stretching their hands, or not.

Starfarers is another upscaling – literally so-- as players navigate interstellar space to explore and colonize star systems. Moves in Starfarers require very large "action values", aided and abetted by multiplier "kickers" in the Starfarers deck. The carryover “1st Beyond“ from Planeteers is huge. Each era has 1st and 2nd “Beyond” achievements, which accrue to players who push teams to the edge of known space. In Planeteers and Starfarers, players who possess carryover “Beyond” awards from the previous eras, Mariners and Planeteers, respectively, get augmented start-up positions in the next era, although in our game, I had 1st Beyond twice and didn’t effectively exploit the advantage; the payoff was pretty big in Starfarers. Wait till next time, baby.

I'm glad my first play of SC was with a group of quick witted, veteran gamers. We gave SC a good shakedown, probably didn't make too many egregious errors, and completed the entire three era game in reasonable time, somewhere along 6 hours with breaks between eras and lots of characteristically newbie rules checks and clarifications. We were eventually joined by kibbitzer Stuart Pierce after he ran a playtest of his GMT P500 design Expansion or Extinction [EorE] in another room. Stuart helped guide us through the last era. By the way, EorE sounds like a very good game based on reports from the testers present.

There is no military aspect to the game, taking SC out of the expected explore-develop-fight cycle of most space games, from the gold standard, Twilight Imperium, to recent entries such as A Handful of Stars. This prompted a post game, impromptu discussion of what distinguishes a “Eurogame”, a.k.a. “Euro”, from a wargame, reuniting the cast of Point 2 Point, Jason and Scott. Jason held that SC is neither fish nor fowl, something more than a Euro, but not a wargame either. Scott relentlessly argued that a game lacking meaningful player interaction, whether combat or not, is a Euro, and that that provisionally puts SC in the Euro camp. As far as I know the argument continues to the very hour…..

Postgame commentary included the following. First, Jason thought the draw decks were too short, truncating play. I would think a 2p would seem overly long, but it may take several plays to get enough perspective to assess the given deck size. 4p plays pretty fast, which may be desirable; recall, we started up SC fearing it would play too long and slow. Another point Jason made is Production in the game is quite unlike any other space game you may have played. In Twilight Imperium, e.g., you put space docks up on promising worlds and grind out the means to fight the wars soon to come. In SC, you spend a relatively rare "Produce" card/action to pick up a relatively modest incremental profit -- profit points are VPs -- so all those bases you're building don't seem to generate much swag; watch your contracts baby, that's were the action is.

Finally, I would like to see a NoOp action. I had an opportunity to explore a star system in Starfarers, after the draw deck and the offers tableau were expended, but I had to wait until my team moved to the star, which takes three turns of movement along the star system track. Since I had to play a card each turn -- I only had two cards -- while the team advanced, I couldn't make it to explore. I'd like to see a NoOp action, which is different from a pass, but keeps a player in the game as an opportunity develops. NoOps would have to be limited to prevent abuses, for example, by each invocation costing perhaps 1T, or something along those lines.

I'd play again! BTW, PBS's premium science show, NOVA, just ran its season premier "Pluto and Beyond". Wow, nothing like a show on the actual first penetration of the Kuiper Belt, which lies outside of Pluto but within the inner reaches of the Oort Cloud, to inspire one to table SC. And in case you were wondering.....

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagrangian_point





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Paul Dobbins
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Herndon
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