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Subject: A Detailed Review of SpaceCorp rss

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Jay I

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Overview

SpaceCorp, designed by John H. Butterfield and published by GMT Games, is a space themed economic management simulator for 1-4 players. The premise of the game is a bit vaguely defined as players take control of some sort of profit-seeking enterprise and compete to claim territory in space and exploit that territory in order to generate profit. The game plays out across three distinct eras which each use a separate gameboard and introduce slightly more complex mechanics as play expands from the outskirts of Mars and into the realm of interstellar exploration. As players take turns, they play cards that allow them to carry out specific actions such as moving exploration teams through space, exploring planets and moons, and building various different types of bases. Along the way, players score points by completing contracts, producing resources from their bases, developing new technologies, and, eventually, establishing colonies on distant star systems. At the end of the game, the player with the most profit is declared the winner.

SpaceCorp is a bit of a game of contradictions. The game’s beefy sized box and plethora of components belies the actual simplicity of its mechanics. It is, at heart, a very milquetoast card-based euro game where players must continually adapt to the changing board state in order to optimize their scoring. Although I enjoyed the game’s fast pace and found that it was technically sound and tightly-balanced, it also felt a bit underdeveloped with respect to its scale and scope. In the following sections, I will detail what stood out to be as the notable strengths and limitations of its design.

Space Race

It’s not at all unfair to describe a game of SpaceCorp as a race. On a player’s turn, they can play any number of cards that generate points toward a single action such as movement, exploring, or building. The more points they are able to generate toward the action, the more powerful the action. For some actions, such as movement, more points means getting more of it. In other cases, such as building or exploring, players simply need to generate enough to reach a certain target number defined by the specific space on the board they are targeting for the action. Building a base on Mars may require a few more build points than building one on the Earth’s moon.

Each era brings its own deck of cards. Most of the cards are dual purposed – they may give you either movement or exploration, for example, and each card is only played once during the era. Occasionally, cards pop up that have other effects too such as granting a player an additional turn or enabling an immediate discovery. Some cards can also be played as upgrades to generate permanent effects on players’ home boards. Players are constantly drawing new cards at the end of their turns and they can also elect to take a Research action to draw even more cards, either from among those on display in the offer or from the top of the deck. Thus, in a game of SpaceCorp, cards are constantly flying about resulting in a fast gameplay loop that sees entire eras unfolding quite rapidly once everyone at the table has the rules of the basic gameplay down.

The purpose of this nimble cardplay is, of course, to work toward efficient ways of scoring points. Early in the game, players rely heavily on the contracts available that may offer point rewards for building a certain number of bases or discovering a certain number of tiles. In later eras, a few more options open up as players can also score points by producing resources on their bases and researching new technologies. Therefore, the fundamental mechanics of SpaceCorp boil down to playing cards to get numbers and then converting those numbers into points whenever possible. It’s all quite straightforward and easy to grasp even on the first playthrough.

Mostly, it’s just about numbers

Although SpaceCorp’s core gameplay loop is easy to comprehend and generally amusing, it doesn’t take long to realize that the game itself, despite the sci-fi trappings of its exterior, is mostly just a simple game of numbers. Given the size of the card decks and the rapidity with which they are drawn, played, and discarded, there’s really no benefit to waiting around to get certain cards or trying to fish through the deck to realize a particular strategy. Each turn simply sees you evaluating your hand with respect to the board state and figuring how to use what’s immediately available to work toward grabbing a few more points. If I’m sitting on a bunch of Build points, I might as well go build something. And so forth.

The gameboards are largely static affairs. Other than the randomly drawn discovery tiles that come out when a player explores certain spaces, the boards are just a set of fixed spaces with fixed numeric values you need to match in order to build things on them. For what is meant to be a representation of the vastness and variety of the universe, space in SpaceCorp feels pretty neat and mathematical. The board itself does little to add nuance or complexity to the underlying game of numbers that drives things forward. Later eras primarily ramp things up by giving things bigger numbers to have to meet in order to move around, build, and explore.

There are a handful of technological upgrades that can be gained in the second and third eras of the game. These, too, are often more a function of happening upon certain cards that give you the resources you need to gain the upgrades than they are a tool for developing and executing any kind of long-term strategy. The benefits they provide can certainly be useful, but there are few ways to work specifically toward them outside of the happenstance of card draws. All in all, the many minute decisions you make throughout a game of SpaceCorp do surely feel meaningful, but they don’t always feel necessarily impactful. There are few opportunities to diverge from the basic strategy of scoring points any way you can whenever you can.

Less is more or less is less?

Let me pause a moment here to disclaim: I am a fairly seasoned veteran of heavy euro games who does not shy away from evaluating complicated board states and contemplating difficult strategic decisions. With that said, SpaceCorp ultimately felt rather underdeveloped to me. I wanted more variety, more variability, more complex decision spaces, and more strategic diversity to really keep my attention. As a veteran eurogamer playing with a mixed group of people with varying levels of interest and experience, I found it quite easy to routinely outscore my opponents by playing to the simple game of numbers and all but ignoring the overarching thematic cosmetics that covered the surface of it all. I looked at my cards, looked at the board, and figured out how to squeeze a few points out of every move. Whether I was building bases, exploring asteroids, or producing refined ores felt largely irrelevant. I went for the points and I did so with little concern for any overarching goals or strategy.

I’m always reluctant to tell experienced designers how to design their games, but SpaceCorp, for all of its grandness of scope and ambition, feels like it missed a few opportunities to offer a more rich and varied strategic experience. Asymmetrical player abilities, a more dynamic gameboard, and more versatility in the nature and function of the cards could go a long way in taking the game’s solid foundations and building it into something that feels more unique and distinguished among the many strong sci-fi themed euro games on the market.

A Note on Player Counts

SpaceCorp accommodates 1-4 players pretty effectively. At higher player counts, the game feels much more competitive since, especially in the early era, board space is quite limited. At two players, it is a much more laid back affair and players have some degree of control over how long they want to allow each era to continue before forcing the game to progress. As a solo game, it offers a pretty well-designed optimization puzzle with a robust AI mechanism that doesn’t necessarily simulate a human player, but does successfully put pressure on you to maximize your efficiency in order to keep pace with it. Ultimately, I’d say it plays best at either 1 or 4 players because its fast-pace works well within a more competitive framework. However, changing the player counts does not alter the core gameplay dramatically.

Final Thoughts

After numerous playthroughs, SpaceCorp just didn’t resonate with me. As sci-fi themed euro games go, its cardplay does not achieve the depth and variety of Terraforming Mars, and the engine-building and efficiency mechanics it offers didn’t engage me as much as those found in Pulsar 2849. I really couldn’t escape the feeling that the game wants to be something bigger, deeper, and more complex than it actually manages to be.

With that said, it may hold some promise as a more entry-level euro game for people who are really into the space theme. However, at its current price point, there may be some questions about long-term value to entertain before going into it in the hopes that it will sustain across repeated playthroughs with a wide range of players. I’m sure that many others may find greater appeal in the peaceful rhythm and clear mechanics that drive its gameplay, but for my personal tastes, it just doesn’t fit any niche that I feel my collection is missing.
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Joe Martineau
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I generally agree with your review, although I feel a little more positively about it than you do overall.


Nicely written.
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Darrell Hanning
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One thing to keep in mind is that these are business entities trying to maximize profit. To that end, "overarching goals or strategy" would be "increase profit", which is what you spend your time trying to do, in various ways.

I think Spacecorp works very well when all the players are focused on trying to maximize their profits - even when it means using another's infrastructure or bases.

Could it be more of a sandbox? I suppose it could. Could the different companies start with different abilities? Sure. But it wouldn't surprise me if the designer was already looking at expansions for this game, and those just might be the kinds of things he's considering.

What I know is that it is a clean, easy-to-grasp system that amounts to a race, as you stated. And a race generally goes to the fastest, not the most diverse, or the deepest strategy.

John Butterfield is a wargame designer of over 40 years. I think as a foray into Euro-style games, Spacecorp is a good start. He probably didn't want to overshoot and possibly muck up the ease of play. I like Terraforming Mars, too, but I also see it as kind of "junky", which could have done with some additional development to clean it up a bit.
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Jim Patterson
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Quote:
SpaceCorp is a bit of a game of contradictions. The game’s beefy sized box and plethora of components belies the actual simplicity of its mechanics. It is, at heart, a very milquetoast card-based euro game where players must continually adapt to the changing board state in order to optimize their scoring. Although I enjoyed the game’s fast pace and found that it was technically sound and tightly-balanced, it also felt a bit underdeveloped with respect to its scale and scope.


It's too early for me to say, having just read the rules (both booklets) and playing a bit solo, but the mismatch of weight and "weight" seems like an apt observation. I don't quite know what I was expecting, and I may well still like it, but the impression and the reality aren't quite lined up.


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Jim Patterson
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DarrellKH wrote:
I like Terraforming Mars, too, but I also see it as kind of "junky", which could have done with some additional development to clean it up a bit.


See, and I'm not sure whether what you think of as junk isn't what some others and I might consider chrome and flavor. I'm not really arguing with you here but just wondering. It goes back a bit to the OP's point about vagueness and genericism. The simple fact that the TM corps have names, logos, and "identities" of a sort (beyond their mechanical variability) does something for me that being "purple corp" doesn't.
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Randy Shields
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I love terraforming Mars it is my most played game. Problem with it is that the win usually goes to the player who was best able to use their corporation special power and was lucky enough to do well in the drafting phase. It is random in that way even though drafting does help the randomness and bountiful windfall for one player is still there especially the more familiar one is with the cards and potentials for them.

I’d also like to note that given enough plays terraforming mars also boils down to numbers or the most efficient way to squeeze out a point. I may want to drop a lot of greeneries but the cards I draft and what other players are doing may make that an inefficient way to get points- so it essentially shares the same problem as stated by the op.

So TM is not the perfect gem many make it out to be but it is fun. I’m hoping this game is fun even though there are nit picks.
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Michael J
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I agree with this review 100%. SC is a good game. But it left me wanting more. The premise of space exploration and expansion and cool techs was right in front of me, and yet I felt constrained and somewhat limited. The only thing I could pin down as far as my feelings go is that I wanted more sci-fi in my sci-fi game. The planets weren’t distinct enough. The aliens weren’t alien-y enough. And the cool techs weren’t imaginative enough. Despite all this, the game played well. It was a tense race for territory, and the challenge of eeking out VP’s is there. The game is solid, but it needed a sci-fi writer’s touch.
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Darrell Hanning
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jpat wrote:
DarrellKH wrote:
I like Terraforming Mars, too, but I also see it as kind of "junky", which could have done with some additional development to clean it up a bit.


See, and I'm not sure whether what you think of as junk isn't what some others and I might consider chrome and flavor. I'm not really arguing with you here but just wondering. It goes back a bit to the OP's point about vagueness and genericism. The simple fact that the TM corps have names, logos, and "identities" of a sort (beyond their mechanical variability) does something for me that being "purple corp" doesn't.


Well, I've been playing games chock full of chrome since the seventies. (In fact, I'd say I was there before chrome was even called "chrome", but was simply called a 60-page rulebook.) I'm not a big fan of chrome simply for the sake of chrome. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it just hides an inferior game engine, or renders it less effective because it interferes. Some actually believe that the design question is not how much you can throw into the design, but how much you can leave out.

I'm also not a big fan of expecting every new game to mimic what has come out before it. I'm more interested in a system that gives me a solid, consistent set of tools, that excessive randomness hasn't brought to its knees. Could this game be more like some of the hot games of recent years? Sure it could, but what's the point of looking like everything else?

But to each his own.
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Adam Parker
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Great game design makes the complex simple, replayability maximum, and abstraction credible.
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Jay, I think you've written a perfect review in content and opinion. Thanks for confirming what's been my gut feel.

Two of the industry's names have now recently contributed quick-play, highly-competitive, lightweight designs to GMT's stable in SpaceCorp and Fort Sumter.

I believe it's an overly-saturated market but it means there's definitely a demand there to fill.

[Edit] I'm going to read your review again, to finally decide. But I think you're right in that I'm still going to find a space-situated numbers game rather than a business space opera.
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Adrian Besaw
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I really felt this game would have benefited from being published with a Eurogame publisher. I am still looking forward to playing it though.
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Bobby Factor
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It seems a distant memory now, but I remember John Butterfield talking about feeling a bit 'insecure' as to how good Terraforming Mars was after playing it; he commented on it during the development of SpaceCorp on the Low Player Count Podcast (skip to 49:15), which was about the time TF was gaining massive popularity.

Personally, I think SpaceCorp is a real gem. However, I don't own -- nor have played -- Terraforming Mars.




P.S.: If you listen to the entire segment of the interview devoted to SpaceCorp, you'll hear that John was definitely influenced by the essential structure of '7 Wonders', apparently a favorite of his. It was a great interview, btw, and if you're a Butterfield fan, there's lots of interesting tidbits in it.
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Joel Tamburo
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I also have played SpaceCorp and do not agree that it lacks thematic immersion. I also play a lot of High Frontier and find SpaceCorp tickles a lot of the same itches just at a somewhat higher level. Yes it will feel a bit random in that you draw the exploration results from a stack of chits rather than having them coded to the planets strictly. But you can mitigate the randomness by building Infra and indeed the best cards are both rare and tend strongly to be usable as Infra.

And no SpaceCorp should NOT have gone to a Eurogame publisher. All they would have done is stripped out any thematic depth and given us dumb, cartoony artwork.
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I have only played a few games so far, but during those plays I felt kind of lost about strategy. I guess my wife saw the winning road, her points lead was large. In our game, I felt that I would have to closely shadow her and that doing my own thing, exploring and gathering resources wasn't going to win the top dog spot.
 
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Darrell Hanning
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I'm trying to think of other games covering space exploration/exploitation as profit-making venture, and all I can come up with are a handful of tongue-in-cheek games along the lines of Fred Pohl's Merchants of Venus.

Maybe the way to look at this game is as a serious take on interplanetary/interstellar profiteering, rather than a game on space exploration.
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Marty Sample
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MoV was designed by Richard Hamblen.
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Alec Clair
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Thanks for the review.
I see your points. I wonder if SC was developed more as a "light" diversion for the usual GMT wargamers or as a middle-heavy euro for the regular eurogamers.

Anyway I look forward to play it.

TF isn't perfect, and there may be cards luck issues on occasions, it doesn't have anything spectacular or innovative mechanisms wise. But whatever the result, at the end of the game, you somehow feel that you developped your very own project. In the end TF is a game that hit the table regularly with different groups of gamers, even 2 years after its release.

edit, I wrote TF for Terraforming Mars, as I see it upthread, but I should have wrote TM, as someone else did.
 
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Marty S wrote:
MoV was designed by Richard Hamblen.


Absolutely for the 1988 boardgame Merchant of Venus.

But for the record Sci-Fi writer Frederic Pohl wrotre a novella titled "The Merchants of Venus" or sometime "The Merchants of Venus Underground" in 1972.

Richard Hamblen mentionned in his design note (or maybe in The General magazine) that MoV was loosely modelled after the naval spice trade in India around the XVIIth century.
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Max Bogatov
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deltarn wrote:
TF isn't perfect, and there may be cards luck issues on occasions, it doesn't have anything spectacular or innovative mechanisms wise. But whatever the result, at the end of the game, you somehow feel that you developped your very own project. In the end TF is a game that hit the table regularly with different groups of gamers, even 2 years after its release.

I`m sorry, but what TF means?
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Marty Sample
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I think he means Terraforming Mars.
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Tom Stearns
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We enjoyed SC more than Terraforming Mars. It seemed to play faster. We found it less cumbersome with the card play. It definitely was more accessible.

SC, for us was a perfect balance of playability and depth. I can see where people seeking a deeper more complex space sim would not be satisfied with SC. Two of us had played High Frontier. We thought SC offered the fun of HF's exploration, without HF's monotonous rocket building and flying.

This is a keeper for me and I'm glad I P500ed it.
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Tom Stearns
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FrozenGamer wrote:
I really felt this game would have benefited from being published with a Eurogame publisher. I am still looking forward to playing it though.


I disagree with this. GMT has done well in my opinion with their Wargame designer Euro games. Urban Sprawl, Dominant Species, Welcome to Centerville and now Spacecorp all have spots on my shelf and are all games I have enjoyed playing immensely.

I'm a wargamer that also enjoys Euro style games, especially deeper more complicated ones. I like that GMT offers some of these types of games with a wargame designers approach.
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gohrns wrote:
We enjoyed SC more than Terraforming Mars. It seemed to play faster. We found it less cumbersome with the card play. It definitely was more accessible.

SC, for us was a perfect balance of playability and depth. I can see where people seeking a deeper more complex space sim would not be satisfied with SC. Two of us had played High Frontier. We thought SC offered the fun of HF's exploration, without HF's monotonous rocket building and flying.

This is a keeper for me and I'm glad I P500ed it.

This is exactly where I'm at.
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Well, yep, I decided to jump on board tonight though taking on everything this honest review said for a few reasons:

1. I’ve corner rounded so many counters this past holiday period, I’m pooped and now looking for something fresh that’s Deluxe and just punches clean.

2. I’m looking for a decent solo system one not too obviously crafted to cheat and one that offers re-playability.

3. I’m looking for a business theme in a beer and pretzels guise, a sci-fi focus might also inspire me back to the (totally unrelated) Space Empires Talonverse.

4. After so many paper multi-map games recently, I’m looking for some first-class components and though there are double-sided maps here, they’re mounted and the extra thick supplementary boards show care.

5. Lastly and in fact most of all, I reckon this baby will sell out in a few more weeks and I've missed out on two other titles recently um-ing and ah-ing. And this time, I’ve also a hunch given the feedback gamers have voiced so far on the forums, that like another real beauty I own Time of Crisis, there might just be an expansion in the works (?) a year hence.

Once again thanks to the OP for getting me thinking with a very well-crafted review.
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Ryan Gritter
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gohrns wrote:
We enjoyed SC more than Terraforming Mars. It seemed to play faster. We found it less cumbersome with the card play. It definitely was more accessible.

SC, for us was a perfect balance of playability and depth. I can see where people seeking a deeper more complex space sim would not be satisfied with SC. Two of us had played High Frontier. We thought SC offered the fun of HF's exploration, without HF's monotonous rocket building and flying.

This is a keeper for me and I'm glad I P500ed it.



I'm a third person in the same boat. Liked High Frontier for what it is. Liked Terraforming Mars a lot too, but for me, SC is a lighter mash-up that has the scale of High Frontier and the fun/accessibilty/playability of Terraforming Mars.
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Tom Cannon
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DarrellKH wrote:
I'm trying to think of other games covering space exploration/exploitation as profit-making venture, and all I can come up with are a handful of tongue-in-cheek games along the lines of Fred Pohl's Merchants of Venus.

Maybe the way to look at this game is as a serious take on interplanetary/interstellar profiteering, rather than a game on space exploration.

Destination: Neptune (Second Edition) comes to mind. It covers the same scope of space that the Planeteers era does in SpaceCorp using hand management, fuel and money as the key resources. It adds colonization as another type of 'base' that can be built but only at certain sites within our solar system. This game is from the same designer who did Quartermaster General.
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