Even when I was a kid, I craved time playing about on computers. I got a Spectrum 48K when I was eight years old and remember many happy hours playing stuff like Chequered Flag, Horace Goes Skiing and even a rather entertaining version of Scrabble. A friend of mine, Reece, had a different computer – a BBC Model B – and I loved going round his house to check out what he had to play. Repton was pretty cool, I seem to recall, but there was one game that I always wanted to fire up. It was called Elite, and it was mindblowing.
It was essentially a game of space travel and trading. Starting off with a crappy ship and a few credits to your name you would soon be flying through countless galaxies filled with unique planets and space stations in a bid to make your fortune. Each stopping off point would offer certain things for sale while simultaneously looking other resources, allowing you to profit by playing the game of supply and demand.
The best thing? You could choose your own destiny. If you wanted to play by the rules that was fine – you could trade your commodities and slowly make your way up the ladder. What was much more fun was turning to the dark side, dabbling in trafficking illicit drugs and slaves while indulging in a little gentle piracy. Sure, you’d have to avoid the intergalactic police, but no matter what path you chose, you were still aiming for the same thing – to become the very best. To be Elite.
Sounds like it’d work pretty well in a board game, doesn’t it? Well, it just so happens…
First released back in 2010, The Phantom League by Timo Multamaki takes the idea of Elite and turns it from a solo experience in front of a screen into a competitive battle for glory on your tabletop – and it mostly succeeds. There are a few issues (many of which are actually resolved by the game’s first expansion, Mostly Harmless) but all told, this is a pretty solid game that delights in looking to its digital roots – even down to crediting its digital daddy. Let’s kick off with the good stuff first…
Phantom League does a great job of giving players the option to do pretty much whatever they please without being directionless. During the game’s opening phases you’ll be wavering between the forces of good or evil as you attempt to work out what the best course of action will be – however, once you commit to a side, that’s it. Crossing that point of no return sees you set on a path that, curiously for a game that is very focused on the numbers, adds a wonderful element of storytelling to the proceedings. It’s a lot of fun taking a totally different tack to the other players, and yet is equally entertaining when you’re all aligned the same way but are attempting to outdo each other with your deeds, be they good or nefarious.
Exploration is nice and simple, though – as you’d expect – you don’t get the near infinite variety of worlds to travel to that even the basic computers of the eighties could handle. This is made up in no small part by the fact that the game set-up means a totally randomised play area, so while it’s not exactly endless there’s definitely a feeling of ‘no two games are the same’. As you and your fellow explorers begin the game you’re in the centre of a ‘known’ universe, surrounded by an as yet unrevealed area of inky blackness. Each piece of space is made up of two half-hexes which shows the planet, asteroid or space station that resides there and the kind of stuff they’re interested in buying and selling. This is an excellent aspect of the game, really giving you a feeling of jetting around the galaxy and finding new people.
Being a fan of the pick up and deliver genre, the travelling through space and trading part of the game really got its hooks into me. Add in the fact that your chosen destiny has an effect on what happens when you dock and I was wondering why no-one had thought of doing something along these lines before. If you’re carrying contraband there’s a good chance you’ll be punished for doing so, but they can offer a much greater reward… do you run the risk or play by the book?
The many and various options open to players are also great to see and again harken back to Elite. Though you start with only a modest craft, upgrading your vessel is easy enough to do and can actually become quite vital as you progress. You see, another element thrown in is deciding when you should side with other players, creating the Phantom Leagues that give the game its name. These loose affiliations can be broken at any time, putting the game in that curious hinterland of being both co-op and competitive. It’s rarely done and even harder to pull of well, but Phantom League succeeds in doing so.
Sadly, there are flipsides to consider. The combat system, for example, is probably the worst aspect of the game. This is particularly gutting; after all, when you’re playing at being an intergalactic pirate looking to steal fortunes while evading the law, you want a solid way to fight at your disposal. The same goes for the other side – if someone (or something!) is attempting to steal your hard earned cargo, you want to be able to put up a decent defence. Sadly, Phantom League struggles to do this well – it’s a bit of a convoluted system where you and your opponent end up building Combat Decks of various cards, direct attacks at your targets, play defensive and offensive tactics, do some maths and then have a little cry in the corner.
It drains a chunk of fun from the game, and after seeing other releases (such as Eclipse) handle battling in a much more entertaining way, you may wonder why Timo went for this slightly clumsy method. Sure, it puts full control into the players’ hands, but there’s no chance of firing off that luck shot that could hit a thermal exhaust port no bigger than a womp rat, for example.
It also takes its sweet time, but surely you should expect that in a game that involves exploring the darkest corners of an unknown universe? Before even considering sitting round the table, let your fellow players know that they’re in for at least a good couple of hours of brain burning activity. Finishing up a game of Phantom League feels like you’ve gone ten rounds in the ring with a particularly heavy hitting boxer, but is that necessarily a bad thing? Sure, it may place it squarely in that section of games that aren’t for everybody, but (cliche alert) fans of the genre will bloody love it. I know I do.
One last thing: DO NOT play using the rules included in the box – they’re bloody awful. Instead, head on over to BoardGameGeek and get the latest ones there. Or, y’know, you could pick up the Mostly Harmless expansion which fixes a lot of the issues. Not only does it come with a much improved rulebook (although the one linked to above is the latest and greatest), it also fixes a few problems that popped up with some cards. Best of all, it differentiates between the choices you make in your destiny, meaning that choosing to go down the good or evil paths have a much more significant effect on your Phantom League experience. Sure, it’s still not utterly perfect, but man… it really does get pretty damn close.
The Phantom League, designed by Timo Multamaki and published by Dragon Dawn Productions, plays with between two and six people (though it’s best with four or five, I reckon) and takes around two hours. Should you desire a copy, speak to Gameslore! They’ll sort you out one for £36.99!