Tag Archives: space

Spacer – Phantom League / Mostly Harmless review

Phantom League COVEREven 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.

MostlyHarmlessCOVER

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!

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Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft: Jump Gate review

Space! The thrill of exploration! The joy of discovery! The worry of what that clanking was when you took off from that last spaceport! There’s a million games set in the inky void and whatever kind of experience you’re looking for is available. Fancy a bit of pick-up-and-deliver? How about Merchant of Venus? Perhaps you’d prefer combat, in which case Star Trek Fleet Captains is for you. How about a light and straightforward exploration game with just enough strategy to give you a bit of a challenge? You should be pulling a copy of Jump Gate off your shelves.

Self published by designer Matt Worden through his own company (MW Games), Jump Gate is very much The Little Game That Could. Originally only available through The Game Crafter, it’s a game for up to six players that can be completed in about an hour with plenty of opportunity for exploring. Then it actually ended up winning the Traditional Game of the Year award from Games Magazine in the USA. Quite the honour, so what did they see in this small box?

Playing as captains of starships, you compete to discover new planets, claim them for your own glory and collect sets of resources. Eight oversized Planet cards are drawn from a selection of twelve and placed in a circle on the table surrrounding two other boards: the Jump Gate and the Black Hole. Resources are doled out to players (one each) and planets (as equal an amount as you can manage, making sure that only one is face up per planet).

A selection of planets, plus the Black Hole and Jump Gate - complete with game rules!

Players also receive five NavComp cards, the engine behind the game. These allow you perform certain actions depending on the numbered codes that they show. Players take two actions per turn, moving between planets, claiming them for their own, revealing and collecting the resources that show up on the surface. It’s also important to note that scanning planets (revealing a resource) and claiming them (which reveals all of them) get you points at the game’s conclusion.

Resources! Each scores differently but a good rule of thumb is "Get Lots". Also, note the Black Holes!

A lot of the resource cards actually yield nothing, encouraging you to reveal what’s on a planet as quickly as possible – if what you’re looking for isn’t there, move on! This is where the titular Jump Gate comes into play; when you decide that your adjacent planets aren’t good enough to fly to. Add a marker to the Gate tile and you can go to any planet you choose – and it’s also useful, as whoever uses it the most will get a bonus at the end of the game. On the flip side, whoever has the most tokens on the Black Hole – placed there any time a resource is collected with a Black Hole symbol on it – will be punished!

Depending on what you manage to pull together, you’ll also score points at the end. No matter what you’re attempting to collect, a good rule of thumb is “Get As Much Of It As Possible” – you’re encouraged to get multiples to bump up your bonus points. It’s a game that, despite appearing quite simple to begin with, offers you a lot more options than you initially expected – I’ve thrown away many victories by trying to pull off a cunning plan, only to have someone else kill the game a round or two before I manage to sort things out. It’s annoying, but maybe I should be a better player!

This (second) edition comes with cards to represent the ships. You won't get the LMDS one though, that's mine!

I’m a big fan of this little game – Matt Worden has done a cracking job producing this whole thing essentially as a one man operation. A few people I’ve played with have made mention of not being fans of the artwork, but personally I think it’s fine. However, if you’re a fussy bugger, you can always check out the re-implementation of the game now available through Schmidt Spiele, Space Mission. It’s pretty much the same game with a few very minor tweaks, but why not support the little guy? Get the MW Games version!

What we’re essentially looking at here is a set collection game with a bunch of nice extra ideas bolted on. Flying around the planets desperately trying to collect those cards you need can get surprisingly fraught, especially when you know that the game could come to an end any minute. Managing to grab one final resource could well be the difference between winning and losing (generally the latter in my case) – but despite the frequent defeats, I find myself coming back to Jump Gate regularly. Give it a try – I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised!

Jump Gate was designed by Matt Worden and is available from good online stores – you’ll look to pay about $25. Released in 2010, this review is of the Second Edition of the game, which is good for between two and six players and will generally take you about an hour.

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#NaGaDeMon: The End


And so it comes to its conclusion. Around the world, hundreds of book publishing companies quiver in fear as they await the onslaught of manuscripts from wannabe authors. Bathroom sinks across the country are strewn with the remains of  moustaches as top lips see the sun for the first time in weeks. And on tables everywhere (well, perhaps not everywhere) people who would never normally have dreamed of creating their own game now have something that’s hopefully playable sitting before them. NaGaDeMon 2011 is now finished. So how was it for you?

I’ve got to say I’m pretty happy with my effort, Pocket Universe. It’s been quite the challenge coming up with a game from nothing, getting it built and – probably most important – making sure that it works. If you’d like to check it out for yourself, have a look at the Sprocket Games page here on the site – it’s really rather good. It’s not just me saying that, however! It was really important for me to get as many people as possible to try it so I was very pleased when so many people came forward to playtest it, especially those who weren’t afraid to let me know exactly what they thought of it…

So, the game works and – according to people who’ve played it – it’s actually fun! So what happens next? Well, there’s a couple of options. First, it can stay on the shelf (or here on the site, anyway). Second, I can try to get it published which is easier said than done – however, it’s certainly a possibility. One of the great things about doing Little Metal Dog is that I get to speak to a wide range of people in the industry and several have expressed interest in checking it out, so it’s just a matter of seeing what happens with that. Should nothing come from it, the final step is to self-publish – a big step, admittedly, but one that I’d be more than willing to take.

Before that happens though, I need to decide whether or not Pocket Universe is truly complete. It’s certainly finished, but do I want to add more to it? There’s a couple of things that could be put into the game that would improve it further – perhaps giving the players the option of different ships that will bestow different powers, cargo capacities, that kind of thing?  While it won’t break the game – I’m happy with how it is – it could be interesting to give gamers more things to do in the Pocket Universe. It’s something to think about anyway. For now though, I’m calling my NaGaDeMon adventure a success. Roll on next November, hey?

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#NaGaDeMon Update: Cut It Out!

So, National Game Design Month (also known as NaGaDeMon) trundles on and the ideas keep on ticking over. If you have no clue what I’m talking about you can get a heads-up here but the shortform version is this; design a brand new game of whatever stripe you please in the month of November, bringing it from concept to a fully playable version in those thirty days. We’re not looking for perfection, just something that works and you’ll happily play with someone else. I’ve heard tales of anything from 2-player dice games to full on RPG systems being created; my idea is kind of pitched halfway between that.

I wanted to create a simple tile based game that is playable in about 30-40 minutes for up to four players. After scribbling a load of notes down for the first couple of days, ideas began to coagulate and come together as I kicked off with some basic concepts of theme and how the game would work. Realising that it would be pretty boring if it was just moving around a board, I came up with a scoring system that seemed pretty solid. Still, the game wasn’t entirely there, but I wanted to get something solid down and began writing the rules.

I have to admit, I’m not the best at rules creation, but this time around seemed to go reasonably well. Even now (after a couple of revisions) I’m not entirely happy with them, but I have faith that it’ll come together. Actually, getting the rules on paper – or on screen at least – helped a lot in getting my mind straight on how things should work. After completing the first draft, I now knew how the engine of the game would run. Players control a small spaceship that flies around a universe made up of two-sided hex tiles, seeking four types of resources that are worth different amounts of points (5, 3, 2 and 1) dependent on their rarity. A set amount of actions per turn let the players move around the board, hopefully revealing new planets for them to raid for resources that they stash back at their bases. Whoever has the highest points total at the end wins (yes, I know, very traditional).

So far, so… OK. It wasn’t “good” yet. I felt there was something missing. I wanted an element of conflict in there – it’s no fun having a bunch of players flying around all happy and lovely, sharing space in a smiley fashion. I needed a backstory, so I came up with a little tale of four races who were looking to keep ahead of the others. Initially working together, they came up with a device called the Pocket Universe Generation System (I’d been looking at videos of boggly-eyed Pugs being odd – amazing where inspiration comes from) and finally I had a name for my little creation: Pocket Universe.

The conflict element came from players being able to spend their collected resources on attacking each other (as well as a bunch of other special abilities that encourage exploration). I still think there’s work to do on this, but a few playtests in and this system seems to work. Sure, people can choose to just race about and collect resources for points, but there’s much more fun in going around shooting people in the butt.

Yes, there has been playtesting. In fact, I’m pretty happy with the first version of the game I’ve made up – a couple of evenings of some highly amateurish Photoshop work and lots of cutting and sticking saw the creation of a set of sixty double-sided tiles and some player boards…

Another fast-paced Saturday evening. The glamorous life of game design!

(Note to future self: Always make sure you have enough glue. Running out with 20 tiles left to make is VERY annoying.)

The following day, I had a full set completed. For resources tokens I raided an old Risk set, grabbing four different colours to represent the precious elements of the Pocket Universe. For playing pieces, four different coloured houses from a Monopoly Junior box will have to do for now until I can find some spaceships in the correct colours!

After playing a few games and seeing what worked (and more importantly, what didn’t) I did another rules revision and asked on Twitter for external playtesters. At this moment I have ten different people and groups signed up, many of whom are providing some excellent feedback – rules are still being replaced and rewritten, the main thing being clarifications of the more vague areas. I honestly think I’m on to something with this game and am thoroughly enjoying the creative process – with a few tweaks I reckon Pocket Universe could be a winner.

The current version of the game, set up for four players to go explorin'.

For now though, it’s more playing, more fixing any issues that come up and more making it perfect. I’ve got a few more ideas of things to bring in to the game – I’d love to bring the four races in there a bit more, for example – but there’s still three weeks of #NaGaDeMon to go. Who knows what will happen between now and the end?

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Loving the Alien – Alien Frontiers review

I’ve kind of resigned myself to the fact that I’ll never get to go to space. Despite Richard Branson’s best efforts, the $200,000 it’ll cost to get myself on board the VSS Enterprise is somewhat beyond my reach. Watching grainy footage of moon landings as a kid, I always dreamed of one day breaking away from Earth and seeing what was out there. After learning that you need pretty good eyesight to become an astronaut, I cursed my glasses and picked up my books filled with tales of new worlds and new civilisations. I’d have to rely on my imagination, not shuttles and rockets.

It’s a wish that still remains, albeit one tinged with “never going to happen, Michael”. However, the moment I opened up the package that held Alien Frontiers, my mind immediately went back to those days of wonderment. The glorious retro artwork on the box cover gave me a severe attack of the warm fuzzies, while rifling through the contents, the cards and that beautiful board brought me back to the days of reading piles of old Dan Dare comics in Eagle. Forget it, Branson. I can fly further than you’ve ever dreamed. All I need is a Clever Mojo’s latest release and a fistful of dice.

The game itself is pretty simple – roll your dice, each one representing a space ship, place them around the board, perform the actions, move on to next player. Simple! As your dice stay on the board until it’s your next turn they take up valuable space, so you can never truly plan on what your next turn will be. You need to make sure you have a couple of ideas as to what to do, and even then a crappy dice roll can scupper you. Alien Frontiers is a game that is dependent on rolling dice – the true skill in the game comes from your ability to use what lands on the table in front of you and still be victorious.

Early in the game, no-one's really done anything yet...

Each location has a limited number of spaces and a different set of requirements that need to be met in order to get the action represented – Solar Fuel is easy to come by, for example, as all you need to do is place a dice in there to claim some (a 1 or 2 gets you one fuel, 3 or 4 two, 5 and 6 three). The other resource, Lunar Ore, is trickier to claim – any dice placed there must be equal to or more than the highest one already at the location – players putting a 6 in there can really mess up opponents’ plans! Meanwhile for the really mean, should you manage to roll a straight (two – three – four, for example) you can put them in the Raiders Outpost and procure any combination of four resources or a single Alien Tech Card from another player – nasty but fun.

The resources are needed to use most of the other locations on the board (in conjunction with more specific dice rolls). New dice/ships can be bought from the Shipyard using doubles, and considering you only start with three it’s a good idea to build up your fleet as quickly as possible. Roll a double (hopefully a low one) and you can trade that amount of fuel for ore cubes at the Orbital Market – useful if there’s no space at the Lunar Mine and you have no high numbers. You can also get your hands on Alien Tech Cards by rolling a combination of eight or more and putting them on the Alien Artifact area. These bestow bonuses that allow you to bend the rules, but if you don’t like what you see you can cycle the three on display and get new ones by putting a single die of any value in the space.

Launching colonies, the main thrust of the game, can be done in one of three ways, all of which also require resources. There’s the slow and steady way, pushing them along the Colonist Hub track, each space costing you a die of any number – get it to the end of the track, pay an ore and fuel, then off it goes to the planet’s surface. Next there’s the jammy/expensive way, requiring you to roll a triple to put on the Colony Constructor and spend three ore that allows you to place a colony immediately. Finally there’s the crazy/expensive route – the Terraforming Station –  requiring you to sacrifice one of your ships that rolled a six. Again, you get to place a colony, but come the next turn you’ll be one ship down. A hefty price to pay, but sometimes worth it – especially towards the end of the game when you’re racing to get a final colony on the board.

But where do these colonies go? In the centre of the board sits a large planet divided up into sectors. Develop a colony dome and you get to choose into which sector you place it, scoring yourself a point. Should you happen to have the most colonies in that area, you’ll also get a bonus point and (even better) a special ability that only you may use. This could be anything from paying less to get resources to picking up an extra dice, known in game as the Relic Ship – and being able to use seven ships in a single turn can really give you a huge advantage. The moment a player’s final colony hits the planet, the game ends – as usual, the highest wins. As the game is scored in real time, it’s easy enough to keep an eye on those who are in the lead (and who needs to be taken down a peg or two). There are bonus points available from certain Tech Cards, so just because you’re in control of a few areas, it doesn’t necessarily mean that winning is assured.

Another game, another ass-kicking for Michael.

I have been having a ridiculous amount of fun with Alien Frontiers. For me, one of the signs of a really great game is that no matter what the end result is, you enjoyed yourself playing it. I’ve been on the end of some utter hammerings but there hasn’t been a single time I’ve walked away from it with a frown. Admittedly the game is not for everyone – it’s the very dictionary definition of a dicefest – but even the most staunch Eurogamer would do themselves well to give this a try. It challenges you to think creatively about what you need to do to stay ahead of your opponents, even if you’re having a poor run with your dice. The game is well balanced too – even if you don’t manage to get your hands on extra ships early on, with judicious play (and good use of the more aggressive Alien Tech Cards) you’ll easily keep in contention with other players.

Considering this is the first large-scale release from Clever Mojo Games, I was blown away by the production quality. Components are sturdy and of a high standard. The art throughout the game is gorgeous, reminiscent of schlocky sci-fi novels from the 1950s. As with many games that I return to again and again, there’s loads of little things that bring a smile to my face that combine to add to the experience. The face that the planetary bonuses have little dotted lines linking them to the facility they effect (that took a few games before I noticed it). The ‘Assembled on Earth’ tagline on the back of the scoring track. The simple iconography on the board and cards that help make everything really easy to remember. The fact that a semicircle is cut out of the side of the box so it’s easier to get the board out! Amazing!

Obviously, these tiny decisions would mean nothing if the game wasn’t any good, but thankfully it’s beyond that. Alien Frontiers has won many accolades since the release of the first edition late last year, winning fans around the world – and there’s a simple reason for that. Alien Frontiers is a brilliant game, a pile of fun that appears light and throwaway at first but reveals a deeper game as soon as those first dice are thrown. Do what you can to make sure you add a copy of the third printing to your collection the moment it’s released. This, seriously,  is a must have title.

Alien Frontiers was originally released in 2010 by Clever Mojo Games. Designed by Tory Niemann with art by Mark Maxwell, between two and four players can live out their dreams of planetary domination in around 90 minutes. Copies of the second printing are still available in very limited quantites for around £30-35 – the third printing will be available later in the year.

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