“I’m just the messenger. I have half a platoon of pissed-off Martian marines who are just itching for some payback.” – Jim Holden
Licensed games are something I have issues with. Either the license is tacked on to an existing system, like the 15 million varieties of Monopoly, or it’s luckfest that was never properly tested. These games tend to be cash grabs, and it breaks your heart a bit when the world and characters you enjoy are never going to see the light of day, because no one wants to play.
I had tried watching The Expanse once before, and the first episode kind of lost me. There’s no primer, you’re thrown straight into the deep end of this world, with its accents and slang. No backstory, just the now. Getting this game, with its potential for spoilers, created a pressing need to make the choice to watch or forget it, and I binged through the twenty-three available episodes in about three days. This is not a review of the show, and while there are minimal spoilers in this review, the game has them.
If you have played Twilight Struggle, a personal favorite, much of the game mechanics will be familiar to you. This is a streamlined, four player adaptation of that game, with some twists to set it apart. The goal of Expanse is to have most victory, in this case Command, points at the end, however Command Points are also the currency you use to purchase Action cards and use certain Technologies.
After determining player order, tokens are added to an initiative track in reverse order. The last player also receives a special fleet, the Rocinante. More on that later.
Along the right side of the board is the Action track, a community hand of cards. Each of the five spaces has a cost, from zero to two, which represent the amount of CP (Command Points) you must spend to use that particular card. Each card has an Event and an AP (Action Point) value. When you have purchased the card, you can play the Event immediately, pay an additional CP to reserve the Event for a later turn, or use the AP. Using the AP is how you Move your fleets, place Influence cubes, or build additional fleets.
If you choose to use the AP, another player will have the option of using the Event or saving it for later. Each card has faction symbols representing between two and four of the factions. In initiative order, if a faction appears on the card, that faction is eligible to play or pass.
The entirety of your turn is that card play. All the Events are potentially powerful. From the opening move, the game is highly aggressive. You have to balance using AP to move Fleets and place Influence cubes, which usually require a Fleet in the Orbital, with performing Events (Each location on the board has an Orbital, where Fleets go, and one to three Bases, where Influence cubes go). Events can allow you to remove opponents Influence, remove Fleets, place Influence where you have no Fleet, and so on.
Where this game really differs from other Card Driven Games, or CDGs, is the ability to hold an Event for later use. On your turn, you may play a saved Event instead of choosing a card from the Action track. This allows you to simulate a hand of cards that only you can access, but to do so, you either sacrificed a turn and one CP, or you sacrificed your position on the Initiative track and one CP. There is tension created in deciding when to make these choices.
The other place that saved Events come into play is during Scoring. When creating the deck at the beginning of the game, six Score cards are divided into piles along with the Action cards. For example, in a four player game, you make a pile of five cards, then three piles of thirteen cards. Into each pile of thirteen, shuffle two Score cards. Stack each pile on top of the previous, with the five being dealt into the track. You’ll have a general idea of when the Score cards will arrive, but they must still be chosen, like an Event.
When the Score card is chosen, players will have a chance to play a saved Event, or, if they are in control of the Rocinante, one of the abilities listed on its sheet. All this combines to make a constant flurry of activity and quick turns.
During Scoring, the Active player, whoever chose the Score card, gets to chosen which area of the map gets bonus points. All Bases get scored, and the Rocinante is transferred to the player lowest in CP, then play continues.
A final note on Scoring: when the sixth Score card is drawn from the deck, the game ends immediately. There may be unscored Score cards in the Action track. These are forfeit. All Bases are scored with Bonus points, and the winner is declared.
I can’t say that the theme is entirely reflective of the show, which centers around the crew of the Rocinante, but it is reflective of the powers at play in their environment. The factions are semi-asymmetrical, which bear out their nature in the show (The show is based on a prolific book series by James S. A. Corey, but as I have only watched the show, those are the parallels I will draw on). There are Technology cards that each faction gets after the first, second, and third Scoring cards are played that magnify their asymmetry. The UN gains stronger influence, Mars becomes more militaristic, the O.P.A. insurgency leads to open rebellion, and Protogen goes from corporate power to a holder of weapons of mass destruction. This is a game of escalation and tension, of limited actions and resources. That there is no actual combat, and Fleets are simply removed, does not detract from the feel of a wargame, as it lends itself towards the days of World War I, with the industrial war machine cranking out new weapons and soldiers to accommodate the losses.
The Expanse is not as deep as Twilight Struggle. Where Twilight Struggle is a chess match, with subtlety and nuance and small changes over time, Expanse is pro wrestling, with a constant back and forth that ends before you want it to. The tension that comes with Expanse might also turn off some people. You have to be willing to take stunning losses and recover, never having enough time to do all that you want.
I like Expanse. I like CDGs, I like that it’s shorter than most CDGs, and I like that it maintains the elements of Twilight Struggle that I wanted with multiple players. This is a Buy. And if you liked Battlestar Galactica, give the show a try.
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