Tell ‘Em I Ain’t Comin’ Back
If I were to place myself on the Firefly/Serenity Bias Scale™, I’d be a firm 7 — a far cry from the “biased against” minority down at the bottom, a bit above the “no bias whatsoever” score of 5, and not quite the eerie devotion of those who rate a 10.
I’m telling you this because the new Firefly board game, from the same designers behind last year’s lauded Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery, has been landing quite a few positive reviews (and a couple negative ones too) on the basis of its nostalgia factor. Does that seem right to you? I mean, I think it seems perfectly fine, since the game is about emulating the feel and spirit of the television show and movie, but if you’re at all like me — as in, you roll your eyes ever so slightly at that twangy intro theme and some of the more out-of-place western affectations, and really could not give a flying hump about someone’s Summer Glau themed DeviantArt account — then maybe this is the review for you.
I’m not saying I’m immune to the nostalgia. I rather enjoyed both Firefly and Serenity, so when I sat down with a group of friends to play it for the first time, we had a fairly lengthy recital of favorite moments and quotations. Every little thing prompted another outburst of laughter, from the blue-faced disgruntled tokens (“Fruity Oaty Bar!” followed by a creepy whispered “Miranda…“), to the stegosaurus turn marker (“We will rule over all this land and we will call it… This Land!”), the plastic reaver cutter and alliance cruiser (“Huh, this is what they look like? Weird.”), and the job contacts (“Who’d do a job for Niska after watching ‘War Stories’?”). There was the obligatory singing of that insufferable theme song, and then again when one of our friends who’d been playing a different game walked over and decided the whole gorram thing needed repeating.
Since we didn’t have time for a full game — only two hours before someone had to head off, and (rightfully) suspicious of the advertized two-hour playtime — we just figured out the rules and played for money, flying around the Verse, dodging crew-murdering reavers and customs-enforcing alliance patrols, taking work where work could be found. It wasn’t a perfect experience, and we’ll talk about that later, but for a couple hours the room was painted rosy, every flipped card a fondly remembered scene or line of dialogue.
To this point, our experience with Firefly was sort of like a family reunion. For the first few hours, everything was great; we were catching up with old friends, there was plenty of reminiscing, and we eventually got a friendly competition going to see who could get the most cast members on board. We had tied winners, one with Malcolm and Shepherd Book and the other with Wash and Inara. So it was like family reunion minus the grabby aunt and plus awesome space cowboys who shoot first and ask questions later, which is probably why that grabby aunt up and disappeared.
So what’s the problem? Well, pretty much the same problem that most family reunions run into: they just won’t stop, even after the nostalgia tank’s run dry and the sentimentality fumes have burnt off.
Without going too much into the rules, here’s how your average game of Firefly plays.
As you might expect, you’re the captain of your very own Firefly-class mid-bulk transport. Shiny! What this means is that what you lack in weaponry, you make up for in lots of space for transporting cargo or running contraband, enough passenger rooms to accommodate plenty of crew, and a good enough engine to outrun overenthusiastic customs patrols or cannibalistic rapist reavers. On each turn you get to take two actions, from four broad choices.
The most common of these is to fly, either moseying along at a safe albeit glacial single space per turn, or burning gas to jettison into the black. This latter option not only uses up fuel, which of course costs a little money, but also forces you to draw a nav card for each space you enter. There are two decks of these, and while most of the time you’ll draw something harmless that lets you continue on, you’ll occasionally run across dangers or opportunities — cruiser patrols and customs inspections in Alliance Space, reaver attacks and rogue traders in Border Space, and ever-present dangers like breakdowns or debris fields in either. It’s nicely thematic how these two regions are differentiated, the outer planets simultaneously quieter yet deadlier, and the Core Worlds relatively safe until you have a warrant on your ship or a few fugitives in your hold. Slipping across the border from Athens to Ariel really does feel like you’ve moved from lawless territory to over-regulated space, making the game’s movement probably the giddiest portion of the entire shindig.
Tied together are the options to deal and work. Dealing with business contacts at certain planets lets you consider jobs, ranging from dull-but-reliable pick-up-and-drop-off fare to illegal heists and fugitive running. You become “solid” with a contact when you finish one of their jobs, conferring benefits like the option of offloading extra cargo and contraband, especially with Niska (though beware his wrath if you’re served a warrant while under his employ), or cozying up with an Alliance contact to get out of customs checks, or hanging out at the Space Bazaar to pick up as many passengers or fugitives as your hold can, um, hold. Each of the six business contacts come with their own flavor; some offer more illegal work, requiring you to draw “Misbehaving” cards and pass extra checks to complete, others embrace “immoral” jobs that will disgruntle any crew styling themselves as conscientious sorts, and even others exhibit the rude tendency of dodging payment upon completion of a job.
Working jobs is fairly easy, usually requiring a certain amount of skills, broken into a straightforward trio of fight/tech/negotiate, and sometimes a series of skill checks. You can even “make work” whenever you stop by a planet, setting your crew to mucking out stables and selling their bodies for scratch, meaning even the most impoverished captain can eventually get back on their feet.
The final action is buy, letting you shop at one of the Verse’s five shops. Each offers enough characters, equipment, and ship upgrades to please even the most diehard Firefly fan. As with the deal action, buying cards is as simple as “considering three / buying two,” though matters are drawn out somewhat by the fact that a contact’s list of jobs or a store’s pool of items is made up of its entire discard pile, and those piles grow as more players opt to draw from that store’s draw deck or as characters leave crews through disgruntlement or by getting fired.
And here’s where my primary criticism of Firefly emerges: this game is gorram long.
See, although a player’s turn only consists of two simple actions, each possible action could either wrap up in a few seconds or require an unexpectedly lengthy resolution. Dealing and buying both see players looking through a possibly massive pile of cards, cross-checking them for compatibility with their jobs and skills and affordability, maybe purchasing some fuel or spare parts, and then trading a wad of paper money with whomever is sitting closest to the bank. Work can turn into a slog when you need to resolve two or three of those Misbehaving cards and their random skill checks, and heaven forbid you fail a check and have to wait around for your next turn to resolve them all over again. Even flying can take longer than expected when you draw a series of nav cards that require attention.
Taken one at a time, none of these are a particularly big deal. Each enriches the experience in their own way, even if that way is by adding a sheer volume of oft-duplicated options; still, once the dispassionate arithmetic of three other players’ turns sets in, you’re looking at quite a wait between your own actions. I’ve never heard the line “Are you done yet?” so often in such a short span of time as I have playing Firefly.
To be fair, the designers were aware of this problem, so players are free to peruse the game’s many discard piles at will, and ending your turn on a deal or buy action will kick the turn marker over to the next player. These measures do mitigate the problem somewhat, though sadly not entirely, and considering how little player interaction there is — you can hire away your opponents’ disgruntled crew or trade when your ship shares a sector with someone else, though I’m yet to see either happen — there just isn’t much to do on someone else’s turn but sit around and recite your favorite lines from Serenity again. And while I recognize this will be enough to keep some people jazzed, it just isn’t enough for me.
If the lack of player interaction and horrendous downtime weren’t enough to wreck your sense of nostalgia, there’s also a problem with all the game’s many hundreds of cards eventually feeling somewhat samey. Although there are loads of options, they eventually fall into a couple narrow categories. Jobs, for instance, are very rarely memorably unique from one another, either transport/shipping/smuggling jobs (all basically identical, though some will require you to dodge the Alliance patrol a little more carefully than others) and crime jobs. Many jobs require certain skills, but you’re usually able to consider enough of them that you’ll be able to find some sort of profitable work with very little effort.
Because skill checks fall under one of only three types, and since you begin the game with a respectable stack of money, it’s a simple enough thing to beeline to your favorite shop and hire a competent crew just as soon as the right cards show up.
Worst of all, it’s so easy to complete a couple jobs and find yourself sitting on a fat wad of cash that some of Firefly’s central themes — of the scarcity of opportunities on the fringe, of living hand-to-mouth, and of confronting the possibility of challenging your morals in order to survive — is simply nonexistent, barring obscene luck. In every game we played, players had a tidy surplus of cash throughout the majority of the game. A lot of the little mechanisms that simulate the stresses of space cowboy living, like warrants or disgruntled crew, were similarly rare, only showing up a handful of times in a game rather than defining how we played.
When all is said and done, this is probably as good as a Firefly game could be. I can see why some people have embraced it so completely — it’s a faithful representation of Firefly and Serenity fiction, especially if the parts of that fiction you found compelling were the bits where people flew around outer space herding cattle.
Because all that other stuff? It ain’t gonna happen. You won’t find yourself mercilessly pursued by bounty hunters. You won’t engage in Whedon-esque charismatic banter. You won’t finally act out all that Simon-Kaylee fan fiction you’ve been hoarding at the bottom of your sock drawer since 2005 — and no, you can’t ask about mine. I think Firefly would have benefited from more player interaction as a means of generating its stories: racing for scarce jobs, conflicting over scraps, responding to distress signals only to try and salvage the situation to your favor (à la “Out of Gas”). Instead, it’s a bunch of samey jobs and a cargo hold of skill checks. Oh, and occasionally moving one of the two bad guy ships towards your opponents and hoping they don’t move them back your way.
And that’s fine. If you need more time in this Verse, spending a few hours saying “Shiny!” in response to everything and cursing Fox for making the worst mistake of its broadcast career, then this is the game for you. It’s a big trashy romp that prompts a metric ton of fond reminiscing and can be tons of fun in the right mood. It’s great for that, even if, when it comes down to it, it’s kind of shallow and dumb.