Theseus: Space Mancala
Sometimes life decides to deal me a harsh lesson in expectations versus reality. Like when I remembered how the space marines vs. aliens vs. greys vs. scientist survivors vs. parasites theme of Theseus: The Dark Orbit isn’t reality. Or when I discovered that the same game doesn’t even occupy the genre I was hoping. Yeah, life’s tough like that.
Space Mancala, Kinda
The first details about Theseus: The Dark Orbit got me unreasonably excited. Five asymmetrical and hostile races trapped together on a space station! A quasi-dungeon-dive without the tedious grid movement! Tons of powers! Different each time! Lots of killing! In space, no one can hear you scream!
However, much like a space marine moseying down a corridor situated beneath a xenomorph’s face-grab nest and above a grey’s bum-probe machine, I was in for two surprises.
The first is that Theseus isn’t even close to what I expected. It doesn’t even inhabit the same genre, or really any genre I’ve played before. Rather, it’s like the most elaborate form of mancala imaginable. The space station is laid out with various corridors and tech bays and control rooms set in a circle. A single turn mainly consists of picking one of your three pawns to move clockwise around the station — the number of spaces determined by how many pawns occupied your guy’s starting space — and then resolving things like traps, the activation and installation of power cards, and the special ability of whichever place you’ve ended up in.
One of your primary concerns is figuring out where to place your faction cards. Each sector has a number of slots for installed cards, cool stuff like traps and ambushes and camcorders (we’ll talk about these in more depth in a minute), but before you can install any, you first have to set them up in a sector’s pending slot. Only once you land on that space a second time can you actually move your pending card into a position where it will hang around and provide its benefits or dangers or whatnot; and in the meantime, enemy pawns are free to stop on that sector and replace your pending card with one of their own, royally screwing up your plans.
It’s all very strange.
The Second Surprise
About halfway through our first game, it began to click.
Sure, the whole thing is oddly abstracted; for instance, why did your beleaguered scientist decide to move three station-segments to the loading dock just because the laboratory had one of her coworkers and a harmless grey milling about? Why can’t anyone travel counter-clockwise through the station, especially if it means they don’t have to pass through that wall of tentacles?
Even so, these complaints dissolve as surely as a bulkhead splashed with alien saliva. Despite the mancala-style movement, despite the fact that your soldiers aren’t permitted to fire their guns or open their jaws unless they fill up a sector’s fourth slot or activate the ability in the corridors sector, and despite every other peccadillo and eccentricity found in Theseus, the game’s five factions make it hum.
The marines, for instance, are all about dealing damage. They start tough and only get tougher as you gain upgrade tokens, eventually laying down walls of flame that hurt everyone who passes through, battle positions and ambushes and coordinated team tactics that let them attack more often and with more oomph, and trap detectors that keep them safe from their opponents’ best tricks. On the other hand, their arch-nemesis, the alien swarm, is completely different. Their troops are mere grubs until upgraded into all-consuming walls of teeth and claws, and much of their strategy revolves around hives and attacking through walls and vent shaft shortcuts and life-sucking parasites. They adhere to the same basic principles as the marines, but couldn’t behave more differently in practice.
It only gets more varied. The scientists aren’t even particularly interested in fighting. Oh, they’ll do it if they have to, activating the station’s defense system and piecing together makeshift weapons. But they’d rather set up camcorders to gather enough data so they can declare their research project a success and get the hell out before they all get eaten. The grays have a similar goal, though their instruments of choice are you-know-what probes and mind control. And this isn’t even touching on the game’s fifth faction of infectious parasites, which makes a habit of taking control of everyone else’s faction cards rather than producing their own.
The factions are what make Theseus great. They rebound off each other in pitch-perfect ways, struggling to harm or research or manipulate each other’s pawns by their own methods and using their own unique bags of tricks. Their various styles even make them surprisingly thematic — yes, even when you have to move four spaces for no other reason than because your pawn’s sector was full.
If it sounds like I’m struggling to explain how Theseus operates, it’s because I am. In part because it’s so terrifically unique, unlike anything I’ve ever played before, and in part because it’s so dang simple — you move one of your guys, resolve the cards on his new space, and maybe place a faction card of your own. That’s it, nothing much to it — except that it’s also a ton of fun once everyone’s trying to set up multiple ambushes and upgrade their lair and retrieve their camcorder tapes and pull off a space-time continuum loop.
Still, it won’t be for everyone. Hell, even if you enjoy the measured long-term planning that dominates the two-player game, you might hate the wild panic and unpredictability of the four-player version, and vice versa.
Personally, whether with two, three, or four, I’m happy with the surprise that was Theseus: The Dark Orbit. It’s equal parts strange, unique, and fun. Another pleasant success from Portal Games.
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