The Scramble for Ganymede
While the European powers of our universe were bloody to the elbows with the “Scramble for Africa,” invading, occupying, and colonizing the continent down south, their near-exact counterparts of Greg Broadmore’s Dr. Grordbort’s setting had already taken to the stars — to invade, occupy, and colonize everything other than Earth. It’s the difference between Heart of Darkness and Heart of Darkness on Titan, with helpings of big game hunting, resource exploitation, and suppression of unruly and many-appendaged natives.
Considering the delightful eccentricity of its setting, it’s hardly surprising that Onward to Venus should be designed by Martin Wallace, whose unconventional design philosophy resulted in that other alternate-history mashup, A Study in Emerald. But where A Study in Emerald was about the paranoia that surrounded European anarchist movements in the 19th century (plus aliens), Onward to Venus is concerned with the aforementioned explosion of colonialism at roughly the same time. Plus aliens.
Not too much in common, then.
If I had to choose a single image from Onward to Venus as immediately representative of its theme, it would be your bread-and-butter, the regular old infantrymen sporting dusty boots and a Foreign Legion kepi. I’ll explain why.
Beginning on Earth, your forces expand through the Solar System, mostly in pursuit of various opportunities that periodically appear across each of the game’s eight planets. During one round, a bunch of unclaimed mines might appear around Ganymede or the Kuiper Belt, while the next could be dominated by rumblings of dissent on Venus or a surplus of exotic game on the Moon. One of the commonest tiles has you draw a couple more of those juicy single-use cards — beautifully illustrated and given silly names like the Wootten Fivepencemochron or the Higgenbrocht Enfeeblor Ray, and bestowing extra firepower or letting you bend the rules in all sorts of ways.
And then there are the factories.
Ah, the factories! These are the launchpads of your expansion, as easy to claim as sending a single company of soldiers down to the planet’s surface and the only places other than Earth that let you build your better troops. And better troops you shall need, the ultra-heavy tanks that demolish defenses but can’t move without the aid of a special card and the rocket ships that ferry everyone from place to place. Without these, your expansion will stall, sputtering with a brassy clank as your rival nations seize territory all around you. Factories therefore tend to be hotly contested in a blitz to draw early borders, dotted lines that flimsily demarcate what’s yours.
The lowly infantryman, however, is the exception. No matter how quickly you expand, no matter how many factories you claim and hold, you’ll eventually need human feet in human-stitched boots. Human beings are cheap, after all, and unlike tanks don’t require a randomly-drawn card to fit aboard your space-rockets. The problem is, they can only come from Earth, a constant reminder that this is a game about people here going out there, a human endeavor to dominate all the other species that make up the Solar System. It might be nice to carve out a fiefdom in the outer planets, far away from the conflicts that flare up around Venus, the Moon, Mars, and even on the Earth itself; even so, chances are you’ll have to transport in some extra breathers once the going gets tough.
Is Onward to Venus a game about colonialism? You betcha. And that one little detail nails it.
That’s about as close Onward to Venus gets to making a statement. The rest of the time is spent gleefully accumulating cards, spending them far too rapidly, and blasting armies from orbit to orbit, occasionally dropping them down to the surface of some rock to conquer a tile for your empire. I suspect we are all born with an imperialist gene of some sort, because using infantry and the ship they rode in on to seize a factory, using that factory to build some tanks, and then slamming those tanks into a potential Martian uprising — well, it feels right, as though we were created to hit things with rocks and/or melt them with rayguns.
And despite how many ideas are rattling around this game’s head, it’s a brisk one, aided by its crisp visuals and compact list of possible actions. Move, claim a tile, buy troops, or use a card — and that’s pretty much it. Even the interactions between players could have been many times more complicated. Instead, inter-player conflict is generally confined to blustering at anyone who strays too close to a tile that you have decided is yours, and the fact that you aren’t allowed to outright attack other players keeps the game from devolving into a side-war for a single location. At least that’s the case until a Tension tile appears, marking its planet’s acquisitions as temporarily up for grabs and transforming everyone from fellows to enemies in a flash. It’s a simple system, shifting constantly between expansion and defense. And since victory is tied directly to your income on important planets, the only thing that matters at the end of the day is how many factories and mines you’ve managed to take and hold.
With all these things in mind, Onward to Venus is great enough that it doesn’t even need its events. Which is good, because events almost never happen, and very, very sad, because the events are possibly the game’s single coolest feature. It’s possible, for instance, for certain planets to rise up against your imperialist ways, removing them from play entirely, or for the Moonmen or Martians or aliens from beyond the Kuiper Belt to invade Earth, or for Space Pirates to raid the outer planets. Every planet other than boring Ganymede has a chain of events tied to it, all of them as colorful and unique as the crazier events found in A Study in Emerald, the vampire covens and zombie outbreaks and city-eating Cthulhu cameos.
Not that they’ll ever happen. Or if one does, it’ll probably just be Bazagthoth the Blinded, offering his lame mercenary services from Mercury. In fact, the few times my group saw events trigger was only because we were curious what they would do. I’ve heard tell that they occur more often in games with fewer players, since that means fewer empires suppressing them, but because Onward to Venus is at its best when it’s crowded with empires clamoring to capitalize on the Solar System’s limited opportunities, I see little reason to play that way.
Onward to Venus is a surprisingly quick-playing game from Martin Wallace, packed with color, high adventure, and just the right dash of colonial opportunism. It doesn’t always feel completely finished, largely owing to those absentee events, but like a good bread pudding, sometimes you don’t want a game totally cooked through anyway, and the final result is one of Wallace’s more successful flights of fancy.
Does it beat A Study in Emerald? Well, no, but very few games manage that. Regardless, this is one more worthwhile alternate-history from Martin Wallace. With aliens.