James S. A. Corey’s The Expanse occupies a strange place in my heart. The first novel, Leviathan Wakes, I proclaim as brilliant without reservation, capturing a lot of what science fiction does best — plausible speculation and wonderment tempered by existential smallness — without veering too far in the direction of “hard” and becoming a boring high school chemistry lesson crammed with non-characters. On the other hand, main star Captain James Holden is the galaxy’s biggest dummy, pretty much just allying with whichever charismatic leader he’s most recently spoken with. Then again, space Mormons.
At any rate, my enthusiasm for the books — and to a lesser extent the TV show — was enough that the announcement of a board game adaptation aroused my interest. Even better when I learned it would be helmed by Geoff Engelstein, the mind who dreamed up Space Cadets, its hilarious Dice Duel sequel, and the ever-reliable The Dragon & Flagon.
For those who don’t know the first thing about The Expanse, let me clue you in. Humanity has spread across the solar system, occupying Mars, the asteroid belt, and the moons of the outer planets. All our current problems — scarce resources, man’s inhumanity to man, unsolved religious and ethnic and class quarrels — have grown right along with our expanding girth. Now it’s Earth and Mars in an uncomfortable alliance against the massive Belter population, with some shady-as-Enceladus (the shadiest moon of Saturn) corporations thrown into the mix as obvious bad guys.
In short, there are factions with ambiguous goals, tenuous political alliances, and the occasional proverbial dagger is burrowed into the occasional literal backside. It’s been called “Game of Thrones in space,” though probably only by marketing computers that don’t understand how similes work.
The thing is, The Expanse — the cardboard version — totally nails it. Players are given one of four roles, leading Earth, Mars, the upstart Belters, or EvilCorp, each with their own centers of power, abilities, upgrades, and scoring opportunities. Everybody is looking out for number one, alliances are forged and broken, and constant tension and arms-race sensibilities rule the day.
For the most part, the turn-by-turn process is fairly straightforward. The solar system is divided into four “bands,” an abstract measurement that means it takes a lot longer to reach Saturn than to shuffle from Earth to Mars. Within those, everything is divided into multiple orbitals, the domain of spaceships, and further into smaller bases where you hope to install as much of your faction’s influence as possible. In particular, you’ll want to look out for those bases that provide your preferred resources, while jabbing at anyone who swings by to disrupt your monopoly. It’s wonderfully simple, yet allows plenty of room to whine to your friends that they shouldn’t dislodge your choke-hold on Jupiter.
The real highlight here is the card system, which feels about ten times smarter than we’ve come to expect from a licensed title published by anyone other than Gale Force 9. If anything, it occupies the same pedigree as serious wargames like the COIN Series or Twilight Struggle, driving the action both on your turn and off it, without ever feeling a step out of place despite The Expanse’s lighter gameplay.
Each player’s turn opens with the purchase of one these cards. New options cost more, while older stuff gradually settles to the bottom where they cost nothing. The first twist is that a card’s price is paid with the same points you’re accumulating to win the game, making even the juiciest offerings a real sacrifice to nab. And second, it’s up to you whether to use a card for its action points or its event.
Right away, this presents a tricky choice that will be familiar to anyone who’s played Twilight Struggle. Action points usually bestow a higher degree of control, letting you reposition fleets, blow stuff up, and nudge your influence into the right place, while events are a tad more powerful but spill randomly from the deck and don’t always align with your goals. Worse, failing to take a card for its event will let the other factions have a stab at it. This is handled elegantly, with factions choosing to accept or decline a card based on their “initiative.” Whenever an event is claimed off-turn like this, your initiative plummets to the bottom of the heap, meaning you can say goodbye to the first pick of future events until everybody else has had a chance. Meanwhile, players already at the bottom lose nothing and might as well claim everything that comes their way, easing the stress of occupying the lowest rung.
Crucially, even the game’s scoring cards trickle onto the table this way. There’s an art to determining where and when you should trigger a scoring round, especially since you can only select one of the solar system’s three regions to earn bonus points. This keeps everybody in motion, always hoping to shift some influence into a new center of power, especially once a region has been scored its maximum two times. In The Expanse, sitting still usually means you’re stagnant.
This entire system is an unexpected and pleasant surprise. It endows every turn with an extra dose of uncertainty, and does wonders to keep everybody involved at all times. It isn’t uncommon to achieve some of your most important goals when it isn’t even your turn.
Not that this is the only trick The Expanse has up its sleeve. For one thing, each of its four factions manages to feel distinct thanks to a small handful of abilities that are gradually added throughout the game. Early on, Earth is mostly known for taking advantage of an additional free card slot, giving them some additional flexibility and easing the distance their fleets must travel to reach the outer planets. Halfway through the game, they sport double-strength diplomats and crucial tie-breakers that help them claim bases with a minimum of effort. Similarly, the other factions boast advantages of their own. Mars fields the strongest fleets in the game and can easily bully orbitals into submission, the Belters pop up with locust-like tenacity no matter how many fights they lose, and EvilCorp uses evil technology to evilly exterminate all life in select bases.
In fact, the upgrade system is so good that I almost wish it had been expanded upon. The Expanse is good at doling out a steady stream of viable options, yet the upgrades always march out at the same rate and in the same order. I would have rather seen the upgrades as another decision to make, letting players tailor their faction to the game’s evolving circumstances. But that’s a minor thing to whine about in the grand scheme of things.
Speaking of whiners, even stupid Captain James Holden makes an appearance. The player in last place is given temporary control of Holden’s Rocinante, a spitfire of a gunship with a bunch of ways to ruin everybody’s plans. They’ll only get to use it a couple times before a new scoring round comes along, but its appearance often leaves a mark. Leaving aside how appropriate it is that Holden’s allegiances careen wildly between factions, there is some thrill to watching him swoop in and turn a situation to your advantage right before a scoring card triggers.
All in all, The Expanse is a wonderful surprise, adapting the best parts of its source material with aplomb. Crud, it even adapts the worst parts of its source material so well that I almost started liking James Holden a little better. It doesn’t look like much, attempting to evoke the heads-up displays of the show’s vessels but mostly just appearing chintzy, and the event cards are almost universally too dark, and the board and tokens are a touch too small — but those are incredibly minor complaints when faced with the majority of what this game accomplishes. Between its card system, cleverly realized factions, quick playtime, and — I can’t believe I’m about to say this — even James Holden showing up to save the day, The Expanse stands out as one of the best licensed titles out there.