Kane Klenko showed that he knew what he was doing with last year’s FUSE, a game that saw its players disarming bombs in real-time by matching dice and occasionally balancing them in precarious towers. It wasn’t necessarily deep, but it produced a thick cloud of tension and banged some pot lids in your ears. By the end of its countdown, even failure was a relief. More so if you had that annoying app braying in your ears.
Even though they couldn’t be more different, Flip Ships reveals Klenko doing what he does best. Like FUSE before it, Flip Ships takes a single idea and blitzes merrily past the point where any other designer might have been content to wrap the thing into a minigame box and be done with it. Here, the idea is that just maybe the best way to defend against a Space Invaders scenario would be to launch your starfighters so that they spin like one of those barfy amusement park rides, right before rolling off the table and beneath the couch. As in, it’s the plan you resort to after everything else has failed.
It’s a dexterity game. Obviously. Naming a game Flip Ships and not including components that must be flung from one point to another constitute a cardboard heresy, punishable by paper cut. It would be like calling your new game Deck Builder but not letting players buy lumber, nails, and varnish at the local Renaissance Faire. However, lest you try to get away with thinking this is your regular dexterity game, Flip Ships puts its best — and most infuriating — feature right there in the title.
These ships are gonna be flipped.
I mean that literally. Not pushed, not flicked, and certainly not thrown like some chimpanzee tossing its feces. Flipped. From the edge of the table, right into those rows of aliens and their flexible tubular probosces. If it doesn’t flip end over end, it wasn’t a flip.
This being a game by Kane Klenko, there are naturally some twists that keep the proceedings from being nothing but a bunch of directionless disc-flipping. For one thing, you have two objectives. The first is those alien ships, which must be smashed out of the sky. And the second is the mothership, essentially a shoe box that’s plopped down at the opposite end of the arena. Landing ships in this hulking monstrosity is a huge feat, but it’s necessary to take down the big bad before it wipes you out.
Crucially, though, the biggest shock is that the game manages to feel almost tactical. Rather than simply making you flip your ships at those cards and mothership, you’re constantly gauging the abilities of your ships against all those little alien mooks. Each player gets their own set of three “classes” of ships, and as the aliens deal more damage to the city, newer models — and therefore powers — will gradually roll off the assembly line. Early on, your little ships might be able to attack an alien adjacent to the one they actually hit, or kill anything in the row if they managed the difficult shot of landing on a moon space. By the end of the game, you’ll have ships with targeting lasers, dudes who can be re-flicked from a blocky tower wherever they land, and hotshot ace pilots who make multiple bombing runs on the mothership itself.
It’s a smart move, and it gives the game its own sense of progression, a story arc in miniature that begins with a small handful of outnumbered and outgunned defenders, swings back into your favor once the big guns roll out, and nearly always culminates in a last-ditch assault on the mothership before it goes all Independence Day on your White House.
Of course, the aliens are no slouch either. They race toward your atmosphere with varying degrees of speed, sometimes pushing other ships, sometimes meandering, and sometimes coming in like a shrieking banshee. There are aliens with extra hit points, shield ships that need to be wrecked in order to hit the ships around them, and…
And that’s it. One of Flip Ships’ primary virtues is that it knows how to quit when it’s ahead. Instead of making you memorize a vast array of two dozen symbols and interlocking abilities, it gives each bogie a speed, a damage value, and maybe one of two abilities. That’s it. No need to break out the rules every time you refresh the enemy ranks.
But the best thing about Flip Ships is that it’s silly and encourages failure, and because it’s silly and encourages failure, it’s also very, very funny. Going after the mothership only to plink a shot off the top of its cardboard hull, overshooting an alien that’s inches away from penetrating your atmosphere, rolling a ship onto the other side of the kitchen, somehow shooting a ship in reverse and into your sister’s lap — it’s slapstick humor, physical comedy, the relishing of the fact that even if we live in a deterministic universe where not even a single action has evaded being predicted by the solemn decay of our atoms, then this game would still be a hilarious mess where things never go as planned.
It’s the sort of game that gets people hollering, that gets them on their feet, that sends them scurrying around on their hands and knees in the dark because you lost another damn cardboard disc. Dexterity games might not be the first thing that springs to mind when I think about clever game design, but Flip Ships is still the sort of thing I don’t mind playing in between bouts of something more serious. Is it thinky? Absolutely not. Fun? Oh yeah. Aces.