Oh no! It’s the far future, humanity has spread to the distant corners of the universe, yet an evil black monolith is consuming entire solar systems! Panic in the streets! Science confounded! The only solution is the colonization of planets that happen to match a hand full of cards!
Okay, fine, I can’t confess to having any idea of what’s going on in HOPE. Why are we colonizing planets again? Why do solar systems inhabit three dimensions at once? And what’s with that tacked-on betrayer mode? Do the bad guys really call themselves NOPE? In terms of fluff, it’s no Sol.
Instead, it’s exactly the reason I play lesser-known games.
My rule of thumb with a game like HOPE is to squint. Don’t look too closely at the particulars. Black monoliths are scary, check. Colonizing planets in three dimensions is cool, check. Better yet, swallowing both details lets us dive into one of the weirdest movement puzzles ever put to cardboard. Check.
Everything in HOPE is a race, but not in the usual sense. There’s no track, for one thing. Instead, the map is divided into systems, each of which is split between three dimensions. Most have planets; some have multiple planets; some don’t have planets at all. And your goal is to colonize every last world on a tile, as many times as possible, before that monolith rings around the rosy enough times to accomplish something nebulously nefarious. Don’t invest too much curiosity into that part. Just keep up the colonizing and you’ll be dandy.
Right away, HOPE throws two wrenches into your plans for expansion. The easier issue is that a planet can’t be colonized willy-nilly. To have a tiny astronaut plant a tiny flag on a tiny world, you need a matching card. At first this doesn’t kick up much of a fuss. Your opening hand size is generous, and there are plenty of systems within easy reach. Over time, though, your hand begins to dwindle. Picking up new cards is fraught, for reasons we’ll talk about in a minute. And anyway, matching what you’re holding with what your starship’s peculiar trajectory can intersect with is shockingly tricky.
Your starship’s trajectory. That’s the second problem. And I mean that in two senses. It’s a gameplay problem, one you’re meant to solve. And it’s a game problem, one that isn’t always as enjoyable to pick through as HOPE, uh, hopes.
I mentioned dimensions. These are far more than just red, purple, and blue tiles. They’re actual dimensions, planes of existence which your starship can only inhabit one at a time. More than that, each dimension has its own center of gravity, a point on the board’s periphery that your ship will fall toward or push away from every time you activate your starship’s engines. Well, that’s not entirely accurate — there’s also a sidewinder move, which permits movement between linked systems of the same color. But most of the time, you’ll use your ship’s levers to hurtle toward or away from that point of gravity.
As a central conundrum, it’s both brilliant and an enormous pain in the astroturf to constantly reevaluate. There are always multiple routes to travel, but picking them out among HOPE’s busy starlanes is rarely intuitive. You’re falling “down” toward red — but on a map of hexes, how often is “down” a straight shot? The rulebook is distressingly brief on this point, providing a single example for a mode of movement that has no parallel beyond the confines of its odd slide-door box. It isn’t impossible to figure out, but it’s definitely the sort of thing that must be figured, and figured, and figured again.
And of course, you aren’t merely tossing your starship through the cosmos. You’re doing that while also matching cards to systems. While also racing, both against the monolith and your fellow players. There’s an element of cooperation there, as adding colonists to a system that somebody else has already set foot upon will reward both players with medals. These babies can be spent on upgrades, which sounds thrilling until you realize that every upgrade in the game is either a one-time additional move or a bump to your hand size. Ah well. Useful, but not exactly the sort of thing that’ll get anyone gushing.
The best part of the game arrives once a system has been fully colonized. Sure, there’s the in-game reason, because all those brave pioneers are added to the game’s victory tracker, which bumps humanity closer to survival while also potentially deflecting the monolith’s progress. But the real reason it’s so nifty is that you get to deploy a suction cup.
HOPE has a few clever moments, but this is its stroke of genius. The board is a tight latticework of hexes, prone to jostling, yet the suction cup permits the effortless lifting of a hex from the midst of its companions, no prying around the edges with your fingernail. Brilliant. Simply brilliant. It’s the Stephen Hawking of components.
Ahem. Other tidbits of cleverness also rise to the fore. I mentioned the victory track. As astronauts are lined up by successful colonizations, they can prevent the monolith from moving, but they’ll also hasten its appetite for another system. The race is therefore slightly self-balancing, ensuring a tight contest between man and monolith. Meanwhile, drawing new cards presents dangers of its own. The more swirly symbols visible in the draw and discard piles, the more the monolith jumps forward each turn. The mere act of picking a new card is therefore an uncertain one. Should you take something good, or something that will slow down the entropy of the universe?
But really, the best part is the suction cup.
HOPE is a surprise, and often a pleasant one. But it stumbles often enough that it never truly finds its place in the universe.
I already mentioned the wonky movement rules. Far shakier are the victory conditions. At first glance it’s a cooperative game. Players are compelled to work together, both to stave off extinction and to earn medals. But rather than winning together, only the player who has the most astronauts on the track will win. This seems intended to spark infighting, prompting players to refuse to work alongside anyone who’s populating the track too densely. Interesting in theory, forgettable in practice. Between the peculiar interdimensional movement, a hand of mismatched cards, and the pressures of efficient settlement, it’s hard to pass up on a good move no matter who benefits. The need to bicker over who’s winning seems like one wrinkle too many.
As for the traitor mode, the less said the better. It’s about as natural and coherent as a jellyfish with opinions.
HOPE is certainly intriguing, framing a perplexing movement puzzle against the backdrop of cosmic doom and mostly succeeding. But by drawing its focus away from its core innovations thanks to a distracting victory condition, and even a me-too traitor mode, it winds up missing its slingshot window by the slenderest of margins.
At least we’ll always have the suction cup.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. I pride myself on highlighting oddball titles alongside some of the year’s most popular releases, and it’s your support that makes it all possible.)