Space Race Space Race Space Race

I keep expecting that "manned" Tesla to float past.

It never stops. That seems to be the central theme of SpaceCorp, and not only because a single play can easily consume three or four hours. We span an ocean, only to seek a river passage across the continent on the far side. We meet our neighbors, then decide that we should probably also meet theirs. We pen Here be dragons on the fringes of our maps, but never for long. If SpaceCorp didn’t have an ending in mind — a self-aware arbitrary ending that could be considered little more than an intermission — it might go on forever.

I am SO IN right now.

The Mariners era charts mankind’s first steps toward surviving beyond Earth.

Here’s the broad, zoomed-out vista of SpaceCorp, which seems appropriate for a game that’s about broad, zoomed-out vistas.

Starting from Earth, every player controls a corporation hoping to explore, colonize, and exploit the inner planets of our solar system. You’ll establish floating stations at the stable Lagrange points between celestial bodies, uncover what lies beneath the surface of Luna and Mars and some rocky moons and comets, and hopefully get filthy rich along the way. It’s an entire game in its own right.

But then something happens. As contracts are fulfilled and stable ground is claimed, your corp continues to throw itself outward. Maybe one of your teams hurtles past the asteroid belt. Maybe all the opportunities nearer to home simply dry up. Either way, you clear off the board, flip it over, and begin anew. Except this time your sights are set on the outer planets. New dangers and possibilities arise. Radiation inhibits movement and construction, but genetic tampering and a broader geography beckon you into the future.

And again. Once the final claims of our home star have been staked, the game steps once more into the expanse. Another board, another fresh start. Greater perils, greater prospects. Entire star systems colonized. Intelligent alien life. Humanity transformed so completely that a specimen from two hundred years earlier wouldn’t even recognize its starfaring cousin.

Honestly, I’m getting a little starry-eyed just writing about it. SpaceCorp does that. It captures a scope so grand and so tantalizing that it feels less like science fiction and more like destiny coded into our very helices, so deep that the hardships and setbacks and potential atrocities of the long road ahead don’t even rate a mention. Those pearls in the sky belong to us, and we know it in the finer granules of our being than even blood and bone. Who else should inherit them? All it takes is stubbornness. And we’ve got that trait down.

Also vast distances. Also having your discovery snaked by a rival corp.

The Planeteers era is wider but harsher, especially thanks to radiation.

Okay, so there are some big ideas rattling around SpaceCorp’s noggin. But what sets it apart from some of its forebears is that it isn’t necessarily big on rules, size-wise.

Where High Frontier (which I haven’t played) and Leaving Earth (which I have, many times) sported rulebooks nearly as expansive as their perception of outer space, SpaceCorp is deceptively simple to learn and play. Not that it’s easy. As in those other titles, there’s some math to be scratched out and special rules and exceptions to recall, and every era adds new concepts onto those that you’ve already learned. But there’s an order of magnitude often found in this sort of game that’s been streamlined down until there’s hardly any drag at all. SpaceCorp provides each player with a double-sided reference sheet, but don’t mistake it for the sprawling complexity found in some of its colleagues.

In fact, it only takes one play to understand what it’s going for, but that’s when it really opens up. That first time through, you’re flying by the seat of your pants. What’s the difference between an e1 and e2 exploration tile? Why should I sacrifice one of my survey teams to the asteroid belt? Why bother with a refinery if I can’t dredge any production cards out of the deck? For that matter, what’s this genetics wheel all about? Everything is new. And while new means exciting, it doesn’t leave much room for a coherent plan.

Play it again, though, and it’s about an entirely different form of discovery. Structures aren’t only for right now; they’re also useful because you’re allowed to drag one of them into the next era, a leftover flaunting of your corporate legacy. Racing to the asteroid belt isn’t a waste; it’s a head start in the coming era. Genetics, which initially seemed weirdly auxiliary, becomes the basis for a grand strategy of transformation once you’ve shrugged off those pesky don’t-transform-people-into-zerglings ethics. The game is still about peeling back the unknown. This time, however, it’s about doing it as efficiently as possible.

I like to use them in conjunction with an eyebrow-wiggle to unnerve my opponents. *wiggle wiggle*

There are a few different ways to use most cards.

Here’s how it works. Actions revolve around a deck of cards representing the technologies and equipment your corp must utilize to fling its surveyors into space, explore new terrain, establish bases, exploit resources, and gradually unlock new advancements. Every action requires its own points — jumping between spaces uses “move,” setting up a base takes “build,” and so forth. A lot of the time, gaining points is as easy as discarding stuff from your hand. Unsurprisingly, this tends to consume cards rather quickly, which is why there’s a more permanent solution to be found in slotting cards within your “infra,” representing the transit and support networks of your corporation. You only get a few slots, but any cards stashed here are permanent, potentially contributing to actions many times during the course of your expansion.

That’s already cool, but now SpaceCorp does something really clever. These infrastructure networks are ostensibly system-wide, so rather than being limited to your own infra, you’re allowed to use anybody’s — though only one corp’s infra per turn. This encourages specialization, and it isn’t long before somebody has tons of equipment for building, someone else can get you wherever you need to go, and a third corp provides all the tools for exploration. And as a reward for setting up an enticing infra, you get a free card from the deck anytime somebody borrows your network. Trust me, those extra cards can go a long way.

So why wouldn’t you always slot cards into your infra? Well, because like everything else in SpaceCorp, doing so eats up an entire turn. And it should never be forgotten that this game is very much a space race.

If there's a joke there, I'm not seeing it.

Extrasolar colonies are significant undertakings.

Stacked alongside the soaring beauty and breathtaking discoveries of space, chasing profit may seem crass. Then again, let’s be real: what else was it going to be?

There are a few different sources of profit, but their one commonality is that it takes some hustle to claim them. Discoveries like water, natural wonders, or exo-microbes all award profit immediately, but only to whichever corp first uncovers them. Refineries and attractions are more reliable, but the cards that trigger them are limited and quickly snapped up. Both genetic and technological advancements provide a financial incentive along with a gameplay bonus, but only to their first researcher. Nobody’s handing a Nobel Prize to the second guy to decrease human body mass by 50%. That’s old news.

And then there are contracts. These act as objectives and drive the action. Early on, you’ll want to have the first base on Mars, or establish a functioning infra before anyone else, or make a breakthrough. Later, they’re about establishing bases in multiple regions, discovering lots of water, or colonizing a distant star.

Regardless of the goal, wasting too much time on research, upgrades, or even production can see you falling behind. Hanging around Earth — or the Inner Planets, or the Sol System — for even one turn too long might open the way for a rival to steal a discovery, vital installation, and contract right out from under your nose, all in sequence. Bing bang boom. Those profit bonuses don’t seem so tiny when they’re strung together like that. But that’s how it goes. The early probe discovers the space-worm.

My humans are basically 18kg zerglings.

By the end of the Starfarers era, humanity might be totally transformed.

As fascinated as I am by SpaceCorp, I have precisely two complaints. Neither are insignificant.

The first is that not all cards are created equal, or even within laser-shot of equal. At a certain point, expect the card offer to be awash in movement and exploration, but direly thin on more powerful actions. The most considerable card of all is TIME, which can either double the points you’ve poured into an action — transforming eight movement into sixteen, for example — or permit two of your cubes to duplicate the same action for its original point value. TIME functionally transforms a mundane turn into a quantum leap. Which is why watching somebody gobble it up right before your turn, or worse, picking it out of the deck at random, is such utter nonsense that even the chaotic arrangement of the stars scoffs in disbelief.

But even more frustrating is the entire format of the game’s third era, Starfarers. Rather than following in the wildly liberating tradition of the Planeteers era, with its close-call competition between corps to secure territory in shared regions, Starfarers locks the ownership of its star systems to a single player. When a corp arrives at its destination — which takes a considerable amount of time given the distances being scaled — they’ll explore everything within that system in a singular frenzy of probes and pings. Same goes for building bases and later for founding a colony. There’s no longer room for two or more corporations to escalate their claims and construction within a region, and therefore very little reason to follow a rival to any particular space. By the time you arrive, chances are they’ll own all the real estate. It’s all or nothing.

The consequence is that Starfarers has the air of a protracted scoring round rather than an era in its own right. It’s still functional, still a desperate race, and still knows how to make each moment of discovery a profound one. Perhaps even too profound. Uncovering one tile is nice, pulling two or three at a time veers toward the capricious. Meanwhile, many of the game’s most interesting player interactions disappear entirely.


Uh oh.

These missteps diminish SpaceCorp without totally shattering it, largely because the experience is so ambitious, innovative, and refreshing that it’s hard to stay away — or find a worthy replacement. Within the span of three hours, your corporation transforms from professional builders of lunar labs to bird-boned radiation-chewing star hoppers, an entirely divergent subspecies that’s as home in vacuum as it ever was upon the prairie.

Even better, its play-space is expansive enough to match its subject matter. Building a base in a perilous location, or unearthing an alien artifact, or beating a competitor to an important landmark all feel exactly as they should, like stepping stones from one rocky shore to another. That these moments should be so thrilling without requiring an overabundance of rules only serves to make SpaceCorp even more enticing.

Hopefully that’s the takeaway for anyone interested in this enterprise. This vessel has its sights set on something distant and grand. Despite its elegance, its hull is scored with occasional imperfections. And still, most of the time, she flies true.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi. Your support may even send me to space someday! Maybe! Who can say!)

Posted on January 8, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Ah, this was the review I was waiting for, and it only whets my appetite for this game…still waiting for my copy to arrive here in Oz, travelling via the Kuiper belt, or so it seems. Thanks for a very eloquent and insightful review.

  2. I think it’s worth noting that you can start or end with any of the three Eras, and the game still feels like a solid competition. if the weight of colony calculations is too heavy in Starfarers, you could just agree to play through the end of Planeteers (for example).

    • That’s technically true, though omitting the third era also means sacrificing the most dynamic aspects of the genetics and breakthrough cards. I still love what SpaceCorp is doing, and will gladly play a full three-era game. But as it stands, Starfarers is the least interesting of them.

      My concern also isn’t because of the “weight” of establishing a colony, though there are some extra bullet points to remember. If anything, I would have preferred a little extra meat, like the ability to share bases and/or colony ownership within a star system. That might have pulled it back toward the feel of earlier eras, where multiple corps were competing to build within shared regions, rather than the contest being won and lost by date of arrival alone. I understand why this current format works, but it isn’t as dynamic.

      However, I still recommend SpaceCorp. I’d rather play a flawed but interesting game over a perfect bland one. This is a good game, and its problems don’t totally scuttle the ship.

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