The Emergence of Shy Space Base
For a dice game, Space Base doesn’t arrive with very many dice. You’ll find no chunky handfuls here. Two dinky dice is all you get. And those two are cursed, I’m certain of it, prompting my group to pull out the dice bowl so that we can roll something other than 4s and 5s for once. Guess we’re rolling chunky handfuls after all.
But curses aside, Space Base knows how to put its dice to good use. How to get crazy with them. How to make rolling 2d6 more exciting than they have any right to be.
The easiest way to explain the cleverness of Space Base is to describe a round about halfway through the game. It starts much the way you’d expect from a dice game. Someone passes you the dice, two blue plastic d6s that shine the translucent nebula blue of Hollywood’s version of outer space. You take these dice and roll them across the table, careful to keep them in the middle, away from the fragile plastic cubes that mark each player’s coins and victory points. This time you get a 4 and a 5, probably because you haven’t yet caught on about the Space Base Dice Curse.
Now you’re going to make a decision. Which is already a far cry from the way dice usually get used. Normally you roll to settle an outcome, right? That’s also the case in Space Base, except every roll also represents a decision in miniature. In this example that decision is whether to claim the income and abilities of the ships in your 4 and 5 slots (because that’s what you rolled), or to claim the income from the lone ship in slot 9 (because that’s the sum of 4 and 5).
Like I said, a miniature decision. Sometimes it’s hardly even a decision at all. Maybe slot 9 is obviously better than slots 4 and 5. Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe what you have in all three slots is as useful as a heap of donkey balls. So it goes. Space Base is still, after all, a dice game.
But a lot of the time, there’s a decision there. Maybe one gives you cash while another provides points. Maybe one boosts your income, which raises the “floor” on your available cash. Maybe something triggers an ability, or adds a charge so that you can eventually trigger an even more powerful ability. The point is, this miniature decision can sometimes become an unexpectedly big decision. A decision that matters because points are points, but income and cash are what you’ll use to buy better ships, which in turn will likely earn more points.
With your miniature decision out of the way, you’re allowed to buy a card. This is nearly always a big decision.
Occasionally you’ll choose a colony, a onetime splurge of points that blocks off a slot forever. Far more often you’ll want a ship. These are assigned to the slot printed on their card, and upon purchase will replace that slot’s current ship, which is summarily tucked under the top of your board. But now, when rolled, that slot will earn the bonus from your new ship. Think of it like hedging the outcome of future bets.
Better yet, this requires careful balance, both from the game and you, the player. The ships that inhabit slots 1 through 6 aren’t much to sneeze at, but you’ll be rolling them often and pairing them with another number. So: low but regular rewards. Anything at 7 or higher will be more powerful, and increasingly so as your odds of rolling that slot diminish. A card in slot 12 isn’t likely to trigger more than once or twice per game, since it requires you to roll boxcars and the Dice Curse makes that almost impossible. But in the rare event that you do roll boxcars, you’ll make out like a bandit. There’s even a card in the 12 slot that wins the game outright, although you’ll have to charge it up multiple times.
Then again, imagine what might happen if you’ve parked that auto-win ship in slot 12 and then use an ability to swap it down to slot 1. Yes, that can happen. Yes, it’s crazy when it does. Yes, people will groan. For the most part, Space Base knows when to lean into its madness.
Your turn is over. You pass the translucent nebula blue dice. But the best is still yet to come.
That’s because Space Base doesn’t stop just because it isn’t your turn. Somebody else is rolling the dice. But while they’re making the miniature decision over how to use the outcome of their roll, so are you — with the ships you previously tucked under your board.
These are almost always less powerful than their “active” counterparts. A ship that’s worth seven coins on your turn might only be worth four coins tucked away. But this downgrade is still usually worthwhile, for two very good reasons. First, if you’re playing with three or more players, you’ll spend more time reaping rewards on opposing turns than on your own. And second, these babies stack. If you can tuck away multiple cards in slots 1 through 6, you can expect to rake in plenty of money and points without even having to burn the 2.72 calories necessary to roll those dice.
To some degree this mitigates the game’s downtime, which becomes considerable once everybody is combing through the marketplace for ships with strong synergies. But its real advantage is in how it spring-loads every decision. You aren’t just buying a card for immediate use. You’re buying a card for the value it will produce again and again, in different denominations, even once it’s been replaced by something else.
If this were the end of the review, here’s what I would say: Space Base takes the dice game and gives it a good rattling. It makes every roll important to everyone around the table. It provides both short-term and long-term decisions, both the roll you just made and the need to prepare for all sorts of rolls in the future. With so much cleverness on display, it’s almost possible to forgive the thin volume of truly crazy abilities and downtime during other players’ market phases. Maybe even the Space Base Dice Curse. Maybe.
But hold on, because this isn’t the end of the review. This is secretly two reviews.
My primary complaint with Space Base is that its abilities sometimes felt too thinly distributed. There were some genuinely cool ships for sale, but they often resembled fascinating but remote islands surrounded by vast oceans of coins and points. Perhaps this was necessary. As they say, coins and points are the lifeblood of a functioning stellar economy. Still, at times it felt like its ratio of vanilla ice cream to chocolate chips was perhaps too stingy. A few additional splashes wouldn’t have gone amiss.
If nothing else, The Emergence of Shy Pluto resolves that problem by adding a half-dozen new abilities across almost sixty new ship cards. And… I’m hesitant to talk about them.
This is because Shy Pluto technically unfolds as a campaign, complete with numbered decks punctuated by STOP! cards, little snippets of (thankfully minimal) exposition, and two mystery boxes that wouldn’t feel out of place in a legacy game. Fortunately, there’s a lot of good news here. For one thing, it isn’t a long campaign, only lasting four to six brisk plays as it trickles out new concepts at a drip that even the most change-averse could stomach. It’s also something you can absolutely ignore with no real downsides, although you’ll miss out on exactly one scenario that manages to break away from the norm.
The real draw is the abilities hidden behind those campaign cards. So if for some reason you care, this entire section will be nothing but spoilers. Cool? Cool.
Haha, look at those folks, skipping the spoilers for a campaign game that’s literally a tutorial rather than an actual narrative. If you’re reading this, you’re one of the cool kids. We are so cool. Just the coolest.
Anyway. Onto the good stuff.
The wimpiest new ability awards a bonus if your roll was exactly two numbers. Yawn. The entire first scenario introduces them. Oh, and variable sectors, which are basically ships that can slot into a range of numbers — say, 8+, which gives you some flexibility when arranging your abilities. Cooler offerings include little arrows that let you swap rows, transforming a Your Turn ability into a Somebody Else’s Turn ability, or vice versa. Between these and the base game’s arrows, it’s possible to chain together some interesting combos, paying out multiple slots that aren’t necessarily limited to a single row.
The other significant addition is a baggie of starfighter tokens. These are picked up through ship abilities much the same way you’d grab anything else, but can be spent to nab bonus dice that provide a minor benefit if you happen to roll their single winning face — but you get to roll them on nearly every player’s turn, generating an intermittent drizzle of coins, income, or points. Think of it as a bunch of extra wagers that might pay off big or barely at all.
Okay, cool kids. Spoilers over.
Taken individually, there’s nothing complicated or outlandish about any of these abilities. Added together, they break up the usual procession of basic cards with new approaches and possibilities. Space Base as a whole benefits. This sometimes results in a slight increase to both the playtime and downtime. In the first case, because you won’t be grabbing as many coins, thus lengthening the gradual upward arc of your fleet’s empowerment, and in the latter case because players must evaluate their purchases from a much deeper pool of options. On the whole, this is worth the extra minutes, providing ships and fleets that are more vibrant and varied.
In other words, Space Base was clever, but The Emergence of Shy Pluto draws it out of its shell. It’s crazier, more varied, and less reliant on the same approaches. This is how you do a dice game — and also how you improve it with an expansion, even if its campaign mode is more of a bonus than a must-see.
Funny story about complimentary copies. I requested Space Base twice and never heard back. Months later, AEG sent me a copy of Shy Pluto! Well, played, Alderac. That’s one way to force a sale. As a result, a complimentary copy of Shy Pluto — but not vanilla Space Base — was provided.