Replaying the Mass Effect remaster brought it all back: the weightlessness as the shuttle dropped through the cloud layer, the sight of the alien landscape for the first time, verdant with unknown plants and creatures. That prickle along the spine. Growing up, Star Trek and frontier adventure books and some hazy pioneer heritage were formative where Star Wars was grating and juvenile. The final frontier, minus the colonialist overtones. Okay, some colonialist overtones. But overtones that are trying to do better.
Marc Neidlinger and Tom Mattson’s Unsettled is a cooperative (and technically solitaire-capable) board game about confronting the unknown, very nearly dying, and then — here’s the important part — rather than taming these wild shores you’ve washed up on, entering into symbiosis with them. There’s not a sentry turret or auto-rifle in sight.
Let me tell you a story about the moment Unsettled clicked.
My crew was stranded on Grakkis, a desert planet that is totally, 100%, certifiably not Arrakis. The defining feature of the Grakkan biosphere is a massive storm that sweeps across the entire planetary surface, sometimes sticking to high altitudes and sometimes descending into the canyons to inflict “distress” cards on your unlucky explorers. To explore Grakkis is to carefully pick across broken terrain depicted not only by the location cards on your table, but also your vertical position on a separate card. This isn’t a complicated procedure. At any given time your character is either grounded or elevated. So is the storm. When you find yourself inside of the storm, things get… testy. I definitely don’t mean “bad.” Just most of the time.
Most board games would have you avoid the storm. Not Unsettled. The storm is as much a part of Grakkis as the flora and fauna you spend time gathering and testing. This, too, is a procedure you’ll likely find familiar. Discovering something means you’ve walked to its location and picked it up. Maybe this requires something special — some energy, perhaps, a scoop of resources, a comprehension disc. Think experience points for that last thing. Now that you’ve picked up that object, you flip a card and put them together. Maybe the object is combustible. Maybe you can eat it. Maybe you can use it to overclock LUNA, your handy drone. Whatever it’s for, it will likely be useful. Even if the applications aren’t immediately apparent.
Like I was saying, most games would portray a planet-spanning storm as something to avoid. Here, because the storm is a part of Grakkis, it’s as worthy of discovery as anything else you might stumble across. Not only worthy — it’s essential. That’s why each of Grakkis’s three scenarios sends you straight into the heart of the storm. Whether you’re measuring its parameters, channeling energy straight from its turbulence, or recovering items tossed to and fro by its passage, to explore Grakkis isn’t simply to avoid its dangers. It’s to coexist with them. Or at least to assess whether you can.
And when you can’t, like I did when a trio of towering behemoths marched out of the storm and positioned themselves between my crew and our shuttle, you find a solution that doesn’t involve napalm, combat lasers, or anything more violent than running a few samples through a science thingamajig. In our case, that meant putting everything we’d discovered into action. Darting in and out of the storm behind the shield of LUNA’s shield bubble. Drinking behemoth secretions to heal our distressed crewmate. Smashing a fossil to extract its data to afford a launch into an adjacent space. The launch is called a y33t. We’ll get into the writing in a moment. Point is, we solved the problem with plenty of derring-do and know-how, but almost no smashing. Certainly no smashing of anything that might be sentient.
Look, I get it. That’s a lot of words. Weird verbs? Nouns without meaning? Gibberish adjectives? Unsettled’s got ’em.
It’s a surprise that Unsettled is playable. Even a bigger surprise that it’s this smooth. There are plenty of symbols and words to learn and keep straight, but the jargon is mostly in-universe, the stuff that arises once you step out of the shuttle and start walking around. As a game, it’s easier to learn than your average Star Trek’s science is to follow.
Nearly everything revolves around your explorer’s three focus cubes, the things that look like dice but which the rulebook assures you are absolutely not dice, apart from the odd occasion when the game asks you to roll them. Most of the time they’re rotated instead. Nearly every action requires you to spend focus, so one of your dice — sorry, cubes — gets rotated down. Some actions, like resting, recover focus. Specific actions also award a benefit when activated by the right focus cube. One of your main options, Theorize, lets you chat over the radio with one of your companions about the alien stuff all around you, thereby improving their insight, the stat that leads to comprehension tokens and breakthrough cards with special powers. This is but one thematic beat in a game that breathes them like oxygen. By chatting with your pal, you’ve sparked something in their head. A moment of realization. That’s a character beat straight out of a Star Trek episode. Unsettled doesn’t stop there. If you use your awareness cube when Theorizing, your character’s mental focus is sharp enough that they also receive a point of insight. You’ve now replicated that slapstick moment when two stranded explorers are shooting the shit about their predicament, only to turn and stare at each other, fingers pointing, before exploding into a flurry of conversation and activity over their shared eureka.
To a lesser extent, this brand of thematic mapping also occurred in Neidlinger’s earlier game Vindication, an adventure romp where ephemeral concepts like knowledge, wisdom, potential, and conviction were literalized as in-game resources to be earned, upgraded, and spent on the completion of heroic feats. But where Vindication struggled to untangle the relationship between these resources and the gameplay unfolding on the table, the connections in Unsettled are crystal clear. This has everything to do with the register the game operates in. As a story about survival via science, assets like “insight” and “comprehension” and “breakthroughs” aren’t stand-ins. They’re shorthand for the methods of learning we all had drilled into our heads in school. Disconnected ideas lead to apperceptive knowledge leads to application. This is Scientific Method: The Game for more reasons than just because the flavor text defaults to “science” as a verb.
Speaking of flavor text, Unsettled had a steep hill to climb, given my wariness of board game narrative communicated by snippets of over-written but under-connected script. It’s a rare line that can mention how I’m affrighted by the appearance of some squamous being from another dimension without sending my eyeballs skyward. Doubly so when I then send that being to its host dimension’s version of hell via the sudden application of buckshot.
Fortunately, Unsettled has a few things going for it in that regard. For one, the writing is genuinely sharp. Witty, even. Asides appear infrequently, as though the authors only resorted to traditional flavor text when they knew they’d struck upon something worthy of a chuckle, rather than rounding out every single card with a quip. The cards that lead to discoveries are mercifully brief, usually saying something about how wackadoo this alien landscape seems, and although there are only so many times I can be told that a psychedelic fungus is letting me see through the seams of reality, the tone is filled with an earnestness that services the game’s sense of wonderment. The best text by far comes in the form of briefings. These are delivered a few times per mission, usually to spell out why accomplishing your previous objective led to an even bigger problem. The writing could riff on an Andy Weir novel like The Martian or Project Hail Mary. Problems are presented with a vibe of “eat your way through to the other side.” Despite dire limitations and looming threats, these briefings are fanciful, optimistic, even excited at the opportunity to surmount yet another life-threatening conundrum. Yes, there are puns. They’re astonishingly good.
That can-do spirit buoys the entire game. At least it buoys the two planets found in the Base Framework. There are six total at the time of writing, with four sold as expansions. Of those six, I’ve had a grand time exploring three, and anticipate my good feelings will continue. On one level, this parceling of material seems crassly commercial, an unfortunate exigency of the era of crowdfunding and rising production costs. On the other, as I concluded when I wrote about Ryan Laukat’s Sleeping Gods, spinning a traditional text-based narrative in board games has one requirement above all others: heaps of content. Laukat solved the problem by penning a huge choose-your-own-adventure book to go with his maps and creatures and Euro-style gameplay. Neidlinger and Mattson solve it through bespoke scenarios. Each planet is distinct, with its own discoveries and mechanical challenges; each of the three scenarios on those planets presents its own sequence of problems to overcome. These are tightly crafted, with very little room for falling through the cracks. Since Unsettled functions much like a puzzle, this discreteness is a boon. At no point will you descend into a sandbox to make your own fun by building castles or chucking cat turds at your sister. Unsettled is all the better for it.
Very few survival-adventure games tickle me quite like Unsettled. The reasons for its success, I suspect, are equal parts world-building and puzzle-solving. The destinations are vibrant and well realized, built atop the Base Framework so that your basic actions are always useful, but the complications of each new world are numerous and novel. Then the game turns around and provides ways to solve those problems that seem equally groundbreaking. It’s the kind of game where a solution can seem genuinely unexpected, a spark of insight players share the kindling for.
That’s in no small part to the game’s underlying ethic. Many of the problems you encounter might become trivial when solved down the barrel of a gun. Unsettled takes the harder road. The higher road. Problems are solved through cleverness, evasion, invention. In Unsettled, Neidlinger and Mattson pen a love letter to the optimist’s vision of space exploration and first contact, and in the process celebrate virtues of curiosity and nonviolence. It’s a darling dream. I’m overjoyed to have spent time in its company.
A complimentary copy was provided.