From the Scrap Metal
Given how many of the things are about growing up, it’s a marvel nobody’s bothered to design a board game bildungsroman.
Space Station Phoenix, Gabriel J. Cohn’s latest foray into Rio Grande’s catalog of games about outer space and dice with custom faces, pitches itself in the opposite direction. What if rather than getting big, you’re asked to first tear yourself down? It isn’t exactly a coming-of-age story. But as someone intimately acquainted with the art of self-flagellation, it sounds like the sort of thing I’d be an instant ringer at.
Aliens have appeared in orbit. Sol’s orbit? Earth orbit? LEO or MEO? Geosynchronous or geostationary? Never mind. This may be a game for nerds, but it doesn’t pander to dorks. Like Rio Grande’s other past hits about making a life in outer space, the story is dribbled out one taste at a time rather than piled against the door. The aliens have arrived. They want to build a space station. That’s enough to get started.
In this case, building a space station is largely a question of careful dismantling. Everyone at the table begins with a selection of ships. Each one offers a different action. There are ships for going on expeditions, ships for conducting trade and diplomacy, ships that offer lots of water or plants. Tellingly, there are also ships with gigantic buzzsaws. These are for harvesting the local species — oh, never mind, they’re for ripping apart your own ships. Once dismantled, all that precious scrap can be spent on expanding your space station. Like the phoenix of myth, you shall rise from the curled metal shavings, born anew.
As premises go, it’s a gripping one. With every scrapped freighter, your fleet dwindles in size. That means fewer openings. Fewer actions. More than once, a sacrifice will be necessary. A ship you’ve put to good use will reach the point where it’s more valuable as constituent parts. Is it weird that I sometimes find myself attached to particular vessels? That I’ll gladly chop an ice-hauler but hesitate over an explorer?
There are other considerations at play. Anybody can visit anyone else’s ships, for example. They’re not really “your” ships in that regard. They’re “yours” in four senses. One, when another player visits your ship, they’re required to pay some crystals straight to your hand. That’s a good thing, since it takes crystals to activate ships. Two, you forego those crystals when visiting your own ships. Not all crystals, mind you. Only the “using somebody else’s ship” crystals. Three, spent crystals stick around on ships, making them inoperable until you clear them by taking an income turn. These do exactly what they say on the tin, awarding a spill of crystals for every surviving ship and your completed (and populated) station sectors. And four, you can only buzzsaw your own ships. A real missed opportunity for space carnage, that one.
Buzzsaw limitations aside, this system generates a sense of interplay I haven’t seen elsewhere. It’s a worker placement game at heart, but with placement slots that are prone to multiple forms of disruption. Rival activations, crystals sticking around, variable costs depending on whether you own the ship or not, and, of course, that inevitable moment when a ship is torn apart entirely. The sensation of being funneled is profound. Across the course of a play, the diminishing size of everybody’s fleet gives tone and shape to the play-space. Certain actions become bottlenecks — or even disappear altogether, apart from the costly and use-limited neutral ships available to all. Others stick around, becoming solid earners for their owners.
But that’s not all! Did we already utter that phrase? Indeed, Space Station Phoenix has a tendency to go on like that, folding systems over one another and spooling its duration outward. Like a mechanized representation of Newton’s Third, nearly every action in the game also triggers a reaction. This is managed via the diplomacy board. Here, players compete for preeminence, using limited diplomacy ship slots and waning crystal reserves to propel themselves along a series of tracks. Whenever the corresponding action takes place, everyone earns some bonus depending on their relative position. The rules are persnickety: you only earn the bonus for your space if you’re in first place, otherwise you’re required to claim a bonus from a lower slot. The effect on the tempo is stuttering: for a game that allows its players to plan the blueprint for their station many minutes in advance, it certainly loves to intrude into those preparations so you can gather one more crystal. Or worse, ask what everybody’s action was this past round so you can gather one crystal. After a few too many missed plays, we took to bellowing our selected action across the table. “Scrapping!” “Trade!” “Building!” When everybody’s hamster-feeder income relies on the accuracy of your pronouncements, conduct take-backs at your own peril.
There’s something appropriate about this diplomacy hullabaloo, though, a layering of yet another means of acquiring resources onto a game with an income phase for acquiring resources that also happens to be a game about buzzsawing your ships for resources. Did I mention that one of the actions lets you roll dice for resources? Another permits the trade of resources. Add a few sectors to your station and you’ll earn further bonuses, graciously color-coded, potentially transforming any action into an opportunity for some tidbit of income. It isn’t that I’m complaining, exactly. I want to be clear on that point. Gaining resources can be a joy, and this is a game that sees how we light up when we earn something for nothing. At the same time, all those little spills soon come to resemble the slow pat pat pat of morphine into a drip chamber. Or maybe somebody who’s had stomach surgery and needs to eat twenty-six meals in condiment cups over the course of a day. The dose is delivered, in the end, but nobody would argue it hasn’t been a bit of a pain to keep count.
Diplomacy, I think, is where Space Station Phoenix draws more breath than its lungs can comfortably hold. This is neither a short nor a truly long game, clocking in somewhere between two hours and two and a half. Not so bad. But it feels long. Those hundred little interruptions are what do it. Even without them, there’s so much to examine, to consider, so many little spills that are easily overlooked despite requiring meticulous accounting. Your station is an island of bonuses and incomes and perks. Before the game even begins, everybody claims a station hub with its own modifiers. Squint hard enough and station levels, with their slots for various types of aerobic aliens, anaerobic aliens, and humans, resemble importing lines of cells into a spreadsheet. Like balancing a spreadsheet or completing a math puzzle, the process of setting these little details in order has a mammalian pleasure to it.
Usually, though, you don’t halt a math puzzle every fifteen seconds to account for some external manipulation of its numerators.
Does this break Space Station Phoenix? I don’t think so. No more than any of its other niggles, such as the turn order wonkery of never wanting to claim income for fear of having all your best ships used by competitors before you get a chance to take an action, or the way its endgame triggers seem like they’re five hundred years away until — pop! — it’s over. Oops. There I go again. If there’s any one thing Space Station Phoenix is great at, it’s drawing scrutiny. With its countless penny transactions, that’s the mindset it demands. It’s only natural that the requisite heightened sensitivity should slip over into analysis mode now and then.
Because here’s the thing: Despite its problems, Space Station Phoenix scratches the part of my brain that persists in doing math puzzles even though I don’t especially love math puzzles. It isn’t “about” the destruction of its fleet quite as much as it would have us believe, but it still understands why humans are neurotic about their workspaces and get frustrated when the remote isn’t where they set it down, dammit. Does it have anything to say about inter-species relations? No, dummy. I already told you it isn’t a game for dorks. It’s a game about plugging circuitry into the best possible slots, sizing up a selection of operators, and sometimes missing when somebody informs you that you have an extra crystal waiting. A game for jocks, then.
More seriously, this is one of those confounding imperfect titles that’s fascinating, frustrating, and overdrawn in equal measure. It’s a phoenix all right — a phoenix’s whose birthplace in the cinders happens to be its most compelling aspect.
A complimentary copy was provided.