Whither the Worms
Peter McPherson’s Wormholes seems like the sort of game I ought to enjoy. Beginning from a central station, players venture into the great beyond to make contact with far-flung planets, deploy wormholes to transit from one end of the galaxy to the other in the blink of an eye, and deliver passengers to their intended destination. You’re a space taxi! I can get behind all of that.
So why does it leave me as chilly as a punctured spacesuit?
Take my hand. Let’s walk through a few early turns together.
When Wormholes opens, everybody inhabits the far corner of the map, stuck in orbit around a shared space station that will soon become the hub for a network of wormholes. Each turn permits three moves, with three corresponding movement tokens to track them. Early on, this isn’t necessary. Especially when a turn consists of nothing but those aforementioned three moves. Bip bip bip. That’s the noise my spaceship makes. Three moves. Three steps closer to a nearby planet.
The first frustration lands when somebody reaches a planet right away. This isn’t inevitable. It’s entirely possible that your map’s closest planets will be four or five spaces away rather than three. But for us, it wasn’t uncommon that somebody reached a planet without any fuss at all, and consequently plopped down their first complete wormhole connection. With proximity like that, it’s as though you’re strolling across a few city blocks, not expending tremendous energy to hit a target light-years distant. Fair enough. So this is a lighter game, not an heir to titles like High Frontier or Leaving Earth. Now that a wormhole is on the table, anybody can zap from one end to the other. There’s no cost to do so, although the wormhole’s owner earns a victory point. It’s a race. A race that will likely see the first player passing a checkpoint before anybody else has set foot on the field.
From there, it gets more interesting. Being the first to a planet awards a victory point. That award increases to three points later on, an indication that those first-turn wormholes may have been too valuable during playtesting. For the most part, though, wormholes are a means to an end. The more profitable goal is to scoop up passengers and deliver them to their chosen worlds. This is a much sterner test than flying in a straight line to the nearest planet — barring some detours to account for asteroids, naturally. Now you’re limited to those three moves, plus as many wormhole-zaps as possible. As the network grows more complex, the route between worlds is rarely a straight line. Instead, you’ll zigzag across the map, sometimes delivering to two or even three planets in a turn, tracing paths that will sometimes have your fellow players scrambling to decode what exactly you did.
This is the most joyous part of Wormholes. It’s also the shortest. Three brisk rounds and the game slams shut. Time to tally points.
I have no doubt that the length has been carefully selected. Everything in Wormholes feels carefully selected. The number of spaces you can move. The quantity of planets and, by extension, the passengers bound for each of them. The thickness of the deck. The selection of rule-nudging powers, like nebulae that provide free moves or enormous planets with their own simple orbital dynamics. The way points are scored for discovery, rival transits of your wormhole network, and delivered passengers.
The absolute sterility of it all.
Everything in Wormholes has been carefully measured. So carefully that they might appear on a surgeon’s tray, properly aligned and autoclaved with all the other implements. It has the feel of a game that once had texture, once had strange bumps and corners that didn’t quite fit together. But then, rather than giving them enough of a trim and no more, all the textures and corners were shaved away entirely. The discovery has no element of discovery to it; the planets are identical, formless, with nary a concern apart from which destination’s cards you can gather in bulk. The travel doesn’t feel like travel; it’s closer to figuring out in which order to run one’s errands, and not especially gripping errands at that. The centerpiece, these marvelous wormholes, behave like subway stops built by competing engineers, gone so star-mad that their concern for smooth urban design has been lost to a prior life. No wonder they’re the best part of the game. Even then, I wish they did more than function with such stability. Are holes in the fabric of space-time truly so reliable? There’s none of the apprehension of tracing a map of the underground, those bubbled connections that cough up their own glyphic language. There’s a childlike thrill to getting lost. The closest Wormholes comes to replicating that feeling is when somebody onboards some desirable passengers one turn before you, and that’s less a thrill than a nuisance.
One of the longest-standing and most damaging myths about game design is that it’s somehow connected to an ideal of balance. Wormholes, on a technical level, is entirely functional. It plays. It works. It’s balanced. Its last few rounds feel lovely as your ship blips in and out of existence. A suitable coda, if all too brief.
Yet for all its competence, Wormholes never comes alive. It never explores the possible, nor rises to the wonder and majesty of its topic, nor even makes me want to spend more time tracing its peculiar routes. I’m spacing this one.
A complimentary copy was provided.