Bugpope and Spacegirl Hijack a Starship
There’s nothing quite like breaking into places where you don’t belong. Between Mind MGMT, Sniper Elite: The Board Game, and Specter Ops, the last few years have offered a wealth of options for ne’er-do-wells.
At first glance, though, Gale Force Nine’s Starfinder: Pirates of Skydock, designed by Dylan Birtolo, Josh Derksen, and Thomas Gofton, has more in common with Donald X. Vaccarino’s Infiltration. Mostly because your moves are visible to the entire table and the aesthetic is oh so very neon. More than that, it comes loaded with a sense of distrust for your so-called teammates. As a crew of pirates attempting to highjack a capital spaceship, there’s plenty of incentive to bury a shiv in your crewmate’s backside.
Or so the game wants you to think. Around these parts, the Pirates of Skydock are infamous for their passive-aggressive snittiness.
The parallels to Vaccarino’s oft-overlooked Infiltration don’t stop with lens flare and the future’s inability to zip-tie their power cables neatly out of harm’s way. Like that game, Pirates of Skydock revels in the procedural minutiae of the heist. In both cases, that means finicky rules governing enemy movements that must be followed with exaction lest the whole thing slog together like a pile of cold porridge.
To whit, the heist itself: You’re here to steal a spaceship. Doing so requires fulfilling three objectives, drawn at random each game, spread across nine decks, six of them also randomly arranged, while the clock ticks down both to the starship’s launch and it being boarded by too many security forces for your ragtag band to handle. It’s a game on the clock.
Right away, however, it spaces the whole “time pressure” thing that makes heists worth their salt. When the ship launches, somebody wins. In fact, you’ll have to be very incautious indeed to botch your takeover. That’s because your goal, when you get down to it, is to amass victory points. Sure, you need to accomplish one of your objectives, but honestly that’s such a breeze that it’s impossible to imagine this is really a heavily armed capital starship. It isn’t impossible for security forces to take you down, but you’ll pretty much have to stand in front of a camera waving your arms and shooting hostages. Scratch that, there are no hostages. Really, there’s very little to do at all. Maybe the hard part came before the game began. Maybe this is the mop-up, the montage at the end of an Ocean’s Eleventy movie that explains how our protagonists were on top of matters from the very beginning. Whatever the case, any peril is remote, like living in the killzone of the Yellowstone Supervolcano. The thing might well eradicate humanity someday, but the view is pleasant and it’s hard to imagine that day will come anytime soon.
Pirates of Skydock takes place in the Starfinder RPG setting, Paizo’s far-future version of Pathfinder, which explains the odd reference to magic and the booklet that painstakingly details who these people are and why they’re trying to hijack a barely-protected spaceship. I appreciate the effort, even if I found it somewhat removed from the gameplay. Your character does matter, in a sense. In addition to a special ability, each pirate comes with their own selection of, uh, ordinary abilities. These are presented as tiles, which can be flipped over or swapped out as your character becomes more proficient, itself a janky process enabled by discarding the loot you steal from the ship. Every round begins with everybody assigning four energy cubes to these actions. It’s the planning portion of the heist, again not all that dissimilar to the (secret) action cards used for planning turns in Infiltration.
The rest of the round is given over to resolution. One by one, everybody removes a cube from an ability to use it. These run the gamut from the expected (moving, looting, attacking) to the slightly less expected (drawing scheme cards, healing). It’s a perfectly fine system. It might have even been a good system, had the arrangement and layout of your abilities felt like more than an afterthought. As it stands, scheme cards will sometimes activate a row of abilities or permit you to use a skill next to an energy cube, and guards can injure specific abilities, but such moments are rare.
Nor, really, does this system do any heavy lifting in terms of the distrustful race going on between pirates. These actions are plainly visible, leaving little question whether a certain crewmate intends to shoot a guard this turn or go hunting for loot. Worse, they’re connected to the ship layout, but never offer much incentive to take risks. Infiltration, to beat that dearly departed horse, increased its rewards and dangers as players ascended into the company complex. Other heist games also work to ensure that players are tempted to press a little deeper into enemy territory, whether via the extra items in Sniper Elite, the central temples in Mind MGMT, or the densely packed peripheral corridors of Specter Ops.
Here, objectives are accomplished by two factors. First, a roll. More on that in a moment. Second, upon completion, you also need to discard scheme cards with icons that match the objective card. In game terms, this translates to needing a whole lot of schemes. Whole stacks of the things. As a result, it’s necessary to spend much of the game digging through the scheme deck. This is a tedious process that’s only fulfilled one or two cards at a time. Not every space allows the drawing of schemes. Those that do are nominally more risky, patrolled by guards or threatened by the promise of encounters. You know which room is completely safe and allows the drawing of schemes? The dock. Yes, the very same dock that happens to be the starting space. Crud, you can even loot the ship from there. Which means you’re tacitly encouraged to sit in the starting space drawing cards. It’s not exactly the most heistlike behavior.
A more smartly designed game would have noted this problem and made harder-to-reach decks offer greater rewards. Except there are no rooms in Pirates of Skydock that could be described as “harder to reach.” Placing every room within walking distance may make for efficient starship design, but it isn’t the most compelling playground for a heist. There’s rarely any reason to prize one stretch of bulkhead over any other. If you’re in a room that won’t spawn a guard, you’re probably safe for the moment. If you’re looking for trouble, it’s easy to find. And if you’re camping in the dock, you’ll be fine until the alarm hits the next level.
Meanwhile, Pirates of Skydock shows its roots by requiring constant rolls of its d20. Moving into certain rooms, walking away from guards, rolling to loot or activate a room’s ability, trying to accomplish an objective — you need to look pretty hard to find something that doesn’t require a roll. Oh, wait. Drawing schemes. No roll for that. Looks like I’ll do that a few more times, then. Possibly from the snug safety of the dock.
Here’s the thing. I’m not allergic to luck. I’ll defend a dice game to the bitter end. But Pirates of Skydock takes the most odious possible approach to chance. Rather than using luck as one element among many, offering a range of possibilities and opportunities to narrowly escape the whims of fate, nearly everything succeeds or fails because of a roll. Or a draw, when it comes to those damnable scheme cards. The difficulty of its rolls increases along with the alarm level, giving its final round or two a brief squeeze before the game ends. It isn’t long before the whole thing feels like a drawn-out setup for a sequence of rolls. You can nudge your odds by spending scheme cards, but that hardly helps the game’s addiction to the things. Worse, it makes the characters feel secondary to the d20. Despite its RPG origins, what Pirates of Skydock faithfully reproduces from Starfinder isn’t tone, circumstance, character, or setting. It’s skill checks. If that’s the essential mechanism that deserves porting, it’s one heck of a way to tip your hand that I never need to investigate your RPG.
Meanwhile, those untrustworthy crewmates? Apart from racing you for victory points, they might as well not be there at all. They don’t even block your goals. Everyone can accomplish every objective, rewiring the bridge or hacking the engines or murdering the crew redundantly, and earn identical amounts of points for it. That’s surely the pirate equivalent of a participation trophy. Oh, sure, your crewmates can disrupt you ever so slightly. They can spend a scheme card — hurk — to tweak your roll result downward, or send guards spilling into your room from next door, or needle the alarm counter. Snitty behaviors, in other words, the sort that might necessitate an intervention or a stern talking-to, not a midnight trip to the airlock. These are not daggers in your back, heartbreaking betrayals, or ill-timed reports to the authorities. Even when they’re literal ill-timed reports to the authorities, it’s closer to having your ear flicked. The opening paragraph of the rulebook pitches this as a friendly competition. I didn’t think it meant this friendly.
The effect is entirely toothless, the heist equivalent of snooping in your parents’ room or taking too long with the hall pass in middle school. There’s some vague razz of the nerves at the sound of footsteps, but even that quickly dims to a self-aware foolishness. There’s nothing I love more than a heist. And nothing that disappoints me more than when a heist turns into an hour of drawing scheme cards and making encounter checks. For all its neon aesthetics, Pirates of Skydock doesn’t understand why the verboten is so exciting to plunder.
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A complimentary copy was provided.
Posted on February 13, 2023, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Gale Force Nine, Starfinder: Pirates of Skydock. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.
“the future’s inability to zip-tie their power cables neatly out of harm’s way”
How to know whether you’re in a utopia or a dystopia. 🙂