Monday, April 10, 2017

No Power in the 'Verse Can Stop Me: A Review of Firefly: The Game

I will conclude my trilogy of Firefly-related posts with a board game review of Firefly: The Game. After I started getting into tabletop games (see my post Adventures in Tabletop Gaming), I started listening to a board game podcast called Meeple Nation (find out more at their website). One of the board games they mentioned frequently, and featured on one of their episodes, was Firefly: The Game. As a huge fan of all things Firefly (see my reviews of Firefly and Serenity), and a growing fan of board games, this game sounded right up my alley. I added it to my Amazon wish list, but didn't think I would necessarily buy it any time soon. One day, I saw it being sold for less than half the retail price, so I quickly ordered a copy. I'm glad I did.

In Firefly: The Game, each player is captain of a Firefly-class ship. You fly around the 'Verse, taking jobs, hiring crew, buying gear, and avoiding the Alliance and Reavers. I'll be honest: this game is complicated at first. It will take some time to read the rulebook and understand how to play this game. But like any game, once you start playing, it becomes very intuitive. You only really ever do two things on your turn, so you can spend other players' turns planning your next moves. The game is also big. I don't mean the box (which is a pretty standard size); I mean when you take it out to play. You can't play this on a foldable card table. So as long as you have a decent sized table (my wife and I play it on an IKEA that would normally seat 6 for dinner) you're good to go.

What a Turn Looks Like
On each turn, you can take two actions, choosing at most one action from any of four categories:
  1. Fly: You can either "mosey," moving your ship one space on the map, or "full burn." The latter can vary depending on your ship (if you have expansions) or your gear, but typically you spend one fuel token, and you'll be able to go up to five spaces away. With this option, though, you have to draw a card for each space you move. These cards often tell you to keep flying, but there might be negative consequences, like an encounter with the Alliance Cruiser (in the central Alliance Space) or the Reave Cutter (in Border Space near the edges of the board). These encounters usually end badly for you.
  2. Buy: Some planets have shops, where you can purchase weapons, ship upgrades, and other equipment, or hire crew members. You can also purchase fuel (which you need to fly at full burn) or parts (which are necessary for certain cards you might draw while flying at full burn).
  3. Deal: There are six contacts (in the base game) for which you can do jobs: Harken (an Alliance Officer), Niska (a crime lord), Badger (a middle man who often sets up smuggling jobs), Patience (who was featured in the pilot episode of the series as a woman who had shot Mal during a previous job), and Amnon Duul (who ran the Space Bazaar featured in the episode "The Message"). You can use a "Deal" action to consider and take jobs from these contacts. If you are "solid" with certain contacts (you've successfully completed a previous job for them), you can also sell excess cargo to them.
  4. Work: This is the action you use to carry out the steps of your job. (For example, if a job requires you to pick up cargo on one planet and deliver it to another, you take a "Work" action to pick up the cargo. After you've flown to the destination, you'll take another "Work" action to deliver the cargo and get paid. The various crew members and gear you have might help you on your jobs. Some jobs require you to have a certain amount of skill (the three skill types are negotiate, tech, and fight) in order to start the job. Your captain, crew, and gear contribute to your total for each skill. Other jobs require you to draw Misbehave cards, which will also utilize these skills. So the more crew you have, the easier it will be to complete a job. However, the flip side of that is when you get paid for a job, you also have to pay your crew. So the more crew you have, the less money you'll end up with at the end of each job. Another option with the "Work" action is to "Make Work." As long as you're on a planet, you can "Make Work," and collect $200.
Having described all of those possible actions, it seems pretty complicated. But each turn only consists of two of those actions, so you only have to plan two steps at a time. So one turn might just be "moseying" one space away, and then "making work" and collecting $200. Once everyone gets the hang of the game, you can start overlapping turns a little bit. For example, if Player A is in the middle of flying across Border Space, Player B can start looking at the items for sale on the planet he'll visit on his next turn.

The Theme
This game has perhaps the strongest theme of any board game I've played. What I mean by that is that the imaginary world of the game is closely tied to the mechanics of the game. You're not just playing Monopoly with a Firefly skin. Another way to think about it is, as the guys at Meeple Nation put it, the Monster Truck Test. If you can strip away the theme of the game - the Firefly planet names, characters, terminology, and images - and replace it with monster trucks, does the game still makes sense? And in the case of Firefly: The Game, the answer is an emphatic "No."

When I play this game, it really feels like I'm the captain of a Firefly freighter, trying to keep my ship flying while steering clear of the Alliance and the Reavers. Just like in the show, the Alliance can be a hindrance even if you aren't breaking any laws. Just like in the show, you have to weigh the benefits of getting somewhere quickly and getting there safely. Just like in the show, if you fail to complete a job for Niska, he will come after you and your crew.

A rather humorous example of theme is the character Saffron, who appeared in the Firefly episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds." Saffron was a con artist who tricked Mal into marrying her, and then tried to crash Serenity and sell it for parts (leaving Mal and the crew for dead). She shows up in a later episode going by the name of Bridget, and trying to do the same thing to a friend of Mal's. We also meet another former victim of hers, who knew her as Yolanda. Well, in Firefly: The Game, you can hire Saffron to your crew. From a different planet, you can hire Bridget. If you hire Bridget while Saffron is employed by a different player, the Saffron card is discarded from the game. The same goes for Yolanda, who can be hired from yet another planet. So the game mechanics mimic the duplicitous nature of the TV show character.

How to Win
Firefly: The Game has several options for determining the winner. During set up, you choose one of these goals, and that will be what everyone will work towards. Some goals are based on acquiring a set amount of money. Some involve drawing several Misbehave cards, and leave it up to the player to determine how much money they should acquire first, and how high they should boost their various skill levels. So far, I've found that when we use the goal cards that deal with acquiring money, I tend to win, but when we play with the more complicated goals, my wife wins handily. Either way, I have a blast.

Player Interaction (Take That!)
For a good portion of the game, each player acts independently, without worrying too much about what the other players are doing. The main exceptions would be the very beginning of the game - where each player has to pick a different starting location (no two players can start in the same space) - and towards the end of the game, where it might become obvious that one player is close to winning, so other players might start taking more risks in order to win first.

Some people dismissively refer to games with minimal player interaction as "multiplayer solitaire." I don't think that applies here, because there are some other ways you can hinder the progress of your opponents. A few cards will let you move the Alliance Cruiser or Reaver Cutter. Sometimes you might be able to move one of these ships into the path of your opponent, forcing them to take the long way around. You may even be able to place a Reaver Cutter on the same space as your opponent, which could result in all of their crew being killed off. My wife and I tend not to exercise this ability, though, because it feels too mean (read: I don't want to sleep on the couch).

There are also situations where crew members become "Disgruntled." (I didn't really get into that game mechanic in this post.) If you are on the same space as an opponent with disgruntled crew, you can bribe those crew members to join your crew instead. (Going back to theme, this hearkens back to Mal and Zoe hiring a disgruntled Jayne Cobb away from his former captain, while Jayne and said captain had them at gunpoint, no less!) And, in the example of "YoSaffBridg" mentioned above, you can cause someone to lose a crew member by hiring her alter ego somewhere else on the board.

In addition to that, there's the fact that the crew members or gear you acquire is no longer available to any of your opponents. So I think the game strikes a great balance with player interaction. It's minimal enough that I can still enjoy the game, even if I end up losing at the end. It's not like Monopoly, where you can spend an hour of the game slowly and obviously losing to that one player that has 20 hotels. But there's enough interaction that I do feel like I'm playing with other people, as opposed to playing near them.

There are several game mechanics that I left out of this post, to keep from rambling on too much - disgruntled crew, immoral vs. moral jobs, wanted crew, and warrant tokens spring to mind. There are also several expansions I haven't played, which increase the size of the map, or add new ships and game modes. One expansion even introduces an additional way for players to interact, allowing a player to capture and collect a bounty on another player's crewmember. So I won't delve into any of that here.

I hope I've gotten across the feel of the game, and its exceptional quality. If you like Firefly, and you like board games, there's a good chance you'll love this game. If you don't like Firefly... well, then I want nothing to do with you. No, I'm just kidding. But I honestly don't know what a non-Firefly-fan would think of this game. The gameplay is solid, but it is enriched so much by the Firefly flavor that I find it hard to separate the two. I have heard anecdotal evidence of someone introducing the game to his daughter, and his daughter liking it so much that she wanted to start watching the show, so take that for what it's worth.

Geek Pick: Firefly: The Game

This game must be between printings, because when I go to the listing of the version of the game I purchased, it says it isn't available, and the third party sellers are asking $80 for it (while the MSRP is $50). So at the time of posting this, that's what you'll find at this link.

A quick search showed that there is also Firefly: The Game - Big Box, which includes a few smaller expansions: "Artful Dodger, " which gives you an extra ship, allowing you to play with a maximum of five players instead of four, and "Big Damn Heroes," which lets you play Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, or Jayne as captains, instead of just having them on your crew. You can find that here.

If you're just looking for the base game, with no expansions, and if Amazon doesn't have it, you can always go to the publisher's website and buy it directly from them. Gale Force Nine's online store can be found here.

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