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Cracked LCD- Firefly: The Board Game in Review

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If you’re looking at licensing a cult TV show to a board games manufacturer, I’ve got a hot tip for you. Gale Force Nine and the crack team of Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, and Sean Sweigart should be at the top of your meeting schedule. This company (previously known primarily as a maker of miniatures gaming supplies) and these designers are two for two with last year’s Cracked LCD Game of the Year shortlister Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery and this year’s outstanding board game based on the almost fanatically revered (and short-lived) Firefly TV series.

I’m convinced that when these guys sit down to design a licensed game, they write down “what do fans of this property want to do in a board game” on the top of a sheet of paper and then make a list. Then they apply the structure, mechanics, and process in such a way that lets the players do exactly those things. This design sense is what makes games like Dune and Battlestar Galactica so rich in setting and conceptual theming, and the new Firefly game slides right into the roster of really great licensed titles that totally hit the mark.

But here’s the funny thing. I’m actually not much of a Firefly fan. I actively hated the show for years, despising its too-cute, too-clever dialogue and a little too much of Joss Whedon’s almost clinical nerd demographic pandering. So when this game was announced, I kind of shrugged at it. But then I saw that the Spartacus team was on it, and was interested at least at that level regardless of my relative disinterest in the show.

So here’s the scoop on the subject matter up front. If you’re a toboggan-wearing, Jayne Cobb quoting Browncoat, you’re going to be happily inundated with fan service, stills, quotes and most importantly gameplay that totally represents the capricious space pirate/western theme of the show. The emphasis is on the crew and situations of varying moral character more than on hardware and space opera. If you’re not a big damn hero and don’t know a gorram thing about why they won’t take the sky from Wash’s lucky dinosaurs, what you’re putting on the table remains a damn good space adventure full of cowboys, crooks and commerce.

The framework- start out with a ship and some seed money and set out to complete deliveries or other tasks, improving your ability to do so over the course of the game- isn’t terribly different than Merchant of Venus or Merchants and Marauders. It says right on the box what you do in the game (in the words of captain Malcolm Reynolds)- “Find a crew, get a job, keep flying”. There are a couple of scenario cards that provide you with the overall agenda for each game- making money, making contacts, or completing certain tasks. There’s a great solo option available as well.

Starting off with a Firefly-class transport ship and some seed credits clenched in the fist of Malcolm or another captain, you’ll pilot your ship around the ‘Verse taking jobs for criminal, government, or capitalist contacts. These are generally either pick-up-and-deliver missions or (mis)adventures that may require you to complete skill checks depicted as part of events drawn from the “Aim to Misbehave” deck. Most jobs require you to have certain skills or traits among the crew you’ve hopefully hired along the way, and upon completion you’ll have to divide the spoils up with your people or they’ll get demoralized and can be hired away by another player. They’ll also take a demoralized token if they’re moral and you take on an immoral job.

I love that many of the Aim to Misbehave cards and other adventure elements throughout the game offer either one or two alternatives to pass them- you might get a choice to shoot your way out of a situation at the risk of losing crew or taking on an arrest warrant or you may be able to risk a harder diplomacy check with only the risk of failure. Like Merchants and Marauders, there’s a sense that the game is occurring in a moral gray area and players are free to vacillate between legal and illegal choices with certain consequences. I also love that the game uses one of the greatest mechanics of all time- the exploding six, whereby you reroll any sixes ad infinitum- so that no test is actually impossible and your narrative might include some incredible instance where you really were a Big Damn Hero.

There’s just enough detail to bring out some of the show’s key concepts. Do illegal things like harbor crew members with warrants or transport contraband and the mutually-controlled Alliance Cruiser might flash the blue lights and pull you over for an inspection. Travel through the less-civilized border zones and you might find your ship overtaken by the dreaded Reavers. You can buy everything from ship components to knives at the various planetary markets. Hire on the volatile and unpredictable guinea pig River Tam, who may or may not help you to ace every skill check in the game and then do what you’ve got to do to get her brother Simon on board to make the most of her potential.

You’ve also got to be concerned about fuel usage throughout the game. Every time you “burn”, you spend a fuel token which also takes up half of one of your ship’s cargo slots. During flight, you’ll flip over cards from a travel deck that usually say “Keep flying” but some have some random encounters on them- salvage ops, Alliance Cruiser movement, Reaver movement, or other events including some that might require you to spend spare parts tokens to keep flying. Here again, you might find yourself making a decision to stop and help someone, thus slowing down your trip, or flying on while pissing off your moral crew members. I really like that at its heart, Firefly is as much an adventure game about people and leadership as it is a mercantile one about work and profit.

But it is most definitely not a combat game, and anyone expecting space battles or direct conflict between players is going to be disappointed. The multiplayer game has some friction especially with that fun crew-stealing rule, all players moving the Alliance and Reaver ships to harass others, and possible trading. But like Merchant of Venus, Firefly is usually a race to see who can make the most money or meet whatever goals there are the quickest. The paper money looks like a million bucks because that’s what you’re going to be after for most of the game. Victory points just wouldn’t seem right in this design.

Everybody understands making money, and I think everybody that likes both money-making and science fiction games will find a lot to enjoy regardless of the degree of attachment with the show. It’s a very accessible title despite a rulebook that could use a good revision to clarify some things. A two hour playtime keeps things crisp and rarely boring. I didn’t really notice it until my third or fourth game, but I like that there are never more than six pieces on the map at any time- no counters, markers, tracking chits, flags, neutral units, or anything like that. Just your ships and space. Granted, offboard each player has to manage their ship board’s cargo holds and any crew or equipment cards on hand as well as the job cards they’ve taken, but there’s really not a whole lot to keep track of or monitor while you’re playing.

I think it’s a testament to the strength of the Firefly board game that playing it prompted me to go back and give the show another chance. I spent more than a couple of happy evenings watching the show and playing the solo game. I actually enjoyed the show more this time around because I watched it on its own merits and far removed from any of the bizarre cultist hype, and I found that my enjoyment of the game was enhanced by having a greater sense of the setting and characters. What’s more, it made me appreciate even more how comprehensively Gale Force Nine has delivered the definitive Firefly gaming experience.

Brakketology Gets a Job; Keeps Flying

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In this day and age a guy has to do what he can to get by. That means you have to take a lot of jobs to make ends meet, even legal ones. A Firefly class boat needs parts and supplies to keep it in the air, after all. In this week’s Brakketology, if you haven’t guessed, I got a chance to play Firefly: The Game. Along with some first impressions of that, there’s a promising first look at Banner Saga (via RPS) that demands you pay attention, more Enemy Within bits, Project Eternity continues its climb up my list of most anticipated games, Amazon does something that almost made my life better, a real Ultima lands on iOS, and Xbox One gets a release date…

Find a job. Find a crew. Keep flying. I talked a bit (or tried to) about Firefly: The Game on JtS this week. I loved the thing. It’s exactly what a Firefly boardgame should be and if you’re a boardgamer and a fan of the series, you should absolutely give it a look. The theme is exactly as described in bold. You’re the captain of a Firefly and you need work, legal or otherwise. The board is big chunk of space populated by the many moons and planets featured (and not featured) in the show and you travel from place to place seeking work from the likes of Badger, and Patience, and –shudder– Niska. Do not disappoint Niska. You also have to build a crew that complements the skills required to execute on a given job, you have to keep them happy, and you need supplies (not to mention gas) to keep your boat in the air. It’s thematically perfect. The only flaw is that it’s a bit solitaire. There are means by which you can interact with other players while on-planet together, trading items, stealing crew, etc., but it’s not required and in the game I played it never happened. It’s also a game that takes a full play-through to get the hang of. In my game there was a lot of downtime while people figure out their moves, consulted rules, etc. It’s the kind of thing that goes away once at least a couple players know the game cold, but it’s a factor you should consider before breaking it out. Also, it’s a four-player limit, which it really didn’t need to be. I’m betting that, like Spartacus (also from GF9), that the inevitable expansion addresses this. (On the bright side, you can also play it with just one player.)

Banner Saga. It Looks Good. RPS has a hands-on look at Banner Saga. It’s long and detailed and you should read it. This was a game that I had intended to Kickstart back in the day, but missed the deadline because I am, of course, monumentally lazy (and cheap). Now that single-player information is starting to come out, the game sounds (and looks) exactly as good as I thought it did during its proposal stage. Here’s a taste from RPS:

I can’t think of a game I’ve played in recent memory where each and every choice I made felt so heavy. I went from telling tiny squads which squares to move to while fighting drunks (that was a fun tutorial) to managing a powder keg caravan of thousands. And if I didn’t keep it all together? If the whole thing went sky high, if I didn’t placate the spoiled human prince, if I didn’t show my Varl legions that I was just as firm yet wise as their old leader, if I didn’t keep our supplies topped off, if I didn’t get rid of the spoiled supplies some grateful merchant accidentally gave us when we saved his life, if I didn’t, if I didn’t, if I didn’t…

Then the ice would break.

There are comparisons to Oregon’s Trail (in a good way) that follow, not to mention the sorts of hooks and subverting expectations that any gamer will appreciate. Go. Read.

XCOM: Enemy Within Tries to Look Spontaneous. There is now a highly, highly scripted demo, which is so contrary to what XCOM is that it’s hard to draw much of a conclusion from it. It’s worth noting that the more scripted the events in a mission in Enemy Unknown, generally, the less interesting that mission was. It concerns me when they talk about “new environments” they haven’t addressed them in the context of just another mission, because that’s what the game needs from an expansion. More types of random missions. More variety of environments for random missions. A longer game to accommodate it all. More ways to customize your squad is nice too, but I’m not on-board yet with the whole mech and genetic modification angle. I’m strictly wait and see on that. If I can be permitted to concern troll Firaxis, I’m wary their focus is on expanding on the wrong things. I’ll still buy, though, because that’s how much goodwill they earned from me with Enemy Unknown.

For those looking for hope, here’s a blurb from RPS who got some hands-on time with it:

I got to play a little of Enemy Within last week, and the net effect of these new units was that aggressive strategies felt much more effective and satisfying. I usually turtle so hard that people want to turn me into soup, but mechs’ ability to essentially function as mobile cover and a nice helping of active camouflage for weaker units made me feel like I was better able to control the battlefield. However, to balance that out, aliens have mechs too, and I nearly ingested my Adam’s apple every time a sectoid gave one a near-impregnable shield via mind merge. The short version? It wasn’t necessarily better or worse than the way I usually play XCOM, but it was certainly different.

Project Eternity Gets a Stronghold. Obsidian came out with a fresh info-dump on what is one of my top three Most Anticipated Games That Might Come Out Next Year — Eternity. The topic du jour is the player’s stronghold. This is no longer a fresh or novel concept for an RPG, but that does not mean it can’t be cool if done well. This looks cool, mostly because it will have function beyond being a place to dump stuff. Here’s a list of passive things it’ll do. You’ll find much more at the Kickstarter page; the bit about constructing a prison sounds particularly cool so do click over.

  1. Resting bonuses. Some of the upgrades to your stronghold will grant temporary bonuses to your attributes or non-combat skills when you rest there. As examples, you can build Training Grounds to improve your Strength or a Library to improve your Lore skill. Some of these upgrades are expensive, but you’re worth it.
  2. Adventures for idle companions. You will eventually have more companions than will fit in your party, so you will have leave some of them behind. While they are idling away at the stronghold, they can take part in their own adventures, earning additional experience for themselves and extra money, items and reputation bonuses for you!
  3. Ingredients. Many of the stronghold upgrades will generate ingredients used by non-combat skills. For example, Botanical Gardens create Survival ingredients over time, and a Curio Shop produces ingredients for use by both Lore and Mechanics.
  4. Special offers. Sometimes visitors to your stronghold will have rare items for sale, or perhaps they will offer you items in return for something else. Pay attention to these visitors. Some of these items may be nearly impossible to find any other way!
  5. Wealth. Don’t forget that by owning a stronghold, you also own all of the surrounding lands and impose a tax on all of the inhabitants. It will feel nice for a change to have someone recognize your high standing and give you the money that you so richly deserve.

Xbox One Needs a Hug. Has no Takers. Lots of Xbox One stuff going on this week. November 22nd is the first day you can officially not buy the console. Lucky you! What’s amazing is that I’m actually on the fence about it. Despite the fact that I’ve been doing 100% of my gaming via PC the past year, and am perfectly happy with that, I almost want this console just to have it. Maybe it’s because Microsoft keeps bending over backwards to let people know that, “Yes, we know you hate us and everything we stand for, but look at all the ways we’re maybe(?) changing things you don’t like just to make you happy!” Like, teasing the possibility of backwards compatibility… someday. There’s a desperation so thick it makes me want to give them a conciliatory hug by just buying the thing. Also, I think my kids will like the new Kinect and it might keep them off my PC. Also also, I haven’t bought a new gadget in a long time and I’m getting twitchy. It’s a sickness.

On second thought, this ad is so full of awful maybe I’ll reserve my hug for awhile longer…

Because football wasn’t complete until Xbox One. Maybe it’ll even solve that pesky concussion problem.

Ultima IV to iOS. If you want to get the stink of the kinda sorta free-to-play abomination that is Quest of the Avatar, you can now get a retro fix of Ultima IV on iOS as Mythic –let’s just call it an apology even though it isn’t one– ported the Commodore 64 version over to Apple’s mega-mall of a store. And it’s free.

Kindle Readers to Get the Best of Both Worlds? Almost. Amazon, which already gets props for doing this with their music catalog, will now let you purchase their print books and, at the publisher’s discretion, let you tack on the ebook for a small fee (free in some cases). As a Kindle user who laments not being able to share books I enjoy with the people I know, this is a long overdue solution. Now if only I could tack on the print book sale to all my ebook purchases from the last year. Nothing like punishing those of us who bought into your platform already. Ugh.