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Cracked LCD- Firefly: Blue Sun expansion in Review

blue sun expansion

Alright, so by now I’m sounding like a broken record regarding Gale Force 9. So far, this company is batting a thousand and bowling a 300 game. They have yet to release a less-than-great board game product. They’re all good, but it seems that Firefly is likely to remain their premiere release for some time to come. And for good reason. Whether you’re a Browncoat or not, Firefly is a great game with tremendous appeal for fans of the license and great gameplay for everybody. There have already been two expansions for Firefly, the small “Breakin’ Atmo” add-on that beefed up the available jobs and the PVP-focused Pirates and Bounty Hunters. Now, they’re giving us more map to play with in the new Blue Sun expansion that adds a Rim Space region that bolts on to the left side of the existing board. Fans of the show will be excited to see Mr. Universe and Lord Harrow setting up shop in the ‘Verse. New gear, new jobs, a new supply planet, three new scenarios, two new captains and some new rules to explain it all add up to a stuffed-to-the-gills expansion that works seamlessly with or without the previous additions.

Oh, and there are more Reavers skulking about.

Above all of what Blue Sun has to offer a stronger sense of danger from the Reavers (and the Alliance) are is my favorite feature. There are now three Reaver Cutters, and they all start in Rim Space. When the Reavers move, they leave behind “alert” tokens, which means that players entering regions where there has been activity noticed by these space-faring psycho-cannibals take a die-roll based risk of encountering them- even if the actual Cutter figures are sectors away. Surprise!

As the game progresses and the Reavers roam around, this makes the board much riskier, and players may have to weigh out the decision to take a chance on the Reaver roll to complete a job or avoid running out of fuel. Players can also now mosey into Reaver spaces, and just like in the show there’s a “Reaver-flage” card that allows players to dress their ship up like a Cutter to avoid detection. With three ships to move and lasting on-board effects of their movement, the Reavers are much more of a threat than ever before. This is fun. There are also Alliance alert tokens that impact how the Alliance Cruiser operates in a similar fashion. New Nav deck cards accommodate the new Reaver rules and there is a separate deck for flying through Rim Space.

I’m also particularly fond of how Mr. Universe functions in the game. He doesn’t give jobs, he sets up riders for existing jobs so if you can meet the requirements, you get his knock-on bonuses. Plus, if you are solid with him, you can take on his “Big Damn Challenges” from anywhere on the map- thus enhancing any job you take on from any contact. Lord Harrow, the other new contact, offers some questionable shipping contracts and sells you cargo when you’re solid with him.

The scenarios are good (I particularly like The Great Recession, that drastically limits the number of available jobs in the game), but be warned that there is a continuation of the trend established in Pirates and Bounty Hunters that saw that expansion move away from solo-friendly play. With the additional Reavers, for example, there’s now a greater chance to directly impact other players and unless you jimmy up some triaging rules for their movement. You’re going to lose that opportunity to use the cutters as an offensive weapon when playing alone, and Lord Harrow’s cargo-heavy jobs are just cryin’ out for some piratical misbehavior.

It’s kind of a shame that the new features aren’t really compatible with solo play. I really enjoy solo Firefly and I’m sure others do as well, but it’s understandable that direct conflict simple requires live people to get the most out of it. The upshot of it all is that Firefly has, over the course of the past two expansions, become an even better multiplayer game than it was in it is initial release. Previously, I would have said that Firefly was one of those games that’s “best with three” because there wasn’t a whole lot of interaction or direct conflict. Now, with Blue Sun and Pirates and Bounty Hunters bolted on to the hull, I’m finding that four and five player games are much more interesting- albeit longer.

I’m also starting to get a bit leary about further expansion. With a small card add-on and two big expansions, Firefly is already starting to feel rather sprawl-y. One of the things I really liked about the game from the beginning was that it was really quite clean- decks of jobs, decks of stuff, player boards and just a couple of miniatures on the map. Now, there’s more of everything, more tokens, more “stuff” going on. We’re not at Arkham Horror levels of bloat, but right now I’m feeling like the game is at a comfortable level of mostly optional complexity. I like playing with everything, but I can see where some folks may want to avoid adding anything on to the game.

Regardless, we’ll likely see more Firefly in the years to come, the game has already had a longer run than the show did. Despite my reservations about it approaching bloat, I can’t say that I won’t want to check out what’s next because I love this game. But what I would really like to see is GF9 leveraging the success of the Firefly line- as well as its other licensed titles- to bring us a completely proprietary creation. They’ve conquered the licensed game market in just a couple of short years, now all they need to enter an “Imperial” phase is to show us something that is 100% GF9.

Cracked LCD- Firefly: Pirates and Bounty Hunters in Review

pirates

Gale Force Nine’s Firefly board game was last year’s surprise hit- for me, at least, because I wasn’t much of a Firefly fan before playing the game. I’m still not exactly what you’d call a “Browncoat”, but I loved the game’s rigorously fan-pleasing attention to bringing forward the show’s space cowboy/pirate concept to the table. I also especially liked that it was very much a game about commerce and crew. “Find a crew, get a job, keep flying” is what it says right on the box and that’s exactly what you do for more or less all of the games two or three hour duration. The Breakin’ Atmo expansion, which was a small box that added some new jobs and supply cards, was a nice low-cost but slight addition. I definitely recommend it for fans, but for those looking for something that substantially changes the game, look no further than the new Pirates and Bounty Hunters expansion. It’s out in stores now for $30 or less and it is money well spent if you find yourself wishing that Firefly had more, well, disagreeable behavior in it.

I was a little apprehensive about the expansion because I liked Firefly’s simplicity and straightforwardness. I didn’t want a complicated set of PVP rules or something that would increase the game’s length, which can already run a little too long with max players. And I definitely didn’t want to see the game turn into all-out space battles, because that just ain’t Firefly.

After Spartacus and Firefly, I should have known to just shut up and trust the Sweigart, Dill and Kovaleski team. These guys know what to do with an established setting and I think they completely aced the expansion here. Pirates and Bounty Hunters is a terrific add-on that evolves the core game into something even better- provided that you want the extra friction and nastiness that comes with sidling up next to an opponent’s ship, boarding it (through a Tech or Negotiation test- you build the story there) and killing or apprehending a crew member that has a bounty on their head. I sure as hell do.

Materially, two new ships are brought into the game that are on opposite ends of the Firefly-class freighter. The commerce-geared Walden has a greater cargo capacity but it’s slower. The Interceptor has almost no cargo capacity and only carries four crew but it is custom-made for running down other ships and doing a little bounty hunting. There are a few new captains, including the nefarious Jubal Early. There are a host of new supply cards, some new Lawman-class character cards (that obviously don’t want anything to do with your illegal activities) and of course new jobs that include piracy-minded goals. A couple of new story cards offer some direct incentives to partake of the game’s new features.

Rules-wise, the procedures for boarding and fighting rival crew fit right in the game’s core systems without many seams. Some aspects of the core game are enhanced, such as the “stash” on the Firefly-class ships- stuff stowed there can’t be stolen. The new bounty hunting mechanic is terrific- three “wanted poster” cards showing crew or types of crew cards literally put a price on the heads of character cards not only on crewed ships but also in the discard piles of supply planets. Collar a fugitive from justice and you’ll have to take them to a designated location to collect the reward. If you can make it, and someone doesn’t jump your bounty. Oh, and if you’ve got a wanted fugitive in your crew…you can be a real jerk and turn them in for the reward.

The net result of all of the above is that Firefly has now become a much more competitive, much more dangerous game. The base game is at heart a pick-up-and-deliver race to earn money with only the Alliance and the Reavers to worry about, apart from the occasional disgruntled crew member jumping ship to join another crew. With Pirates and Bounty Hunters, you’ve always got to be suspicious of why another player is moving toward you. If you’ve got a wanted fugitive on board or a fat cargo hold, you might be a target for a player who can now do a hell of a lot more to you than move one of the mutual antagonist pieces toward your location.

I’m also pleased that the new content doesn’t upset the rest of the game. Aside from playing with the new story cards focused on them, I haven’t felt like the new piracy and bounty hunting actions have necessarily taken prominence over the existing PU&D gameplay. Those jobs generally seem to pay better with lower risks- let alone the possibility of sparking a vendetta with another player. It’s entirely possible to play a five player game and have four players just doing business as usual and one running around in the interceptor poaching fugitives. I love that the expansion gives you options- you never have to take on a piracy job, but it feels like a sometimes situational, sometimes necessary possibility. Holding one sometimes feels like a nasty temptation, and that’s a very fun sensation in this game.

I’m reminded somewhat of Merchants and Marauders, the great Christian Marcussen pirate game that more or less shut the book on that particular genre. One of that game’s greatest strengths was that it felt effectively like an “open world” design where players could choose to play fair or foul. Firefly always had morality and immorality, legal and illegal enterprises. But now the choice to be bad directly impacts other players, and the PVP generated by the decision to take the opportunity to rob another ship or haul in a wanted man makes a profound impact on the game. Crew composition is more important than ever, especially since an opponent might be eying crew members onboard your ship to determine your weaknesses. Solo Firefly players take note- find some people to play with before you buy. The new additions still work with the base game played solitaire, but the piracy jobs and the more PVP-oriented elements will be of limited utility.

That’s hardly a complaint, because I think the expansion makes Firefly a better multiplayer game than it was out of the base box. It does seem to run longer, but the additional friction and jeopardy are enough to excuse another 30 minutes or so to run a five player session. It just feels more fleshed out.

And it still feels right for Firefly, which I think is very important no matter if you are a Whedon acolyte or have a more casual interest in the IP. It is still a game about commerce and crew. It still has that space cowboy/pirate flavor. There is still plenty of fan service both overt and subtle, hinted at in card effects and narrative hooks.. Like I said in my review of Firefly, the most important thing about this design is that the guys that made this game know pretty much exactly what its players are going to want to do in a given setting, and they respectfully give us the tools to do so without throwing a ton of rules or complexity at us. I think this is an indispensable expansion- much like the Spartacus one- that does exactly what an expansion ought to do. It builds on what already worked while optionally extending the game space to include new concepts and content. Firefly was one of my picks for the top games of 2013, and in 2014 it’s gotten even better.

Brakketology Plays Waterdeep, Muses About Theme

Lords of Waterdeep Cover

I’ve bee playing a bit of Playdek’s Lords of Waterdeep on iOS ($7). This wholly competent boardgame adaptation should be right up my alley. It’s D&D-themed, which I like. It’s a worker-placement game, which tends to be the sort of thing I appreciate and excel at. And yet it’s ultimately rather hollow. Not bad, mind you, the core game mechanics are very good and faithfully translated. Playdek, from whom I received a free code to download this game (full-disclosure and all), could not have done a better job of translating this for iOS. The problem is that the D&D aspects of it don’t add anything to the game. At all. And yet, as an iOS port of a game that doesn’t have many Apps Store counterparts, I can’t help but recommend it for fans of worker-placement games. It’s good enough to be worth your time.

More on Waterdeep, as well as thoughts on the PAR closure and some new Elder Scrolls Online trailers, after the break…

Lords of Waterdeep Zoom Out

Waterdeep is a game in which, on behalf of a randomly assigned patron, you must complete quests using hired henchman of the fighter (orange), rogue (black), cleric (white), wizard (purple) variety. In any given turn you have three or four avatars (or whatever they’re called) that you can place in one of a host of locations on the game board. Put one on the inn and you can choose a new quest to pick up. Put one on the Fields of Triumph and you can pickup a couple fighter cubes. Put one on the Builder’s Hall and you can add a building to the town. Build the Yawning Portal and you can grab any two cubes of your choice, paying the owner a bit of rent (in the form of a cube). There’s variety to be sure, but mostly it’s about amassing cubes and gold.

Cubes are color-coded to their class, but the game’s biggest problem is that, ultimately, you’re never going to think about them as rogues and wizards. They’re a collection of colored cubes that you acquire and dispose of to complete a quest. (Completing quests, if you haven’t guessed already, is how you acquire victory points for the end game.) That’s not really what characters in D&D are all about. The fact that neither they nor the various places on the map are particularly memorable is telling. I’m not putting my little avatar guy on Waterdeep Harbor, I’m just putting it in that spot that gives me an Intrigue card.

For me, it all makes an interesting contrast with the Firefly boardgame, which I’ve played a few times of late and that Michael reviewed here last week. Firefly is so strong in theme that it makes everything about the game better. The captain I choose for my ship matters and affects how I go about hiring my crew. The jobs I take impact where I go on the board and what kinds of equipment I need. The mechanics are wonderful too, but flying ’round the ‘verse and picking up crew with characters from the show and items from the series all enhance those mechanics. The whole is worth more than the sum of it parts.

Not so with Waterdeep, where my cubes could well be anything and the locations could be replaced with a modern set or a sci-fi set and it wouldn’t make much difference. That’s rather shocking, given how rife with potential the source-material actually is. Imagine if all those little cubes weren’t so disposable. If they carried some kind of more unique identity (as D&D characters should) and the system allowed them to level and grow more useful over time. There are no, “Hey, look, I just got Drizz’t for my party. You guys are so screwed!” moments to cling to here. It’s all generic and replaceable cubes all the time.

Lords of Waterdeep Close-up

This is not said in an attempt to play amateur designer. It’s just that there’s so obviously a great D&D game lurking in this design, but the team of Peter Lee and Rodney Thompson, despite coming up with a very solid worker-placement game, failed to bring it out out as fully as they needed to. Because of that it really doesn’t so much matter how good a job Playdek did of implementing it for iOS. And, as noted, they did do a good job of that. I haven’t touched the online multiplayer, mostly because this is not the sort of game that suits asynchronous play. But as a pass-and-play game it works well and the AI opponents (set to one of three difficulty levels) do a credible enough job to make any game a challenge, especially while you’re still learning it. (The tutorials, which Playdek has sometimes struggled with in the past, also do a swell job of explaining the game to you. One run through the tutorials and one practice game should be all you need to get comfortable.)

If you like worker-placement games and want a competent one to play on your iPad the, by all means, buy this. It’s solid and competent and, in the absence of much competition, it’s worth owning. Just don’t go in expecting a unique D&D experience.

Elsewhere…

PAR, closed for business. I was shocked (SHOCKED!) to point my Feedly subscription at Penny Arcade Report this weekend, to find an article from Ben Kuchera announcing that Penny Arcade had closed up shop on PAR. (The official explanation from PA, here.) That’s depressing. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Ben’s take on games and the industry at large, but I’ve followed the man since he was at Ars and the fact is, he wrote stuff I was willing to read. Most gaming sites I follow via RSS I click over to read about 1% of what they post. Maybe 3%. PAR and RPS are the exceptions (probably more like 10-20%) and now I have one less reliable place to find quality coverage of the industry that isn’t lumped in with sixteen posts of pure dreck. I doubt you’re reading this, Ben, but you did great work at PAR and we’re all hoping you find a solid place to land in the very near future!

Hey, look! A fantasy MMO! Yay? Speaking of depressing, Elder Scrolls Online has a new trailer:

There’s also this one on class building:

There is nothing about these that tell me why I should be interested in this game. Though it’s true that I’m not an Elder Scrolls guy at heart, I’d sooner load up Skyrim or Oblivion than this.

On the other hand. This Apotheon trailer looks rather nifty:

Makes me think of Mark of the Ninja… in a good way.

Around the web: Telltale will bring us Borderlands and Game of Thrones-licensed games next year. There are trailers for them, though the one for Borderlands shows little and the GoT shows basically nothing. Evidently Telltale aims to monopolize all of my free time next year. Galactic princess looks interesting. Zombie-survival RPG, Dead State, is getting a demo. There’s also a video. GOG wants to let you return your purchased games if they don’t work. I’ve never bought a game from them that hasn’t worked. This actually happens? (rhetorical)

Cracked LCD- Firefly: The Board Game in Review

FireflyBoardGame

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.