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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- Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem in Review

sons of anarchy

Gale Force Nine’s crack in-house team of Dill, Kovaleski and Sweigart turned out Spartacus in 2012, Firefly in 2013 and now in 2014 they’ve hit paydirt again with yet another TV show-based title. Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem is going to cement this publisher and these designers among the absolute best working in the business today. The GF9 gang has turned in what is quite likely the best crime-themed board game published to date. It doesn’t matter if your experience with Sons of Anarchy is that you’ve followed it since its debut in 2008, if you binge-watched the entire series on Netflix last week, or if you have no idea what SAMCRO stands for. The universal themes of intimidation, exploitation, gang rivalry, illegal enterprise and explosive violence should appeal to anyone interested in the entertainment value of bad people doing bad things.

From the white-trash biker aesthetic of the box- pitch black with a tasteless piece of flash art depicting a M16-toting Grim Reaper- to the tiny plastic Glocks and duffle bags of contraband (read: drugs and pornography), this game is totally bad ass and at a level rarely seen on the tabletop. You’re going to want to grow a fuck-off beard and wear tacky sunglasses while you threaten to put your friends’ men in the hospital if they don’t give you a cut of the deal or forming an alliance of convenience with a rival to throw down on a gang that isn’t respecting territory. Make no mistake, this is not a friendly game of passive-aggressive competition and genteel victory point calculation. Making the most money doing bad things is what wins this game.

Sons of Anarchy bears more than a passing resemblance to the core design of Deadwood, a 2011 Loic Lamy design that FFG published in the US to almost zero fanfare, but I think this is a far more fleshed out, detailed attempt at a highly interactive- and violent- worker placement game. The concept is that players position gang members at location cards and then use that location’s function to skim money from the local business, buy or sell guns and contraband, or conduct other transactions keyed to developing your gang or making money.

Each turn, you get a number of orders to move your gang around (all members from one location can move to any other- there is no actual geography). Once there, it takes another action to activate the location but by the time your turn comes back around someone else might have moved in some muscle to block you. Hopefully, you’ve used some actions to recruit prospects and “patch in” some of those lesser gangers to become full-fledged, bike-riding members.

And you’re going to want to bring some guns, whether you call in the order to fight or your opponent does. When violence erupts, there’s a die roll and a tally of all members’ combat value at the location. Prospects are worth one, members are two and any guns you bid in a closed fist give you three and each will also guarantee that an opponent’s man goes to the ER, where he might die at the end of the round based on a die roll. Once fists and bullets start flying, the highest roll wins, the low rolling gang is sent packing. If shots were fired, participating players raise their Heat level.

Heat is a measure of how much law enforcement attention the gang is attracting and it primarily affects an end-of-round contraband sale, where everyone secretly puts some of those little duffle bags in their hands and there’s a per-bag payout based on how many total bags are up for sale. The fewer total bags sold, the greater the payout. But a player’s Heat level may restrict how much they can get away with selling. Further, if your Heat level goes over four, you’ve got to select one of your gang members to “take the fall”, meaning he’s out of the game- presumably locked up. Heat level also comes into play through some event cards.

One to three event cards are drawn at the beginning of each round. Some take effect immediately. Some are Hassles that restrict actions during the round, and they usually really are hassles. There may not be a Black Market phase at the end of the round or everybody has to be on the down low and no guns can be sold. Then there are Opportunities, which act as temporary locations added to the base 11 already on the table that players can take advantage of if they act quickly. This is a brilliant idea that I’m surprised no one has done before, at least not that I’ve seen.

sons 2

I really like that there are more event cards than you actually use in a game and also more location cards than what’s on the table. There’s not only plenty of variety and replayability between those two factors, there are also quite different situations and considerations that are possible from game to game. Special gang abilities add to the range of possibilities, and there’s already an expansion in the works that will presumably add the pieces for a fifth player. Bring it on.

To sum it up, this is a very interactive worker placement game with a three-part economy (money, guns, contraband) and a one-action-per-turn structure that leads not only to quick turns but also plenty of strategic decisions centered on timing. Developing relationships with other gangs and expectations based on their assumed holdings is also a major source of depth. Assets are kept secret, so you’re never quite sure if you’re going into a fight just to get blown away by someone with a big pile of guns.

The kind of interaction this game engenders is essential to selling its themes and setting. If you’ve got a fleet of bike-riding members cruising around the board and a lot of guns, you can really shake down your weaker rivals. They may be looking at selling guns somewhere, but you can block the action by ordering some men to go down there and stare menacingly at them. This is one of those games where you have an “aha!” moment, when you realize that the reason that moving and activating a location are separate functions. That space between means that someone can mess with you, and that’s where a lot of the fun comes in. All resources are tradable, so a player going full-on into the gun-running racket might find more profit in selling their wares to other players than to the sites on the table. Or you might give a gift of some contraband to a player willing to send in some men to help you out in a tough fight. It’s very open-ended, and like Spartacus the rules contain a very specific “don’t be an ass” stricture.

Sons of Anarchy: Men of Mayhem is one of the most exciting and entertaining games I’ve played this year. But I do have one fairly major complaint about it. When I play a game about making money, by jingo I want it to have paper currency in the box. A lot of gamers hate paper money for whatever idiotic reasons, but I think having a stack of play bills is an important part of the atmosphere. The cardboard money chits are fine, and it is fun to see them pile up over the course of the game, but after the exquisite paper money GF9 put in Firefly I was hoping for something more along those lines.

It’s a nitpick that shouldn’t diminish the overall quality of this design. Over the course of just three games, Gale Force Nine has emerged as a major player in the board games business. The highly thematic designs they are putting out are quite frankly blowing everybody else out of the water. They are smartly appropriating trends and design concepts but arranging them in masterful ways that convey their subject matter masterfully. I also think these guys are way ahead of the pack in terms of licensing. Snatching up television properties rather than film or video game ones is pretty smart in an era where really high quality cable TV shows are in such vogue. At this point, I would be first in line if they announced titles based on The Young and the Restless, Full House and 16 & Pregnant- because they would probably be awesome.



Cracked LCD- Firefly: The Board Game in Review


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.