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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.

Cracked LCD- Spartacus in Review

If you’ve seen the Starz Network’s blood-soaked sword-and-sandal show Spartacus, you may not be as surprised as other board gamers might be to find that the new game based on it contains a card called “Jupiter’s Cock”. Between that R-rated card (which you will, in fact, use to screw other players), a very specific rulebook admonition warning players “don’t be an ass”, and the subtitle “a Game of Blood and Treachery”, fans of brutally nasty board games rife with player interaction and bad behavior should be aware that they are in for quite a treat. Coming to us from Gale Force Nine, a company better known for miniatures accessories, Spartacus is something of a surprise hit. It’s a theme-first game like Dune or Battlestar Galactica and although it doesn’t quite ascend to those dizzying heights of genius design it definitely captures the visceral and gleefully trashy nature of the show without apology.

One thing that’s immediately striking about the game is that it’s something like Junta in that it’s a fairly simple take-that card game with an entirely different board component sort of welded on to it. On the front end, players represent the Dominus of one of Capua’s rival houses with the goal of earning influence to win the game. Influence is also something of a resource, controlling hand size and the play of Intrigue cards that may benefit you and your allies or do horrible things to your foes and former allies. There’s a neat design trick during the cardplay portion of the game in that players can- and in fact must- partner up to combine influence to play certain cards. This creates tons of conflict and opportunities for scheming and betrayal because there are virtually no limits on when money (or promises) can be exchanged, and no deal is binding. So you may ask the Batiatus player for his help to play a card that gives a target Dominus some money with the promise of splitting. But then that card may actually poison one of his gladiators and drop an injury token on him.

There are also reaction cards as well as Guards that can be played face-up as a kind of deterrent. They’ll thwart scheme cards, but there’s a die roll involved. The take-that part of the game is fast, fun, and practically guaranteed to piss somebody off. It’s the kind of simple, direct interaction that many games lack. It’s gruesome. Money changing hands, battle lines are drawn, and grudges develop that may even outlast the game’s playtime. Play it in the spirit of the game, and don’t be an ass about it. It’s in the rules.

Once everyone has had a go playing cards, there’s a round of trading where players can exchange assets or money and then a simple closed-fist auction. The market deck offers new assets for the Domini to bid on, including slaves (which the game calls “slaves”), gladiators, and gladiating equipment. Slaves generate coin and often have special abilities. Gladiators cost a buck a piece to maintain and they do their thing in the arena- where suddenly you’re playing a different game. One of the items up for bid every turn is the privilege of hosting a gladiator match. It earns your house influence, and you also get to invite two gladiators to fight. Hosting can be quite a powerful position because if your invitation is declined, a house can lose favor- and there may be situations where a house has no capable gladiator to send to the arena. Players particularly aggrieved during the Intrigue phase may bribe the Host to slot them against their adversary. Or the Host may pit a player with a tooled-up champion like Crixus against one with nothing to show but a no-name scrub to effectively fix the fight.

Once gladiators are selected, two figures are put on the hex-based arena board. All players get to wager on the outcome, which includes injury and decapitation outcomes that have a higher payout. The two combatants maneuver and throw tons of dice at each other in a simple but dramatic battle. Each gladiator has three stats representing a number of dice, and the dice are actually the hitpoints. Once someone runs out of one or more categories of dice, it’s over and the winning wagers pay out. The Dominus in charge of the winning gladiator earns game-winning influence.

The combat system runs a touch long with a few too many die rolls per encounter and I wish that it allowed for a little more complexity, but there are some welcome details. Gladiators that win consistently earn favor and can become in-demand champions, earning their Dominus money just for showing up. Faster gladiators can usually get a jump on their slower opponents and knock off some dice before the counterattack. And at the end of a battle that doesn’t end in a decapitation, the host gets to thumbs up or thumbs down the vanquished. And of course, bribes may be accepted to sway the decision.

If it’s not already abundantly clear, the designers of this game placed a very high premium not only on expressing the subject matter but also on player friction, drama, and alliances of convenience. In this sense, it feels something like a descendant of EON’s designs, whether the influence was present or not. It isn’t as tightly designed and there are some issues mostly tied to pacing and development over the course of the game. I think it feels too long- if this were an hour game, it would be this year’s King of Tokyo, no doubt, and I’d be penciling it in for a Game of the Year slot. But games can run three hours and it just isn’t quite that epic in scope. It’s a dynamic game with three major mechanical sections and varied gameplay, but there’s a sense of repetition as the game wears on with the same short-term goals every turn. I’m also disappointed that the game only supports four players- this is a game I’d gladly play with six- or possibly even more- players, even with an extended length. The larger field of people to screw over and put down in the arena could make this game legendary. I definitely feel confident that four players that like this kind of eye-to-eye bloodbath will have a great time with the game but I’d say that the two and three player option should probably be skipped.

Spartacus is a smart, fun design with a definite bite and it’s really quite unlike anything else on the market today. It’s an inexpensive title as well, with a $40 retail and decent components that include lots of images from the show. Surprisingly, there’s much more beefcake than cheesecake on display so if you’re into good-looking bare-chested men it’s a bonus feature in a package truly befitting mighty Jupiter.