When Machi Koro came out in 2012 many compared with with the venerable Settlers of Catan. The main mechanical similarity was that players got stuff on everyone’s turn depending on the roll of the active player’s dice. Aside from that they had little in common aside from being relatively easy to teach and having a kid-friendly graphic sensibility. Some said that it could replace Catan as the gateway game; it did not.
Oh, it’s popular enough, having spawned several expansions and remaining in print in an age when so many games are one-and-done. But Machi Koro suffered from pacing issues that, I think, prevented it from becoming a blockbuster. Both the early game and the end game suffered from slowness; it took too long for players’ engines to get off the ground, and the last few rounds lacked the tension which is the mark of great games. Cheap buildings you bought in early on were almost useless later when you could roll three dice. Finally, there was almost no player interactivity (which, like it or not, Catan has in spades)–although I’m told the expansions add it in.
So, in case you haven’t figured it out, I was disappointed in Machi Koro. Then along comes John D. Clair, best known for inaugurating the card-crafting genre with Mystic Vale and its little cousin Custom Heroes. He appears to have seen some potential in MK’s basic mechanics, spotted the flaws in its design, and decided to fix them. Space Base is the result.
Space Base is not a perfect MK-killer, but it is superior in most respects. You see the differences the moment you set up the game. Each player begins with a fleet of twelve crap ships, each of which produces resources of some kind and occupies its own activation space numbered from one to twelve. Then, each player draws a random Level One ship from the central, Splendor-like market. The player who drew the ship with the highest activation number goes first, and each player then slots her ship into her fleet, ”deploying” the basic ship that was there (I’ll explain depoying in a sec). This simple and elegant start player mechanic also breaks symmetry (another problem with MK) and encourages players to choose different strategies.
The most basic improvements Clair made were to the central mechanic of “active player rolls, other players also get goodies”. Firstly, the resource roll is always two dice, but each player can choose whether to activate the ship whose activation number is the sum of the two, or instead the two ships which activate on the individual die rolls. So a 4/7 roll could activate just the ship in slot 11 or the ships at 4 and 7. The choice is usually obvious at first–but as the game goes on and you’ve levelled up your fleet, it gets harder. Do you activate one ships that gives you points, or two ships that give you gold?
I hope you’ve spotted the other way this rule makes Space Base better–it makes the ships in your 1-6 slots way more important, all the way through the game. In fact, as you are about to see, it is usually crucial to ensure you buy at least a few low-activation ships.
This is because of Space Base’s other big improvement: the rewards you get for activating a ship depend on whether you are the Active Player or one of the Passive Players. Each ship begins its life right-side-up, with its reward on a blue background–meaning you only get that reward on your turn.
Once you buy a new ship, the old is “deployed” by turning it upside-down and sliding it beneath your mat in that same slot, where there is (usually) a different and better reward on a red background, meaning you only get it when it’s not your turn. You’ll recall that each player starts the game with one deployed ship, which means there’s at least some chance she gets resources on other players’ turns right from the get-go.
This design aspect has many significant effects: it forces you to think of long-term strategy, because it takes two steps to move a juicy-looking card from the market into its deployed state. It means you have to pay a lot of attention to activation numbers, not only for your own fleet but your opponents. It encourages you to buy ships with activation numbers of one through six, because once they’re deployed you can guarantee yourself stuff every turn. And it makes the game play out differently at different player-counts, because you’re much more likely to earn “deployed” rewards in a five-player game than a two-player game.
Some ships do more than simply fork over moneys or pointses. Some need to be charged up to be triggered; others let you simply claim ships from the market. One even just says, “You win”–but it’s expensive and takes a lot of time to charge up. (You can always leave it out if you’re not into that kind of thing.)
One area where Space Base doesn’t improve that much on MK is in the player interactivity department. You do get stuff on other people’s turns. But very few ships let you steal goodies from other players, or cause them grief. So the game is basically a race to create the best probabilistic engine for producing VP’s. That being said, the more you pay attention to what your opponents are buying, the better off you will be. In my last game we let one guy get away with buying a whole bunch of ships with the same activation number, which meant his passive rewards for that number (I think it was 10) were so high that all it took was two or three rolls to put him over the top. We let that happen.
It is also possible, due to the vagaries of the market, that some turns will pass where you won’t want to buy anything from the market, and there’s no way to wipe it. On the other hand, that might be an opportunity for you to “retune your deck” as it were, since it is often better to buy some cheap ship that increases your deployed rewards anyway, so you can’t lose, really.
The only thing that keeps Space Base from being a gateway blockbuster is that the rules for charging and activation as well as those for some of the more complicated ships can feel a little too overwhelming to beginners. On the other hand, you could always take those cards out of the game for the first few plays and then toss them back in with a supplementary teach. There’s very little reading on the cards, so the game is definitely approachable to kids as young as ten. I think Space Base is slightly above gateway level, but with enough interesting decisions and strategic options to interest veteran players. Try it out for yourself and see.