I’m a child of Asimov, Blish, and Heinlein. And as problematic as each of their bodies of work might be on today’s terms, I can’t escape their influence on my thinking when it comes to the potential for human exploration of space. And I’ve always hungered for a game that would let me step into the shoes of a Chris deFord or Lazarus Long. I mean, terraforming a planet can be very satisfying–but what about getting out farther into the Solar System, or nearby stars–or even the Local Group?
Look: no one disputes that Terraforming Mars is currently one of the best–if not the best– space-themed games in existence. Only Gloomhaven, Pandemic Legacy Season 1, and the new edition of Through the Ages rank above it on BGG as of today. And I’m a fan from way back; not only did I sing its praises almost two years ago, I also rushed out and bought the PC port (and wrote about it) last fall.
But then I read that GMT Games was producing SpaceCorp 2025 – 2300 AD–designed by John Butterfield no less, with Chad and Kai Jensen (Combat Commander, Dominant Species, and Urban Sprawl) as developers.
According to GMT, SpaceCorp would enable players to (and I quote):
Plus it was going to have a fast, streamlined ruleset AND a solo option. Let’s just say the ten-year-old s.f. geek in me got a little excited.
But does SpaceCorp deliver on these promises? Read on, reader…
* * *
OK, first of all, you may be asking yourselves what the big deal about John Butterfield is. Well, for an old wargamer like myself you could not ask for a better person to deliver a smooth, playable design as well as an amazing solitaire experience. This is the man behind such classic solitaire games as Ambush!, D-Day at Omaha Beach, RAF, and a personal favorite The Voyage of the BSM Pandora.
Fine, but these are all classic SPI rules-dense beasties. Could Butterfield adapt to the expectations of the new generation raised on Euros?
Turns out he can, just fine.
You can think of SpaceCorp as three linked minigames playing out over distinct Eras: Mariners (inner Solar System); Planeteers (out beyond Neptune); and Starfarers (local Star Systems and beyond). In fact, you’re given the option to start and end the game in any Era, if you’re looking for a shorter and more intense, albeit less immersive, play experience.
Up to four players compete to make the most profit, and there are several different ways to do this:
Players taking turns performing actions. Your choice of actions is guided by cards in hand as well as cards on the table in any one player’s personal tableau (their HQ). This messes a bit with the usual efficiency race because the better your engine, the more other players will use it, too. However, you get rewarded with extra cards every time they do, and since there is no hand limit and you can buff actions with the right card combos, more cards definitely equals more powerful actions.
There are other ways to increase the power of your actions, including using bases you have constructed and (in the Planeteer and Starfarer Eras) spending profits.
Each Era has its own map and card deck, which gives players a glorious sense of zooming out and getting more and more technologically powerful. For instance, in the Mariners Era, it takes ten movement points to span the board from Earth the the Asteroid Belt beyond Mars; by Starfarers, just getting to the closest star system (Alpha Centauri) takes twenty points.
The game is at heart a race to grab valuable real estate as quickly as possible. You use move actions to get places, explore actions to recon the surroundings where possible, and then build actions to establish a base on them–there are nine(!) different kinds, each with its own advantages. You also need to keep an eye on the Contracts board, which is essentially a checklist of achievement bonuses. Finally, all Eras reward players who reach “Infinity and Beyond” by leaving the board–in the case of the first two Eras, with more advantageous setup the following Era, and in Starfarers with extra VP’s.
Exploring is a chancy business. Only certain sites can be explored; when you do, you draw randomly from some facedown chits, which reveal what (if anything) you’ve found. Most of the time you find pretty good stuff: ores or water which can be mined; exotic elements which you can sell for profit; even alien ruins which you can turn into a tourist attraction. But it can also be risky, especially starting in the Mariners Era. There is a small chance of drawing an equipment failure, a pirate attack, or even (in Starfarers) a live alien race–which may or may not be friendly.
Starting in the Planeteers Era you can earn Breakthroughs by researching Genetics and what Butterfield decided to call Revelations (which gives the game a spiritual, not to say apocalyptic tinge, whether intentionally or not). Breakthroughs are incredibly useful, giving you all sorts of boosts and special powers. You can even get a head-start in Genetics during the Mariners era, though at the cost of using up actions which could be more immediately useful.
Each Era takes about an hour to play, but you’re always “in” the game because of the reward mechanic. If players can avoid AP you can be done all three Eras in three hours–which isn’t that much longer than a drafting version of Terraforming Mars.
The solo variant definitely delivers Butterfield-level quality. You play a two-player game against The Competition, a bot which is controlled by a second deck with its actions at the bottom. The Competition is ruthless: you really have to exploit every advantage you get to stay ahead. You can definitely use solo play to hone your skills for multiplayer, even if the rules are slightly different.
GMT games gets grief from Eurogamers because its components aren’t always as high-quality or sexy-looking as your average Z-Man or Fantasy Flight release. My God, there are cardboard chits! The cards don’t have a linen finish! But lately, especially with its COIN Series and games like SpaceCorp, I think GMT has realized its audience has higher expectations and has really improved. Yes, the base markers are old-school and little wooden or plastic ones would have had more drawing value–but that would have increased the price point of the game even more, and at roughly $80 (Canadian) it’s pricey as it is. (Maybe GMT will offer an Upgrade Pack with cooler components? Or someone else will step in à la Geekup?)
For me, SpaceCorp offers enough play value to justify its cost. My ten-year-old geek-self is finally satisfied. Grab your slipstick, Libby, we’re going system hunting!