Ten years ago, I wrote an article called “Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Part One: A History and Ten Top Games”, which discussed some top science-fiction games. Looking back, it’s shocking how inadequate the science-fiction market was at the time. Two of the “top” games I mentioned, Diceland (2003) and Light Speed (2003) were quite small press. Two others, Blue Moon (2004) and Blue Moon City (2006), trended more toward science fantasy — or even pure fantasy. Mission Red Planet (2005) was the only mainstream game from my list with strong science fiction themes. There were some others of course, with Starfarers of Catan (1999) being the most obvious, but as a whole science-fiction games were pretty scant ten years ago, especially among pure Euros.
Fast forward a decade. I recently spent an evening where I played Star Realms (2014) followed by The Captain is Dead (2014, 2016). A few months ago it was a couple of games of Jump Drive (2017) followed by Galaxy Trucker (2007). There have also been games of Colony (2016), Master of Orion (2016), Roll for the Galaxy (2014), and others. In other words, science fiction games have gotten really big in the eurogame space — in large part due to non-German designers.
Obviously, science-fiction theming gives these games different façades. But a game’s genre should be deeper than that: it should determine the mechanics of the game, and ideally those should be mechanics that wouldn’t be possible in any other genre. So today I ask: what makes a real science-fiction game?
I’m going to take a look at several popular games that I’m familiar with to answer that question. I’ve purposefully avoided licensed offerings, as they obviously have very different reasons for their theming.
Though there were certainly plenty of science-fiction games before Race for the Galaxy, it was the game that proved that eurogames could adopt science fiction themes and be very successful.
Science-Fiction Mechanics. The question of whether the mechanics match the genre is especially important for Race for the Galaxy because it started out as a Puerto Rico (2002) card game. And if you think that means the use of the science-fiction genre is a little thin, yeah, it sort of is. Obviously, the idea of planets that produce goods is very similar to the production of San Juan (2004). The exploration action and the development cards are both well-themed, but they could as easily have been prospecting and inventing in San Juan. Though I think that there is some additional scope for technology in science-fiction game (particular if you expand it in different ways!), we’ve seen tech trees and tableau building so often as an aspect of civilization-building games that it’s not unique to the science-fiction genre.
Science-Fiction Theming. In contrast, the theming of Race for the Galaxy feels very tightly tied to its genre. The individual cards are all well-considered, well-named, and well-illustrated, and that’s very important — but also somewhat forgettable. Where I think Race for the Galaxy really succeeds in its theming is at the larger scale: genetics, aliens, imperium, and rebels may all feel a bit generic, but as science-fiction tropes they’re memorable and the sort of things we expect from a science-fiction game. They’re what really makes Race for the Galaxy feel like science fiction.
Also See: Roll for the Galaxy (2014), Jump Drive (2017)
Rating: the beauty-is-only-skin-deep award; eurogames have long used theme as a shallow veneer, and though science-fiction games often feel better themed due to the their evocative settings, it’s not necessarily very important to the game.
Galaxy Trucker (2007)
Science-Fiction Mechanics. The core of Galaxy Trucker is building a big ship out of little components. This alternate take on technology is a mechanic that feels very appropriate for a science-fiction theme. Certainly, Factory Fun (2006) showed that the mechanic could be used in the modern day, but in general it probably works better the more futuristic something is — and thus the more likely you have big machines made of small components. I can’t imagine a similar game of building galleys for shipping goods in the Dark Ages, or even of building trucks in the modern day, whereas a science-fiction genre really opens the mechanic up.
Science-Fiction Theming. On the flip side, the theming of Galaxy Trucker is pretty horrible. Oh, it’s kind of sci-fi, but it is so much more generic than even the generic elements of Race for the Galaxy. I mean, you have pirates and slavers, purple aliens and brown aliens, and none of it is evocative or memorable in the least.
Rating: the building-stuff award; putting together mechanical pieces to produce a technological item is a great basis for a science-fiction game.
Space Alert (2008)
Science-Fiction Mechanics. Building a technical system from parts is just half the battle; you also need to operate it. In Space Alert you’re trying to power and operate your energy, weapon, and shield systems so that your ship can survive — and it’s all wonderfully interconnected. Again, we’ve sort of seen this sort of thing in other games, particularly resource-management games that imagine supply chains. But it really makes sense when you’re considering science-fiction level technology, and so it’s a nice way to once again make a science-fiction mechanic central to a science-fiction game.
Science-Fiction Theming. But just like Galaxy Trucker, the theming in Space Alert is quite shallow. Maybe it’s a little better because you have lots of different ships attacking … but maybe not.
Rating: the running-stuff award; operating complex, interconnecting systems is another great science-fiction mechanic.
Star Realms (2014)
Science-Fiction Mechanics. Star Realms is a pretty simple combat game: your spaceships attack to do damage to your opponents — or possibly to their space stations. As it happens, the science-fiction genre is pretty good for a large-scale combat game of this sort. Fighting hand-to-hand in a fantasy combat wouldn’t be as appealing — though that’s pretty much what White Wizard did with Hero Realms (2016). Mind you, the science-fiction genre doesn’t have a particular monopoly on mass combat. They could just as easily be fantasy kingdoms or modern-day countries. However, science fiction does tend to go big picture like this.
Science-Fiction Theming. Frankly, I’ve always found the theming of Star Realms to be pretty awful. I mean, you’ve got four different themed suits of cards, but they’re totally forgettable. Some of the names sound evocative, like the “Machine Empire”, so I think the problem is that there’s just no link between the made-up peoples and their mechanics, and so they’re quickly put to the side.
Rating: the science-fiction-isn’t-that-important award; all of the other games tend to have science-fiction mechanics or themes that are notable, but for this one … I like the science-fiction art.
The Captain is Dead (2014, 2016)
Science-Fiction Mechanics. The Captain is Dead repeats a lot of the technological tropes from Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert with some new emphasis. In The Captain is Dead, the majority of the players’ actions are enabled by technology. This is a nice science-fiction modeling for action menus that ties the actions to physical places in the game, and also allows the game to print those actions right on the game board. What makes them truly interesting, however, is the fact that the technology enabling the actions can be destroyed by various misadventures and also repaired. This creates a very nice cycle: not only is the game’s science-fiction genre tied to the central mechanical conceit of the game, but the maintenance of that game system also becomes part of the game play!
Science-Fiction Theming: Though the adversaries of The Captain is Dead are as faceless and generic as the foes of Space Alert, the game finds a way to excel its theming in another way: through very evocative characters and actions. The actions blend effortlessly with the technology, making the mechanical connection that much stronger, while the characters are slightly abstract version of a who’s who of tropes from your favorite science-fiction media.
Also See: Damage Report (2014)
Rating: the I-saw-that-on-TV award; one great way to check off all the science-fiction genre boxes is to mirror other media.
So how do you make a great science-fiction game that really feels worthy of its genre? Several successes offer their own ideas.
Mechanically, technology is a great inclusion. Whether your players are building tech, using tech, or repairing tech, they’ll feel like they’re taking actions that are quite unique to a science-fiction game. Large-scale warfare helps too.
Thematically, inventing your own races and empires can be colorful, but not memorable. The most successful games have instead fallen back on classic tropes and writ them large in their games.