What Makes a Real Science-Fiction Game?

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.

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A Deckbuilding Look at Cthulhu Realms

Cthulhu Realms BoxThe brand-new Darwin Kastle deckbuilding game Cthulhu Realms is a new iteration of his Star Realms system, which means that it’s another classic deckbuilder with a focus on interpersonal combat. Despite its origin as an iteration of an existing design, it still offers new innovation to the field.

With its Lovecraftian basis, it’s also a great game for the Halloween season!

The Game

The gameplay of Cthulhu Realms (2015) follows closely on the design of its predecessor, Star Realms (2014). This means that the deckbuilding play is pretty basic: you play cards that give you money (conjuration points), then you use that money to buy cards from a row of randomly selected cards. The cards then go into your discard pile, for use on future turns. This also means that the other play focuses player conflict: you play cards that do damage to your opponents, with the ultimate goal of killing everyone else off (well, driving them insane; it is a Cthulhu game, after all).

However, the cards of Cthulhu Realms are also heavily interdependent. Many have powers that only activate when you play a card of a certain color or a card of a certain type. Others only activate when you force a discard of a card or trash (abjure) a card. The result is both increased tactical play and increased emphasis on the deckbuilding. Continue reading

New to Me: Summer 2014 — The Season of Very Good

Another season has gone by, and though I didn’t play anything new that was great in Summer 2014, I played a whole bunch of new games that were very good, and that I’d happily play again, so here’s my look at The Season of Very Good.

The Very Good

Damage ReportDamage Report (2014). Following in the footsteps of Space Alert (2008) and Escape: The Curse of the Temple (2012)Damage Report is a real-time cooperative game. It’s a game of logistical resource movement, where the real-time play is all about getting the right stuff to the right places in time, while a 3-minute timer of doom relentlessly adds to your problems.

As a real-time game, Damage Report does a great job of keeping you frenzied: you try and keep abreast of the larger picture while constantly being dragged down by the need to take your own moves and monitor your own timer. As a cooperative game, Damage Report does a good job of giving you opportunities for working together: you try and get the appropriate supplies to your friends (or on the flipside, reveal what supplies they could bring you) — and the challenges put in your way are tough. The phrase “logistical cooperation” doesn’t sound that exciting, but the game turns out to be joyously frantic and adrenaline-fueled. The cooperative play works, but the designer really got the real-time play right. Continue reading

A Deckbuilding Look at Star Realms

Star RealmsStar Realms (2014) is a science-fiction themed deckbuilding game that rather uniquely is built for just two players — which is certainly a different way to create a small deckbuilder, as opposed to the variable play models used by Pergamemnon (2011) and Zeppelin Attack! (2014). However, you can play Star Realms with more players by buying additional decks of cards.

The Game

Looking at the deckbuilding tree of design, Star Realms is most clearly a descendent of Ascension (2010) — which is unsurprising because they have a designer in common. Both games allow for the purchase of cards from a random selection of just a few that are available at any time. They’re also both heavily suited and they both feature cards that are left on the table: constructs in Ascension and bases in Star Realms.

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