Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Firefly the Game - First Impressions

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

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Hello world! Back from Japan and when I came home I had a number of parcels waiting for me - my Torchbearer rulebook had arrived (beautiful!), The Heart of the Wild for The One Ring, a 1/35 scale brass minigun(!) and, last but not least, Firefly the Game!

I've always been a fan of the scrappy crew flying their tramp steamer in space idea. When watching Star Wars as a kid I didn't dream of being a Jedi, but of being a smuggler like Han or a bounty hunter like Boba since they had they had their own ships, lived their own lives and were simply... cooler! Han Solo being the kind of archetypal space smuggler didn't prevent Cowboy Bebop from bringing its own style and themes to the genre and then Firefly came along (well, before that there was Outlaw Star, but as I haven't seen that yet I'll leave it).

At first I turned my nose up at the fusion of western and sci-fi but by the end of the pilot I was sold! Loved the show and was very sad when it was cancelled - there was just SO much potential left untapped. Sure some of it appeared in the movie Serenity, but that was really just a pale shadow of what could have been.

Anyway, here we are years later and the show has spawned its first proper board game iteration. The theme of the game is something I've been looking for for ages! I remember being really excited for Smugglers of the Galaxy back in 2004 and although that game had a lot of the stuff I was looking for it stumbled at several points and failed to live up to my standards. More recently Merchants & Marauders seem to be scratching a similar itch, even though the setting is different (which is the only reason I haven't picked it up yet). There are also The Phantom League, but that seems to be more of a euro game, and Merchant of venus, which seems mostly focused on trading.

This new Firefly game from Gale Force 9 does seem to have all the bits I've been looking for though - a crew, a ship, trading and smuggling and heists, space hazards and general misbehaviour. All of it in card form though which means randomness. I won't go much into how the game plays or what's in the box as that is easy to find out anyway. The rulebook is free to download from the games official website.

The game setup. This was when I played solo to learn the rules, but you get the idea.

I played a solo game just to try it out and then I played a full four player game yesterday. First off I'd like to say that the cards and components look great! I'm normally not a fan of movie stills in games (FFG made a great decision in using 100% art in their Star Wars card game) but here it's been been handled pretty well and the stills actually takes the backseat to the rest of the graphic design which is done in a very thematic retro style that I really dig! At first it looks like a bit of a mish-mash but as you set the game up it all comes together nicely.

Mal flying the Serenity with a motley crew, a Cry Baby and with a warrant issued. 

Each player starts with one of the seven available captains, 3000 credits and an identical Firefly ship of their own. The first few turns are usually spent getting some crew and equipment for them before you start taking jobs from the five different contacts available. Buying crew/equipment and taking job offers are the least random aspects of the game as you can a) take any cards in the discard pile as well as draw blindly and b) always "consider three, take two". This means that you have a fair amount of control of what crew you're getting for your ship and what you're getting your ship and crew into!

Most jobs involve flying some cargo from one location to another, while others have a specific target planet where you need to "Misbehave" - the game term for causing a ruckus and testing the mettle of your crew. Legal jobs that don't require any Misbehaving are pretty straightforward and the only randomness you need to worry about are the movement cards (more on those later), however the Misbehave cards can really take you for a ride if you're unlucky. They allow you to choose between two skill tests to roll and some of them also have an "Ace in the Hole" - meaning you can bypass the entire card if you have a specific item/crew profession with you. It's actually a really cool way of getting lots of variety and theme into the game but it also makes it fairly random. If you don't have an extremely well-rounded crew you could draw a card that you simply can't get past. In fact there's one card called Alliance Operative that is impossible to get by unless you have River Tam in your crew... which is seriously awesome from a thematic standpoint, but can be a bit frustrating from a general gaming standpoint.

Allaince cruiser. Oh yes... painted.

When you move your ship you can choose to mosey along a single sector, without burning any fuel or accruing any risk. You can also do a full burn wich allows you to move five sectors but for each sector you move you have to draw a card from one of the two movement decks. There's one for Border Space, where Reavers prowl, and one for Alliance space, where there's always the risk of a customs inspection. Then there's the ever present risk of the ship breaking down or some other calamity occuring (or boon for that matter!). This is also a pretty neat idea, but again... very random. If you're unlucky enough to get hit by the Reaver Cutter and you don't have the right crew you can get seriously crippled! Again, very thematic but possibly frustrating.

So randomness is definitely a factor. I don't really mind this all that much as this is a game you play more for the experience and storytelling aspects rather than to optimize the gameplay and win. Don't get me wrong, you can definitely put a killer crew together that can handle anything, but play it with the theme front and center!

Literally five minute paint jobs! It's a board game after all. Well, except for the cruiser 
where I spent another five minutes doing the "windows".

What I do mind is the social solo play aspects of the game. Yes, you are playing with three friends but for the most part that experience and simply playing by yourself won't be very different. There are a few of ways ot interact with other players but, besides sending the Cruiser and Cutter in the direction of the competition, none of those came up when we played. As this is a racing game rather than a direct conflict game this is perhaps not all that surprising, but I still think more interaction would make the game a lot better. There are already loads of different house rules floating around for things like cooperating during a job as well as boarding each others ships to steal cargo or equipment and I would be surprised if similar rules don't turn up in one of the upcoming expansions.

I think the four of us liked the game well enough, mainly thanks to its strong theme and sense of story building, but we were all in agreement over the low player interaction problem. The game also starts off kind of slow as everyone simply tries to get their ships into shape. Inspired by the "Idea Turns" of High Frontier I wonder if this couldn't be sped up a lot by having a kind of auction for crew and items during setup. Or perhaps simply hand out some basic crew randomly and give out less credits.

During the second half of the game when we all had a decent crew things picked up considerably though. All of a sudden the race aspect became very apparent and who would win was all up in the air. By this time we had the card drawing down pat as well, but even so Firefly is a game that will most likely run longer than the 120 minutes written on the box. In fact, I think four players is borderline one too many. I have a feeling that three players will be the sweet spot.

Hmmm.... I guess I sound kind of negative in this here First Impressions article. Well, the game does have a couple of issues, but even so I had a great time playing and the Firefly theme is so well integrated that you can't help but feel the story of your ship unfold as you play. Is it the perfect space smuggler game that I've always wished for? No, but it's the best I've come across so far. GF9 simply getting some more player interaction into the game through expansions would alleviate the main problem with the game as it stands right now.

Still, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Firefly to any fan of the show. Especially if you are in it for the experience rather than to work out the perfect strategy. And with some patience (and money) I'm sure the gaming experience will keep improving with the expansions.

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