It went down a storm during its first appearance at GenCon in August, selling out almost immediately and continues to fly off shelves since general release. A closer look reveals that it isn’t entirely undeserving of all the positive buzz and popularity, but requires a strong love of its theme along with a considerable amount of time commitment to get the most from it.
First off, the package itself is of a very high standard and you’re getting plenty for your money, especially since the UK version includes the promotional fifth ship and a more accommodating box. There’s the fold-up 30″ x 20″ board; nearly 400 cards for characters, supplies and jobs, etc.; card ship tiles and tokens; plastic ship pieces; along with some really nice-looking, good quality paper money (designed by the prop artist, Benjamin Mund, who worked on the film follow-up, Serenity, no less).
The components incorporate images from the show, but blends them all with neat, original art and a unified style, so they avoid looking tacky and still carry all the key information via simple keywords or basic instructions. The card backs for the supply planets look particularly nice, sporting tourism poster-style designs rather than photos.
Mechanic-wise, it all functions around a ‘pick-up and deliver’ model, but mixes in a few additional elements and all delivered with an appropriately Firefly-themed twist. Much of it feels nicely sandbox-y and open to expansions (with eight planned) as well as plenty of tweaking by players. The closest comparison I’ve heard regarding its basic playstyle is Merchant of Venus with shades of Lords of Waterdeep mixed in. If you’ve never played that sort of game before, it’s as the name suggests, involving players working regular transport or smuggling jobs, mixing in some one-stop crime capers to really bring in the bucks, while upgrading their ships and augmenting their crew along the way.
Yet despite clear comparisons or influences, it never feels like the theme has been bolted on or that a square peg has been hammered into a round hole. The game’s title is underscored by a quote from the show’s prologue which perfectly encapsulates the core dynamic of the game, “Find a crew, find a job, keep flying” and that the designers posted the rulebook online long before general release suggests a confidence in their work. It’s evident that the show and its lore are the seed from which everything grows. Your choice of captains are taken from ‘leader’ characters seen in the show, and the various people have their own appropriate attributes; all the supply planets are based on known locations and their deck make-ups are representative of the setting (no illicit goods or abundance of unsavoury characters on the Alliance-run planet, for example); your work contacts all have jobs themed to them, along with unique perks for being in their good graces; and even travelling, itself, is fraught with danger as well as opportunity.
Gale Force Nine’s love and respect for the licence shows in every part, from the accurate-as-possible-yet-entirely-functional map of the ‘Verse that serves as the board right through to game mechanics based around things seen in the show (“Kosherized rules” for skill tests means no weapons or ‘Gear’ allowed) and character abilities based on their appearances (the guy who first pulls a gun during the second episode’s bar fight gets to ignore “Kosherized rules”). And they’ve incorporated nearly everything that can be seen in the show, even going so far as to flesh out seemingly insignificant items and characters regardless of how little screentime they received. So you’ll be able to hire “The Patron” of the hill folk, get your hands on “Burgess’ Hovering Bad-Ass Space Jeep” or even put Jayne in “Kaylee’s Fluffy Pink Dress”. I’ve seen a fellow player combine crew, gear and ship upgrades that saw a manned-gun mounted onto their ship’s skyhook to deadly effect.
What this all means is that you get a wonderful feeling of being a captain cast into the show’s ‘verse with nothing but your ship, some cash and a strong desire to form a crew and find work; that alone will most likely be sufficiently alluring for those who refer to themselves as ‘Browncoats’. And though the setup may look overwhelming, actual play is fairly straightforward. Every turn is broken down into performing two different actions from a choice of four (Fly, Buy, Deal, Work). A typical shipping job will involving flying to the pick-up location and working to load the cargo in one turn then flying it to its required destination and using a work action to drop it off on the next. Buying supplies (crew, gear, upgrades) is also very simple and dealing is used for considering jobs from contacts or selling them any spare goods (cargo, contraband) you may find. As you complete more jobs, you can build up your crew and buy better gear in order to complete higher-earning tasks as well as improve your general chances of success with whatever the game throws at you. And it will throw things at you.
Just like the show, there are plenty of unexpected elements around to cause disruptions; Reavers are constantly out for blood, your ship can suffer breakdowns or the Alliance may harass you with unnecessary ship inspections that cut your journey short. Or you can invite risk yourself by taking on more lucrative crime or smuggling jobs that could see crew killed or contraband lost, along with other complications and considerations; whether or not to take a quick, short flight through Alliance Space where a Cruiser may be waiting to seize your illicit wares or take the safer, longer route round and hope the Reavers aren’t feeling particularly hungry. Due to an increased focus on skill tests and extra requirements during illegal jobs, along with all manner of unexpected events, here’s where you’ll be wanting to augment your crew in every possible way.
And though completing jobs is rewarding and keeps you flying, they are simply a means to an end. The game features ‘story cards’, which provide different scenarios (put together a heist of the Crown Jewels, for example) involving various goals that require players to adjust their overall strategies alongside how best to operate during the turn-to-turn gameplay.
So, alongside balancing crew abilities against job payouts, and other such dilemmas, players might be looking to increase their Tech Skill Points in order to complete one goal and then be required to rotate their crew to include more people with Fight Skill Points, or simply buy more weapons, for the next. It all helps to keeps things lively and get players thinking carefully about how best to use each turn; combining job routes, altering their movement to pass by supply planets on the way, etc. And with multiple players a few more twists get thrown in.
Though there’s no way to attack other players, there is the constant race of getting to the best supplies first, snatching up the best crew members and deciding how soon to move from working jobs to completing goals. In addition to that, players have the ability to lure away the disgruntled members of other crews (ones left unpaid by their captains, or moral characters forced to work immoral jobs, for example) as well as spoil other players’ days by sicking the Alliance or Reavers on them whenever they are given the opportunity. Over the course of a game, all sorts of antics can occur, which make for memorable moments and occasional game-changers or even clinchers. As long as you’re in the mood for that.
Which brings me to the potential downsides. Though turn-to-turn gameplay is straightforward, it is a game that takes a few playthroughs to fully grasp, both strategically and mechanically. The game’s many smaller systems and elements greatly enhance the experience and it wouldn’t be the same without them, but they also mean that there’s a lot to learn and keep in mind. When you first get your ship out into the ‘Verse, you’ll probably be trying to remember the significance of all the bits of information on crew, gear and job cards, as well as frequently checking which type of Action and what conditions allow you to perform certain smaller but necessary tasks (taking shore leave, selling salvage, making work, etc.), or simply forgetting the best place to find a pilot. Throw in the two different decks of navigation cards (relating to different parts of the board) that get revealed and resolved nearly every time a player moves a space, and special perks or rules that trigger other subtle effects, and you have a whole heap of things to keep in mind. It doesn’t help that the rules suffer from the occasional poor editing or word choice, failing to address or cover for certain ambiguities they create, which gives any resulting mistakes or misinterpretations the potential to significantly upset the balance or flow of the game. For introducing new players, explaining everything the game entails beforehand is incredibly tricky, and asking them to read the rulebook is simply no substitute for getting stuck into the actual game. Ultimately, it means there’s plenty of learning as you go.
Personally, major issues aside, I find that sense of player discovery to be part of the fun, but it does lead into the other consideration. For those newer players, the first few games will take much longer than the story cards estimate. Though they suggest a blanket ‘2 hours’, you can reasonably expect a game with less-experienced players to clock in somewhere around an hour per player, and if you figure on going for the maximum of five people, then you can see where the commitment is needed. Being limited to two actions per turn helps to simplify things, but it does mean there is a large amount of general ‘downtime’, even with the recommendation to be searching discard piles and planning turns ahead of time. In my experience with varying numbers of players, I’d deduct about forty-five minutes to an hour off of the ‘hour-per-player’ total, but that isn’t necessarily a great deal in the overall scheme of things.
And though the game is admirably (and, admittedly, surprisingly) well-balanced, there is that ever-present element of risk leading to player setbacks. Though those are entirely thematic for a Firefly game (“How come it never goes smooth?”) and potentially entertaining when it happens, they can be particularly devastating for the victim’s chances of winning. Losing crew or contraband can set them back a few valuable turns, during which everyone else is racing ahead, and that lack of any consistent, significant interaction means they have no true recourse. Essentially, they become more reliant on luck and other players slipping up for what is potentially going to be a long haul. It’s especially galling if this came as a result of rule misinterpretation, forgetfulness or just plain unlucky card draws/die rolls.
In the games I’ve played, there’s always been at least one minor oversight that, in retrospect, must have significantly hampered that player’s progress or forced them to adjust strategy unnecessarily, and plenty of times where payments, costs or other little bonuses were forgotten. Obviously, some of those were easy to rectify when caught soon enough, but a couple did noticeably damage the respective players’ chances of victory.
However, it is worth pointing out that the game is not unfairly cruel, and every problem it can throw out has some form of solution or way to mitigate the loss, so long as players make every effort to be prepared. For example, if the dangerous ‘Hands of Blue’ agents happen to show up while you’re working a job, the attempt has most likely failed but having transport at least allows you to get away safely, or if the Reavers catch you while flying through Border Space, having the right crew and spending a little extra fuel can allow you to pull a ‘Crazy Ivan’ manoeuvre and escape without harm. Any major setbacks that occur are likely a result of the person trying to take shortcuts in order to get ahead and being found wanting, or newer players not being aware of all that can happen. I have no doubt that as players become more experienced, they’ll get a feel of what to look out for as well as being much more able to keep track of everything, therefore, leading to fewer mistakes, much reduced playtimes and, hopefully, much closer contests.
In this regard, the designers have been listening to feedback and alongside an FAQ, recently created a new starter scenario for multiple players, ‘First Time in the Captain’s Chair‘, that is shared online, plus new owners can always test the water with the single-player story card included in the box. However, since they reduce the playtime and simplify requirements, this means that they don’t necessarily demonstrate all the aspects of the game. (At a later date, I will also be posting a comprehensive guide for newer players, with plenty of examples and a logical progression to teaching the ins and outs but without spoiling all the surprises, so those interested should keep their eyes peeled. EDIT: This is now live.).
Fortunately, it’s a game that rewards replaying, as the decks or leaders will throw out new possible combinations and the story cards will demand varied playstyles, while that improved player knowledge will keep everyone on a level-footing.
For those willing to put in the time and effort to learn the game and accept that things won’t always go smoothly in the first few playthroughs, as well as those simply hankering for the experience of captaining their own Firefly ship and interacting with the various elements of that world, there’s a rewarding experience and good fun with friends to be found. Those looking for a quicker, more action-packed and interactive game are advised to wait for a verdict on the more player-versus-player focused Pirates & Bounty Hunters expansion, or perhaps turn to their computers and smartphones for the all-encompassing trip to the ‘Verse proposed by this summer’s Firefly Online.
If you read the article on my favourite games of 2013, you’ll know this was one of them, but then I’m a longtime fan of Firefly. Whether or not you are too, there’s no denying that Gale Force Nine have done a fantastic job of capturing the show’s feel and atmosphere, both mechanically and thematically, while creating a game that can stand up on its own merits, as long as players are aware of how it plays and not put off by its potential shortcomings.
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