Full disclosure: A preview copy of Sensor Ghosts was provided by Wren Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
Alright, another Kickstarter hitting this week! We had two last week (with Fickle and Construction Fever), so let’s go back to Wren Games, who published the pretty-solid Assembly a while back. Sensor Ghosts is apparently a sequel, so, let’s dig right into that one!
So you survived the computer, nice work, but you’re still in space, which isn’t awesome. Space is cool, generally, but if you stay here too long, you die. Thankfully, you think you can get back to Earth. Unfortunately, they’ve got a pretty bad virus going on and they’re not gonna let you come back unless you bring them a sample so they can make a vaccine in an incredibly high-stakes fetch quest. So that’s fun. Will you be able to make it back home?
Setup takes a bit, but it’s not conceptually that tough. Shuffle the Sector Cards:
Make sure they’re face-down! Down means the inner cream-colored circle isn’t showing:
Place the two starting cards in the bottom left:
The final, sunny day card there should go in the top right, to the right of the final column. Starting from the sunny cards, deal the other 33 cards out to make a 5 column, 7 row grid. Shuffle the sample tokens randomly, and place one face-down in each row from 7 to 3:
The two spaceships are the ships; set those near the bottom-left of the grid. Now, remove one card adjacent to any of those five spots as long as it’s not an Obstructed Sector (red) card. You must remove three total, but do not look at the backs of these cards. If you’re feeling lucky, you can also use the Disruption Cards:
Set the Shield Tracker nearby, with its two tokens off the card:
There should be three Memory Cubes; they’re white cubes. Set them aside somewhere, for now.
Each player should choose a role:
And now prepare the Navigation Card deck:
- 1 player
- Introductory: Remove 2 random Fly Cards and 1 Shields Charge Card.
- Standard: Remove 3 random Fly Cards and 1 Shields Charge Card.
- Advanced: Remove 3 random Fly Cards and 2 Shields Charge Cards.
- 2 players
- Introductory: Use all cards
- Standard: Remove 1 Shields Charge Card.
- Advanced: Remove 2 random Fly Cards and 1 Shields Charge Cards.
Shuffle the deck, and give each player 3 cards.
Place your ship off to the bottom-left of the grid (off the cards). If you’re using the Escape Pod variant, place that one there, too. You should be ready to start!
Over the course of the game, you’re going to play cards to move your ship from the starting area back to Earth. However, they’re not going to help you land unless you bring some samples of the virus afflicting them so that they can make vaccines. If you don’t have their help, you’re going to die in the landing, which isn’t great, so, might as well help out and write a strongly worded letter afterwards.
One- and two-player games function pretty similarly. On your turn, you’ll play cards, first.
When you play cards, you either play 1 or play 3 as a Wild Card, similar to Assembly. In a two-player game, you play face-down, simultaneously with your partner, then reveal them.
Once you’ve done that, choose whether or not you want to use a Virus Sample to boost your shields. If you do, it becomes contaminated, and you need to bring back a not-contaminated sample, as you might guess, so that burns that one. You gain one Shield Charge per sample.
In a two-player game, you choose which card executes first. Either way, execute your card(s):
- Fly / Peek: This one’s interesting. So, in order to fly, you have to pick a direction. If there is a Fly card already on top of your discard, though, you have to fly in that direction (if you’re playing solo, you may spend two Fly cards to turn your ship to face any direction). If there’s not a Fly card on your discard pile, you can fly wherever you want. Same rules apply for Peek, but you look at the three cards in front of you (front-left, front-center, front-right) in the direction indicated by the card. Put them back face-down once you’re done.
- Shields Charge: This just adds a cube to your shields. Naturally, you can’t overcharge your shields.
- Deep Scan: You may shift a row of cards to the left by one card, flip any sample token over and reveal it, or flip any sector card and reveal it. All very useful things!
Once you’ve done that, if you flew, you might have moved onto a new sector. If that happens, flip it, reveal it, and do its action:
- Empty Sector: Nothing happens. That’s nice.
- Boost: Use the boost to chase! Or get through, or whatever Peppy says. Either way, when you move onto these spaces, you move again in the same direction you just moved. If that moves you off the board, you uh, die instantly. Bummer.
- Meteoroid: If you move onto one of these, your shields deplete instantly. If you had full shields, that keeps you safe. If you did not, well, you die instantly.
- Obstructed Sector: If you move here, you die. That’s all. So don’t do that. Blank spaces on the board also count as Obstructed Sectors.
Once you finish, if you’re playing with the Escape Pod variant, move the Escape Pod the number of spaces indicated by the top card now on your discard pile. If you played a Fly / Peek card, the Escape Pod moves in that direction; otherwise, choose the direction. If it would go off the edge of the board, don’t do anything; it stays where it is. If it goes into an Obstructed Sector, it explodes and you lose. You just did a space murder!
For another fun variant, you can play with Disruptions. Once your turn finishes, for each Boost you went through, draw and resolve a Disruption card. They’re not all bad, mostly, sometimes.
Either way, players draw back up to three cards.
Now, Re-Scan happens! When you Re-Scan, shift all the cards in the row in front of you (towards Earth, gaps included) left one space. Then, go to the next row and flip over one card of your choice.
You win if you can reach Earth with a sample before the deck runs out! If anything else happens, you lose!
Player Count Differences
Not much! If you’re playing with two players, you’ll play simultaneously and cooperatively as though you were two single players, but with only one Re-Scan happening. Bonus, you can play extra cards; negative, you go through cards more quickly, see less of the board, that sort of thing. Personally, I like having another player to pin the blame for our loss on (sorry, Antoine), so I’m a fan of this at two. It also lightens the burden of the big setup.
- Don’t waste cards. Assuming you move pretty much perfectly, you’ll still need about 10 moves (out of maybe 20?) to get to the end of the board and off of it. That’s not a lot of time for shifting around or turning or blowing all your move cards for extra shields. You need to be efficient and effective, here, or otherwise you’ll end up erased.
- Keep your shields up. You cannot move onto most spaces without shields, otherwise your ship will get turned into confetti. As you might guess, that’s not really ideal, the confetti thing. If you have your shields constantly fully charged, though, then you might not die unless you run into a real chonky meteor, at which point you’ll be obliterated by that absolute unit.
- Moving randomly might get you killed. Like I said, your last words will be some flavor of “look at the size of that lad”, and you’ll have died saying a meme, which is the worst way to go out. Obstructed Sectors aren’t the only sectors with Obstructed Sectors on the back; plenty of other sectors have them, including empty sectors and boost sectors, which is a bit cruel. You may have to risk it once or twice, but you may lose the game instantly.
- Scout the road ahead. If that doesn’t sound terribly appetizing, you can head it off a bit by taking care to Peek at cards and use your Re-Scans wisely to make sure you’re only moving into boosts into open space. If you’re feeling lucky, you can just go for it, but you’ll likely experience great consequences, which, again, not particularly ideal.
- Beware boosts, but only so much. Boosts are a great way to get through a few rows, if everything lines up. Just, remember, everything can just as easily line up to shoot you through the dead void of space into a gigantic space rock. Your pulverization is unfortunate, but, also kind of expected? Make sure you know where your endpoints are.
- Not every Obstructed Sector will kill you. One of them has an empty sector on the back, I think! That shouldn’t really excite you for hopping straight into one, but you can, I suppose. I’m a board game review, not an adventurous space cop. It’s still a bad idea!
- If you have multiple samples, use some for Shields. You can burn them as a free action to charge your shields by 1. You’ll likely need to do that at least once, so make sure you can get more than one. Just be careful! Some of your Samples may end up on Obstructed Sectors, meaning you can’t get them, so, in that case you better not waste them.
- Just kinda move the Escape Pod safely. It doesn’t activate any of the card flips, so you can move it through the safe zone without much trouble, which is nice. Just make sure you get it to the end.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Really love these kinds of grid-movement games. The uncovering mechanic is neat, as well, though I’d rather it have events of some kind than be some completely different kind of card (or it would be nice to know the probabilities of each thing, honestly).
- Love the theme as well. It’s neat! Navigating asteroids and such to try and make it home is a solid theme.
- And the art! It’s very static-y and it looks super cool. I’m into it. I’m fine with the navigation card art.
- It’s neat that the grid shifts every round. Gives you a way to try and prepare for the next round (especially by looking ahead at what’s going to move into your spot next round via scan actions in previous rounds). It also makes the game feel pretty dynamic.
- There are not many cards and a lot of them are moves. I find the movement rules interesting, but I’d sure like more ways to charge up my shields if I’m going to need to have shields at max quite often.
- There’s not really a good way to randomize the sample placements. Hopefully there will be an app or something to do it when the game comes out, because right now it’s kinda arbitrary and that’s less good.
- There’s no real description of what the Memory Cubes do. It’s a bit confusing, but I guess they’re just supposed to be “we looked here” cards, which is fine, but they get removed from the game if they get removed? Incentivizing players to take notes during a game is an odd choice, since these are limited bits of information. I know that you’re supposed to stay limited to the Memory Cubes, but players are going to just ignore that if they want to do so.
- Yeah, the backs and fronts of the cards aren’t distinguishable enough, yet. I assume they’ll fix that in the actual published copy, but I need something more than the cream circle.
- This one might be too hard. Or, at least, it feels too hard. I’ve lost every game of it I’ve played, usually by enough of a margin that I didn’t think that I could have done much else to avoid it. Generally, that would sink a game, for me, but hopefully they’ve tweaked it to add an easier mode or two to the game. I think, for me, the difficulty is that you need so many shields to get through the game, but there just aren’t that many available, so sometimes you need to risk it. And sometimes when you risk it, you die.
- Having a “you lose randomly” card doesn’t help. The Obstructed Sectors are frustrating, from a player perspective. I’d be fine if they only appeared on their own cards, but the fact that one can appear on a seemingly empty sector, while thematically accurate, also means that you can hit a point where you just move forward (because you must) and you just, die. A similar game with this kind of movement mechanic is Burgle Bros., but the design difference is that you take a point of damage when this happens (losing a stealth) rather than just immediately losing. Doing that (or potentially discarding your hand) would feel better, as a player, than just “whoops, you’re dead”, especially because the grid of the game is nontrivially difficult to set up. Imagine if, on your second turn, you steer into an Obstructed Sector and poof, you’re dead. Now you need to shuffle the whole deck again. While that’s challenging, sure, I wouldn’t say it makes for an optimal player experience; even if you could have looked at the cards that were ahead of you, you’re still going to need to make some moves blind, just like Burgle Bros., and you might randomly die.
Overall: 6.25 / 10
Overall, I really want to love Sensor Ghosts; in its current state I’d probably summarize my feelings as, it’s fine. I think my major gripe is the difficulty, and that stems from a place where I think there should be a mode for most games that you win most of the games you play. Some people really like winning, and there’s a level 1 difficulty in Civ 6, for instance, to accommodate that. I think Assembly hits that pretty well; it’s challenging, for sure, but if you pull back the difficulty you can usually get within one move of winning even with some misplays. This game may not be quite as forgiving, which is a shame. I think, with time, it’ll probably get improved, and I’m a big fan of the theme, so that’s partially why I’m bumping it up a bit. I still want to play it, just to see if I can push through it, but I’m getting beaten down a smidge by just. how. hard. it. is. That’s kind of a shame. That said, some things are going to get fixed, I’m sure. Graphic design boosts are going to make the backs more distinguishable. Memory Cubes will get a better shoutout in the rules and some suggested usages. I imagine hopefully they’ll add a “Eric is bad at this game” mode to make me feel better. That’s all good. It just feels less satisfying to lose and have no idea how you could have won, is all. If you’re looking for a tough solo challenge, though, it’s definitely interesting (and great if you’re into spatial games, grids, or memory games). If that all sounds up your alley, you might enjoy Sensor Ghosts!