Full disclosure: A review copy of Space Explorers was provided by 25th Century Games.
Another review for this week! This time we’re covering Space Explorers, from 25th Century Games. I think they just had a Kickstarter for their latest game, Jurassic Parts, so it seems like they’re all about themes I like. And that’s good! Because this is one of their earlier games, and it’s also a theme I like: retro space stuff! Very cool. Let’s dive right into Space Explorers and see what’s going on there!
In Space Explorers, you are heading up R&D at a Space Research Center, which is aptly named for all of the space research it does. Your goal is to earn Progress by catapulting objects, people, and other things so fast that they can escape the Earth’s gravity and be in space. Hell of a job, but someone’s gotta do it. Naturally, the first thing that comes to mind during this time period when you’re talking about space is the Space Race, so, you’ve also got opponents who are trying to beat you to the coveted location: space. Will you be able to outpace them and gain the most progress? Or will it all have been for astro-naught?
Player Count Differences
The major one is that more resource tokens are in play, so it’s possible for players to get many more resources of a certain type as player counts increase. There’s also a lot more contention for the projects, but they don’t scale as quickly as the player counts can. A big factor is cards in the center. It can fluctuate. Assuming very few players are returning cards to the center, you might very well see a lot more turnover of the center between turns, since there are more players pulling from a shared resource. If players are using the cards to buy more expensive cards, though, then the center might actually increase in card count, since there are more players playing cards back to the center as an action. I think it likely amortizes out to about the same thing. You do have to deal with a lot of extra downtime at higher player counts, though, so I tend to prefer slightly lower player counts (turns happen serially, not in parallel, so more players makes for a longer game). It’s a relatively light preference, though.
- Rushing the game’s end isn’t a terrible strategy, but I’d be surprised if you won. The easiest way to do it is sloppily, but that requires investing a lot of energy getting 0-point cards. Somehow, you would have to do that without your opponents getting any cards worth any points and without getting any projects. That’s unlikely, but that does mean you’ll have a few points, so you can’t end the game with nothing. That said, if your opponents are focusing on getting high-value cards or projects, they may be able to edge you out if you’re not collecting enough points.
- Similarly, building any card that you can is a better strategy, but ignoring the card abilities is really just penalizing yourself. You’ll get a lot of card abilities, but you do need to spend some time making sure your strategy incorporates the cards you want, rather than just the idea that you can get cards ad-hoc and still pull it off. The card abilities are there for a reason; make sure you’re actually using them.
- Try to align the cards you’re taking with the projects. It’s very much like Splendor, in that regard; you want your card pulls to be the cards that also get you bonus points for getting them. Then, it’s sort of a two-for-one deal, which is good. Points are points.
- Don’t cover your best cards until absolutely necessary. Your best cards are going to be the ones that have incredible abilities or give you a lot of bonus resources (or free resources). Use them to get the cards you need for projects and to enhance your tableau. There are some cards that let you reorder your tableau, which is a useful thing, but assume once you’ve covered a card that you won’t get to use its ability again.
- The double-icon cards are great early (because they significantly reduce costs for subsequent cards) but they’re extremely expensive. Try to get maybe one, if you can, but beyond that it’s not a bad idea to avoid focusing on them too much until you have a consistent stream of resources.
- I wouldn’t bother too much with trying to figure out if you’re helping your opponent by passing them certain resource tokens. You pretty much will be, every time, but you can spend some time to figure out what the least helpful ones will be. It’s just a lot of time for a relatively low reward; worst case is you delay them a turn or two so that they can get cards and return them to the center for bonus resources.
- Keep an eye out for who is approaching 12 cards, and adjust your turns accordingly. This one’s a kicker; you don’t want to get surprised by the game ending as you wind up for a Big Important Scoring Card; that’s obviously bad. Make sure you’re just keeping a general sense about you of where players are at, card-wise. It’ll help prevent you potentially missing points (because you were too invested in future points).
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I like the theme. It’s old-timey space stuff! Cosmonauts and Voyager and all that. It’s also done in a very retro style, which I really appreciate.
- Very portable. It’s one of those smaller flat square boxes, which is really easy to throw into a suitcase or something. You can probably fit it in a Quiver if you don’t take the reference cards or the player boards. They’re not necessary, anyways, though they can be helpful.
- The player interaction via passing the initial resources around is very cool. I like that a lot! It’s nice to be able to hoard those resources and deny them to other players, or to give your left-side opponent a huge boost because you need to get a specific card.
- Being able to return a card for two free resources pretty solidly ensures nobody is stuck for too long. It speeds up the game, too, especially if the center is just all expensive cards that nobody wants to buy. It feels like a nice and simple fix for a lot of common gameplay problems.
- Lots of different paths to success. You can go for expensive cards, go for projects, try to go deep and create combo plays off of that; there are a lot of different useful things to do, here, so there’s no one right answer, and I like that. Just don’t spread yourself thin on those options and end up with no conclusive path to winning the game.
- Plays relatively quickly. It’s basically 10 minutes per player, which is nice. I assume once everyone knows how to play and gets the icons down, it’s even faster. It just takes a bit of time to learn.
- Would have loved to see more people of color in the game. Just a little disappointing.
- Ignoring resource costs from bottom to top on cards is a little unintuitive. This throws a lot of people off, but since you get to ignore resources for each icon you have in that column, most people ignore from top to bottom in their first game, rather than bottom to top, like you’re supposed to. There’s an arrow on the bottom pointing up, which helps a bit, but it definitely runs a bit counter to player expectations.
- Each card having its own ability, while interesting, means that you spend a lot of the game looking up what each card does. This is, in my opinion, one of the cooler things about the game but also one of its biggest pitfalls. Since there’s only five types of card, they use the same art on most of them (just with … different zoom effects?). That means you can’t quickly differentiate between the cards, and when you’re learning the game, you have no idea what it does until you look it up. That’s too much information to keep in your brain, and as a result, you have to continually look up card abilities for the entire game. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it’s gently frustrating.
- Additionally, the iconography for the card abilities isn’t always super indicative of what the card does, I’ve found. This process of learning the game would be a lot easier if players could intuit card abilities based off of the icons, but, I haven’t found that to be the easiest thing to do, either. It just makes the game more challenging to learn.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think Space Explorers is a solid title. At its core, it feels very much like Splendor, with more of a theme and a bit more engaging card abilities. The cards are still cheaper as you play more, there are still five resources, and there are still bonus points that you can snag. It’s familiar, in that way. I really like the resource-passing to start the game; I think that might be one of the most interesting things about this one. That, and the ability to return a card to the center from your hand to serve as any two resources of your choice. That keeps the game moving at a good clip; most players are only ever two or three resources away from a big purchase. And I like that! Streamlining is good. My real gripe with this game is generally my gripe with every-card-is-unique games: you’re going to be reading the rulebook a lot if you want to know what every card in your hand does, especially if you’re just reading them for the first time. And I don’t love it when a game is particularly challenging for new players to learn, but that’s the breaks, sometimes. Thankfully, it’s a relatively light game otherwise, so the extra barriers to entry aren’t as bad as they might be if the game were a few hours in length. If you do like some light engine-building, some fantastic retro space-themes, or just playing cards that all have unique abilities, however, you may like Space Explorers, as well! I’ve had fun playing it.