I must admit that I did not go into Space Base with a lot of expectations. The rhyming name is cute, but hardly conjures feelings of greatness, and I hadn’t heard much in the way of buzz about the game. But it turns out the game is really, really good.
Space Base plays 2-5 players. The box claims a 60-minute play time, and while I usually consider play times on the box to be vicious lies, I think this one is reasonably accurate.
In broad generalities, Space Base feels a lot like Machi Koro, with a little bit of Splendor thrown in. Each player board has twelve sectors, corresponding to the twelve possibilities on the dice. Each sector starts with one ship card in it (the ship cards in the sector slots are referred to a stationed on the space base). On each player’s turn, every player rolls their 2d6. They can use those numbers either separately or together to activate up to two of their sectors. The newest ship card in each sector (the card that is stationed there) can only be activated on a player’s own turn. When a player acquires a new ship card, they place it in the assigned sector and then flip the card already there upside down. That card is now deployed (at the start of the game, each player gets a random free ship card, and so has one deployed ship card). That flipped card can then only be activated on other player’s turns. The activations on other player’s turns (shown on the cards in red boxes) are typically a related, but weaker, version of the original effect (shown on the card in blue boxes) – but more and more ship cards can be stacked on the same sector so that the net activation on another player’s turn (consisting of the total effects of all the cards) might be more than an activation on one’s own turn (consisting of just the most recent card).
The most common activation benefits are credits (used to buy cards), income (used to enable more consistent buying), and victory points. But other effects might let a player acquire another sector card, move their sector cards around, or manipulate dice rolls.
After players gain the benefits of activating their sectors, the active player may purchase a new sector card from the supply. There are three decks of sector cards, with successively higher costs and successively more powerful effects. When a player purchases a card, it consumes all of their credits (but at the end of turn, the player sets their credit level back to their income; thus income lets players more consistently buy cards, or buy better cards, because their credit total starts from a higher floor). Each card specifies in which sector is must be placed. Additionally, there is a stack of colony cards – these one-shot cards generate points when purchased but have no other abilities, and then lock that sector down, preventing future ship purchases there (there is one colony card for each sector, with the most expensive colony costing 42 and generating 14 points). The end of the game is triggered when a player reaches 40 victory points (all players get an equal number of turns).
At its core, Space Base is an engine-building game. You use the ship cards to get resources to get more ship cards to get more resources and so on until you’re spitting out victory points. And it does that well. Every player rolling on each player’s turn keeps everyone involved. Upgrading sectors is satisfying. There’s obviously randomness, but there are also real decisions to be made when purchasing cards to identify cards that work well together and cards that have optimal sectors numbers. Although there are similarities to Machi Koro, to my mind Space Base is just better, if nothing else thanks to the variability of the cards – it shares with Machi Koro an easy learning curve (I was able to play Space Base with family), but has better decisions. Geeks like me may also notice shout-outs in the ship classes and names.
The game isn’t perfect. Like Machi Koro, there is a question of when (if ever) to switch to using both dice together. The higher sector cards are significantly more powerful, but sectors 7-12 are harder to roll and using them means giving up using two of sectors 1-6. Plus, at the start of the game, there’s a strong pull to get something deployed on all of the first six sectors (to avoid ‘dead’ dice). This can mean that, by the time you start filling out your higher-number sectors, the net of the cards deployed on the lower sectors is as potent as what’s deployed on the higher sectors (this is especially true at higher player counts, when the blue activations are relatively scarce, and so you need to buy a couple of new cards in the same sector to get something you bought deployed). In our experience, the higher-sector cards generally aren’t powerful/cheap enough to compensate for this. There is also a knock-on effect where, because the lower sectors get built up so much, some the abilities that move cards around are less useful (for example, an ability that swaps sectors 3 and 9 is supposed to be nifty because it lets my powerful sector 9 cards occupy the easier-to-activiate three-spot – except I probably have just as much power at the lower sector already, because that’s where my development went).
Player count in general requires attention on the part of the players, as it changes the balance of which ship cards have what value. Most obviously, the more players there are the more important the deployed abilities of the ships are – stationed abilities are important in two players but feel almost immaterial with five. It also affects how many turns each player will get. Early on for higher player counts, players will get more credits between their turns, making for potentially bigger early purchases. Thus, at higher player counts players will have better cards earlier (compared to their own turn count), and will start accumulating victory points before their play areas become as saturated. This means that game length doesn’t change as much based on player count as one might initially think.
When it comes down to it, Space Base is just a really fun game and one of the best games in 2018 so far. I know the year’s only half way over, and the tabletop gaming release calendar is backloaded because of Gen Con and Essen Spiel, but with Space Base and Thunderstone Quest, AEG has kind of owned the first half of 2018 for me.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.