Joss Whedon’s Ultimate Misbehavior Is Lifting Ideas From Other Games
By Peter Ruth II
The world of the TV show Firefly, and the fiction surrounding it, is quite a far cry from your average Sci-Fi, with an odd, kind-of-mystic, pseudo Western/Chinese vibe. As I’m sure you know, the show was incredibly popular, but apparently not so much that it could last more than one season plus a movie, but that hasn’t stopped a subculture of fans from reliving its short-lived glory. Enter Firefly: The Board Game, licensed to Gale Force Nine, who up until relatively recently pretty much made its name as a tabletop war game publisher. They seem to have a thing for licensed IP because they’ve made this and one other board game, based on another show, which is still incredibly popular and well-received by the hobby game community. Firefly seems to be doing the same thing, for the most part, and at GenCon last year people were going fully bat crazy over it. The truth is that sometimes people want something to be better than it is because they like the theme or license, as can be attested to by a litany of really crappy Star Trek computer games.
The thing about this game is that I feel as if I’ve played it several times before, but the other times it was called Runebound, Return of the Heroes, and Merchants of Venus. See, there’s nothing remotely new about this game, to be honest, because it’s essentially a portmanteau of a bunch of other games, with a Firefly-branded theme slapped on. As much as I liked the show, I really am a little disappointed because while the game is sort of fun, it’s just that it’s so much like other games I’ve played that it feels like I’m walking the same old ground. The base game, even with the “Breakin’ Atmo” expansion which is just a small deck of cards with more stuff to buy and people to hire, amounts to running around doing pick-up-and-deliver missions with a skill check at the end. With some missions, there’s not even a skill check, you just declare it complete and that’s it. All in all, it’s just not that engaging or exciting because it’s just not that different from other stuff I’ve played. There’s very little player-on-player action unless you get the latest expansion “Pirates and Bounty Hunters”, which I own, and I think that it’s omission from the game’s launch was either a huge misstep or a marketing calculation to sell you new stuff down the road, knowing that it’s like Tribble Crap…if it’s licensed, it will always sell.
That said, this latest expansion changes the base game profoundly, allowing you to steal other players’ crews, kill, murder, maim, pirate, and basically be a dirty, rotten scoundrel for a living. I was much colder on the game before I had this, but considering that I’m about $80.00 USD deep in the game at this point, I’m quite pleased to say that we really dug the game a lot more when we added it in. It quite ably brings the game up to the level of “something new and exciting”, and more importantly, it does so without adding bullshit, chrome rules that add complexity for complexity’s sake. It’s quite surprising that one little expansion could make such a difference, especially when it doesn’t change the basic premise of the game.
Pairing with the new PvP action are new cards and jobs that are indisputably criminal and nefarious, not to mention that it adds the single most interesting character from the entire show, the bounty hunter Jubal Early. Two new ships are in the mix as well, one of which is essentially a Firefly version of Slave One, with the other being a great big, slow, unwieldy cargo ship for doing a bunch of legitimate, or not so legitimate, cargo runs. All said, I would likely have traded Firefly and the first expansion away for something else had I not bought this expansion on the recommendation of the Grand Poobah of Ameritrash Criticism, Michael Barnes. So compelling was his argument that despite his continual execration of the Euro classic game, Stone Age, I could no longer demur and bought in, despite my lingering reservations about the play quality of the base game. I hate it when he’s right, and I hate it more when I agree with him.
Now, if there’s one thing that can be said about this game and its expansions, it’s that the components are top notch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen paper money that was so outstandingly illustrated, to begin with, and the little plastic ships are pretty cool too, despite the players’ ships being identical in all but color, unless you include the new ships from Pirates and Bounty Hunters. The cards are all illustrated well, with the backs being really nice looking and the fronts being printed with images from the show, and with legible, understandable text, complete with colored and highlighted key words. I wish more games would do that. The board is probably the weakest point, with it having a total mess of space delineations. Sometimes you just have to kind of wing it because there’s no real guidance as to which space is considered to be in a specific area, and it matters because some jobs require you to go to that area, but you’re not sure which planet is the target. All in all, they could’ve done better there, but that said, we just house ruled it and moved on.
Gameplay is quite brisk, and even then, the game can be an hour for a two player game or three hours for a four player game. Turns amount to players taking a couple of actions, in turn, which can include moving one space, moving several spaces and drawing cards each turn to determine if bad stuff happens, buying and selling, or completing jobs. Some jobs are legal and simple, but the illegal jobs such as hauling fugitives or contraband across the galaxy are not. There’s a sort of police force in the game, but it’s really just there to annoy you and screw your plans up, and honestly, the Alliance Cruiser which represents the cops doesn’t shot up very often, especially since it can only travel the inner part of the board. Now, the outer part of the board can be particularly nasty because there’s a Reaver ship, representing space anarchists of a sort, that also occasionally shows up at your doorstep to kill and steal everything you’ve got. The card-flipping mechanism is a little bit interesting in that there’s a tension you feel because it triggers the cops and Reavers, but it also tends to slow the game pace down a little. The whole card-flipping thing is removed in a two player game, and I think that accounts for the brevity of the game when playing in that format.
The real meat of the game, though, is doing jobs and earning a space buck. These are initiated by talking with contacts, strewn about the galaxy, and simply choosing them from the discard deck. This looking at the discards is a neat way to ensure that you know what’s available at all times, and this is a lot like Runebound in that sense, but with Firefly, this applies to jobs as well as items and people to buy. Once you’ve got the mission, you are told to go somewhere for the first leg, then go somewhere and do something else on the second leg, at which point you’re paid for a job well done. There’s a reputation system at play so when you do a job, you become “solid” with a contact, and end up getting more options. Some jobs, however, are highly dubious and require one or more skill checks, initiated by drawing a “Misbehave” card. Some require you to have certain items or skills just to start them, and many are incredibly tough because they have high bogeys to hit via a die roll and then adding your workers’ skills of a type. All in all, there’s not much new here but it works, is simple, and is pretty fun.
Basically, if you like Runebound, this will probably be a nice change of scenery while being a very similar game, especially if you like Runebound and always yearned for a simpler, English version of Return of the Heroes. There’s a lot to like here, especially if you’re going to buy the base game and the expansions in one fell swoop. I can’t say that I’d be recommending this without the Pirates and Bounty Hunters expansion, because it’s such a retread of what I’ve already played ad infinitum, but I think the Circus as a whole is pretty split on that matter. Some players really dug it, and those were unanimously the same ones that never played Runebound. My wife and I both were very tepid, having played Runebound so very many times, but once I introduced the expansion, we both agreed that the “missing piece” that could make the game shine was now present. The short version is that we intend to keep flyin’ for a good long time, but we’re a little miffed that we had to have an expansion to get to that point. To add to this, there’s yet another expansion that’s releasing at GenCon, Blue Sun. It appears to add a new side-board of sorts to expand the space you can explore, which is a good thing, because once Jubal Early starts flying around, space gets very small, very fast.
Why I’d Wear A Brown Coat, Even If It Was Made Of Poo:
- Production values are absolutely dynamite, especially with the paper money
- Replay value is there, for sure, because there’s a ton of cards
- Brisk pace ensures that there’s the perfect amount of downtime
- Very few expansions have ever done so much with so little
- Two Words: Jubal Early. Does that seem right to you?
Why That Brown Coat Is Probably Made Of Poo:
- The base game is lackluster and feels very samey in relation to older games
- The wee player ships are identical, except in color, which kind of sucks
- Card-drawing during long moves mostly serves simply to slow the game down
- How many pick-up-and-deliver jobs can you do before you just get worn down?
- It’s really hard to fit everything in one box if you have both existing expansions
The base game could be great for someone who hasn’t played similar games, but it’s certainly not going to replace Runebound in my collection anytime soon. The first expansion was also quite lackluster and uninspired, but does add a few interesting items and characters. The latest, though, is that whole “you complete me” kind of expansion that I can’t help but wish was in the base game to begin with. I can’t recommend the game highly based on the base game, but when you toss in Pirates and Bounty Hunters, all of the sudden this is a game that has some teeth, which is kind of odd, since it is essentially retains the same pick-up-and-deliver core, while adding a big dose of “screw you”, and making traveling near other players quite dangerous.
Rating (Base w/ Breakin’ Atmo expansion):
Final Rating (Base with all expansions):
Learn more about the Firefly game here, at Gale Force Nine’s page: