RogerBW's Blog

Space Sandboxes 21 April 2021

There are three space sandbox games (i.e. with multiple things you can try to do in order to win) that I've tried. Which is best?

The majority of my experience is with Firefly: The Game (2013; Sean Sweigart, Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski) but I've now also tried Xia: Legends of a Drift System (2014; Cody Miller) and Star Wars: Outer Rim (2019; Corey Konieczka and Tony Fanchi; "SWOR" hereafter). All of them share the theme of having a spaceship and trying to get ahead in life, whether by trading, piracy, or something else.

Firefly has a fixed map: everything is always in the same relative positions. Xia has a tile-based hex map: you explore as the game progresses, and it's a different arrangement every time. SWOR has a tile-based linear map: the six map tiles can be arranged in any order but always the same orientation, and each of them contains about two planets, but the whole thing is visible and fixed at the start of the game.

In Firefly and SWOR you start with a single named character and a ship, and can add to your crew and equipment (giving you more skills and capabilities) as the game progresses; the potential crew members you meet are at least somewhat random. Xia doesn't really have people in it at all, perhaps because lacking a film/TV tie-in there isn't a ready source of names and photographs, and the role of crew and gear is transferred to ship upgrades.

All of the games have some sort of ship upgrade system. In Firefly and SWOR they're drawn randomly from supply decks and limited in how many you can fit; in Xia they're polyominoes that you have to fit into your ship blueprint (sharing space with cargo), but they're just engines, shields, and weapons, rather than anything more complex. SWOR and Xia both allow you to buy a more capable ship; Firefly allows a bit of change with its ship upgrades, but if you start with a large slow ship you're committing to it for the whole game.

Firefly's movement is either slow and safe or fast and dangerous: in the normal mode, moving up to five spaces across the map, you draw a navigation card for each space you enter (from one of three decks, from the relatively safe but regulated Alliance Space to the highly dangerous Rim Space), which may let you keep going, present you with a choice of keeping going or stopping to get a benefit, or just give you a problem with no good options. Xia is just as variable but in a different way: each time you activate engines (which you can do more than once in a turn), you roll a d6, d8 or d12 to find out how far you can go. SWOR's movement is fixed and generally pretty smooth, with a little choice of shorter-and-dangerous vs longer-and-safe routes.

Movement is complicated in each case by non-player ships, not part of any player's assets. Firefly has the Alliance Cruiser (bad news for illegal jobs and wanted crew), the Reaver Cutter (bad news for everybody), and in an expansion the Operative's Corvette (bringing some law and order to the outer systems). They're generally moved by the player to the right of the active player, with general instructions like "move one or two sectors" or "move to a sector adjacent to your current location".Xia has an Enforcer chasing down pirates, an Outlaw chasing down merchants, and a Merchant building up cash to attract pirates; players are randomly assigned their management at the start of the game, but can't influence their movement very much. SWOR has patrols: you have a reputation with each of four factions, and when you meet their ships you will be attacked, stopped for inspection, or allowed to continue, depending on what they think of you; this movement is triggered by icons found when you're buying equipment.

What do you do in the game? All the games are competitive. In Xia and SWOR you're always trying to be the first to reach a set number of fame points; in Firefly you have Story Cards which define the winning conditions, though broadly most of them come down to one of "have the most money", "have a good reputation with the most contacts", and "complete these difficult tasks first".

On a smaller scale, in Firefly you take Jobs which mostly involve shipping, to get some cash, hire more crew, and work towards the goal. Piracy and bounty hunting are in an expansion; neither of them is easy to make money on. In Xia you can take missions (pick up and deliver, go to a place, attack someone), or mine asteroids, salvage débris fields, pump gas out of nebulæ (all quite simple and randomly hazardous), or ship cargo, or pirate, or go bounty hunting. In SWOR shipping is just about possible but the big money is in missions (which also affect your reputation); those are complex multi-card affairs, and you don't necessarily even know which skills they'll need when you commit to them.

The base Firefly game has a map board of 77×51 cm, and expansions bring it up to 127×51. Generally you'll need about as much space again for player areas, decks and discard piles. The other two games I've only played virtually in Tabletop Simulator, though the impression I get from pictures is "big, not not as big as Firefly".

Overall:

I fell in love with Firefly the first time I played it (at a convention, and I'd bought a copy before that game ended). Mechanically it's not super-elegant: bad random things can happen to you, putting you in an irrecoverable position. To some extent these can be mitigated, but this turns the game into a decision of when to stop buying mitigators and start getting on with winning, and there's a substantial element of luck in whether you get away with jumping early and hoping you won't need all the protections you might have got by waiting. Flying and the Misbehave cards that are part of illegal jobs are particularly prone to this. Also, it can be pretty slow, particularly with players who don't yet know the time optimisations (e.g. go shopping as the last action in your turn and let another player take their turn while you're looking through the options). All that said, I still love the game: I'm not particularly a fan of the TV series, though it certainly has its moments, but I like the microstories that one comes up with when considering how and why the random elements in the game have aligned this way this time. You can fine-tune your crew, personal gear and ship fittings. The visual design is decent, with heavy use of stills from the show and film. The game is old enough that the expansions can be hard to find.

I've now fallen in love with Xia after the first time I played it. Yes, there's still randomness, but even without character artwork there's a sense of fun about the things one can do, and a lot of variation, particularly with the explorable map even if it doesn't always make a lot of thematic sense (what do you mean I didn't notice the star until my ship melted). I will be buying this game.

SWOR feels in play like mostly Firefly with a bit of Xia. If you're a Star Wars fan it may be a decent choice, but I found that the dreary mechanistic style of recent FFG rules was very much in force here: nothing is desperately wrong, but there's also nothing to enthuse about, like American Budweiser or indeed most things designed by big companies for the widest possible appeal. Artwork is very dull, odd when one considers that they presumably had access to the Star Wars image archives. Also, because the company is driven ruthlessly by profit margins rather than by any enthusiasm for its products, since the base game didn't sell well enough there will never be expansions, and (again like many recent FFG games) it feels like a skeleton that needs to be expanded with more cards to be really interesting and have long-term replayability.

I try to avoid having multiple games in my collection that scratch the same itch, and I think SWOR would overlap too much with either of the others. I thought Xia would too, but I was wrong.

(Or you could abandon the space theme and play Merchants and Marauders instead, of course.)


  1. Posted by John P at 11:24pm on 21 April 2021

    Look forward to seeing them when we're next able to meet at Stabcon. After Flashpoint that is!

    I found Star Trader (https://www.tavern-keeper.com/campaign/983/about) a while back, which is a solo Traveller merchant game. Must get round to trying it out some time.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 08:43am on 22 April 2021

    My copy of Firefly now occupies a large Really Useful Box, which makes it bulky to transport. I hope to improve this situation.

    I've often thought the Traveller trading system could be an enjoyable solo game with a few tweaks (though of course as it stands you tend not to make much profit, to force you into adventuring).

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