What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
They say we’re in a golden age of gaming. I say we’re in a silver age and Space Base is a prime example. The good news? That means the best is yet to come. The bad news? Games like Space Base move us along but give us growing pains.
Before we get deep into the mechanics of Space Base, let me explain what I mean. The ancestors of Space Base go back to the earliest tableau builders1 such as 7 Wonders or Race for the Galaxy. Then Machi Koro came along and added dice chucking to tableau building. It wasn’t perfect – it has problems when one player goes in front early and also has immensely variable game lengths based on the dice throws – but was a revolution, meaning it took two mechanics and shoved them together to form something new.
Space Base is not a revolution, but an evolution of Machi Koro. It smooths out some of the rough edges to make a better game, but somehow loses some of the charm in the process.
As is alluded to earlier, Space Base is a tableau building game where players roll dice to gain credits, income, or victory points2 in a race to 40 victory points. Each player starts with 12 cards – numbered from 1 through 12 – docked at their space base. These cards have different powers – like raising your income each turn, or giving you victory points or credits, or allowing you to activate a different card or even swap cards around your tableau. For example, maybe you have a great card with the number 12 on it. It sure would be nice if it had a lower number – like a 9, perhaps? Why?
Because each turn you roll 2 dice to activate the cards with those numbers. Let’s say you roll a 5 and a 4. You have two choices here. You can activate both cards in your #5 and #4 slots or your card in the #9 slot. You see the benefit of moving that great card out of the 12 slot, right? Odds are against a lot of double sixes.
So each turn, you activate some cards. Two of the results are getting credits and increasing your income. Credits are the lifeblood of building you tableau. Each turn you can use your credits to purchase a new ship. This ship will have a number between 1 and 12 and will replace the ship in that slot. That ship is not gone, but is considered deployed. Hold that thought – we’ll come back to it in a second.
The ships you purchase are ranked from level 1 through level 3. Each level is more powerful and more expensive. There is one more option – colony ships – that give large amounts of victory points. But the trade off is these colony ships – when placed in a slot – cannot be replaced and carry no benefits beyond the victory points you gained.
So let’s talk about income for a second. I mentioned that the lifeblood is credits. Here’s the catch – credits are a use ’em or lose ’em deal each turn. Let’s say you generate 24 credits. At the end of your turn, you lose what you don’t spend and go back down to zero. Income is a way to mitigate the randomness. Each time you activate a ship with Income on it, you raise your income level by one. For each income level you have, you start the next turn with that many credits. Unlike Machi Koro, where players can limp along with little to no credits, Space Base provides a way to mitigate that.
Back to deployed ships. I mentioned that when you purchase a new ship with a number between 1 and 12, you have to deploy that ship. What that means is flip it around and put the bottom at the top. Your then slip it partially under the board, leaving the red side exposed. This red side represents the benefits you get when someone else rolls that number. In general, they are similar to what you get when it’s docked at your base, just a little less powerful. And they stack together so as the game wears on and you deploy more ships, each number becomes more powerful when the opponent rolls it.
Playing the game is 90% straightforward. The only complexity comes from some cards that require “charges” to activate. What I mean is some cards will require you to activate a card multiple times to gain its benefit. What makes this complex is the iconography that describes how many charges are needed is less than clear and it introduces the concept of activating a ship docked at your base during an opponents turn.
Let’s get this out of the way – the mechanics are a vast improvement over Machi Koro. They improve many of the problems endemic to that game, including resource scarcity if the dice hate you because every number already has a card on it. Likewise, the idea of making powerful cards require multiple activations fixes the overpowered buildings of Machi Koro by balancing power versus multiple rolls.
One of the other changes versus the earlier model is that concept of deployment. When someone else is rolling in Machi Koro, you can almost always shut off. An exagerration? Yes, but the number of cards that activate on others turns are limited except for those darned take that cards. By deploying an existing ship that gains benefits every time someone else rolls the number when you purchase a new ship, you gain an incentive to pay attention. It also makes a great decision point. You may have a great card, but is it more valuable to flip it over and replace it with a slightly less valuable card – but knowing that it increases your opportunity to get more on other players’ turns. As a caveat on this, the power of these deployed ships goes up every time you add another player. Two players? Fine. Three? Even better. Four? Hold on, because you’re going to be rolling in the dough. It’s an awesome way to keep the game moving quick as it scales up with players.
This deployment concept also softens another blow. At some point in the game, I need to decide when to switch my engine from accumulation of new cards to accumulation of points. I need to buy those colony cards that take numbers away from me and clot up my board. It’s still a difficult decision but the blow is softened because I still collect resources when my opponents roll.
The components themselves are average. The cards are thin and flimsy and just over 1/2 the width of a normal card. I play with my kids a lot and prefer the linen cards. I understand that – as a light game – Space Base needed to hit a price point and keep costs down. But it’s a mark against.
A bigger issue is the uninspired artwork. Do they match the theme? Sure, but the cards don’t evoke the same emotional attachment as the whimsy of Machi Koro or Imperial Settlers, to name two other tableau builders. They’re not even as interesting to look at as the almost-clip art of 7 Wonders.
A saving grace is the rules book. It provides a mostly clear explanation – my standards are low for rulesbook because they are mostly bad – with the exception of the activation charging rules. The one complaint is the organization of the rules is jumpy.
And that brings up the problematic area of theme. The designer John D Clair3has crafted a game with tight mechanics that actually tells the story of the theme. But it’s let down by lackluster artwork. I really don’t know how to think of this. Machi Koro has limited success in gameplay but the experience is just so darn cute. Space Base is the much better game but doesn’t create the same experience. The soul is just lacking.
So which one to get? My family is split on this. My teenage son says Machi Koro without a doubt. My personal preference is the velocity of play and well constructed mechanics of Space Base. That doesn’t help, which kind of outlines my feelings for the game. I like it and will play it, but do I love it?
Still problematic. I love the concept of Machi Koro and Space Base. So let’s split the difference – you need one in your collection. If you’ve got younger kids or less experienced gamers, go with Machi Koro. The combination of whimsical art and straighforward mechanics will serve you well. If you’re experienced in engine-building games and don’t mind the components, you can’t go wrong with Space Base. I just wish the art direction and components were up to the game.