Board Game Day: Firefly

Firefly board game coverA month ago I had a chance to try the new Firefly board game from Gale Force Nine. I had too much other writing to do at the time to write a review, but here are my impressions at last.

The Game

I don’t think I had played anything from Gale Force Nine before. I understand they’re a relatively new company, so I had expected clever mechanics and relatively low-key components. When we opened the box, I was surprised to see really lavish components—board, counters, tokens, etc.—of the kind of quality I see from Fantasy Flight Games these days. Each card makes use of flavour text from the canon fiction that helps illustrate the purpose of the mechanical (rules) elements. The art is beautiful and the entire visual scheme very evocative of the ‘Verse.

The premise of the game is that each player is the captain of a Firefly-class vessel, making their way around the ‘Verse and trying to keep flyin’ by taking a variety of jobs, more or less moral, legal, and risky from different patrons. The game makes ample use of characters, themes, ideas, and references from the cult television show Firefly and the follow-up movie Serenity. If memory serves, it also uses elements from the comic book series that linked the two (but I don’t want to dig up my comics to verify.)

The game is competitive, but no one gets knocked out of the game before the end. Captains need to get jobs from various patrons, do the job, and get paid. To accomplish this, they hire crew, use supplies, buy equipment and upgrades, invest in cargo, and fly from world to world while trying to avoid trouble with the Law or the lawless. In addition, a scenario is picked or randomly drawn for each session, which will give missions and session-specific victory conditions.

Skills favoured include strategy, both numerical and visual tactical sense, resource management, planning how to minimize fuel use versus encounter risk by carefully selecting your routes, multi-factor risk assessment, and a certain sense of the what is “right” in the ‘Verse. Seriously, being familiar with the logic of the setting and how good or bad an idea would be, how dangerous or helpful a specific character is, is pretty darn useful. I count that as a major victory for Gale Force Nine and designers Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, and Sean Sweigart because that means they have correctly translated fiction into mechanics.

In Play

We had four players, trying the game for the first time except for one who had played one phase of a solo game. He is a veteran board-gamer, two of us are regular hobbyists, and the fourth is an infrequent player. We drew a three-goal scenario but we decided we would check after reaching the first goal and see how we were doing time-wise.

Our first goal required us to complete at least one job for each of the five job providers (Adelai Niska, Patience, the Postmaster, Badger, and Harken) and be “solid” with each of these people. The subsequent goals included parleying this into an opportunity to infiltrate a secure, posh location, and liberate some valuable goods.

The system is not as crunchy as, say, Duel of Ages II, but it does have a learning curve because of the number of component types and actions possible. Even as a middling board-gamer, I felt I was “getting” this pretty well after a couple of turns, but the occasional gamer spent the entire session in the kind of component-induced visual overload and analysis-paralysis I had experienced for DoA2.

The rest of us got in the groove, though, and all agreed that we were getting a solid helping of Firefly-like stories. Heck, I had the urge to have a sort of role-playing crossover to play through some of the micro-interactions. I felt like the kinds of decisions we made were the ones that mattered in the fiction and brought relatively similar risks.

I have seen some reviews where people mention that luck plays too important a role in the game. I did not get that impression based on this one session, but it’s possible I just need to play more. In our one episode, though, luck certainly played a part but I felt like skill mattered too, and there were several different ways to build a successful strategy. (And I didn’t even win!)

Because it was our first try and because of the group composition, we were pretty slow. We took four hours to reach the first of of our three mission goals so we decided to stop there. We felt pretty sure the other two goals would have gone much faster, but we were out of time. I was rather bummed, I would have loved to finish the scenario.

The game did a good job of conveying the feel of the show’s typical episodes, the components are nice to use and handle, and thanks to the missions, the replay value is excellent. Clearly, the potential for expansions and additional missions is also huge. I recommend this game for fans to the ‘Verse and gamers with at least a certain tolerance for complexity. This is not ASL but it’s also not Elfland, and I don’t think it’s a terribly good choice for casual or social gamers.

For my part I really enjoyed the Firefly game, I would love to own it, and I’m looking forward to playing again.

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