02 October 2018
A future not to look forward to
Hexpanse is an example of the game that on paper entices with strategic gameplay and slick components, but then falls apart on the table due to badly-tested balancing, leaving players longing for the game it could have been.
Initially, the game ticks all the boxes of sci-fi bingo: colonisation of a new planet; spaceships; different factions, with unique abilities that are reflected in the gameplay; beautifully detailed artwork that provides glimpses into the game’s lore. Unfortunately, it doesn't take long to notice the cracks in this intricately-painted universe.
Least offensive are the bad, almost-photoshopped faces of Kickstarter backers that blatantly stand out from the otherwise gorgeous artwork. The more you look, however, the more disenchanted you become with this version of the future, where all humanoids are either robots, aliens or white, with only one piece of artwork containing a person of colour. What’s more, the only flag represented in the game bears a suspiciously strong resemblance to the Confederate flag.
If you are able to move past this, we come to the gameplay that, again, seemingly has everything one could hope for in a strategy game. There are several game modes to accommodate beginners and experienced players, and even teams. Players can customise their initial setup by choosing a faction that better suits their play style, going even further by adding minor factions to complement it. Market cards carry a wide range of abilities to suit any situation on the board and are easy to purchase, due to the game’s lenient economy. Whatever you want to do on your turn, there is usually a move or a combination of moves that will help you achieve it. Even while lagging behind, a useful card can easily level a playing field in a matter of a single turn.
While such freedom can be exciting, on the other hand it also leads to the biggest problem of Hexpanse: it can be impossible to finish.
Hexpanse can be won by either creating a specific pattern (that is revealed at the start of the game) with player’s units or by destroying opponents’ warlords, the heads of their chosen factions. Eliminating players from the game can already be problematic. It works in quick games, like King of Tokyo, because, if removed, a player doesn’t have to hang around long to wait for others to finish. In Hexpanse, the wait time is much longer and can vary significantly.
That is, if you manage to eliminate anyone at all. In fact, the highest chance of killing the warlord is if everyone decides to team up against one player. Being ganged up on never translates to enjoyable time playing and also feels cheap on the side of the attackers. Knowing how vulnerable warlords can be, most players prefer to keep them safe on their spaceships, away from the fight, making them impossible to attack except with specific market cards, of which there are too few in the deck. Even so, players have enough of an arsenal at their disposal, either through the same market cards or special units, to heal their warlords on their turn.
Having come to a fighting stalemate, players turn to their last resort: forming the pattern needed to win the game. Even this proves almost impossible because, as soon as someone starts building something even remotely resembling that arrangement on the board, other players attack them before they can complete it. With a simpler pattern, using a combination of cards and powers from minor factions, a player could possibly sneak in a win. But the more complicated the pattern, the more impossible it is to complete uninterrupted.
A 60-minute game stretched into two hours, and my gaming group felt like they were going in circles. None of us were any closer to completing the pattern; all warlords were fat, happy and healthy; and we were exhausted from a fight that never seemed to end. So we packed beautifully-illustrated cards and carefully-designed components back into the box, and put Hexpanse back on the shelf, where, I fear, it will remain.
Although it has the beginnings of a deep and challenging strategy game, Hexpanse fails to provide a satisfying payoff or even a conclusion.
Designer: Gabor Toldi
Artist: Gyula Pozsgay
Time: 60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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