28 September 2018
Too much base in your face?
Rulebooks. Every game has to have one, from three-card wonders like Win, Lose, or Banana to legendary monsters like Campaign for North Africa. And yet it is universally acknowledged that the worst way to learn a game is from its rulebook. Partly because we’re social animals and games are a social medium – we respond and comprehend better when faced with someone we can interact with, who can point at pieces and show you stuff – and partly because writing a good, clear rulebook is really hard; I’ve been doing this a long time and I can point at maybe five games that have a rulebook I’d read for pleasure – and I wrote one of them.
Space Base, on the other hand, simply isn’t trying.
I had a hard time getting Space Base to the table, because I made the mistake of pointing my players at the PDF of the rules, and it put them off. It’s a 28-page book. The description of how to set the game up doesn’t start until page 8.
Rule number one of the meta-rulebook on how to write rules: don’t confuse the players. Rule two: don’t bore them. By the time I got to Space Base’s ‘How to Play’ (page 10), I was both.
Here’s the thing: when you get to the heart of it, Space Base is a sleek, clever little dice-placement game that comes on hard like Machi Koro in space. You each play a commodore in the space fleet of Never Actually Made Clear, trying to do the best job so you get promoted to admiral.
And its core rules are five pages long. Four if you take out examples of play. It’s not complicated in itself; the complexity comes from the combinations of cards you’ll put together as you build out your fleet.
Here’s how it works: each player has a board with 12 spaces, representing the sector they’re patrolling. You roll two dice and use the numbers to activate whatever’s in those sectors – so two and nine could be sector two and sector nine, or sector 11 – and everyone gains the rewards from those sectors on their own boards. Then you can buy new ships or colonies, and really that’s it.
Combined with clever half-width cards for the ships and colonies, designed so you can still read their key information when they’re stacked, you’ve got a nice intelligent engine-builder – although there's not a lot of inter-player dynamics, not enough opportunities to engage each other’s fleets or sabotage a deployment, and it slows down badly with more players. It has a strong Machi Koro vibe, but I’d say that this is better game (which is not the same as being a better experience) and I also got a faint aftertaste of Catan, in a good way. But if the first thing I’d seen had been the rulebook I’d probably have given it a miss, and that would have been a shame.
We recommend you take Space Base for a trial flight, but learn it from someone else or from an internet video. It’s a complex game with a simple core, stifled by pages and pages of unnecessary rules explanation.
Designer: John D. Clair
Artist: Chris Walton
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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