Joss Whedon’s Firefly boardgame isn’t just for Firefly fans

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Joss Whedon’s Firefly, the boardgame of Joss Whedon’s TV show, can be demanding. It can be slow. It can be lonely. It can be mean. It can kick you in the teeth with a bad die roll or an unfortunate card draw. It can leave you drifting in space while everyone else has lively barroom brawls and exciting tangles with the law. They’re buying awesome ship components and fancy gear for their crew. You’re mopping floors on some backwater planet until you can afford fuel. But when you’re the one enjoying the brawls, tangles, awesomes, and fancies, Firefly can be a gratifying tabletop space opera with a few unique selling points. And you don’t even have to know the TV show.

After the jump, what does gorram mean? And which one is Summer Glau?

I should present my Firefly bona fides before reviewing the Firefly boardgame, which is presumably targeted at fans of Joss Whedon’s “what if space was a Western?” series. This board is full of named locations. These cards are lousy with unique characters and even unique doo-dads that must have been in the show. There are space pirates called reavers gadding about. Some big-ass city ship with a dude named Harken is flying around checking your cargo. Even the active player marker is an in-joke for Fireflynistas, or whatever you people call yourselves. It’s a dinosaur. If you get that, this game wants you to play it.

But if you didn’t get that — I didn’t — this game doesn’t necessarily mind. I’ve seen the Firefly movie, and it bounced completely off me, kind of like someone who decides to see what this X-Files thing is all about, so he watches that rickety movie they patched together after the series ended. “Huh,” he thinks, “so that’s the X-Files.” He will then never watch the TV show. That’s me and Firefly. I’ve never seen the TV show and before playing this game, I was likely to never see it. Suffice to say, I’m no Firefly expert. So Summer Glau isn’t the really cute one who fixes the ship? Hey, look, it’s the guy who played the sheriff in Slither. He’s one of the playable ship captains in this game!

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So my approach was mainly to suss out this game’s potential for tabletop space opera. That potential is not immediately forthcoming. Firefly: The Game is slow, and as you’re learning it, it can deal you setback after painful setback. Spend four excruciating turns drifting through space in search of fuel. The Alliance jumps you just as you’re about to slip into Border Space with valuable contraband. A lucrative crime spree grinds to a halt because you rolled a one at exactly the wrong time. Reavers kill your entire crew. Every last one of them. Yep, they’re all dead. Because you drew that card.

But it’s mostly my own fault, because this is a game that plays best if you have some familiarity with the way its bits are arranged. You need to know that the only place you’ll find a pilot is the Space Bazaar, and that mechanics are only on Persephone, unless you manage to pluck Bester or Kaylee from Regina. You should be aware that Harken will never ask you to do something illegal, but he’s not above immoral actions like forcefully relocating settlers. You should know that all of Niska’s missions rely on dangerous card draws that require a lot of crewing up and gearing up. Should you bother with cheap gun hands from Regina? Where can you arm your enforcers? How hard is it to get a set of Hill Folk for the Hill Folk bonus? Why would you take scrappers that give you a salvage ops bonus? How common are salvage ops? Are you supposed to go through the navigation decks to figure out there are only a couple of salvage ops in Alliance space, but that border space has a salvage op on one out of five cards? The answer is yes, you probably should. How else would you know that flying around border space with a scrapper or two in your crew is a viable way to make money? You wouldn’t. So here you are drifting gradually towards a gas station.

You need to know the undocumented particulars of Firefly: The Game if you want to play for real. The alternative is being buffeted about in a series on ongoing learning games. For all its appeal to fans of Firefly: The TV Show, this is a game that works best for fans of Firefly: The Game. It’s a gameplay mythology that plays out far better when you know it, and the TV show will only whet your appetite. In other words, this is not an immediately friendly or even accessible game. Just jumping in to see what happens is a quick way to hate it.

There are a few strong gameplay concepts here. Getting gear, ship upgrades, and crew from the five supply planets starts out mostly as a crap shoot. You’re drawing from the supply piles, looking for stuff you can use. But whatever you don’t buy goes into a face-up discard pile. Anyone can buy from this pile. So the longer the game goes on, the more options everyone has to specifically upgrade his ship and crew. You’ll have to rely less on the luck of the draw. So you’ve got Two-Fry and he’s super handy with a sniper rifle? Well, it’s hardly worth parking in orbit around Silverhold to draw until you find a sniper rifle. But once a sniper rifle emerges in a discard pile, it’s well worth the extra turn to go out of your way and pick it up. This means players can directly engineer gratifying synergies rather than just waiting until they happen.

manifest

To make money in Firefly, you fly missions. At first, you might mistake these for a simple “go from here to here” set of cards, a la Ticket to Ride. But something unique emerges based on the concept of illegal and immoral missions. Illegal missions involve either carting contraband through Alliance space or throwing yourself at the mercy of random action cards (endearingly called the “misbehaving” deck). The higher payout for these illegal missions comes with a higher possibility of getting screwed. Smugglers have to risk Alliance patrols confiscating their cargo and arresting their crew. Criminals have to risk a bad draw. Should you take longer to skirt around Alliance space to get where you’re going? The navigation cards are arranged in such a way that it’s never 100% safe to cross Alliance space if you’re breaking the law. Crime pays, but it also punishes from time to time.

Then there are the immoral missions, such as trafficking slaves, smuggling drugs, or — my personal favorite — intercepting a donation intended for an orphanage. You did read the flavor text, didn’t you? These missions will make certain good guy crew members unhappy, which means they’re susceptible to jumping ship, or being stolen by another player. There’s very little direct player interaction in Firefly (an expansion due out in March aims to address that), but stealing away unhappy crew members is a potentially powerful exception. Do you focus on gathering a posse of amoral reprobates, do you avoid the immoral missions, or do you just risk a bummed out crew? In which case steer clear of other players. This system of illegal and immoral actions gives the missions more flavor than just going from point A to point B. The map, the navigation system, and the characters make crime and ethics a substantial part of the boardgame’s universe.

The victory conditions are variable based on the “story card” chosen during set-up. These guide the game towards either tackling difficult challenges, amassing wealth, or getting in good with the various factions as a way to win. The basics of gameplay don’t change, as you’re still earning money to upgrade your ship and gather your crew. But the particulars of how you parley these upgrades into victory give it a slight twist. Do you buy your victory? Or do you weather a set of random card draws? Or some combination thereof? Read the flavor text for — surprise! — extra flavor.

There are a couple of serious problems in Firefly that can tax some players’ patience. The first is that it’s a pretty slow game, and a full complement of four people makes it especially slow, especially when some of them are learning the game. The random setbacks will make it even slower at times, and you’re liable to have players completely unengaged in what’s going on because they can’t get any traction. Firefly can be more spectator sport than boardgame.

The other problem is that after a certain point, the game is over, but it’s going to be several turns before it’s over. You’ll reach a tipping point where everyone but the winner is just faffing about, but the winner still has to take her last several turns. I can imagine situations where it’s close, but they’ll probably be rare, and they’ll probably be decided by a die roll or a card draw, by some fortuitous coincidence of having a hacking rig for that one rare encounter that you can breeze past if you have a hacking rig. This is an intentional part of the design and it’s only a problem if you have some philosophical objection to luck as a determinant for victory. The music of chance isn’t pleasant to some boardgamers, and this is one of those egregious exercises in sprawlingly themed Ameritrash. For the rest of us, those die rolls and fortuitous hacking rigs are actually the point, even if we still can’t quite pick out which one is Summer Glau.

  • Firefly: The Game

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • In Firefly: The Game, based on the popular Firefly television series created by Joss Whedon, players captain their own Firefly-class transport ship, traveling the 'Verse with a handpicked crew of fighters, mechanics and other travelers. As a captain desperate for work, players are compelled to take on any job -- so long as it pays. Double-dealing employers, heavy-handed Alliance patrols, and marauding Reavers are all in a day's work for a ship's captain at the edge of the 'Verse. Firefly: The Game is a high-end thematic tabletop boardgame from Gale Force Nine (GF9) and the first in a series of tabletop hobby board games and miniatures games from GF9 set in the Firefly Universe. Also, Tom Chick who doesn't even know the TV show liked the game, so we've got that going for us.
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