Onward to Venus fondly recalls the joy of space exploitation in the 19th Century

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The Martin Wallace games I know are intricate affairs, challenging to learn and teach, often with some distinct or even controversial twist. Brass, A Study in Emerald, Mythotopia, A Few Acres of Snow. You wouldn’t whip them out for a casual group. No one would ever mistake them for party games or palate cleansers. They are the main event of a gaming night, or perhaps better a gaming afternoon when everyone is sharp and alert. But Onward to Venus bucks the trend of the Martin Wallace games I know. Here is a joyous, snappy, whimsical, and gloriously colorful science fiction side dish, suitable for a wide range of players and distinct enough to ensure a unique place at the table for a long time to come.

After the jump, remember when the space pirates of Titan attacked Great Britain’s factories on Ganymede?

One of the most immediately striking things about Onward to Venus, a retro sci-fi boardgame that imagines the colonial powers of the 1800s expanding out into the solar system, is the production values. The source material is New Zealand artist Greg Broadmore’s Dr. Grordbort series, which lends its artwork directly to the cards. Here are the rockets, rayguns, jetpacks, and heroic personages with their heroic mustaches and maybe monocles or pith helmets setting out to subjugate alien natives, hunt alien big game, and seize alien riches for the glory of their kings and countries. Or motherlands. Or manifest destinies. There are Brits, Russians, and Americans in this race for space, which has a very Flash Gordon vibe, but with a vivid layer of imperial grandeur and wonderfully specific science fiction gadgetry. Scroll down this page and check out some of the artwork.

The way Wallace structures the gameboard is an important aesthetic touch. Although I should say gameboards, plural. Each planet has its own circular board. Or, in the case of Saturn and Jupiter, there’s a board for one of their moons. The outermost board is for the Kuiper Belt, presumably because Uranus was still being discovered (true fact: the guy who found it thought it was a comet).

So you lay the planets out in sequence on the table as a row of separate boards, with the Earth and moon alongside each other. This means you can sprawl the solar system as much as your tabletop allows. Pieces are positioned as being in orbit around a planet, which means they’re physically on the table near the board, or landed on the planet, which means they’re physically sitting on the board. This creates a sense of the important places in the solar system as distinct points floating in a sea of emptiness, your rockets floating in space until they’re ready to land and claim something on your behalf. There is no negative space on the board because there is no board. There is only the empty gulf of your tabletop with the planets suspended like crown jewels to be won over by your empire. It’s a lovely aesthetic commentary on space that you don’t get when the galaxy is bounded up in the box of a single board.

In addition to the intricate artwork from Broadmore’s series, Onward to Venus has lively and evocative fonts, thick hearty tiles representing what’s going down on any given planet, three large light wooden dice with a skull where the one-pip should be, and chunky wooden pieces in the limited edition.

With only three turns, with players only taking one action at a time, and without any interrupts or back-and-forth battles, Onward to Venus is snappy and relatively brief. It’s also eminently replayable since you draw tiles randomly to determine the available actions on any planet. In one game, Venus might be an industrial powerhouse and Saturn’s moon Titan might be the place to get more cards. In another game, the moon might be a rich mining site and the Earth is a treasure chest of card draws. In yet another game, the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt might be the place to go for mineral wealth. Players can’t directly fight each other — this is a race into space and not a war! — but there is one type of tile, called tension, that lets players try to steal each other’s holdings. Since you never know where or whether tension will appear, you can’t be sure you’re safe until the last turn. The scoring is baked into the game board, so controlling Earth is always going to be worth the most points. But the incidentals of how you score are always going to vary by the tile draws.

Each player represents one of the great powers you’d find colonizing space in the 19th century, assuming they had the technology. These powers’ identities are distinguished only by their four starting cards, but considering the brevity of the game, this is plenty of identity. You know Russia has Admiral Czedos to carry otherwise immobile tanks to another planet; the United States has not one, but two heroes to let her re-roll dice; Britain has Lord Cockswain and his trusty rifle, The Unnatural Selector, to throw into a battle; and France’s Capacichronic Cavourite Coater boosts her movement for an early rush to a distant site. But many of these cards are duplicated in the general draw deck, so none of these powers is necessarily unique to one nation. Instead, you know enough to beware those Russian tanks until Admiral Czedos has been played.

I love Wallace’s willingness to throw a real wrench in the works with a single card. This is one of my favorite things about A Study in Emerald, a game where every tenth or even twentieth session might have a zombie apocalypse, or a vampire outbreak, or perhaps Cthulhu devouring an entire city. These hugely important events are important not just because they’re powerful, but because they’re so rare. Similarly, there are a few powerful cards in Onward to Venus that may or may not make an appearance (you will never go through the full deck of cards in one game). The Goliath 800 Moon Hater Deathray adds a ridiculous number of combat points to any army, putting to shame Lord Cockswain and even the mighty Punchotron robot. Arch-Cardinal Venetrix Superion the Lesser lets you set up — and hopefully capitalize on — an attack on another player in a game where attacks only happen under very specific conditions (I suppose one of those being that you control Arch-Cardinal Venetrix Superion the Lesser). The Dinglinton Regulator lets you take a turn after the round has ended, which can lead to some sneaky last-minute reversals. Happy is the leader of a planet who can defuse tension with a handy Hydroblaugh. Then there are some truly insidious card combos. Oh, the things you can do with the innocuous looking Hilfington Brackets or a Baldwin & Fraser-Allen Chromagram!

My one problem with Onward to Venus is the infrequency of crises, which are special events for each planet that only happen if enough crisis tiles appear. But there are too few crisis tiles and they’re too easily dispatched if any of them stack up. All of these crises should loom, but none of them does! You can get through several games with absolutely zero crises, which is a terrible way to model the pitfalls of colonialism. The Venusian uprising and the attack of the Moonmen should be a very real threat and not just a cool snippet of text on the planet gameboards. Yet it’s mathematically inconceivable that the robot rebellion would ever destroy humanity, much less that the alien invasion would ever arrive from beyond the Kuiper Belt. What kind of toothless crises are these?

I’m not a fan of house rules, particularly for games made by a developer I respect as much as Mr. Wallace. But in this case, I think it’s in my gaming group’s best interest if we somehow jigger the game to make crises loom, and more often actually happen. As someone who almost never considers house rules, I hope you can understand how dire the situation is. Onward to Venus has a really cool gameplay mechanic that you’ll almost never see, and that’s not right.

But other than the relatively crisis-free exploitation of the solar system, this is a top-notch boardgame, notable for its production values, it’s unique sensibility, it’s accessibility, and replayability. It’s also a welcome reminder that a developer as talented as Martin Wallace, known for deep intricate designs, still knows how to cut loose and get a little crazy with a Goliath 800 Moon Hater Deathray and a handful of Moon Maidens.

  • Onward to Venus

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  • Boardgame
  • Onward to Venus is set in the retro sci-fi world where planets and moons are waiting to be settled and exploited, however the local inhabitants might kick up a fuss. Luckily for the Earthling civilizers there is a range of highly useful ray-guns, to convince the natives to behave themselves. Players take on the role of one of the major Earth-based empires with the intent to gain influence over the planets/moons by building factories and digging mines over three periods.