Space Base flushes Machi Koro out the airlock

, | Game reviews

Machi Koro sure is cute. The quaint fields, orchards, bakeries, and cafes. The sushi bar and flower stand and pizza joint. Even when it gets serious with tax offices, furniture factories, and airports, it’s still cute. It refuses to be anything other than a lightweight opportunity for a few folks to roll dice and pass around cardboard coins. Someone eventually gathers enough cardboard coins to finish his city. Presumably fun was had.

What I appreciate most about Machi Koro is how every turn is everyone’s turn. In other games, the act of rolling dice is something you do for yourself. It’s my turn, it’s my roll, the number is my result. You’ll get your own result from your own roll on your own turn. The simple twist in Machi Koro is that although we take turns rolling, the result is for all of us. If you roll the right number, you’ll activate my buildings. This means there’s technically no down time, that it’s always everyone’s turn. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do pacing right.

But with Space Base, the concept really takes off.

Space Base and Machi Koro have the same basic gameplay. Roll dice, check the number against the cards in front of you, hopefully earn some money, and then spend the money to put more cards in front of you. And they have the same basic twist, in which everyone’s die roll can activate other players’ cards. But look at this chart from the back of Space Base’s manual. It’s under the heading “Strategy Tip — Dice Roll Probability.”

The chart is telling you the number of different ways you can come up with a specific number if you’re rolling two dice. So there’s only one way to get a 12. Boxcars. No other combination of dice will get you a 12. Hence the right side of the chart. But the other side of the chart seems to suggest there are thirteen ways to get snake eyes. That’s not what it’s saying. Sometimes Space Base can be a bit, well, obtuse. Instead, the chart shows the number of ways to get any given number, regardless of whether it’s on a single die or as a sum. Snake eyes is just one way to roll a 2. The other twelve ways involve getting a 2 on only a single die.

Space Base explains this because players always roll two dice, but you decide whether to use them individually or as a sum. This means there’s more to the weighting of results than the average sum being a 7. That matters when you must add the rolls. But since you can use the dice separately in Space Base, look at the numbers below 7 on the chart. Suddenly the likelihood of rolling those numbers jumps dramatically. There are only six ways to get a 7, but since you can use the dice separately, there are 17 ways to get a 6. It’s not complicated, but it’s important. Space Base wants to make sure you know it was made with this in mind. Hence, “Strategy Tip” at the top of the page.

Machi Koro isn’t nearly so fussy. It uses plenty of numbers but not a lot of math. It prefers whimsy. The early game is just the roll of a single d6. Any number is as likely as any other. After you build a train station, you can roll 2d6. Infrastructure! Now all those buildings from the first part of the game are pushed to the end of the probability spectrum. Progress! The distribution of numbers on 2d6 comes into play, and the 7 assumes its place of prominence. But it’s still a lot of unmitigated randomness to keep things simple, snappy, and supposedly interesting.

Space Base is different in two important ways. The first is that it’s specifically built around two dice being either separate numbers or a sum. This gives it flexibility and opportunities that aren’t possible in Machi Koro, which knows enough to push the more powerful cards into the 8-12 range, but doesn’t have any way to keep the earlier lower numbers relevant.

Space Base is also more flexible in terms of whether cards are useful on your turn or someone else’s turn. This is fixed in Machi Koro, where some buildings only work on your turn and some buildings only work on other players’ turns. But every spaceship in Space Base — each card is a unique spaceship — works on your turn. You have slots numbered 1 to 12 for all the possible die rolls, with a starting ship in each one. When you buy a new ship, it goes into its specified slot, replacing the old ship. The old ship is flipped upside down and partly tucked under your board, above its slot. Now it has a slightly different power that only activates on other players’ turns, when they roll that slot’s number. If you later replace the new ship, it joins the previous ship, compounding the benefit when another player rolls that number. As the game goes on, as you set up an array of upside-down cards along the top of your board, you’ll benefit more and more from other players’ turns. The ships do various things, but they all have a function on your turn and on everyone else’s turn.

The second important way Space Base differs from Machi Koro is that it’s built around a consistent and interactive economy. Machi Koro’s cards are a breezy amalgam of agriculture, manufacturing, small businesses, civic buildings, entertainment, and overpowered fishing (the rampaging tuna fleets are especially egregious), all of which give you cardboard coins. Anything vaguely city builder is fair game and you won’t find much sense of different sectors doing different things. One exception is restaurants, which steal money from other players. Restaurants are modeled as parasites on healthy economies. Go figure.

Space Base might seem the same at first. Just a breezy amalgam of different kinds of spaceships. But with a closer and broader look, you’ll see an economic framework into which all the cards and dice rolls fit snugly. Here is a bigger picture that relies on interaction and planning more than whimsy. Doing well in Space Base means understanding this economy, which isn’t easy to see by just playing a few games. Spread the cards out on the table and organize them. Compare their costs to their abilities. Look at how they interact with and even affect die rolls. Look at the type of ship each card represents. An economy comes into focus and you can see the reason for that chart in the back of the rules. You can see why similar ships cost different amounts. A ship that goes into the 8 slot has a different price than the same ship that goes into the 6 slot, because you’ll have more opportunities to use the 6. A ship that goes into the 12 can be a real game changer because there’s only ever one way to roll a 12.

You can also see how the various game mechanics are smartly themed. Cargo ships earn the money you need to buy more ships, but they’re inconsistent. Mining gives you a persistent income from turn to turn, regardless of die rolls. Military ships, mainly carriers, earn victory points. Command ships and cruisers change the die rolls. Tugs and hyperspace gates move ships around among the slots. Tankers recharge ships that have special powers. The powerful gun carriage flat-out wins the game when it’s fully armed and operational. Gun carriage seems an awfully quaint name for what is essentially a Death Star.

Each ship card is unique. It has a name and a class. The basic carriers are Bradbury, Giger, and Frazetta class, based on how expensive and therefore how powerful they are. The Bradbury carriers are less expensive, but they cluster around the higher numbers, so they’re harder to roll. The Giger carriers, on the other hand, are distributed among all the numbers, from 1 to 12. They’re all pretty much the same price, but the Giger carriers in the higher slots get you more victory points. The Sevastyanov gets you two victory points when a 1 is rolled. But the Artyukhin gets you seven victory points when a 12 is rolled. Space Base ends when someone gets 40 points, so one successful roll with the Artyukhin Bradbury class carrier gets you one fifth of the way to victory. Good luck rolling that 12.

Here’s where the command ships come into play. They let you push a result further down the track, as if you’d rolled a higher number. For instance, with a Heinlein class command ship in your fleet, when you hit its number, it gets a cube. Now, at any time, on anyone’s turn, you can spend that cube to treat a die roll as if it were one or two results higher. A charged Heinlein class command ship lets you trigger the Artyukhin with a 10 or 11. This sort of card interaction, set up across a consistent set of systems, is often decoupled from the die rolls to give you more flexibility. This also sets Space Base apart from the whimsy of Machi Koro. You can set up your fleet for greater payoffs. It’s an economic engine and not just a “hope-for-the-best” roll-a-thon.

Furthermore, Space Base has victory points. Machi Koro was won by whoever dumped the most money into the mandatory cards that must be built to win. Money was the only resource and therefore your only concern. But Space Base has that tough decision between making money or making the useless points that don’t do anything other than win the game. It even lets you dump money into colonies, which close up a slot, but earn you a one-time heap of victory points. The endgame can be a race to snap up available colonies. The mining that represents a persistent infrastructure gives you a minimum number of credits every turn. This is important because of a very weird, but very significant rules tweak. Whenever you buy a card, regardless of how much it costs, you spend all your money. Every last cent. As long as you can afford the card, take it, but pay everything you’ve got. That cargo ship that just came out would fit very neatly into your fleet, and it’s a steal at 4 gold. But you’ve been saving up for a more expensive ship. Do you buy this cheaper ship and reset your money to zero? What to do? If you’ve set up mining ships, you’ll move your money back up to a minimum value at the end of your turn, giving you a jump-start on whatever you’re going to buy next. This isn’t a game about just amassing a pile of money. It’s about deciding how long to hold on to your money.

The reset to zero is a weird rule for being so counter-intuitive, but it’s a fundamental part of the game. And it’s an example of how Space Base can be awfully esoteric at times. It’s not an easy game to teach, not because the particulars are complicated. They’re the opposite. But it’s not easy to teach because it’s more intricate than it seems. There are 18 ships available to buy every turn, randomly dealt from a set of decks to ensure a range of ships of various costs (Space Base would never do what Machi Koro does, which is just shuffle all the cards together into one big deck and leave the distribution to chance). Some of the ships have special abilities. Many of these abilities are very situational and the iconography can be puzzling. A new player gets 18 of these thrown at him from the first turn. Someone who knows the systems will do much better than someone just sitting down to chuck dice and enjoy the cute artwork. Anyone expecting a little breezy Machi Koro in space will be in for a rude surprise when the game is nearly over and they’ve barely gotten any victory points. This is a design that won’t reveal itself by its rules, but by its components.

One of the biggest shortcomings of Space Base is the lack of direct player interaction. Machi Koro lets players mess with each other’s money. The parasitic restaurants, for example. But there’s only one interactive card in Space Base. The Gernsback class destroyer knocks down everyone else’s victory points by four. No other card affects other players, and there’s no guarantee the destroyer will flip up in any given game. Interaction is a conspicuously missed opportunity that reduces Space Base to multiplayer solitaire, in which we each build our own economic engines, even though we benefit from each other’s die rolls. Some fleshed-out “take that!” would have made Space Base feel a lot more dynamic. But if I were to choose between an intricate engine builder with an interesting sci-fi theme or hucking a bunch of dice to pass cardboard coins around willy-nilly until someone wins, it’s not much of a choice. Suffice to say I prefer game design in which my decisions matter more than the whims of a pair of dice.


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  • Space Base

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  • Boardgame
  • Don't let the dice, snappy pace, and cartoon spaceships fool you. Space Base is a smart sci-fi economic system.