Sagan Says: SPACE EXPLORERS review

In the mid-20th century, mankind’s quest into the unknown reached unparalleled new heights. For the first time in history, space was within reach. Though everyone today regards things like the ISS, satellite communication, and soon even commercial space travel as a fairly standard fact of life, the dawn of this new era was built upon the immense efforts of brilliant people from all walks of life. Though only the astronauts have become household names, teams of engineers, testers, builders, and scientists of all types came together to launch us into the stars. Space Explorers is a game that sees you heading up an R&D Hub in the early days of space travel. By recruiting the best of the best in a variety of different fields, you can make further progress into the stars, and maybe even gain glory along the way as the world’s top space program.

Space. The Final Frontier…

Space Explorers is a light-medium weight tableau building game designed by Yuri Zhuravlev and published by 25th Century Games. The extremely short synopsis is “Think of Splendor, but layer on just a bit more complexity every turn.” In Space explorers, the main objective is to score the most Progress Points by the end of the game. Points are mainly scored through the specific specialist cards that a player can recruit into their own personal Hub, as well as further points through completed Project Tiles which can be completed by meeting specific combinations of specialists. The game ends whenever one player recruits 12 specialists into their hub, or whenever all of the Projects are completed. In my experience, endgame is usually in the 15-20 round range, but all players do have an equal number of turns before final scoring. A full game should take around 30 to 45 minutes.

A three player game in progress

On a player’s turn, they are able to choose one of two basic actions. First, they can take a card in hand from the Space Center, a common offer of 6 faceup specialists available to all players. There is no cost to reserving a card in this way, and cards can later be played from the hand or used as a resource to pay recruitment costs for something else. Second, they can recruit a specialist to their Hub, the tableau that they are building in front of them. Specialists can be recruited from in hand, or directly from the Space Center by paying the associated recruitment cost of the card. All specialist cards have between two and six symbols worth of cost, divided across 5 different resource types. These costs are paid for with research tokens, which are passed around the table to the next player when spent (research SHOULD be shared after all), and by discounts from previously acquired specialists. There are a very limited number of research tokens available, so building up your chain of cheap specialists to give discounts to the more expensive ones is crucial.

Historical Fact: Testers were paid with nothing but potions and pocketwatches. (maybe)

Every player’s Hub is split into five divisions, and each specialist only has one or two types of division that they can be played in. Cards that are already in a certain division give a one resource discount to all incoming cards into the same division, meaning that the more you build a certain division out, the easier it becomes to keep specializing in that area. This fact is counteracted by two main things. First, the Projects, which can be a huge scoring area. These require fairly diverse Hubs, with specialists of many types available. Next, the special abilities system. Most specialists have a unique ability that can only be active when they are the head of their respective division. Once a new specialist comes into the same division, they go on the top of the stack, and cover the special ability of the previous head. If you have a specialist with a really great power, it can be completely game changing to lose their ability to keep building out bigger and bigger divisions. Most of these special abilities are extra draws, extra resources, and endgame scoring bonuses, but they tend to provide lots of opportunities to synergize nice little combos within your own hub.

As you may expect, Space Explorers is a low interaction game. Players can certainly draft things away from you if you aren’t careful, but the main interaction in the game is a positive one, as spent research tokens are never removed from circulation. Instead they are given freely to the next player in turn order, helping them to build their own research out better.

If you don’t choose well, another player could steal the specialist you need.

The final option available during a player’s turn is the claiming of a Project tile, which is a free action available to a player who meets the specialist requirements depicted on the tile. As I mentioned before, the entire system feels like a slightly deeper version of Splendor, with the need to build up a little network of cheap cards to start affording more expensive ones, the main cards doubling as scoring and discount cards, and the bonus tiles at the end being awarded to the first player to achieve a certain combination of other card types. Still, Space Explorers brings its own ideas to the formula.

What’s good about the game

For starters, the comparison to Splendor is not a bad thing. It’s a great game with a very wide appeal, and I think that Space Explorers improves on it in a lot of ways. For me, the addition of the unique powers to most specialist cards really added a great layer of extra strategy. Instead of just balancing my point yields with my future discounts for choosing specific cards, making sure that the head of each of my divisions was contributing well to my overall strategy was a great puzzle, without being too overbearing and distracting from the core of the game. The symbols aren’t the most clear on their own, but the rulebook does a great job of clarifying things, with a quick reference to icons and turn order on the back, as well as a detailed section outlining exactly how each specialist card was meant to work. Even if something wasn’t perfectly intuitive, it was easy to find a rule that was needed, and I didn’t find any ambiguous situations where we needed to guess at a ruling or search a forum to figure something out.

A fully completed Research Hub, with bonus Projects for good measure

The next great thing about the game is its production quality. I really found myself impressed with all of the small details that went into this game, save one which I will mention later. The art is gorgeous all around, and the style of every component does a great job of evoking that 1960’s space race feel. The graphic design really sells the theme, and the idea of bringing on new specialists leading to quicker completion of milestone projects works well. Even the small things like the high quality of the cards and the way that the Hub boards fit perfectly together just gave off a great impression. All of this combined with the fact that the game fits everything inside a fairly small box which DOESN’T waste my shelf space with 80% air on the inside makes this entire package very appealing.

Finally, the game manages to maintain the quick-playing, simple-to-pick-up vibe of its contemporaries, while bringing in just a bit more crunch to keep its replayability higher and its moment-to-moment decisions more interesting. It’s a great little package, and certainly one that I intend to keep around on my shelves.

What’s less good about the game

The art of this game is fantastic, and my one main gripe in this area is that there isn’t more of it! Each specialist was unique, with different combinations of costs, powers, etc, but the art was identical for each one within the same division. Understandably, the expense goes up considerably to have different art for each of the game’s 60 specialist cards, but I believe that this game was worth it. Interestingly, though the art was the same for each card within its division, the different cards just zoomed in different amounts on the same piece of art, so that’s something I guess.

“I’m ready for my close-up now.”

The game is quite simple to understand, and the rulebook did a great job of making sure that all potential issues could be addressed easily, but I still think that there was room to streamline a bit more in the rulebook and get a first time player up and running quicker.

Honestly, my biggest problem with this one is just that it feels so similar to other games that I’ve already played with only slight variations on the formula. That’s not inherently a bad thing either, as I think that the changes that it makes do a good job at making the game more interesting and adding on to that formula. Unfortunately, if you’re like me and already have several games that do the same things that Space Explorers does, it’s hard to recommend this one that strongly over the others.

Final Thoughts

Even though I just said I couldn’t recommend this one over other similar titles that you may already own, I certainly wouldn’t recommend those other titles over Space Explorers either. For me, I think it’s just a question of how much room is in your collection for similar games. If you’re a player who doesn’t have many tableau building games, I can easily say to pick this one up. This copy will probably be knocking something else off my shelves in the near future, and I definitely prefer it to some of the genre mainstays, but only slightly. If you love retro space games, quick tableau builders, and a high ratio of game to shelf-space, I suggest you take a serious look at Space Explorers.

To Infinity! And Beyond!

Pros/Cons

Pros

  • Plays and teaches very fast
  • Has a bit more layered complexity than similar games
  • Gorgeous art
  • High production value all around
  • Small box with a lot of game packed in

Cons

  • Not extremely distinctive from other games in its genre that are established in the market
  • The rulebook could be a bit more streamlined
  • Different art on each specialist could go a long way

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