Godspeed review

I drove up to north Louisiana recently for work for the first time in eighteen long months. By myself in the vehicle, I had plenty of time to reflect on my recent plays of Godspeed. It’s a worker placement game set in an alternate history at the dawn of the era when mankind set out to explore the stars, a theme that will excite anyone like me who grew up reading Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.

My reflection turned to the number of podcasts I’ve listened to recently, and reviews I have read, that focus on the theme of the game that they are covering. “I don’t like this theme.” “The theme of the game was very thin.” “The theme was non-existent.” It’s a big feature of most reviews.

I get why that is such a focus in covering most beer-and-pretzel games, or why it is a focus in discussing Amerithrash games. But, what about euro games? Does the combination of the theme of the game and its relationship to the mechanics really matter?

Maybe exploring outer space long after the humans hid their involvement in interstellar travel will help us understand at least a potential answer to the question.

Godspeed is a 2021 game in which players compete as rival nations exploring the galaxy for two to five players designed by Adam Hill and Clayton Hargrave, with art by Jesse Riggle published by Pandasaurus Games.

The conceit of the game is that the space race was a lie, but not in the way you would think. Of course, we went to the moon. Of course, we built rockets and the early astronauts were brave heroes. But the reality was that humans had already been venturing past the moon and Mars and the whole moonshot thing was just a cover up for what the race was really about. To the stars…and beyond.

Right off the bat, the premise of the game combined with the box cover showing a clearly terrified interstellar traveler has piqued my interest! Does it hold up?

GAMEPLAY AND PRODUCTION:

In Godspeed, players will compete over ten rounds to score the most points, most of that coming on a four lane track on the side of the board that concentrates on things like building up your “defense”, “commerce”, “exploration” and “infrastructure,” other wise known as the red, yellow, green, and blue tracks. Finish higher than your rival nations on each track, and you will score the most points at the end of the game.

To accomplish these goals, players will generally get two workers to take actions on the board to generate resources and trade them in for cards and movement up those tracks. Yes, on the surface it’s that kind of game — Trading in the Mediterranean (or should I say, trading beyond Alpha Centauri?) But there are a couple of wrinkles that give a new twist on this genre.

The players will generally play two workers each round on the board to take their actions, but must decide between five different workers of different strengths who have a different area of the board to affect. If you are a fan of worker placement games, then you probably already think you know the drill, but you’d be wrong, Neil Armstrong. Lest you think this is just a twist on your standard worker placement game with an unusual theme, a la Lords of Water Deep or New Bedford, not only are you presented a choice each round as to which two workers to play, but even before you make that choice, tension mounts.

Here are the two pressure points. At the start of each round, players will have to burn one of their workers in a blind bid for turn order knowing that the worker that is offered is out for the rest of the round. That could really set up a meaty choice if you need the turn order in the worst way, but your strongest worker is also the same one that lets you engage in that area of the board.

And not only do you get the chance at the first player token, but you also get first pick out of a group of cards that hand out from free resources or special abilities like coins bursting out from negated avatars in Ready Player One.

This will leave your friends wondering about your true aim this round — maybe you can fool them into thinking you don’t really care about first player order, but they know that you really, really, REALLY have to have that juicy double action card.

Plus, every round, there is a crisis to be dealt with amongst the group from the High Council Deck. During this short phase, players will flip over an event card from the deck, and then the nations convene, negotiate, haggle, and chastise each other before making a choice as to whether they want to contribute one worker to successfully deal with that event.

It’s a simple negotiating mechanic, and played quickly (and sometimes doesn’t involve any negotiations at all!) Players won’t get a choice of which worker — the event card decides that for them. Ignore the event, take the penalty on the card. But, if all nations contribute a worker toward the success of that event, then everyone immediately gets whatever benefit is listed on that card. It’s almost always a tough choice, because just like the bidding of the turn order, that worker is gone for the entire round.

From then on, it’s pretty standard worker placement fare, players taking turns to place their various team members on the spots around the board.

If those two slices of lime in the lemonade drink suggest some manufactured tension, there’s nothing manufactured about it. The designers have taken the two important issues in worker placement games — namely using workers for resources and turn order — and front loaded tough decisions every single round. Switch your vote on the High Council card at the last second, and everyone will remember your move the rest of the game. Outbid someone to take the special power card they really needed this round, and there will be lots of under-the-breath mutterings coming from the other side of the table.

The way theme gets integrated into the typical euro game is with the art and attractiveness of the boards and bits. Judging from the description of the theme and game mechanics, what would you expect from the player boards and main board in this alternate 1960s history game?

With exploration of space as a backdrop, one would expect something cold, stark and monochrome, something more akin to Beyond The Sun, right? A dull mechanical look at space, where no one can hear you scream at your opponent for out bidding you this round, the one round you really needed to go first!

Nope, instead we get a dreamy pastel infused alien landscape befitting a new planet that has been just discovered. We’ve all seen plenty of cold, dark shots of the void of space, and at first glance, this hazy, dream look was kind of jarring and off putting. (But it’s perfectly complementary with the dreamy lyrics of Radney Foster singing Godspeed in the background.)

But the more I think about it, the production of the game is perfect for the theme. It sets the table nicely and tells you from the front that this isn’t standard workers placement fare. The look and style of the board alone should be a big hint of that fact.

And speaking of the board, that’s where most of the action will happen the rest of each turn. Players will send their team members around the board, to one of six spaces (many of which have two different, but thematically compatible, actions). Players will be focused on building four buildings on their home board (plus hopefully building a ‘relic’, some kind of alien technology that they find and can utilize), because those buildings will be a mini-engine giving free stuff at the start of each round.

But there’s more to do all over the board, and honestly, it is a bit overwhelming during the first game — players can get even more resources, or better hand cards, grab wild supply pieces, or complete the resource collection cards already in hand. Completing those cards are one of the big ways players will move up the tracks and score points, and grab even more resources along the way.

Complete enough cards, and you can bring home one of the milestones in the game. There are seven of them, mostly trophies that celebrate winning the races to complete those cards in your hand or building all of your buildings. These are a little over the top for a standard euro, and a nice bump in quality in the production — imagine seven ring pops staring at you all game, just waiting to be picked up and eaten. In all of our games, the player who dominated those milestones won, for good reason — getting those milestones is a good way to combine cards and resources, and it’s good for your track movement, anyway.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

We return to the central question of the day. Does the theme of a game matter in terms of how much fun you will have playing it? Despite my conflicted praise for the artwork on the board, and the interesting backstories you will find in the rule book, for me, the answer is yes. I don’t need to BE the person in the game, I just have to feel that there is some thematic connection between what I’m doing and the story that is being sold to me in the game.

In Godspeed, there is unfortunately not much in the way of a connection between the theme to this game and the mechanics, at least for us. If you are looking for the sweaty palms that come with exploring an alien planet, or sniffing out a traitor among you, check out Not Alone or Battlestar Galactica instead, because despite the cover, that’s not what’s happening here.

But all is not lost. The fact that I did not feel connected to 1960s space travel didn’t dissuade me from more plays. To the contrary, there was a lot to like about Godspeed: we enjoyed the tension of the bidding process. That worker that I burn might be the fulcrum of a lever I have been building up for two or three rounds. Can I really afford to sacrifice that action? I love those kinds of decisions in games, even as they make me rub my forehead in earnest.

I really enjoyed the negotiations that marked the High Council phase. The effect on the flow of the game caused by the High Council phase cards was palpable. It’s a diabolical inclusion in the game. Does it make thematic sense? Probably not, but it makes the game a lot tighter and gives direct player interaction that is missing from most worker placement games.

Finally, one of the best aspects of my experience with this game is that I have enjoyed each play a little bit more than the last. That usually happens anytime a game has two or three competing systems at work; the more you play, the more you understand how those systems harmonize.

Yes, from a design standpoint, there is a lot to love about the game. But, notwithstanding the fresh way the designers handled the turn order and event systems, without those things, this is still pretty standard workers placement stuff. In the end, Godspeed is a solidly designed game but with a thematic detachment that ends up moving the needle backwards a bit. I do love how the two designers had the courage to throw a wrench into a smooth working system, and were willing to live with the consequences. That makes me excited to see what the designers can do in the future.

In the end, Godspeed brought us great thematic potential and delivered solid mechanics, but it was an imperfect marriage of the two during our plays.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ @boardgamegumbo

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