Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Board Game Review: Terra Prime

Periodically I’ll be participating in the game night blog carnival, which gives me a chance to review some board games that might be a good break from your typical RPG session nights. Be sure to check out the other participants and their blogs.

I’ve been on a bit of a kick of older games as of late. Terra Prime is a space exploration game for 2-5 players from Tasty Minstrel Games. Sadly it is out of print but you can still snag a copy from online retailers.

In Terra Prime you are a ship captain in a race to explore and colonize the galaxy from your home space station. Before you are a series of unexplored sectors that hide numerous systems ripe for colonization. As you get further away from Terra Prime the more dangerous uncharted space gets, with random encounters with hostile aliens and potential collisions of asteroids being threats. As you establish colonies, explore, and trade goods, you earn victory points. The player with the most victory points wins.

Each player will have a starship that can be retrofitted with different modules. Some allow for more cargo, shields, or weapons, while other modules allow you to make additional moves on your turn. In addition there are technologies that can also be added to your ship to improve its performance.

During a player’s turn they have 3 actions to decide on either moving, colonizing a system, transporting cargo, to fighting aliens (or bribing them with goods). Everything is limited by the capacity of your ship. You have space for only so much cargo, and only certain bays can hold certain goods. Haul around a colony module? It takes up precious cargo space. Cargo is very important as that is the primary means to earn credits needed for upgrading your ship, as well as potentially competing demands for goods by Terra Prime, earning you victory points.

Making cargo runs is one way of earning victory points, but players earn much more establishing colonies or exploring space. Typically the further you explore, the greater the points. Additionally, subduing aliens and colonizing sectors of space can also give you bonus random rewards. So heading out to explore a new sector might also score you an additional cargo module or goods if you can pacify any alien resistance.

Goods are produced from a player’s colony every turn. There is a nice twist too as players can pick up goods from an opponent's colony. Doing so means the colony owner gets a victory point, however a particular good might be needed to meet the demands of Terra Prime (earning additional victory points once turned in). All of this makes for some fun choices as players shuttle back and forth between colonies, trying to complete demands before other players.

Fighting aliens is a simple affair, rolling six-sided dice and defeating an alien on a 4+. However aliens get several opportunities to attack. A player really needs to invest in ship technology and modules to defend itself, and possibly beef up the number of guns it can carry. Each hit beyond a ship’s shields means installed modules are destroyed, making for a potentially painful experience. This can make for a particularly tense moment as a player slips into an uncharted system, and possibly run smack into a large hostile alien force. As fights can be costly, it might be more worthwhile to offer up cargo goods instead, pacifying hostile aliens for victory points and rewards.

Asteroids can also inflict a fair amount of damage on a ship, making travel through them disastrous. As players explore, they can decide how to arrange the various planets and systems on the hex (with some limitations). So placing a field of asteroids in the path of an opponent’s route to one of their colonies can make for some hampering of ideal trade routes, effectively making players take longer routes.

The game ends under varying conditions. As players colonize sectors or defeat/pacify aliens, they gain rewards. Once a certain amount of rewards are earned the game ends. Alternately, there are different demand tiles for goods. As players complete these demands, further tiles are drawn. Once this supply ends, the game is over.

What I like about this is that there are two forms of a time clock ticking to end the game. One is based on establishing colonies and exploring (fighting aliens), while another is on transporting goods to complete the demand tiles from Terra Prime. Coupled with choices for how you customize your starship, you have a variety of paths to take to victory. All the while, you are in a race with other players to gain the most points. There are a lot of choices, with a bit of a random setup, really capturing that feeling of excitement (and potential dread) in exploring unknown sectors of space.

The Good - There are a lot of beefy components to the game and enough shuffling of board tiles and rewards to add game-to-game variation. It really captures that feeling of tense excitement exploring space. Players have to carefully think out routes and make decisions where and when to place colonies, and the choices for upgrading ships with different modules and technologies are fun. There are different paths to victory which players may have to alter depending on the actions of other players.

The Bad - There are a lot of components. While I like the hexagon boards, it can get a little fiddly trying to cover other uncolonized sector planets, such that you have to use a special board section chit just to do so. The ship cards are somewhat lackluster and some of the cuts of the board pieces are a tad non-uniform.

Some of the play can get a little clunky. You explore a new sector of space, and potentially run into a one-shot asteroid field, which in turn has to be covered up with another component bit. Not to mention the idea that the perimeter of the board pieces are where a player travels and colonizes, with the interior of the hexagon being empty space. All of which can make the graphic design somewhat non-intuitive for new players. I’ll also add between turn downtime can be an issue when other players are taking a long time to resolve their turn (especially with a large group of players).

The Verdict - I really enjoy this game. It fits the theme of space exploration, development, and trading just right. It’s not a deep strategy game, and has relatively simple mechanics for combat, production, and transport of goods. However that light theme works wonders making the game much more approachable for new players over something like Twilight Imperium.

There are a lot of meaningful choices, as players can scoop up goods, complete rewards, and explore sectors of space before their opponents. I particularly enjoy that there are multiple paths to victory. A captain can refit their ship to combat aliens and explore, work on trying to colonize explored sectors of space, haul cargo goods to complete resource demands, or do a bit of all three. There is a surprising amount to do and all of it runs on fairly light mechanics doing so. It’s a shame the game is out of print. Hopefully it’ll see a second print run sometime in the future.