If there’s a board game which is credited with jump-starting the modern board game phenomenon, it’s The Settlers of Catan (now simply called Catan). This award-winning building game combined elements which were familiar to traditional board games — collecting cards and rolling dice — and combined it with a more free-form approach to making progress and choosing a winning strategy. Players roll two dice and collect resources based on the sum. It’s a solid game and a modern classic. There’s just one problem: it’s far too easy to get to your turn and be unable to do anything.
Fast-forward a bunch of years and we have Space Base. It has a familiar play cycle of ‘roll dice, collect resources, buy upgrades’, but where it scores highly is that turns are fast and it is very nearly impossible to have your turn without being able to make some kind of progress.
Each player has a board with slots marked 1–12. This board is your base, and in each numbered slot is a spaceship which generates a certain type of income which, to begin with, is gold or ‘influence’ (a kind of minimum income per round). When you roll two six-sided dice, you can either collect the reward from the value of both (e.g. 11) or activate both slots for each individual die (e.g. 5 and 6). At the end of your turn, you may buy a new spaceship which replaces one of the ones in your base, gradually upgrading your income and points-generating powers.
This is where the design gets clever — every ship in your base is designed to be ‘retired’. Retired ships are flipped and placed under the board behind their number. Now, when that ship’s number is rolled by another player, you also gain the resources from that card.
It’s a genius twist on Catan’s formula, which offers rewards for farming certain statistically-likely numbers, with the hope of a windfall as the dice travel around the other players as well as almost-guaranteed benefits on your own turns. Even if it gets to your turn to buy and you only have two gold, having rolled ‘snake eyes’ on your turn, there are still a large number of cards you can buy and, at the very least, this action pushes yet another card into the zone which generates income on other players’ turns. In short, it’s a game that never feels truly frustrating, because the direction of progress is always forward and victory is decided by who can accelerate their progress most efficiently.
The worst analogy I’ve ever used to describe this game is “it’s like Bingo, but cool.” And I stand by it. You can spend turn after turn carefully building up a cluster of upgrades around one number which hardly ever pops, but then suddenly someone rolls a 10 and you get 20 gold points, two influence and five victory points from a single activation. Having those amazing combos come off is a Bingo-like thrill, but with the satisfaction of having manipulated the numbers on your card throughout the game and made your own luck.
But what about the space theme, I hear you cry? It’s a good question, and I’m sad to report that the theme is essentially paper-thin. Space Base could be about almost any other concept and the design would remain unchanged. It could be twelve plant pots side by side or twelve shop units on a high street. However, it does feature some beautiful isometric pixel art of a variety of imaginative design space ships, many of which feature names very close to being a sci-fi reference, if you squint. This is not the amazing space fleet simulator you might be hoping for from the name and the cover art, but it is a very addictive game.
Space Base is a game for combo-builders. People who like to consider the value and statistical likelihood of a card being triggered and then carefully add it to a tableau of existing combos, hoping that those numbers will trigger an unstoppable sprint to the finish line. It’s highly satisfying, with very little waiting between turns — even at the full player count of five — and each game takes less than an hour. Plus, there’s enough variety in the card upgrades and possible combinations that it’ll be a long time before you feel you’ve played the same game before.
In short, don’t expect a great space adventure, because it’s not in this package. Do expect a beautifully produced, elegant and fast game of smooth progress, varied tools and satisfying engine-building.
Designer: John D. Clair