Published by: Gale Force Nine
Designed By: Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, Sean Sweigart
Playtime: 2-4 hours
Promotional review copy supplied by 24/7 Games.
Aside from the wonderful world of videogames the second most dangerous thing to ever ask me about is sci-fi. Should this topic somehow arise in conversation you’ll quickly discover that Joss Whedon’s short-run TV show Firefly holds a special place in my heart, eternally vying with Farscape for top position as my favorite science-fiction show of all time. Back in the closing months of 2013 I promised a review of Gale Force Nine’s attempt at turning Firefly into a board game. After some delays, that promised review has finally arrived. Hold on tight, this is a wordy one.
The first thing that becomes immediately apparent is that the game oozes quality from every component. The box is a hefty beast and packed to the brim, containing no less than 13 decks of cards, numerous tokens and several models. The game board is thick and looks lovely, while the ship models that you’ll be using are nicely detailed replicas, although more dedicated fans might wish to break out some model paint and give them a quick sprucing up for some added authenticity. Story cards, Misbehave Cards and the various cardboard markers are all top quality, made of thick stock and sporting lovely designs that fit seamlessly into the show’s universe. Furthermore the game also includes beautiful paper money which was designed, for free, by the very same man who created the cash seen in the follow-up film Serenity. Quite simply said Gale Force Nine have not skimped on production values.
The tag on the game’s box pretty much sums up everything perfectly: find a crew, find a job, keep flying. At the start of the game one of the available story cards is selected either at random or by deliberation, providing you with narrative context for the rest of the game. To complete the goals listed you’re going to need cash, a skilled crew to pull it all off and perhaps even some fancy gear to help you get out of a tight situation. To get some fancy gear, though, you’ll need a good chunk of cash, and to get that you’ll need a crew with which to work the biggest jobs, and to get them you’ll need to head to the various planets in the ‘verse and keep your eyes open. Find a crew, find a job, and just keep on flying. It ain’t much, but it’s all we got.
At the start of the game you roll a dice and the person with the highest number picks a captain, each of whom bring different skills to the table and therefore will influence your initial plans. Captain Mal, for example, is good with his guns and has a basic understanding of negotiating, along with a handy ability that lets him claim extra cash whenever you work a crime job, whereas Corbin is a talented mechanic whose able to buy ship upgrades for half-price, likely making your first port of call the Osiris Shipworks. After that you pick out a ship, which are all almost entirely identical, but can be upgraded throughout the course of the game, and fly out into the black in search of work. At its heart Firefly is a fairly straightforward game in which you take on jobs, delivering cargo and other stuff from planet to planet, occasionally doing something far more dangerous, like robbing a bank. But even on these more dangerous and rewarding missions, you’re still essentially just flying from place to place, it’s just dressed up with a few extra mechanics.
Traversing the darkness of space is what you’ll spend a large amount of your time doing, flying from planet to planet through the relative safety of Alliance space and the more dangerous Reaver territory that makes up the outer edges of the board. By default everyone can “mosey along”, moving through a single sector of space with absolutely no risk involved, but of course this is a rather slow and when you’ve got jobs piling up time really is money. The faster way is to initiate a full burn by spending one of your fuel tokens, acquired at your handy local dealer, at which point you’re allowed to move as many sectors in a single turn as your upgradeable engine allows, the default amount being five. However, when you move through space in this manner you must flip over the top card of the corresponding Alliance or Reaver Nav decks for each sector you pass through, a mechanic designed to replicate the often unpredictable nature of traversing deep space. A relatively large chunk of each deck is made up of cards which simply state, “keep flying”, allowing you to continue onwards, but scattered amongst them are a variety of other cards, some good, some bad. On the most basic level you might flip over a card and be presented with an opportunity to scavenge some extra goods from a derelict ship, or you might find yourself with some technical problems and have to try to fix it or come to a full stop. Other cards allow player’s to move the Reaver and Alliance ships around the board, opening up room for some basic blocking and offensive tactics.
Understanding the differences between Alliance and Reaver space, then, is important. Flying through Alliance controlled territory is relatively safe, the only potentially big problems arising when you happen to get stopped by the patrolling Cruiser who strips away all your illegal contraband, fugitives and possibly even wanted crew, before making you pay fines for any outstanding warrants you happen to have. If you have a perfectly legal ship then passing through Alliance space is the safest option available to you, as your only worries might be a breakdown or having to come to a stop in order to go through a customs inspection. Here’s the catch, though: if you’re regarded as an outlaw ship, which you are if you are carrying anything illegal, you must come to a full stop immediately upon encountering the Cruiser, at which point you’re boarded and have to go through the steps I mentioned above of having your contraband and fugitives seized, and possibly your crew. Because you absolutely have to come to a full stop for the Cruiser whenever you’re classified as an outlaw this gives other players the chance to ruin your day by putting the Cruiser directly in your path.
Reaver space, meanwhile, is a dangerous proposition, yet may just be worth the risk if you’re running a big job with a lot of, shall we say, questionable goods. The Reaver Nav deck contains double the amount of cards that allow other players to move the Reaver Cutter around the board, but you only have to deal with that problem should you begin your turn in the same sector as the Reavers, generally giving you a good chance of making an escape. Encountering the Reavers doesn’t happen often, but when it does they kill all the passengers and fugitives onboard, and then you’re guarenteed to lose one member of your crew, with a high chance of a second perishing as well. The only way to escape is to have a both a mechanic and pilot onboard so you can pull off the famous Crazy Ivan move, giving you the opportunity to quickly scurry away. Ensure you’re outfitted with these crew members, and plentiful fuel for pulling the Ivan off, and flying through Reaver space becomes a less daunting prospect.
I wanted to talk about the basic movement and flipping of cards early because it’s the only part of the game where my feelings are quite mixed. While this movement mechanic fits perfectly from a thematic perspective, neatly imitating how flying through space leaves you at the beck and call of pure chance, it doesn’t take too long for it to lose its luster and become a little tedious. Having to flip over a card for every space you move, which could be up to six depending on the engine you have, becomes a grind the more you play, slowing down the pace of an already fairly slow game. I also felt there wasn’t enough emphasis placed on the differences between Reaver and Alliance space, and that neither were quite dangerous enough. Even running a highly illegal crew and ship neither me nor my friends felt like flying through Reaver space was a better option, so we chose to fly through Alliance areas in order to simply take the shorter route. Meanwhile out in the fringes out of space encounters with the Reavers were pretty rare. With both pilot and mechanic onboard the only concern was running directly into the Cutter, as the single Nav card that drew the dreaded ship to your location could be largely ignored by pulling off the Crazy Ivan.
In its current state it feels like there needs to roughly double the amount of cards in the Alliance Nav deck that moves the Cruiser to make the possibility of a run-in with the Alliance a more constant threat in order to increase the risk for captains running illegal goods, giving them good reason to seriously consider taking the longer, potentially more dangerous routes through Reaver controlled space. As a captain with a hold full of items obtained via unorthodox means I feel that choosing my route through space should be a very important decision. As for the Reavers due to the size of the territory they must cover it felt like there almost needed to be a second Cutter floating around to ensure that making your way through their space was a more tense experience. Choosing which section of the board to navigate should be a tougher decision than it currently is in Firefly: The Board Game. In my own personal experience me and my friends usually flew straight through Alliance space regardless of whether or not we were working illegal jobs because none of us felt that the Alliance posed a big enough threat to justify entering Reaver territory.
Having said that more run-ins with both the Alliance and Reavers could also be too disruptive, dragging the pace of the game down far too much and potentially ruining player’s chances should they be unfortunate enough to run into them a few times due to a streak of bad luck. As you can see, then, my thoughts are a little mixed on this particular mechanic.
Scattered around the ‘verse are five different contacts who provide the various jobs you undertake, each one tending to specialise in certain styles of work over the others. Harken, for example, is an Alliance man, and as such his jobs are entirely legal with relatively low pay, but the upside is they tend to be simple and fast to complete, and of course you can fly through Alliance controlled space with impunity. On the opposite end of the spectrum somebody like Niska tends to offer jobs with huge payouts that are definitely illegal, often completely immoral and that require a heavily outfitted crew to complete. Successfully work a job for a contact and you’ll become “solid” with them, which offers up enticing bonuses and also enables you to sell contraband and cargo directly to them, should you find yourself in possession of it. Going back to Harken, for example, becoming solid with him allows you to complete ignore Customs Inspection Nav cards when travelling through Alliance space, essentially nullifying two out of three of the more dangerous cards within the deck, while staying friendly with Amnon Duul lets you load up on passengers at fugitives at the Space Bazaar. Should you happen to acquire a warrant while working a job, though, you’ll lose your rep with your employer.
When it comes to selecting jobs Firefly employs a simple but highly effective mechanic to bring focus to the gameplay. At any time you’re allowed to examine a contact’s discard pile which is formed of jobs that other players have refused to take. When you arrive at the contact’s planet you may “consider” up to three jobs from the discard pile, and for every one of those three you don’t take from the pile you may draw one from the corresponding contact’s deck. Though you’re allowed to consider up to three jobs you may only accept two of them at the most, and can only ever have three inactive jobs sitting in your hand at any given time. By allowing players to examine and take jobs from the discard pile it eliminates the need to make your way across the board in the vague hopes of drawing a mission you can actually use or that fits in with your current plan. It’s a simple yet elegant solution to what could have been a great frustration.
Completing jobs ranges from doing something simple, like picking up cargo at one planet and dropping it off at another, to making skill rolls to rob trains, rob banks and much more . Dangerous, high-paying work usually require some ‘thrillin heroics by having you flip over some cards from the aptly named Misbehave deck. These Misbehave cards usually provide some brief snippets of narrative and two options for you to choose between. Depending on the situation having a certain piece of equipment or person along for the ride can provide a free pass, but much of the time you’ll need to make a skill roll by grabbing a dice and adding your crews total in that particular skill (tech, firepower and negotiation) to the value rolled to determine how successful you are. Should you manage to work your way through the number of Misbehave cards shown on the job then all is well, but fail even one and you’ll botch the attempt and be unable to try again until the next turn, or worse you might end up with a warrant or dead crew member on your hands. Which is bad, obviously. Because Misbehave cards are randomly drawn there’s a fairly large element of luck that encourages you to keep a well-rounded crew aboard ship and to seriously consider investing heavily in a variety of equipment, be it explosives, sniper rifles or fake ID, but generally speaking the Misbehave cards aren’t too harsh in their requirements or their penalties, so frustration is kept to a minimum.
Finish up a job and all that’s left is to collect your pay, from which you must then provide your crew with their cut, regardless of whether they were actually “working” the job or not. Hire too many crew members early in the game and you could find your profits dropping fast, although you can choose to refuse any member of your crew their fair share of the dough, something which results in them becoming understandably Disgruntled, a mechanic we’ll talk about later.
Like contacts there’s a total of five different planets that you can go shopping for crew and equipment on, and also like the contacts this employs the “consider 3, take 2” mechanic, allowing you to quickly check a discard pile to see if there’s anything that catches your fancy. Sure, you could fly over to Persephone and draw three random cards in the hope of finding something fantastic, but why do that when you know you can acquire a fantastic pilot in the form of Wash over at the Space Bazaar, and perhaps find something else cool by drawing two blinders? Equipment, meanwhile, comes in many different forms and can provide fairly large boosts to the stats of your crew. A sniper rifle, for example, gives some extra firepower to whomever wields it and can provide a get-out-of-jail free card should you find yourself facing an ambush situation when resolving a Misbehave card, while Fancy Duds and Fake ID can give you a big advantage when trying to talk your way out of a situation and may even let you waltz straight through.
Equally as important as hiring new crew and buying some fancy clothes is keeping well stocked in parts and fuel. Parts are mostly handy for combating breakdowns when flying through the ‘verse, but can be made somewhat obsolete by having some good mechanics onboard or keeping an eye out for the tuning upgrade, which allows you to ignore all breakdowns. Fuel, meanwhile, is never redundant, and there’s nothing more embarrassing than getting stuck in Reaver space because you didn’t load up a few extra barrels of the stuff.
Without a shadow of a doubt Firefly is a game that becomes better the more you play it. Gaining an understanding of where you can expect to find certain equipment and crew, of exactly what kinds of jobs contacts offer and the ins and outs of the two different nav decks, increases your enjoyment of the game considerably as you can began to formulate slightly more complex plans, although obviously luck will still play an important part. Indeed there are occasions where luck can be a rather savage mistress in Firefly. For the most part the element of chance works well in conjunction with the other mechanics, and choosing to tool up can help minimise the risks, but there are a few brutal cards located within the game that can deal major blows, setting players back quite a bit, and in some cases effectively taking them out of contention. Still, this is rare enough that I don’t consider it a major flaw.
Knowing that Jayne can only be found in Silverhold or that Simon and his sister hang around in Persephone is important, as is understanding which contact’s offer what kinds of jobs. Your first few games will likely be spent just cruising around the void, everyone desperately trying to cobble together a plan and crew, blindly flying to over to someone like Niska only to discover his jobs are well out of their league. After those opening games, though, you’ll begin to acquire a sense of purpose, your knowledge of the planets coming into play. In some ways you can even view this as thematic: just like Mal’s early day’s as a captain you’ll spend your first while blindly trying to figure out what’s going on and how you’re supposed to go about this whole life of crime thing, but get some time under your belt and you’ll know just where to go to get the best deals.
What’s more the game allows for a fairly decent amount of variety in how you want to tackle the objectives at hand, though obviously certain story cards will drive you towards certain playstyles. Some people preferred to go with a light crew and take simple jobs, reckoning it to be better to take a continuous stream of easy work which could be completed very quickly. While these jobs offer relatively low pay, because of the small crew less money needs to be handed out to pay the wages. In some cases I even witnessed a few players making a successful strategy out of having no crew except for their leader in the opening stages, taking on the most basic jobs and managing to amass a solid bit of money in the early game. Others loaded themselves up with gear and crewmates in order to tackle harder, big paying jobs as quickly as possible. Some players took on a variety of jobs, swapping crew as needed, while others were more careful when it came to accepting work and were more loyal, hunting down powerful allies and doing their best to keep them. I even witnessed a few people achieve success by acquiring a couple of key pieces of equipment and then making a run for the story objectives, betting on luck to help them draw appropriate Misbehave cards. Their gaining of an early lead caused the rest of us to scramble, and thus make mistakes. Seeing this different strategies play out as I carefully plan and execute my own was rather satisfying. Firefly isn’t particularly deep strategically, but there’s enough here.
Not every strategy is completely viable, though.The idea of legality and morality is woven into the game, but not quite as well or as strongly as I might like. In theory you can play the game by solely taking on legal jobs, which pay less but allow you to pass through Alliance space in relative safety, but in practice I and my friends found this made the game nigh on impossible to play as other captains who dealt in both legal and illegal activities quickly gathered the materials needed to advance, opening up significant leads in the process. While I concede that taking illegal jobs ties in thematically with the TV show itself, which focuses on a crew simply trying to get by however they can, I also feel it would have been nice to be able to roleplay a law-abiding captain, which would also expand the range of strategies available to you.
Morality, on the other hand, is woven better into the game. Should you find yourself involved in an absolutely immoral job any crew members listed as being moral become Disgruntled. In this state rival captains can actively hire a crew member from you by simply paying their listed fee, and should any crew member receive a second Disgruntled token they will abandon you immediately, appearing back in their appropriate supply deck for re-hire. Other things apart from moral dilemmas can also leave crew members feeling Disgruntled. Even your captain isn’t immune from the effects of depression, and should he or she receive two Disgruntled tokens they’ll take the only sensible action available to them: fire every gorram person onboard! In order to achieve peace once again you can spend one of your two actions available per turn to give crew members shore leave. My only complaint here is that it didn’t feel like morality, which is an important aspect of the TV show, came into play very often.
Though it might sound like it on paper Firefly: The Board game is not a highly complex game, rather it’s a busy one. There’s always quite a bit going on and there’s plenty of rules and details to remember, many of which I’ve skipped over for the sake of this review, but none of it is actually very deep or nuanced, so you’ll get into the swing of things relatively quickly, provided, of course, you pay attention. As such even casual gamers should be able to get to grips with essentials pretty quickly, which is a big plus for fans of the TV show who are simply interested on getting their hands on another part of the expanded Whedon universe.
Even with all four players flying through the sky Firefly has surprisingly low player interaction built into its mechanics, and so it’s easy to feel like you’re actually playing entirely on your own, only occasionally bumping into another human being and doing very little when you do. To put it in videogame terms it’s like playing an MMO with a relatively vast area to explore but dead player base – much of the time you’re just getting on with your own stuff, but on occasion you’ll run in to someone else who is also just getting on with stuff. You might wave as you pass by, or briefly stop to chat, but that’s about it. Interacting with another player requires you to both be at a dead stop within a sector space, at which point you’re allowed to wheel and deal for anything or hire away disgruntled crew members. It sounds fine on paper but in reality me and my friends rarely found our paths crossing, largely because stopping to visit another Firefly required bringing your current journey to a halt, which most were unwilling to do.
Nav Cards which let you move either the Reaver Cutter or Alliance Cruiser around the board present another opportunity to screw over the other players, but the problem we found here is that control of these ships always falls to the player on your right, and so in several situations both Alliance and Reaver craft ended up going in circles as different people wanted them heading in different directions. Simply said more opportunities to interact with the people sitting around the board would be most welcome, like being able to raid their ships or team up with them on certain jobs. After all, how else are we supposed to work the immortal phrase”curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” into the conversation?
And now let’s stop and talk about the license. Regardless of whether the rules do or do not work within the context of the game, every mechanic fits in beautifully with the themes of the show and the designers have gone to great lengths to slip as many little references and details into the game as they can, from Jayne’s cunning hat to Misbehave cards using qoutes from the show. As a Browncoat (that’s a Firefly fan to you none-believers) I literally couldn’t stop smiling as I unearthed more and more nods to the show. Hiring Simon and River to be a part of my crew brought a smile to my face, as did outfitting Kaylee with fancy duds in the form of her pink dress. Having Wash at the helm and Zoe kicking ass on a job was another awesome fan moment. Given that there’s just thirteen episodes of the TV show available the amount of detail that the game’s designers that put into this board game really is staggering, and indicates a love and passion for the source material. However, there are a couple of notable characters and items that are missing, such as the disconcerting Jubal Early. As it transpires, though, there’s a total of eight expansions for this game already planned, and the second one, titled Pirates & Bounty Hunters, just so happens to contain the disturbing man.
One small disappointment does stem from the fact that while the game’s designers were able to secure the license for the Firefly TV show, they were unable to procure the rights to the follow-up film Serenity, which is owned by Universal. Sadly this means no story missions based on the plot of the film nor any crew and items. Given that Universal aren’t actually doing much with the Serenity license I find it perplexing that they didn’t grant Gale Force Nine the right to use material from the film.
Arguably my favorite aspect of the entire game resides within the Misbehave cards, as each of them uses scenarios and qoutes taken from the TV show and bases the skill rolls and requirements on those, essentially replicating, as well as one can in card form, scenes from the 13 episodes of Firefly. When you combine these Misbehave cards with the descriptions on Story cards and jobs and a little bit of imagination they form miniature narratives, providing some much-needed sense that you’re part of the Firefly world. Take the time to read each card and you’ll find yourself enjoying your time with the game far more.
That brings me to my biggest point of contention about Firefly: The Board Game; strip away that lovely, beautiful license and what you’re left with is an enjoyable game, certainly, but not a great one. As a major fan of the TV series and reader of the comics the fact that this board game so wonderfully manages to turn the show’s themes and ideas into gameplay mechanics amazes me, and exponentially increases the pleasure I derive from playing it. Its strong theme is undeniably the single greatest strength of Firefly: The Board Game. This, however, does leave at something of an impasse in considering how those unfamiliar with the license will feel about the game. So let me first be clear about how this review and the final score will work: I’m reviewing the game as an entire package, and that includes how well it ties the license in with its mechanics, ergo the score at the end is based on this fact. As a concession, however, I would recommend that if you have no experience with the license or interest in it take a full point of the final score. You’re going to have fun, I feel very confident in that, but it’s the Firefly license and the desire to immerse yourself in the amazing universe Whedon created that really tips this game into the realms of being great.
Another potential flaw worth mentioning is that Firefly: The board game takes up a considerable amount of space, so much, in fact, that it doesn’t even fit on the table in my dining room. The board itself is 3x2ft, plus there’s the 13 decks of cards (each needs double the space) that must be placed around it along with each player’s ship card, captain, crew, gear, jobs and money, making this one hell of a space hog, something which anyone living in a relatively small house or flat may wish to keep in mind.
Much like the sheer physical size Firefly can also take up a considerable amount of your time until you can learn how to cut corners and speed up player turns. While most story cards advertise the playtime as around 2-hours me and my friends quickly discovered that with three, four or even five players a single game can easily hit the four-hour mark, by which point the action is seriously beginning to drag. After playing numerous games we did learn that there are ways of making the game go a little faster, like letting players consider cards and even purchase or accept them during another player’s turn if they were already sitting at the appropriate planet, but even with such measures in place sitting down to play Firefly can require some commitment, a commitment which the gameplay mechanics themselves can struggle to keep you invested in.
In an interesting and most welcome move there’s a single story card available that’s designed for solo play, which alters a few of the rules so that you can embark on the life of a Firefly captain all on your own. Strangely the rulebook never mentions the existence of a solo mode, but it works rather well. However, with one card dedicated to solo play that leaves just 5 story cards available for playing with friends, and that just doesn’t quite feel like enough. A few more would have been greatly appreciated, a complaint that will most likely be resolved in upcoming expansions, but for now remains a legitimate concern.
My final complaint about Gale Force’s otherwise fantastic rendition of Firefly in board-game form lies within the 18-page rulebook, a manual which is somewhat lacking. While it certainly looks pretty enough the rule-book doesn’t offer the most intuitive layout, and there are several rules within the pages, and listed on cards in the game itself, which can leave you at a loss, either through a lack of detail or vague wording. For example, the rules state that in a situation where your captain would be killed you simply place a Disgruntled token on him/her instead, yet it never makes it clear whether you can choose to have your leader “killed” over another crew member. A Misbehave card presents two options to you for when you have a Merc in your crew, but doesn’t explain what to do if you don’t have one present. Can you simply discard inactive jobs to free up space for more? There’s some relatively substantial gaps to be found which suggest a lack of playtesting took place outside of the designers themselves, who, of course, knew exactly how to play. There’s already been a substantial FAQ of 7-pages released, and I highly recommend that upon picking up the game you print out a copy of it. Thankfully even if you don’t print out the FAQ these gaps won’t leave you stuck for long as a few minutes of sensible discussion will result in a house rule which makes sense, but it does make the initial few games a little awkward.
On the topic of the rulebook a bullet-point list for what players can and can not do in a turn would have been appreciated, as would cheat sheets. It’s a small thing, but the inclusion of these, plus some general tips for new players, would have helped make the initial few games a bit smoother for all involved.
I truly struggle to imagine a way in which Gale Force Nine could have transformed such a fantastic TV show into board game form any better than they have. The themes and characters of Joss Whedon’s masterpiece are all beautifully represented here in a myriad of quality components and references sure to make any fan delighted, while the core gameplay mechanics themselves have been carefully adapted to mimic, as much as one could expect, the style of the show. It’s this obvious adoration of the license, then, where Firefly: The Board game is its strongest. Strip all that away and what you’re left with is a fairly straightforward pick up and deliver game, a damn good one, but not the best example of the genre. But then, if you stripped away the license, what would be the point? Board game fans in general will have fun with this, while Firefly fans will fall in love with it. If you happen to be both of those things…well, you can probably start arranging a marriage ceremony right now.
You can’t take the sky from me.
+ Firefly license has been handled so well.
+ The joy of acquiring as many of Serenity’s crew as you can.
+ Quality components.
– Games can drag on.
– Rule book already requires a 7-page FAQ.
– Needs a lot of space.
The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
A joyous union of board game and brilliant TV show, Firefly: The Board Game manages to hit all the marks.