The Expanse is one of my favourite TV series of the last year so when I heard that it’s intrigue-filled cold-war-in-space shenanigans were being converted into board game form it leapt straight into my most anticipated games of GenCon and Essen. Better yet, it was designed by Geoff Engelstein of 2016’s Fog of War and The Dragon & Flagon and based on the same system as Twilight Struggle… but for 4 players! I was more excited for this than a belter for a water!
However… then I played it. Look, this isn’t going to be a bad “review” because I think The Expanse has a lot going for it. The card system is a much streamlined version of Twilight Struggle’s resource/event system, with the necessary tweaks to accommodate 4 players. The cards that cycle through the market have events for some number of the factions and should your faction choose to trigger it, you slide down a priority order for deciding who get to trigger the next events. That’s a clever solution, and plays into the generally slick and speedy mechanics present throughout the game.
However, the nature of these actions and events are very very combative and almost always target one particular player, which felt brutal! It’s so much more personal in a multiplayer game when a player chooses to target you. Now, again, it is still handled cleverly thanks to the objectives, whereby each player is looking for two of the 4 technology symbols that occur in pairs across the system. So any planetoid you want to control is bound to put you in direct conflict with one or more players. You should expect that. Unfortunately I didn’t entirely expect the degree to how fighty The Expanse was going to be, how infuriating it would feel being attacked at every corner when others could also have been the target. I’ve not been that angry at a game (and it’s players…) for quite some time. I’m frustrated at The Expanse for making me feel that way.
Now understanding the game, I feel like a second game will go much better. It really is a clever implementation, simple enough to be accessible, with enough to think about to be interesting. You should only go into this knowing what type of game is coming!
If I have any further criticism, then it would only be about theme. As the main four factions in the system, your interactions and motivations make sense for the game, but the main characters in the storyline, The Rosinate and its crew, are relegated to the role of catch up mechanic. While this is not entirely out of touch with the show, it rather misses the personal element that is at the show’s core, and some of the appeal, to me, as a fan of the show. The only other thematic touches come from the names and artwork on the cards and these do an ok job of fitting with their mechanics, but they are, much like Twilight Struggle, mechanical conveniences first, minor thematic touches after, and only when you know the show (or possibly the books). Once again, The Expanse does a fine job with implementing the parts of the setting they chose to focus on, I’m just not 100% on board with that choice of focus.