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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Meet Me at the Table - 4X Sci-Fi Tabletop Games

One of the biggest types of games that you find when looking for Sci-Fi themed tabletop games are the classic 4X games. "That sounds like some kind of vehicle," one of my students said to me the other day and I couldn't help but laugh. Essentially, 4X is a style of game that follows a set patterns of play. For this article, I will explain what 4X is and then just summarize the "story" of the games, because the game play is pretty set in stone with one a few minor tweaks to set the games apart from each other.

4X are called 4X because there are 4 categories of gameplay: Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate. Each stage in each game typically function in the following way:

Explore: In this phase of the game, the players typically seek to reveal surrounding areas or territories of the game. Players may or may not send out "scouts" to learn more about the area. It really is about exploring the board or the areas of the game.

Expand: Typically during this phase, players start to take on new settlements by claiming areas or territories. During this phase, players might also expand their already existing settlements or focus on expanding influences of those settlements.

Exploit: Now that players have explored and expanded their settlements, they want to take materials to help their settlements develop. So they exploit the areas that they have taken control of.

Exterminate: At this point, players are attacking in the hopes of eliminating the other players. Typically in these games, all the territories are claimed by the players and you want to be able to expand even more. To do this, you have to exterminate the other players to gain their territories.

The 4X games mimic the idea of intergalactic colonization and fit perfectly within this realm of Science Fiction.

Within this large category of games, I chose four that I thought were incredibly unique in their utilization of the 4X game mechanics. Not only was their theme engaging, but the mechanics in some of these have stood the test of time.

Empires of the Void (2012)

Embedded within a storyline of becoming a galactic superpower, Empires of the Void, like the games that follow, features alien races that are vying for power. These alien races see that the Pyrious Empire is struggling to keep their hold and feel that now is the time to strike!

In Empires of the Void, two to four players are competing to enhance and expand their own empire. Their goal is to beat out the other races by exploring in order to find new planets. Once a planet is discovered, the race that discovers it has two options: to conquer or assimilate in order to learn their special abilities. By expanding their own empires, players can earn victory points. Within the empires, players strive for technological growth and to gain control of the galactic council. All three of these provide victory points that will determine the ruler of the galaxy! After three rounds of play, the points are totaled and the new ruler is declared!

Distributed by Red Raven Games, Empires of the Void is one that is hard to get. It pains me to promote a game that is so difficult to find, but hopefully another print run is in the making. If you can get your hands on this game, it is absolutely fantastic. Empires of the Void engages and has stunning artwork, as well a unique gameboard. It is well worth the time and investment. It is definitely one of my favorites in the 4X game pool as it is a much shorter playing time than most of these, because I do struggle with the turn length of these games (I'm lookin' at you Merchant of Venus and Twilight Imperium). Definitely grab this as soon as possible if you can.

Empires of the Void has two expansion worth checking out if you are able to find this game to add to your collection: Key to the Universe and Pirates of Cidran.

Time: 120+ minutes       Suggested Age: 12+

Merchant of Venus (1988/2012)

The Merchant of Venus has the distinction of being the oldest entry on this list or, really, any of the games in my Sci-Fi series. Originally released in 1988 (that's 9 years before Twilight Imperium) when the very concept of a game this epic in scope was absolutely mind-bending to the average earthling, Merchant of Venus became a grail game to many a fledgling tabletop geek of the day.

For almost two decades the game, like many other visionary board games that came before their time, was lovingly played on the tables of their original owners but was unavailable to a new audience. Then in 2012, a joint venture between Stronghold Games (Among the Stars) and Fantasy Flight (Twilight Imperium) released a new edition of the game with all the modern bells and whistles. (In reality this was nearly a disaster as both companies had planned to re-release the game on their own unaware of the other, but they fortunately found alliance in common cause and worked together to package a "Classic" and "Modern" version of the game.)

If it weren't for its length, Merchant of Venus would probably be my favorite of the games on this list. Quantum and Empires of the Void have more appeal because they're easier to break out on a whim, but there is SO much amazing game and theme in this box and it's not half as intimidating as Twilight Imperium (still a bit intimidating though).

Merchant features 1-4 players as space traders exploring the intergalactic trade routes, upgrading their ship, discovering fourteen separate cultures and trying to become the king of commerce in the depths of space. But it's not all Venutian roses and Saturn moon gravy. Beware of pirates, hazardous nebulas, and your more aggressive opponents. The player who amasses the most wealth wins. The two versions of the game, while spiritually similar, play surprisingly different so give 'em both a whirl and find the one that suits your tastes.

Time: 180+ minutes       Suggested Age: 12+

Quantum (2013)

Quantum is one of the shorter 4X games I've encountered in this field. It plays 2-4 players, which is also attractive to the gamer who is limited in their ability to play with groups, but still want to experience the 4X experience. As with the other games, it is all about expanding your race in order to get resources and become the most powerful race in the galaxy. Technically, you'd want to consider this a 3X game, because it leaves out exploration, but we're still going run with it being a 4X game. Instead of revealing or placing new planet tiles in a typical 4X exploration phase, the gameboard is actually fully known from the start and you don't need to do any exploring on it,

The goal is to be the first player to get 5 of your quantum cubes out on the board. The rules booklet offers options for creating the layout of your galaxy depending on the amount of players and how advanced you feel you can be with the game. The game uses the board and the dice for the major components in the game.

There are colored dice that represent the different races that you can play. You roll the dice and, according to your player page, dictates the type of ship you will be moving around the board. The lower the number, the better the ship, but the slower it is. So a 1 would be a battle station that can only move one space at a time. If you rolled a 6, you'd have a scout that could move much farther, but is easily damaged. The player sheet explains all the different things you can do and how to improve your ships, as well as actions you can do.

Quantum's special qualities are really founded in the mechanic of dice rolling. It allows for re-playability and relies very little on an agonizing depth of strategy. So instead of watching the other people mentally map out their turn, they have to actively participate in what they want to do and then the other players can be more engaged as your turn goes on.

Quantum is definitely one of my favorite of these games due to its interactive nature and that it relies heavily on the dice to determine your actions.

Time: 45-90 minutes       Suggested Age: 13+

Twilight Imperium (Third Edition) (2005)

Twilight Imperium, another 4X game published by Fantasy Flight Games, originally published in 1997, is the most epic of games! It's a race to control systems and gain victory points! Like most of the other games, it is a hardcore strategy game. You'll see this one listed at most game cons and is one that feels intimidating due to it's sprawling nature. The nice thing about Twilight Imperium is that there is a long game and a short game, so you'll get a victory point tracker with two options. The amount of pieces in this game, alone, are cause for a mild anxiety attack! Within the box you'll be using geomorphic hexagon tiles, plastic miniatures that are crafted with precise details, and hundreds of cards.The game was originally meant to be all you could ever need from space adventure game of this nature and so you'll find a whole galaxy in this box all for the playing.

The game includes 10 alien races that you choose from. Each race has their own special abilities and drawbacks when playing the game. On the race cards, there is a history on the back to help inform you and the cards themselves are incredibly detailed. Once you've selected a race, you select your colored game pieces and you choose from one of 6 colors. The game plays 3-6 players. I've seen recommendations anywhere from 4-6 are best.

The tiles have planets, empty space, and other space oddities. Each have their own special resources, problems or benefits. Each race also gets their own home planet hexagon to start on. There are matching cards for the planets that let you know what the planet can do for you.

Through the use of the 4X style, the game is played until the most victory points are earned. You earn victory points by completing objectives. When Imperium Rex shows up in the objectives, the game is over. Or the first player to 10 victory points ends the game. The third addition has drawn on the success of other games (ex: Settlers of Catan) and improved in areas it originally felt was lacking for it's players.

And as much as they wanted there to not be expansions, there are expansions for this game: Shards of the Throne and Shattered Empire.

Time: 360+ minutes       Suggested Age: 12+

How to Spice-Up Your 4X Game Night

1. Snacks
First stop. . . snacks. . . You're going to be at these games for the majority of your night/weekend, so you're going to need to stock up on the essentials: Twizzlers, Pretzels, and Caffeinated soda.  Just for fun, maybe get some beef jerky. You are going to need the protein for all that exterminating you're doing. These foods are easy to have in hand and not overly messy. The sillier-mom side of me also feels they're a little less damaging to your health habits. . . well. . . except for the soda. BUT the others are Mom-Approved!

2. Turn Distractions
If honesty in the best policy, I better be upfront now. . . 4X games drive me insane! The turn length and having to sit there for hours upon end watching other people take turns and strategize really frustrates me. Having something to do while I wait is always a good thing. So what I recommend is crochet. WHAT! Yes. Crochet. Or, you could set up a little workout session between moves. I hate turning to snacking, but it's not like you can open up a book and take in a chapter or something. Quick tablet tap games work well, too. I know it seems like sacrilege to even imply that you need to be distracted during turns, but if people aren't chatty and there are concentration issues, you might have to find a secondary hobby while you play games with long turns!  Crochet is really your best bet.

3. Soundtrack
I recommend the soundtrack compilation of Themes from Sci-Fi & Fantasy Movies. It's available on amazon and can probably also be found on iTunes. It has a great selection of all the favorites and could keep you fully inspired while gaming. You could select your favorite tracks from it or let it run the whole way through.

4. The Table most important thing to do when playing these games is to ensure that your playing surface reflects the galactic qualities of the game. Invest in a black or star-spattered tabletop cloth to really enhance the playing of these games. It will also come in handy if you intend to play Star Wars X-Wing or Star Trek Attack-Wing. Go online to or go to your local Jo-Ann Fabrics or Michael's and just ask for some awesome space cloth. Don't forgot your table dimensions and definitely don't get anything too slippery. You'll have to prepare your playing space for the potentially dreaded cloth. (My husband will only play on non-clothed surfaces). 

I hope some of these ideas can inspire you to have an epic Sci-Fi game night. Share your thoughts on these Sci-Fi 4X games or your thoughts on this article here or on twitter @adventgeekgirl (#RRSciFiMonth).

The next article is slated to be released on Thursday, November 27 and will focus on a cornucopia of Sci-Fi games that are Sci-Fi but don't fit into a specific epic category. Hopefully nothing will derail my publication this week. At the very least, check back on Friday (not that I want to jinx anything).

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