Ever since humankind first emerged from its caves and gazed upward at the stars, no doubt the immediate question has always been, “I wonder if there’s life out there that I can kill?” Well fast-forward several thousand years, don your pith helmets, and prepare your imperial flag to claim a Jovian moon or two for mother and country. It’s time to colonize our planetary neighbors. Never mind the moon men and Venusian natives. Your Pomson 6000 Sub Atomic Wave Gun will quickly address any of their complaints. This is a race, after all! You better act fast before Earth’s other powers carve up the solar system, leaving you only the cold, lonely vacuum of space.
How it Plays
Onward to Venus pits 2-5 Earth powers in a race to colonize the solar system. The game is set in Greg Broadmore’s wildly visionary world of Dr. Grordbort – a sort of alternate Victoriana of rocket-powered spaceships and disintegrating atomic ray guns. It’s a scathing satire of Europe’s “Scramble for Africa,” reimagined as a “Scramble for the Solar System” with dark humor and technical mumbo-jumbo.
During the game, you assume the mantra of a colonial power run amok, mustering military units, deploying them to planets and moons, digging mines, building factories, responding to local crises, and generally trying to grab more of space than your opposing claimants – because the universe just isn’t big enough for all of Europe. You’ll also have opportunities to invade foreign colonies and even bag indigenous wildlife as big game trophies during extra-terrestrial safaris. Performing these various activities earns victory points, either immediately or at the end of the game.
Onward to Venus is a unique action point allowance design. Play consists of three rounds in which players alternate taking one action at a time. But the number of actions you receive in a round will often widely vary. That’s because it depends on the size of your military, which actually performs most actions, and how often players pass. A round ends after a certain number of passes. The game includes variable powers and card play, tosses in a little direct interaction, and ends up with a final scoring resolution based on area majority.
There are 8 over-sized planet/moon boards, from Mercury to the Kuiper Belt, comprising the supposedly habitable portions of our solar system. These are laid out in a line on the table – sort of like that giant model of orbiting planets you made out of foam balls for 5th grade science fair. The Moon actually gets to “orbit” the Earth so that these two boards are the only pair bunked together, though they are still two separate “spaces.” Players pick their favorite imperialist country to represent. Or randomly assign them, since it’s so hard to pick one over the other. Then grab your power’s compliment of mines, factories, and military units (the same for everyone) and starting hand of action cards (varies depending on the nation). Place 4 infantry tokens and 2 spaceships orbiting Earth and you’re ready to exploit the galaxy.
At the beginning of the game, and again at the start of the other two rounds, you will randomly seed each planet with various tiles. These represent actions that you may claim with military tokens. To do so, you must have one or more units in orbit and deploy them to the surface, thus claiming the tile. Once a unit has performed such an action, it remains there for the duration of that round.
Tiles represent several options. Mines and factories earn income and count towards establishing area majorities in endgame scoring. Other tiles allow you to collect money, draw cards, or hunt down large, Martian big game animals (worth 1 point). There are tension tiles which give you an opportunity to capture an opponent’s factory or mine. Finally, there are crisis tiles. These are important because if too many of certain types accumulate without players resolving them, they can trigger negative events. These consequences are different depending upon which planet they pop up; but a couple of them can lead to immediate defeat for planet Earth and all players!
Many tiles require a one-to-one exchange. To claim these, you simply deploy a unit to the surface, discard the tile, and resolve its action. However, to claim a mine, crisis, or tension tile you’ll have to fight. These chits have a designated defense value. When resolving a tension tile, the defense value is equal to your target’s military strength located at that planet. But in addition to that, when attacking you must roll three dice, subtract the difference between the highest and lowest result, and tack that on to its defense number. To win these claims, you must expend a number of combat points equal to the tile’s defense. Infantry and spaceships provide one point, while tanks are worth two. To crack the tough nuts, you will need help in the form of cards which can deliver bonus combat points or other rules-breaking benefits. At the same time, rolling any skull-and-crossbones icon results in the loss of one unit each.
Besides claiming a tile, other actions include purchasing units, moving units, playing a card, or passing. When purchasing, you may only buy up to 2 units as one action. Infantry cost £2 and may only be recruited at Earth. Spaceships (£4) and Tanks (£3) may only be built where you have a factory, though you can always purchase them at Earth.
Spaceships and Infantry may move up to 2 planets as one action. You must have at least one ship in the group, which can carry as many Infantry as you’d like. Tanks must remain at the planet where you built them, unless you have a card allowing you to do otherwise. Some cards require an action to play, while others give you a free action. With these, simply resolve the text as appropriate. Most of them are pretty nifty.
Finally, you may pass, taking a pass cube and drawing a card. When all of the cubes are removed, the round ends and players must tend to a few important items. First, if any crisis tiles in play have a skull-and-crossbones symbol, then you will resolve any and all crises present throughout the solar system. Roll three dice. If any turn up the same icon, these are placed to planets in crisis according to a certain order. Then you calculate each planet’s crisis level – essentially the number of crisis tiles plus dice, if any. Consult the rule book or player aid to determine the consequences. It may be a native uprising on Venus, space pirates pillaging out around Titan, or Aliens invading from beyond deep space. These are almost never good and a couple of them will end the game in defeat of all players if allowed to accumulate too much!
After resolving all crises, players collect income according to their factories and mines. Then you return all military units to their orbits and re-seed the planets with action tiles, ready to begin a new round.
After completing the third period, the game ends and players now calculate area majorities as established by mines and factories. Planets award points based on first, second, and sometimes third place. Add to this score any point tiles you claimed during the game. The winner is ruler and overlord of the solar system, which is all well and good. But what lies beyond the Kuiper Belt…?
Gamers are from Mars, Others are from Venus?
With no familiarity of Broadmore’s graphic novels, at first glance it appears his world is solidly steampunk. Great, I thought, I really dig the style so am all in! Though it might incorporate elements of the genre, it’s actually something a little different. I’ll call it atomicpunk. Rather than steam power, it’s about radio, rockets, and atomic ray guns. It infuses a bit of 1950s style retro sci-fi and some turn-of-the-century pulp tropes á la Flash Gordon and John Carter. But most of all, it’s an unapologetically satirical indictment of European colonialism during the Victorian Era. While steampunk flirts with a sort of love/hate relationship regarding the whole empire thing, Dr. Grordbort doesn’t pull any punches. If you worship political correctness and are averse to pith helmets, you may want to steer clear of the graphic novels.
That said, Grordbort’s critical ideology isn’t terribly prevalent in Onward to Venus. At least not in a distracting way. The rest of his creation, however, shines through gloriously with fantastic artwork and bizarre story elements. In that sense, the theme is applied extremely well. Nonetheless, it can also be misleading.
Wallace & Company bill the game as one of “inter-planetary conquest.” But while you may be colonizing planets (in a sense) to establish majority controls, it’s not by blasting off with dozens of plastic minis and rolling dice in epic space battles. You’re simply pushing tokens around. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong about swapping cardboard. But busting out labels like “conquest” generally connotes a different type of game play. Normally, that sort of bait-and-switch immediately turns me off. And it did with Onward to Venus. At first. But after a couple plays, I got over my misgivings and warmed to this unique and interesting offering.
One of the more fascinating aspects is the variable action point allowance. It’s possible you may get to keep taking actions until there is literally nothing left to do. More likely, though, one or more players are going to force an earlier end to the round by passing – whether because they’re out of actions or trying to work such a situation to their advantage. In any event, you’re never exactly sure how many actions you’ll get to perform in the course of a round. Even opponents’ actions can effect what you’re able to do or not. If one player’s attack fails, you might be able to swoop in and grab an extra mine that you weren’t expecting would be available.
At the start of a round, there are tons of options. Obviously, the selections dwindle as the round progresses, but even the leftovers are good choices. Factories are the first no-brainer, if you can grab them. They’re free to take with one military token, and for each one you collect £2 during the income phase, earn 2 points toward area majority, and you can construct spaceships and tanks at their locations. After that, mines are attractive because they’re worth £3 and 3 points, but you have to take them in combat – and some of them can exact a steep commitment.
The other tiles aren’t shabby. The collect £3 and the big game (worth 1 point) chits may not be as crucial, but every little bit helps. If you don’t resolve those crisis tiles, they can pile up and spell doom and disaster for you – or the entire table. And unless you already have a full hand, I would think twice before passing up a draw cards tile. Cards are critical in this game. Mainly, they provide extra combat points so that you can stretch out your military. Aside from that, they can protect you from losses, provide free actions, generally break rules, and really mess with your opponents. For example, there are some cards which let you eliminate enemy units – just like that!
The other way to interact with players is through tension tiles. These are more situational then other actions because whether or not it’s worth the effort depends upon how well your opponent is defending the intended target. When the opportunity arises, you’ll definitely want to consider it. Especially if you also have mines or factories planet-side. Then proactively taking out a tension tile is essentially a means of protecting yourself. In any event, it’s a particularly brutal form of direct interaction because it’s a zero-sum situation. The winner gains what the loser loses. Due to the situational nature and random placement, I don’t feel it occurs enough to be overbearing – on average. However, it is enough to make things interesting and tense. Between that and the particularly nasty action cards, the conflict can be rather sharp and acute. Hippies be warned!
Another strong element in Onward to Venus is the crisis mechanic. As with the interaction, it’s not pervasive. Though in this case, I almost wish it was! For theme, it’s an ingenious means of generating story and instilling the Grordbort world. For game play, it injects unpredictability, ramps up the tension, and forces players to consider working together, at least temporarily, setting aside nationalistic aspirations for the good of humanity. Unless, of course, you want the Venusian natives to rebel and wipe out their Russian overlords! The only problem with the crisis element is, again, random distribution. Unfortunately, they just aren’t a factor in some games.
With the fluid action selection, random tile seeding, card-driven elements, and crises mechanic, Onward to Venus’ replay value is out of this world. No two games will be alike. Another little feature adding to the game’s variability are the starting action cards for each nation.
So as not to be accused of sweeping the cosmic dust under the rug, I’ll reiterate that there are many random features in Onward to Venus. Some games may even run amok. If you have major quibbles with significant arbitrariness, you probably should look elsewhere. But since it helps to build narrative, I prefer to call it unpredictability. Tile distribution generally affects all players equally. Sure, one player might be more ideally positioned to nab something really good at the start of a round. Again, however, there are tons of choices and all of them can be beneficial. Actually, the larger issue with random tile distribution is it can create quirky scenarios. In one of our games, Ganymede never received a mine or factory, and so never scored for area majority at the end of the game. One planet might get multiple tension tiles, but only one mine, so that it changes hands several times. Stories of that nature.
The more frustrating elements to luck will be through card draws and combat. Failing an attack because the defense roll just piled a monstrous modifier to its normal value might have you flipping the entire planet, not just the table. And losing military tokens – especially more than one in a single assault – can be particularly irksome. And, as with any game that has a large deck of cards, some are more powerful than others. Some are beneficial only in certain situations. That said, it’s easy to get rid of weak cards. Not so easily handled are bad combat rolls – except, uh, with an appropriate card. Oh.
Still I really like those cards. Greg Broadmore’s artwork is purely outstanding and the cards are its greatest showcase. From portraits of eccentric scientists, to celestial landscapes, to the futuristic weapons, they bring out the theme and inject all manner of tremendous narrative bits from the graphic novels. And the powerful, rules-breaking benefits means there may always be a surprise lurking around the next orbit.
Normally I’d recommend enjoying the creative and detailed illustrations while waiting on your next turn. But thanks to the alternating action selection mechanic, downtime is not really an issue. Now and then, it may take a minute or so for one player to resolve some combat action. Typically, though, game play moves at a brisk pace while most actions take only seconds to resolve.
Even with 5 players, completing a circle of turns will be relatively quick. That said, the game will be a little more chaotic with a full compliment. Competition for tiles will be pretty tight, making long-term planning more difficult. With 2 players, the experience is almost exactly the opposite. There’s more than enough lebensraum, and you can develop at your leisure. It dials down the tension and surprise and loses some character and charm. Other than those scaling issues, the only other complaint I have is it takes up a lot of table space to spread those planets out. Oh, and it can be pretty fiddly pushing tokens around and trading them out back and forth.
Onward to Venus is a unique, somewhat quirky, and infectiously fun design. As with any other game it will meet with mixed reactions. The most glaring cause will be its Euro, token-pushing nature hidden beneath the promise of conquest. But while you may not be blasting your way across the solar system, there is too much randomness and interaction to label is solely as a Euro game. Efficient resource management and action selection are indeed critical in this medium-complexity design. Yet the game’s conflict, thematic story elements, and amazing artwork exude an Ameritrash vibe that is both charming and engaging. Resource optimization and pulp adventure may seem like an odd couple. Thanks largely to Wallace’s experienced hands, it makes for a rather happy marriage in Onward to Venus.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee Games USA providing a review copy of Onward to Venus.