“Houston, we have a problem.”
Those infamous words have echoed through the heads of Americans for years thanks to the Apollo 13 movie. You’ve probably said the phrase yourself (even if the actual historical line was “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Thanks TOM HANKS). Perhaps the second-most-famous Apollo mission (ousted by the one where, you know, they actually landed on the moon the first time), Apollo XIII never made it to the moon’s surface as planned. Instead, thanks to some equipment failure, the crew barely made it back to Earth alive, and that only thanks to the tireless work of the astronauts as well as all of NASA back home.
Now you can relive this historical mission at home on your kitchen table in cardboard and plastic with a board game: Apollo XIII.
How It Plays
Apollo XIII is, naturally, a cooperative game. Players represent mission control, and they must do everything they can to get the crew of Apollo XIII back home safely.
The game is divided up into 7 different historical stages, representing the various key events of the mission. You start before the launch, carrying through events including the explosion that started the crisis, failing to land on the moon, and the desperate crawl back home. (Spoiler alert: you can’t land on the moon).
On your turn, you draw a History card from the current stage and read it out loud. These cards contain short snippets of history and a few game effects.
These effects tend to raise one of the various status meters on the mission control board. Each of the three astronauts has a physical meter and a stress meter. There’s also rocket status and mission control status, as well as an overall Mission Status.
As these meters rise, they eventually start to bump up the Mission Status meter. If any player’s turn ends with the Mission Status in the “failure” section, the game immediately ends in a loss.
But, after you draw and resolve a history card, you get to draw a player card and perform one action. With that action, you can bump one status meter down, bump flight or energy meters up, discard a card to Mission Control, or play a card from your hand.
If there are a certain number of cards on mission control, you can immediately move any two status cubes.
When you play a card, that card has to match the most recent History card played. Most history cards simply match the current stage – A, B, C, etc – but some of them are more specific. A1, B2-1, etc. If the card you want to play doesn’t match, you can’t play it. Some player cards do not have letters, so those can be played at any time.
Player cards tend to lower the status of multiple effects. Some cards let you cancel a future history card, look at the next few history cards and rearrange them, or reduce the negative effects of a history card.
If you feel that one action isn’t enough, you can discard a card to take a second, but different, action.
At the end of your turn, you collect Apollo tokens for each status meter you pushed back down below the orange line. Apollo tokens can be spent during any other player’s turn to jump in with an action of your own.
If, when you draw your history card, you reveal a History Event, you flip the stage’s Event card over, which has a lot of nasty effects. Some of them have new Status meters, which if you can knock down to green will help reduce the overall Mission Status. Then, on the next player’s turn, you move on to the next stage.
If the mission status is yellow or red, the player’s turns become timed. Yellow gives you 60 seconds; red, only 30. You must complete all your actions before the timer runs out; as soon as it’s done, you’re done. Nothing else.
The game ends when you draw the final History Event card in stage G.
One final note; this game has a “competitive” mode. The only change is that, at the of the game, your Apollo tokens have point values on the back. Whoever has the most points wins the game. Assuming you all didn’t crash and burn.
A Successful Failure?
Any time a game is based on real historical events, there’s a risk it will skew into the “educational game” territory, focusing too much on sharing the historical facts and not enough on the actual gameplay. If you’re interested in the history being told, a game like that can be fun once or twice, but it’s gameplay that keeps people playing again and again. War games tend to have an easier time of it; you can use the real story as inspiration while providing an open arena for players to test their tactics and battle plans. Plenty of eurogames find inspiration in historical figures or buildings, but use these things primarily as a contextual reference for what you’re trying to accomplish rather than trying to stick each note of the real story.
Apollo XIII attempts to retell the very dramatic history, treasuring each detail with history cards and player cards that offer tidbits on what really happened. If you are interested in the history of it, you’ll enjoy playing this game at least once.
Unfortunately, the gameplay lacks real depth, so it’s not going to sustain itself in the long term. You might enjoy your first play, maybe even your second, but after that? The flaws will outweigh the historical veracity. Even that has a few issues.
The biggest problem? The game runs on rails. Everything that happens is very specific, from the history cards to the very cards you play in response. From the stage-matching rules, to the sequence of events, you have no sway over anything. You can’t approach problems in a new way, or even try to cause anything to happen that didn’t happen on the mission. Status meters go up, but it’s entirely abstract. If Captain Lovell gets too stressed, it doesn’t change anything about the game. If the rocket status meter hits red, you don’t lose extra rocket parts. That doesn’t exactly immerse you in what’s happening.
I will give the game this; even though cards are very restricted as to when you can play them, it doesn’t feel entirely boxed in. Yes, you may have the B2-1 card that you can’t play, but you can try to save your Apollo tokens so that you’ll be able to interrupt the action if someone else draws the B2-1 History card. Even if you miss it, there are other ways to use those cards – discarding to Mission Control, for example, or discarding to get an extra action – so hand management doesn’t feel extremely frustrating. I mean, there’s definitely disappointment when you miss out on playing your awesome card, but at least it doesn’t ruin the game. In fact, deciding which cards to save and play and which to discard for other purposes is a big part of the strategy.
There are decisions to be made. You may need to choose between two status meters that are both in a bad way, or decide whether to lower a status meter an extra step versus bumping up Flight and Energy. It’s also important to communicate with your teammates so you can spend your actions wisely. If someone has a great card they can use to drop Lovell’s stress way down, you can use your own actions to help out with the Rocket Status instead. Those valuable Apollo tokens that let you interrupt and play extra actions on other players’ turns will be easier to get if you talk and plan with your teammates to get things lined up. The talking and interacting are the shiniest part of this game.
Now, the history contained with this game is pretty detailed and rather fascinating. From what I could tell after some quick research, everything seems to be historically accurate. But in that regard there are some bizarre quirks. For some reason, the game goes to great pains to make sure certain History cards are played in a certain order. Yep, certain History cards have text explicitly stating to put them back under the top card of the stage deck unless another specific history card has been played. Okay, I get it; you’re trying to make the history flow in a relatively sensible order. But, this is a tedious mechanism. It adds a lot of upkeep which primarily serves to, again, keep the game on rails.
But what makes this even more bizarre is that only a few cards in each deck have to come out in a certain order. Other history cards have no restrictions, but still don’t seem to flow in a sensible order unless they happen to be shuffled correctly. Unless the game required a strict card order, you know what? Fine. We can deal with a few quirks. But I wonder why some cards had to come out in a certain order and others not? It seems as though the designer struggled to find a balance between a more dynamic game and sticking strictly to history. It doesn’t make for a compelling game.
What’s also weird is the set of alternate history event cards. They’re supposed to change up the story, but they don’t. All they do is provide different status changes than the originals. No story explanation, no flavor text. Even the art is identical. Since all the status meters are the same… it’s effectively changing nothing. You want to throw an alternate history path into this game? How about actually landing Apollo 13 on the moon and launching again with damaged equipment. That’s alternate history, but the game is too locked down to allow it.
That being said, there is a nice pace to the game, and the timer element helps with that. Like I said, the game can be fun to play at least once if you’re interested in the history. It starts off nice and easy – just the normal mission prep with a few bad omens tossed in. Nothing is in danger. When the Oxygen tank explodes, things really start to kick off. As you progress towards the moon and start working your way home and dealing with residual problems, the intensity ramps up – first, in that more of your status meters are reaching too high, and second, in that your turns become timed forcing you to think fast and plan ahead so you have time to do what you need. No time to waste deliberating! Finally, as you reach the last phase the game calms down again, making for a nice denouement as you hit the safe landing point. The intensity drops; you know you’ve gotten your people home.
But then we get back to the “on rails” thing again. The game doesn’t feel particularly challenging as it guides you through the story. The intensity rises exactly where you’d expect it to each time, but it’s always possible to keep up if you’re paying attention. Nothing unpredictable happens, so you don’t get a unique experience every time you play. You’re not emotionally invested whatsoever, because you can’t change anything. You have no chance of making it to the moon, so there’s no disappointment when you fail to get to the moon. There’s no surprise or sense of doom when something breaks, because that break is inevitable. You can’t take real gameplay risks in order to save the day, because… well… nothing unpredictable happens.
The only real way to make the game more challenging is to play the competitive mode, but honestly that just feels tacked on. It doesn’t add any compelling strategy. It just encourages players to play selfishly, but given the theme and the emphasis on historical detail, that makes no sense. This is one of few historical events in which everyone involved gave up their selfish ambitions and just worked together to get the three astronauts home. A competitive mode was just not the right choice, and it’s not even very substantial.
I do have to admit, I was hoping for something different than what this game provided. We’ve seen plenty of “starship failure” simulators – Space Team, Space Cadets, Space Alert… the list goes on – and I was hoping for something similar, inspired by the Apollo 13 mission and grounded in modern science rather than zany science fiction. I think there’s a lot of potential for something like that, but the designer tried too hard to capture the specific details of the real mission. It ends up stretching the design in the wrong direction, neither providing a reliable retelling nor giving players the chance to run their own mission.
I mean, just imagine what it could be if you had a more generalized game system where different parts of your ship could fail, and you had to figure out how to fix those problems with the limited tools and supplies available. Maybe the stress levels of the astronauts would make certain tasks harder; maybe you’d have to take parts from one system to fix another and hope you didn’t break something else. How about the moon again? Give us a chance to try and land on the moon. That could be cool. The rulebook could even have the true story written in it for historical effect.
If you’re interested in the history of Apollo 13, or maybe you know someone who is and you want to get them into cardboard gaming, the game can be entertaining once or twice. It’s certainly pretty easy to teach, and there’s a strong teamwork aspect. But the on-the-rails nature of the game doesn’t make for something that draws you back on your table again and again, and there are better ways to learn about the history. Watch the movie (which is surprisingly accurate) or read about it on the internet.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Passport Game Studios for providing a review copy of Apollo XIII.