We always thought Space was the final frontier. But I guess it’s not, because somewhere beyond Space, there is a battle going on. Fleets of 4 races are locked in eternal struggle to wipe out their opponents ships. The wisest may survive, but only the boldest will destroy their enemies and emerge victorious.
This… is Battle Beyond Space.
How It Plays
In Battle Beyond Space, players score points by destroying enemy ships and collecting probes. Regardless of how many ships each player has left at the end of the game, the winner is the one with the most points.
Each player has a fleet made up of 3 squadrons (designated by different shades of the player color) and 2 Capital ships with which to mete out justice in the form of ship-to-ship lasers.
On a player’s turn, they will reveal the top card of their deck and choose a squadron. This squadron moves a number of spaces as dictated by the card, fires its weapons, and may then rotate, again dictated by the card. Each ship in a squadron may rotate independently of the others, allowing squadrons to be split into groups or even send off a single ship in another direction.
After moving a squadron of fighters, the player can choose one of their Capital ships, which can be moved and rotated, again dictated by the card (although more freely – Capital Ships can move and rotate interchangeably, whereas fighters must move, then rotate). While fighters fire straight forward 5 spaces, Capital ships can hit any single ship within a 2-hex radius.
Any fighter that gets hit is immediately destroyed, and claimed by the attacking player. Capital ships can take 1 damage before bend destroyed. Ships that collide damage each other and are still collected as rewards. Asteroids also populate the battlefield, and serve to block weapons fire and damage ships that collide with them.
6 Probes occupy the center of the board, and any player that stops a ship on one of these spaces collects the probe for points. In addition, any ship that ends the game in one of the 6 original spaces once occupied by the probes scores additional points.
Finally, each player has 1 of 3 randomly chosen racial powers which can be activated during the game. These powers range from shields on a capital ship, extended range for their fighters, a more maneuverable fighter pilot, recovery of lost ships, and… beyond.
The game ends after 9 rounds, which is also the exact number of movement cards each player has in their deck. Points are calculated, and the winner is the one who has the most.
The Great Beyond, or Lost In Space?
On paper, Battle Beyond Space is a great idea. A simple, tactical space combat game with streamlined combat rules and miniatures. We’ve talked about “distilled” game experiences before – For Sale is bidding distilled to its core, Coup is bluffing distilled. Battle Beyond Space is tactical space combat, distilled.
It starts off strong, too. Setup is uncomplicated and the rules are not heavyweight. There are very few combat-oriented games I can explain in 5 minutes and get started right away; this certainly is one of them. As you look at the field and start to plan your long term strategy and think tactically about how to move your squadrons, the possibilities seem mighty and the excitement level is high.
In my first game of Battle Beyond Space, at Gencon the year it released, I had a very enjoyable experience. It was a demo and we only played a few rounds, but in those few rounds I managed to tactically cut my opponent to pieces. It left a good taste in my mouth but I definitely wanted more.
When I finally got my hands on the game a year later, I was excited to explore the game further. But, as I did, I discovered all was not diamonds and roses.
While this is a solid attempt to make that short, tactical space combat game, it falls short on many levels. Primarily in this; the excitement and tension wanes rather than escalates. In the first few rounds, you can coordinate your squadrons and make choices to get into positions and make solid attacks. By mid game, though, you’ve accomplished your initial attack, and so have your opponents. At that point, your squadrons will be scattered and depleted, and the best you can hope is to get lucky and make one or two more kills. The nature of the game’s movement requires a line of ships to be effective. When that line is gone, the only way to kill a ship is to hope an enemy accidentally flies into your field of view. Even if you turn to line up against an enemy, chances are they’ll just move out of the way. It’s a game of chicken that comes AFTER the initial explosive combat, and ultimately leads to nothing.
The limited control you have over movement is detrimental to the endgame as well; to encourage players to stay engaged, the probes exist at the center of the board. They’re totally arbitrary; they’re not a key to the conflict and they have no thematic relevance. They literally exist only to get players in the center of the board. That’s fine at the start of the game – you certainly have the ability to move there, and you can claim some solid points if you do while at the same time putting yourself in the crosshairs of every other player. At the end of the game though, if you were actually playing, it is pure luck whether you’ll draw the right cards to move your ships to the center. If anything, the difficulty of targeting and destroying enemy ships in the last 2 or 3 rounds means you could focus all of your movement on getting there; but this strategy favors the last player, who could set his ships up to target the center, and for once have a predictable target. They can score points without as much risk, and deprive points from the players who tried to take the center.
Even if you held your ships back so that you would have stronger squadrons in the endgame, you’d encounter another odd strategic imbalance; you aren’t rewarded for preserving your own ships. Sure, if you get wiped out, you can’t do anymore damage. But, as I mentioned above, not much is happening in the endgame anyways. As long as you spread your attacks between different players, it’s probably most effective to throw everything you’ve got out there. Collisions won’t matter; you score a point colliding into an enemy, you’ll score the same point if an enemy collides into you, and you’ll certainly shoot some enemies down to boost your score. If you can take down a few enemy capital ships, you’re in prime position to win even if you lose all of your ships. It sort of removes you from any real sense of tactics.
Okay, I’ve ragged a bit on the game. It’s certainly not perfect. It’s not outright horrible, either. It does condense the tactical space combat experience down to a 45 minute game. Sure, the tension dwindles instead of intensifies, but those first few turns are pretty entertaining. The basic foundation is pretty solid; squad-based fleet controls with more flexibility allowed in the capital ships. Race powers are pretty fun as well; at first glance some of the powers seem stronger than others, but after playing a number of times and seeing how powers actually influence the game, I believe they’re pretty close. I can’t guarantee that they are at an equilibrium, but they work, and any player can win regardless of what power they have.
Actually, the worst thing about the game is the components. Oh, the board is just fine, the cardboard is thick and durable, and the card is decent stock. The minis are pathetic, though. They look well enough- not every game has to be X-Wing Miniatures- but they are very very flat, at least for a mini. There’s nothing to grip on to when you try to pick up and move your ships, which results in a lot of clumsiness that disrupts the flow of the game as someone tries to get their ships into position. In addition, one entire set of ships is rectangular in design; a look that makes it nearly impossible to tell which direction the ships are actually facing. Given the mechanisms of the game, and that facing is extremely important, this was a terrible choice and results in a lot of confusion.
Speaking of confusion, a different set of ships – the blue ships – have 2 squadrons that in the right light look almost identical, making it easy for THAT player to get confused and mix up squadrons of their ships. Poor design choices all around, which seems like the final components were not actually tested or thought through that hard. It feels a bit rushed.
All in all, if you’re looking for a lunchtime game of space combat, Battle Beyond Space might just fit the bill. The mechanisms are simple, the first few rounds are exciting and fun, and it’s in space. Or beyond space, or whatever. If you’re looking for a solid tactical game, BBS might not quite fit the bill. The anti-climactic finish, rewarding of careless tactics, and poor component design all add up to one resounding “meh.”