Star Wars Outer Rim and Space Piracy

We’ve finished up our Fearsome Wilderness campaign, including the late pledge portion, and thanks again to everyone who helped make this a success, it means we can keep going and making games and continue to provide helpful content.  For fans of Fearsome Wilderness, there’s more to come!  Stay tuned.

As for our Curse of Strahd campaign, we’re about to enter the Amber Temple.  So we’ll let you know how many of our characters live to tell the tale.

In the meantime, I’m still brainstorming on Space Pirates with a working title of “Spice Pirates” and have a page up for it.  The way it works for me is, once an idea gets burning in my head, I have to get it down in digital, and from there to the table.  There’s so much in my head that putting it down is taking a while.  Now, I’m down to about 200 cards I have to make, and once I get at least a hundred or so done, that should hopefully do it from a “burning stage” and I can relax on it for a while.  Then, I’ll play the game by myself and make up the rules along the way that will be needed to guide it.  Then once I’ve done that a couple of times, I’ll see if I’ve got a game worth sharing with others.  If not, there’s plenty of other games to be working on so there’s no need to force it, it’s either ready for primetime or it isn’t.

The original blog post mentions the games Merchants & Marauders, Xia and Firefly: The Game.  A game that has come out since then, and that I lightly reviewed after one play, is Star Wars Outer Rim.  Now that I’ve dived in more deeply, I can really answer the question:  Is this the Ultimate (Space) Pirate Game?

It’s so close and it might be the best one going.  Outer Rim is a lot like Firefly, but the crew is more streamlined, the jobs are more varied to include bounties, plus it adds the badly needed element of ship-to-ship combat.  Additionally, while one of bigger problems with Firefly is the Firefly theme because even if I love it not all my friends do, by contrast the Star Wars theme is only a bonus.  I think every single one of my gamer friends loves Star Wars, and setting a space pirate game in that universe is great for us.

Outer Rim takes a lot from Merchants & Marauders, probably very directly:  The dice system is basically an evolved version of the one from M&M and it is used for checks, person-to-person combat, and ship-to-ship combat.  It uses “AI threats” which M&M also does, and so does Firefly, and so does Xia, by which I mean:  There are non-player ships on the board that can be a threat to you depending on what you’re doing.  Then it implements a streamlined-Firefly system for the ships and crew.

What I like about Star Wars The Outer Rim

For one, it’s Star Wars and I can’t get enough, and if you follow this site you might feel similarly.  You can play characters like Han Solo, Boba Fett or my personal favorite, IG-88 and see them through a different lens:  As operators on the fringe, flying ships, doing jobs, collecting bounties and the like.  There’s a certain simplicity to the game, and there’s beauty in that.  It’s not that hard to teach, play or win.  The dice rolling and combat system is pretty straightforward and fun.  There are the rules for making checks, rules for combat vs. NPCs and rules for combat vs players, and you fight the same way whether you’re in person or on your ship.  Your ship has simple stats like “attack” and “speed” that give you differences and advantages, but not enough to get bogged down in.  I also like how the game has players pursuing different goals, so everyone should get a chance to do something fun during the game.

Like M&M, there aren’t really that many locations or that many ways to get around, and this works in a positive way.  By limiting the number of planets where you do business, it helps drive player interaction.  Still, unlike Xia, it pulls off enough of a deep space feeling with the curved board.

One element of it I absolutely love is the encounter.  From the rulebook:  There are countless planets and stars in the galaxy, and each has a unique story to tell.

Yeeesss!  Besides the lightsaber duels, my favorite scene in Star Wars is probably the very first Mos Eisley Cantina (which of course, does feature the swing of a lightsaber).  That’s where the galaxy comes to life for us, as viewers.  Just in that short sequence, we meet numerous characters such as BoShek along with of course, Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba.  From the perspective on Han Solo, there are opportunities – Obi-Wan and Luke are paying customers – but also threats like Greedo and Stormtroopers.  There is not one, but 2 big fights, with one character losing an arm and another losing his life.  While none are as memorable, there are other good cantina scenes throughout the Star Wars films, like the one where we meet Maz Kanata in The Force Awakens.  One of the things I like most about Rogue One and The Mandalorian are their depictions of different planets and the way they bring to life unique feelings from those planets.  There are some good cantina type scenes throughout the Star Trek franchise as well, including the famous bar fight scene from the episode The Trouble with Tribbles.

I want to fly around the galaxy, sure, but I also want to step into that scene.  And, I want it to be different on other planets.  I want to enter some strange places.  SWOR brings planets to life by giving each a deck of its own cards and you interact with the planet by revealing those cards.  There can be both threats and opportunities.  This is a little bit like what happens in Firefly when you visit a location.  Critically, this is something that Merchants & Marauders and Xia lack.  You can only interact with locations by picking up or delivering goods, by sneaking in and out (which is admittedly very cool) in Xia, or by picking up or delivering missions.  No meetings or items or feelings unique to any one place versus another.

What I Don’t Like about Star Wars The Outer Rim

One of the great things about Outer Rim is that it doesn’t take too long to play, but the flipside is that much of what it does, other games do in greater depth.  It’s aimed at a younger and less sophisticated gamer, and it relies a lot on the Star Wars theme.  The crew system is a bit too restrictive.  The gear and upgrades and jobs are a little too luck-driven.  But those are the small things, and these are the big ones:

1.  The system of buying and building ships, and using those ships in combat against other ships, isn’t nearly deep enough in my opinion.  It doesn’t need a few tweaks, it needs an overhaul.  The dice combat system works great for person to person but for ship to ship, there’s not enough there.  Although Merchants & Marauders uses a similar dice system, it has a much more involved, decision-based combat system.  Outer Rim opted for a much simpler system with just a single “attack” value, and while it’s nice that it resolves quickly, there is almost no decision making and a lack of drama when you’re just chucking dice.

The ships themselves are very basic – you get a speed rating and a combat rating, the latter of which determines how many dice you throw.  Basically when you fight it’s dice vs dice, see how many hit, reroll until there’s a winner.  You can upgrade your ship once, to a better version of itself with a unique name, but otherwise ships are fairly inflexible towards changes and upgrades.  The exception is that you can acquire upgrade cards for your ship to give it specific advantages, and have only a few slots to do so, but they’re only available to the player who finds them in their encounters.  It’s quite possible to go a whole game without finding any useful ship upgrades and just going with the ship you have, as is.  I personally don’t think Merchants & Marauders allows enough ship customization, but it allows more than Outer Rim does.  Xia is the gold standard in this regard.

2.  This belief is based more on reading up on boardgamegeek than my personal experience with the game, but it makes sense: It’s a neat idea to have a goal for each character, but it limits the game, because you’re sort of forcing that character to follow a specific path, rather than any character being able to take multiple paths to victory.  Once you know how to play the game, what your character needs to win, and where to find it, you basically just go to a place and start hunting for cards until you get the one(s) you want.  I mean literally, with Han Solo, you go to the planet where they sell ships, and you just spend every turn there flipping cards over until you find the Millenium Falcon, and hope you don’t have to draw too many cards to get to it.  If it’s on the top of the deck, oh well sucks for your opponents.  If it’s on the bottom of the deck, oh well sucks for you.  There is a degree of that in Firefly but it’s more flexible – you need crew and items and jobs, but not specific crew and items and jobs.  You would probably never have the exact same mix in any 2 games.  And, while the 4 captains are all a little different from one another and have various advantages and disadvantages, it doesn’t force any of them into particular strategies.  In Outer Rim, by contrast, if you’re Han Solo, your games are going to end up all looking very similar.  You’re going to do the same cargo transporting each time, maybe even some of the exact same jobs, the only thing that really changes is how well the other players are racing against you and whether or not you can find Chewie.  The element of personal goals might make your first game more fun, and definitely makes it a bit easier to get going, but it also boxes you in on your choices.  Once you’ve chosen your character there is some flexibility in how you want to pursue your goals, but not a whole lot.

3.  This sort of goes along with the above but there just isn’t quite enough content, and fans of the game are complaining about it. At first I thought this was kind of fans asking a little too much, after all, Outer Rim has 13 decks of 10-11 cards each and 140 total.  But, after looking at Firefly, I think the complaints are valid.  Firefly has 10 different decks you can interact with (plus the “Nav” decks when you fly through space, which I’m keeping separate for now) but here’s the key:  Each deck has 25 cards in it.  That’s a lot of variety, and you can’t just count on certain cards coming up each game.  In total, Firefly has 250 cards you can interact with while Star Wars Outer Rim only has only 140 encounter and market cards, the main cards you interact with.  Outer Rim does have additional databank cards, but Firefly also has additional Nav decks and Aim to Misbehave cards and just more overall content.  That’s an easy problem to fix, you just have to be aware that if you’re going to make a “place to go” in the form of a deck, best go at least 20 cards deep.

4.  I thought it was just a minor problem but after playing the game some more, my group and I just aren’t thrilled with the dice-skill system this game uses.  The one from Firefly is simpler, more strategic and better.  Star Wars Outer Rim has 7 different skills that could be needed to complete a job where Firefly has only 3.  In Firefly, you can and must strategize about how you’re going to approach and build up those 3 skills.  In Outer Rim, you’re just kind of hoping that you’re lucky enough to match a crew skill, or your skill, to a job.  But, with 7 skills, it takes a lot of luck to line everything up the way you need it, especially to get lucky enough to get the job that is sort of tailor-made for your character — unless you know the decks and know what to do, but that gets back to the “limited paths to victory for each character” problem that I mentioned earlier.  So I find Firefly, with 3 skills, more strategic while Outer Rim and its 7 skills is more luck-based.  I prefer strategy and plan to go with 4 skills, like Merchants & Marauders does, but more like Firefly in that you can build them up with crew and items, something you don’t really do in M&M.  I’m also not thrilled with the dice-success skill system of Outer Rim.  It mimics the combat system well, so you don’t have to learn a lot of new things, but I think the Firefly one based on a single 6-sided dice works better despite being a very simple system.  In general, Outer Rim has a problem with too much luck-based dice chucking without enough strategic ways to mitigate it.

So it goes then, if we could somehow combine the ship-building system of Xia with a few elements of Firefly but almost everything else from Outer Rim, then either eliminate or reduce the dependence on character-specific goals, and some mitigation of the dice chucking, and with enough content, we’d pretty much have the game I’ve been looking for.

The Verdict

I’m being nitpicky because I have high expectations for a game in this genre and ok, Star Wars Outer Rim isn’t the perfect game.  But, Star Wars Outer Rim is a really fun game with a lot going for it, and I look forward to playing it again.  The curved map, the interesting locations, the beloved characters in a galaxy that we kind of know but also still want to explore, it all draws you in and keeps you engaged.  It’s a little more casual of a game than I would like, but this could also be a good thing for a Star Wars loving crew that doesn’t need a deep, or many-hours-long strategy game.  I would probably play it over Merchants & Marauders, Firefly or Xia, and those are all great games so that’s saying something.

More Thoughts on Making This Type of Game (if you’re interested)

The review portion of this post is over, I’m just sort of musing on where to go from here.  For as much good as there is in Outer Rim, I don’t think it holds up well without the beloved Star Wars theme and even with it, after 3 plays I’m seeing that there’s a point, not too far off, where I won’t want to keep playing it.  There is clearly room for a more strategic space sandbox game that combines its elements with those of other games, most specifically ship-building like in Xia, but also a different approach to skill checks and the like.

Reading through the boardgamegeek reviews, there were 2 more problem that the game I’m looking for wouldn’t address, but that came up enough that any game I make will have to.  The first of those problems:  There are plenty of people who like Star Wars Outer Rim but the ones who don’t, complain about the lack of player interaction.  I mean, you don’t have to please everyone with every game, but if there’s an obvious complaint you want to at least try to do something about it.  Merchants & Marauders doesn’t necessarily have a lot of player interaction either, but I’ve seen games turn on well-timed attacks on other players, and that’s how it should be.  Xia is also a little bit smaller map and seems to have enough player interaction to keep its fans happy.  Firefly really doesn’t have much player interaction at all but everyone has the same objectives so it’s pretty strictly a race, and you know that’s what you’re signing up for and it’s a better game for what it’s trying to do.  Maybe it’s ok if there isn’t much interaction in this type of game, but the lack of it in SWOR is a consistent enough complaint to pay attention to it.

A couple of games that I think sort of “force” player interaction are the 4X games Eclipse, a space game, and Scythe.  Both have big prizes in the middle of the board and rewards for pushing in that direction.  Without those, everyone would probably just tend their own little corner of the board and try to turtle and build up.  With our own solar system at the center of this board for Spice Pirates, I’ve got some ideas on how I might drive players back to Earth repeatedly, and how they might interact once they’re there.

The other big complaint that I saw is how much down time you have between turns.  It’s going to be hard to avoid.  We almost need “mini games,” like Pazaak or swoop racing or something you can do or something between turns.  At the very least, we need some ways to mitigate downtime, or to speed the game up like, if you start your “market” action, the next player can go ahead and start taking their turn.  Or, at least let people know:  Yeah, there will be downtime, plan accordingly.

Just How Much Different Does a Game Have to be in order to be New?

There is nothing new under the sun, only new combinations.

I’m in no danger of it here, but nonetheless the question has come to me:  Can a designer do nothing more than meld together his favorite elements of some other games?  Just how different does it have to be before he can call it something original?

There’s no right answer here, but the short answer is:  Not much.  Back in the late 2000s, Dr. Deri Morgan and I got into a zombie game called Last Night on Earth.  Years later, I played Zombicide at Gencon.  Now which is which?

Our first major battle.

The heroes just lost. This manor scenario is difficult!

The 2 games are nearly identical.  Both feature a horde of blood thirsty zombies versus a small band of heroes, each with a special ability, trying to complete the goals needed to win the scenario.  You try to get a good combination of abilities that allow your heroes to do the things they need to do, in order to win the scenario.  In fact, there isn’t much difference between character cards:

Character cards in Last Night on Earth

 

Ned did a good job this time :)
Zombicide character cards are slightly more involved but are very similar overall.

Of course, there are some differences to the combat systems, but both games resolve combat with standard spotted 6-sided dice.  Both games involve playing cards off a deck that can change things for one or more characters, sometimes for the better but usually for worse.  Both games make movie references, but the tone of LNOE is a little lighter, funnier and more teen-oriented while Zombicide is a little more serious.

The one big difference, from my perspective, is that LNOE assigns control of the zombies to a player, while Zombicide has the zombies controlled by AI rules.  Is that really enough to warrant a whole new zombie game that is otherwise nearly the same as an already-existing zombie game?

The answer is yes for one key reason:  Zombicide is better.  I loved LNOE and I’ve played it many times.  I’ve played Zombicide once and it was enough to tell you that it’s better.  If you’re going to take so much from another game, you better improve upon it but if you do, I’m all for it.  Sorry to my friends at Flying Frog but I don’t think I’ll ever play LNOE again because if I’m going to play a zombie game, it will be Zombicide.

By the same token, if I’m making a better version of Star Wars Outer Rim, it’s on me to deliver something truly better, but if I’m doing that then there’s nothing wrong with keeping what’s best from Outer Rim.  If I’m taking the best elements of Merchants & Marauders, Firefly: The Game, Xia, and Star Wars the Outer Rim, and combining them, then we’re deep into original territory.  If I’m doing all of that, but using the space and upgrade system from Eclipse, plus a completely unique combat system, I better be using the best elements of Outer Rim and Firefly and Xia or this game will be a damn mess.  (In truth, the combat system probably isn’t unique either.  There is probably something like it somewhere, I might even have played it, forgotten about it, and am unconsciously using it. It is not based on any game that I’m consciously aware of, but even if it is, so what?)  Why shouldn’t I compare these games and combine the best elements from each of them and try to push the “space sandbox game” just a little further?  It’s like, you advance science by taking the latest and greatest science and pushing it a little further and every now and then, you get a breakthrough.  Maybe we’ll get the breakthrough here.  Or, maybe someone else will refine on what we and others do, and her game will be the breakthrough.

That’s all I’ve got on this for now.  The “burning in my brain” is pretty much out, in part because I think Outer Rim is a good enough game to cover a lot of it, but I want to make sure I’m getting at least a start on the 250+ cards I will eventually need for interaction, then we should be able to see if we really have something.

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