I gazed at the main view screen and let it all wash over me. There it was. A world unglimpsed by humanity. A destination that even fifty years ago was the stuff of fiction. And now me, seeing the glory of the untouched planet with my own eyes. The scientific potential alone was staggering. Even if it proved a desolate rock, I could think of five top geologists who would give their right arm for an hour on the surface. And if it wasn’t desolate—I could barely imagine.
“This is what we’re all here for, crew,” I said. “An uncharted alien world. Can you imagine what we might find?”
They stared at me, blank and silent.
“Uh…captain?” asked my valiant Lt. Commander Hand. “What exactly are you talking about?”
“You must be excited to see what discoveries await us!”
“Not really,” Hand said. “It’s a planet. Takes at least six points of red squares to take control of it. We take damage if we have less than nine points, though. Gives you three victory points, a reward roll, lets you repair. You know…a planet.”
In my confusion, I looked at the rest of my bridge crew. All were nodding in agreement. Their faces betrayed some mild concern for my ignorance.
“Are you telling me you’re not excited to discover this planet, Lt. Commander Hand?”
“I mean, it’s a planet, sir.” Hand said. “I can tell you we have seven points of red squares. If need be, we have six points of blue dots, but I recommend red squares. It’s just…sir, it’s a planet. An open-and-shut operation, same as any other. We got the planet, we got the red squares. Where are you getting all this excitement from?”
“But…I thought it would be cool to survey an unknown world! It could be teeming with who knows what kind of treasures!”
An ensign began to quietly weep. Hand put his arm around me.
“Captain, I don’t think you’re well. It’s a planet. We all know what planets do. Come on, let’s get you to your quarters. Lie down and let me handle the planet. I’ll let you know if anything exciting happens, but, uh, it won’t.”
Emergence Event by Kenny Sims is a two-to-four player space exploration game where your hand of cards tells you exactly what you are capable of, freeing the game from those tiresome concepts of “uncertainty” and “surprise” and “meaningful decision-making,” and every single location you discover and explore is exactly the same as every other.
Emergence Event has a lot of problems.
I should take a moment here to clarify. Emergence Event isn’t broken. It’s a competent game with a lot of good ideas. It features a robust tech tree that gives a satisfying power ramp-up as you reach its higher levels. Each player’s captain has interesting unique abilities that distinguish them from the others, and a unique tech that reinforces their strengths even further. Each player can complete a personal three-act story arc with surprisingly well-written flavor. The game incentivizes boldly exploring the galaxy’s frontier, an essential characteristic for any space game.
So yes. There are lots of things to like in Emergence Event. None distract from the game’s deeply uninteresting and unengaging core.
This is a rules-and-chits heavy two-hour sci-fi exploration game where the main gameplay mechanic is meeting target numbers.
Want a planet? Mm, you’re gonna have to meet a target number. Need that space station? Yeah, that’s another target number. You want to do your story arc? Oh son. You better believe you need a target number. Target number. Target number. Target number. I wonder if it isn’t fate that number (i.e., a numeral) is indistinguishable from number (i.e., more numb).
So, what is a target number? Simply put, a certain stat value needed to control a location.
Each captain has six stats, each with base values ranging from two to four. Nominally these are things like “tactics,” “science,” “diplomacy,” etc. In practice, the only thing that distinguishes them from the others is iconography. A diplomacy-heavy race won’t play any different from a war-mad one. They just have a higher number near the yellow boxing ring with a pyramid in it.
Each player starts a turn with a hand of four cards you can either use to move your ship or add points to your stats. If you’re at a location (planet, asteroid, or space station) adding points to your stats means you might be able to meet the fabled target number! Oh snap, target numbers! Better meet them! This is fun, right?
There sounds like there should be some tension about whether to use your cards for movement or for stats—”ooh, do I rush to the planet but skimp on stats or take it slow and save my big cards for later”—but there never is.
As soon as you draw your hand of cards, you can easily calculate whether you can meet the target number of the nearby stuff. If you can, you go towards it and take it over. If you can’t, you go towards it and wait to take it over next turn. You will never be unsure whether you can meet a target number. There will never be risk. Your hand tells you exactly what to do. Meet that target number, captain!
I want to make this as clear as I can: this is boring.
There are no special planets. They’re all the same. All have the same target number—six to nine, if you were wondering, but why would you be? All give you the same victory points and rewards. All let you “repair” as a bonus action (discard damage cards clogging up your hand). The different types of locations give you different rewards/bonus actions, but it is rare that a player gets to make a decision about which location to take over. Much more common is seeing your hand and discovering you are only capable of taking over one nearby planet/asteroid/space station. So you do that.
If you end your turn in open space, you draw an Open Space Encounter from a deck that gets tougher as the game progresses. This is a neat idea and brings in some uncertainty and risk! Cool? No. Because it’s still meeting target numbers. It’s “OK, I need seven points of blue atoms. [pause] I can’t.” or “OK, I need seven points of blue atoms. [pause] I can.”
I bet you’re thinking, “at least this game isn’t punishingly fiddly.” Well, don’t I have a surprise for you! It is!
Just one example: when someone does meet a target number (often), you must:
- place a control token on the location
- give the player damage cards equal to the amount by which they failed to meet the maximum target number
- award that player victory points based on the type of location and game epoch
- advance that player’s marker on the preparation track corresponding to the color of stat she used to meet the target number
- award them a “reward roll,” a roll of a D6 that corresponds to a single tiny-font list of numbered rewards that the person closest to the list will have to read out very slowly so the player knows to get random resources (which make you roll another die), reward tiles, artifact shards, and refined trinium. If you go too fast they will forget and you will have to repeat yourself.
Did I mention that this nightmare of cascading triggers is literally the main mechanic of the game? Imagine what horrors await when someone plays a captain card, a special global-effect super-card that negatively affects all other players. Paragraphs of triggers. It’s a rough go, I tell you.
I don’t like having to do this, you know. I’m not having fun writing this review. I wanted to like Emergence Event. I still do! The art is great. The theme and flavor text are delightful. I’m a sucker for asymmetrical player powers and they’re pulled off well here. The way that the speed of the game is tied to how much your ship moves? Brilliant! Clever!
At hour two, though, I was ready to rush any punk trying to say “target number” again. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’ve never seen a game of this size and ambition lean so hard on such a terribly boring mechanic. Your cards dictate your turn to you: “this is the thing you can do. Do it.” The stats are interchangeable and there is no intuitive reason why a given location asks for certain ones. It’s all so bland. So samey. If I’m going science, I want to unlock abilities no one else has. If I’m going military, I want to be able to attack and loot. If I’m going diplomatic, I want sneaky secret one-shots that affect the political landscape. I do not want to meet an effing target number.
Do you hear me, Emergence Event? I DO NOT WANT TO MEET A TARGET NUMBER.
Lt. Commander Hand switched on the lights. My eyelids fluttered open. I didn’t recall falling asleep. Hours must have passed.
“What happened, Hand? Have we taken control of the planet?”
“Yes, Captain,” he said. “There was an alien race of genetically modified psionics living on the surface! They say they were bred as a living computer by a now-extinct trading consortium!”
“Whoa, awesome!” I said. “Really?”
“Ha, no,” Hand said. “It was a planet, like I said it would be. Normal as ever.”
“Oh. OK.” I said. “I’m glad it all went well, I suppose. The crew’s happy?”
“The crew’s fine. Come on, let’s go. We’re going to go take control of an asteroid field, Captain. You’ll like that, won’t you?”
“I guess,” I said. “It seems like the thrill is gone. I thought…I thought there’d be so much more. I got into space exploration to see things I couldn’t imagine, to face challenges that would push us to the limit. But all we needed was red squares.”
Lt. Commander Hand flashed me a smile.
“Actually, asteroids take red stripes. And sir, I’m proud to announce we have nine red stripes.”
I shrugged. It’s better than Earth.
Designed by: Kenny Sims
Published By: Megacon Games
Ages: 12 and up
Time: 120 Minutes
Mechanics: Hand Management, Asymmetric Player Powers, Target Numbers