In a time rife with complex political properties owing their origins to nerd culture, the Expanse has been well poised to stake its claim on our hearts, mind, and time, and done so extremely well. What began as a collection of books has transformed into a television series, and now that it has set its sights on board games I can proudly say it has done so with every bit of the quality and intelligence of its other iterations.
Set in a hard scifi universe not far distant from our own, the Expanse board game pits two powerful planetary governments against one another, with a megacorporation and the exploited workers vying for dominance in an ever-more crowded galaxy. Taking inspiration from the ever-looming Twilight Struggle, the Expanse is both more accessible and shorter, paving the way for gameplay that is just as satisfying but sets a lower bar for entry.
The basic concept, appropriately enough, is that each faction is fighting for dominance over key locations in our solar system. These locations consist of sectors, the larger geographical areas, smaller Orbitals which contain localized gravitic systems, and individual planets, moons, or asteroids within those systems. During scoring, only the faction with the most influence (represented familiarly enough by colored wooden cubes) on a location will be able to claim it as their own.
Locations not only grant point values intrinsically, however. Many will contain resources, such as water or fuel. While anyone benefits from owning a planet in general, each faction is seeking specific resources which it has difficulty getting. Mars, for instance, is lacking in air due to its limited atmosphere, and gains bonus points if it controls locations which contain air pockets. It’s a small detail, but one that can leave a lasting impact upon the détente at the center of this game’s conflict.
Conflict, appropriately enough, is a rarity. Your only method of directly engaging one another comes in the form of a mid-game upgrade which, though powerful, you will only use if certain that your other options are not preferable. You see, in a universe of complex diplomacy and struggle over resources, direct warfare is often too risky to engage in unless you are certain it will be in your favor. Far more is done through bluffing, counterplays, and the kinds of mind games that make the Expanse so rewarding.
Your interaction with the game, and one another, is conducted through a river of action cards, running from left to right on the board. Each costs more Control Points, or victory points, than the last. While certain cards may be more beneficial, it might be more prudent to wait them out in the hopes that an opponent will ignore them. The cards have three distinguishing features: an action point value, an event ability, and faction symbols which indicate who can use said event. These cards are where the real genius of the Expanse comes through.
When you receive a card, you can choose among a few options. You can, if you are playing the correct faction, use its powerful ability. These can be anything from dropping influence directly onto an area, teleporting fleets around, or moving enemy’s influence to a suboptimal location. Each ability is a powerful force to be reckoned with, especially considering your other option: not use the event, and instead spend the card’s action points to take actions. These actions include dropping fleets (which can move and take influence with them), moving fleets, and dropping influence directly, all of which are crucial to getting your engine of dominance going. If you do so, you open up the event to other players, who may use it for themselves if they drop in initiative order and spend some CP.
Scoring happens at random, or almost so. Within the action deck are scoring cards, which can be picked up like normal ones. Once you have them in your grasp, you secretly choose a location that will receive extra points. You then have some room to maneuver and keep the other participants guessing until it comes back around and you do score. Once the final out of five cards is flipped up, you score one last time and the game is over. This means that you have to be careful once you are at four cards, or you may run out of time to get that insidious plot finished.
The person in last place takes control of the Rocinante, a powerful Martian warship crewed by the series’ main cast. Their powerful abilities will help keep you in the game, and in my experience has done an excellent job of preventing a run-away leader problem. If you are at a middling score, it might even behoove you to hang back and build yourself up to maximize this tool once the next scoring round occurs.
Each of these decisions is based on simple mechanics but create unique and memorable moments. Clocking in at around 45 minutes, the Expanse manages to feel like an epic voyage around the dark stars, giving you new ways to keep your opponent’s guessing. These simple tools make the way for some of the deepest strategy I have experienced in years, and with faction cards that give you instant set up and easy to understand mechanics, this game has a level of complexity about as simple as that of Settlers of Catan.
Designed by: Geoff Inglestein
Published by: WizKids
Age Rating: 12+
Time: 45-75 Minutes
Mechanics: Area Control, Action Points, Variable Player Powers
John Farrell is a legal aid administrator, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at: https://jokerswildpodcast.weebly.com/
The Expanse Board Game
The Expanse Board Game, like both its source material and board game inspiration, weaves a masterful tale of power struggles, mind games, and suspense. Its political maneuvering is both some of the most fun and most accessible I have had in a very long time, and if you give it a chance you will be getting a ton of game out of a small, inexpensive package.