Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tommy's Take on Firefly: Out to the Black

You’re probably heard of Firefly. Cult classic show on Fox, cancelled without airing all of the episodes, made by Joss Whedon, had a follow-up movie called Serenity? It now has a couple of tabletop games available: A board game by Gale Force Nine and this game, a card game by Toy Vault.

DISCLAIMER: I received no compensation for this review in any way. This is based off of playing a store copy of the Firefly card game, via Kryptic Comics & Games.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Firefly: Out to the Black is a cooperative card game for 3-5 players, in which players take on the roles of Serenity crew members and have a very simple objective: Complete a series of jobs without running out of Credit or Honor, or drawing down the attention of the Alliance.

Out to the Black had a storied history in development, being launched as a Kickstarter, then the Kickstarter got pulled, allegedly for a legal dispute, before being quietly released.
Anyway, on to the game: We played two 3 player games, which I will outright say is clearly not the way the game was meant to play, and the 3 player rules are totally in place solely because setting the minimum number of players at 4 is going to be a complete dealbreaker for some.

You pick a Firefly character to play as (or two, if you’re only playing with three players), from the 9 crew members (Mal, Simon, River, Kaylee, Jayne, Zoe, Wash, Inara and Shepherd Book). Each character has a Fightin’, Flyin’ and Thinkin’ score, as well as a Game Ability and abilities that can be used at various phases by spending Credits or Honor (which you will want to be careful with, for obvious reasons). Some characters even sync up nicely, like Zoe spending Honor to gain Fightin’ or Thinkin’ boosts if she’s partnered up with Mal or Wash, or Inara allowing Mal to draw more cards. The Game Abilities also match the characters well, like River being able to use all of her cards as +2 Wild Cards or Shepherd Book allowing you to avoid drawing Alliance cards (which are bad).

You draw up to your character’s hand size (or an average of the two, in a three player game) from the Serenity deck. Most of these cards are bonuses to one of your three attributes, though you can get Wild bonuses (to be used anywhere) or cards that specifically allow you to help out if you aren’t participating in the Job.

The Jobs deck is largely comprised of events and episodes from the TV show, and specifies whether 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 players can directly participate in it. The Leader of the Job (the person whose turn it is) selects his Pardners based off of the Job requirements and they combine their attributes and card play, plus a randomizer for each stat from the Serenity deck, to beat the goals. Each Job has four success levels: None, One (and the job specifies which stat), Two (and the job specifies which Stats) or Three, complete with the bonuses or penalties for each. For instance, you may need to Fightin’ 8, Flyin’ 6 and Thinkin’ 12 to successfully thwart Jubal Early. If you get None, you lose 2 Credits, 1 Honor and draw 2 Alliance cards (that’s bad). If you succeed at Flyin’, you lose 2 Honor and draw 1 Alliance card. If you hit Fightin’ and Thinkin’, you lose 1 Credit and gain 1 Honor. If you hit all three, you gain 2 Credits and 2 Honor.

Of course, this is Firefly, so things often go wrong. This is where the Gorramit! deck comes into play. Did you get Double Crossed (-1 to your team’s Thinkin’ total for every Pardner in the job), or maybe the Leader gets taken out altogether, replaced with another leader, or maybe the Gorram Reavers show up, lowering your Fightin’ total.

One area where the game can get tricky is card play. Some characters have Specialty Skills (Mal is the only character who has all three skills as Specialties), and any cards you play that aren’t Specialty Skills are played Face Down, meaning your teammates have to decide what to play without knowing what you put on the table, and you are not supposed to discuss it. As counter intuitive as it sounds, it does make sense thematically, as the Serenity crew are often secretive and full of surprises, but Mal is usually pretty open with what he’s doing.

The Alliance cards, when played, sometimes have immediate effects (like shuffling a completed Job back into the Jobs deck), Next Job effects (like making the next job cost you 2 credits, or cutting 2 off of the reward) or Long Term effects (like EVERY job being worth 1 fewer Credits). Of course, the real scary part about The Alliance cards is that when they are all gone, you lose the game.

The gameflow breaks into phases: Prospect Phase (where the Leader makes any preparations that he wants to before the Job begins, like spending Credits to let people draw cards), Job Phase (where you flip over a Job, pick Pardners and play cards), Aftermath Phase (where the Gorramit card comes in, and everything is added up, for good or for ill, and characters can sometimes perform actions to flip the script one last time), then Cooldown Phase (essentially checking to see if the game is over yet or not).

If you win, there’s a scorecard in the rulebook that you can use to see what your final tally should be.
In our two Three Player games, we dug ourselves into a hole in the first one (so bad I nearly didn’t get a turn), thanks to my son burning through Credits. In the second game, we lost out on the penultimate job when River’s ability to use all cards as +2 Wild Cards was neutralized by a Gorramit card, causing us to draw the last Alliance card.

The other thing that makes this game tricky over other card games is that you do not automatically refresh your hand. Once you start burning through cards, you will need to spend Honor or Credits (depending on your character’s abilities) to gain more cards.

WHAT WORKS: A lot of thought went into the character abilities, as I could justify why most any character could do the things they do. Great call-outs to moments from the series. Very nice production values. I could see the core engine being re-skinned, maybe as a Spy game easily enough, too.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK: It’s not deep enough for a hardcore, thematic experience, and it’s too fiddly for a light, casual game. The three player rules were clearly added to avoid putting a small card game out that REQUIRED four players, but after playing two three player games, I don’t think you could ever convince me that’s a good idea again (though I would be open to four or five).

CONCLUSION: Probably a must-buy for Firefly fans who are gamers. If you aren’t a Firefly geek, a lot of the references and stuff is going to be lost on you, I’d imagine. For a pure Firefly gaming experience, I’d grab the board game, but the gameplay here *is* cooperative, and generally runs a couple of hours less, and the cooperative element typically means there is little to no downtime (though there will be exceptions, like completing a single player job in a five player game). I do find it curious that a huge deal has been made about separating the Serenity and Firefly licenses, but images from Serenity are very clearly present here. In short, worth picking up for obsessive Browncoats, especially if they have at least three friends to play it with.

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