“You think you’re better than other people.” – Badger
“Just the ones I’m better than.” – Mal
Firefly carries with it such heavy connotations and influence in the realm of geekdom that it’s simply amazing Gale Force Nine were able to score this license for their second board game release. It’s hard to believe that was only two years ago as the interim has seen the fantastic Sons of Anarchy, Homeland, and WWE Superstar Showdown all release to great fanfare. Way back in the day when Firefly first hit the board game streets, I have to admit that I wasn’t moved or impressed to even a fraction of the magnitude as provided by the rest of Gale Force Nine’s catalogue. I felt like an outsider as everyone around me was gobbling it up and all I wanted to do was still battle it out in the arena and yell “Are you not entertained?”
With some distance between that initial release, and a bevy of expansions later, I’ve returned to the Verse to get a definitive take and re-evaluate my stance. This fresh perspective in the context of the company releasing a huge onslaught of magnificent follow-up titles has really challenged me to dig into Firefly and assess it with renewed spirit. Unfortunately, the outcome hasn’t really changed.
Firefly is a big damn game with a sprawling board, multiple decks of cards, and a wide vision. It simulates a sightseeing adventure through our beloved show as you take on jobs and hire crew, outfitting your ship with numerous assets. The core mechanism is earning money through these jobs which are accomplished via a nuanced pick up and deliver system. From a wide lens you’re going through similar motions to the trading in Xia: Legends of a Drift System or Merchants of Venus.
What makes the job system interesting is that you’re employers consist of regulars from the television series. You can hit up Badger and partake in the lovely Train Job, venture to the far reaches for Niska, or even fly by the seat of your saddle with Patience. Combine this with picking up crew members like River Tam or Jayne and you have a powerful formula that hits you right in that nostalgic gooey part of your brain. It continually puts a smile on your face and you nod along like you’re cranking a killer tune and flying down the street with your windows down.
The problem arises from the fact that this is Firefly the board game but this is not Firefly the poorly handled Fox television series. The heart of this intellectual property is the friendship and sense of family forged in the heat of crisis. It’s the bond of the crew, one small leap from the beloved Millenium Falcon, and camaraderie and virtue triumphing in the face of ugliness is woven throughout the series. Undoubtedly the focus should be on the crew and they should be the center of the game.
Gale Force Nine’s crack design team does realize this as the disgruntled mechanism is a standout element. If you fail to divvy a crew member their cut after a successfully job they receive one of these tokens. This puts them at risk of desertion or being scooped up by another player in your sector space, one of the only ways players can interact in the base game. This is a smooth and enjoyable mechanic but it doesn’t quite extend far enough and it places the focus of crew management around economic satisfaction.
The second issue I have with this title is the fact that money comes too easily and the struggle is nonexistent. Firefly, like Cowboy Bebop, was always about eking out just enough of a living to scrape by. This release takes a rather traditional approach to its economic engine giving players successively large outputs of capital for completing missions and pushes that tight squeeze of poverty outside the design space. Once you’ve succeeded on a couple errands you’ll be able to buy pretty much whatever you’d like and have a wide range of upgrades in manpower and equipment at your fingerprints.
The end result of these two nitpicks is that we’re left with a game that’s a pretty standard pick up and deliver type game within the Firefly setting. Fortunately there are a number of really clever mechanisms here that help to give the game an identity. The missions boast skill requirements that are seeded on characters and include wild romps through a sweetly titled misbehavin’ deck. This proficiency system requires players to keep a keen eye on their recruitment options as you don’t want to be overloaded with just brutes or mechanics. You’ll want a crew with a skillset as varied and animated as that of the Serenity.
While the actions you take in any particular session are similar, the ultimate goal of play is left up to the variable story card that you select. This slick little addition does provide for some setting influenced variety.
When scooting round the Verse you also have two nifty movement options. For those who cruise below the speed limit you can Mosey and move a lowly one space. This option is always available and you avoid having to draw from one of the deck of nav cards. More commonly you’ll burn a unit of fuel from your cargo hold and move a number of spaces equal to your upgradeable drive. The catch here is those nav decks, one for the core and one for the outer rim. Things are most interesting when burning the jets and flying without a seatbelt as you’ll run into clever events, see Reavers hot on your tail, and get involved in legal entanglements.
I’m also a huge fan of the legality accompanying the job system. Some missions will require you to haul contraband and you run the risk of being jumped by the authorities and losing your precious cargo. You’ll feel the jitters of Han Solo and Mal Reynolds as the Alliance cruiser bears down on your location or an unexpected boarding action occurs. The effect is not always shiny on your budget but it is always fantastic in narrative appeal.
Overall this is a solid sci-fi adventure game wearing a ragged brown coat. The task of designing a Firefly game is a monumental one, and this may be the best possible way to conquer that mountain. It has some clever touches and an endearing setting which is enough for most, but I have a hard time justifying it hit the table over the likes of Xia or even Merchants and Marauders when jonesing for some smuggling action.