Updated: Apr 8
Fans of the novels and the TV series will need no introduction to The Expanse. For any not in the know, it’s a science fiction romp set around 200 years into a dystopian future. Humanity has colonised the solar system but, after just a couple of generations, it has fragmented into factions, each of which is suspicious if not openly hostile to the others.
Designed by Geoff Engelstein and published by Wizkids, The Expanse board game is based very much on the TV series (currently on Netflix). It does a fine job of representing the political intrigue of the series, allowing up to four players to jockey for position and win dominance (area control) of regions in the inner planets (Earth and Mars), outer planets (Jupiter and Saturn) and ‘the belt’ (asteroids).
Players vie for area control by placing out influence tokens, usually only where they have ships in orbit. The game uses a mechanic similar to that developed in GMT’s top-rated Cold War game Twilight Struggle. The cards each have an action point value and an event that can be used by some or all of the factions. On their turn, a player chooses one of the five cards available in the display. One will be ‘free’ but the others must be paid for in victory points. If the event on the card is one that applies to his faction, the player can choose to do that event but he can always choose instead simply to spend the action points. In that situation, the next player to whom the event applies can choose to action that event.
The box says a game should last an hour. Even with a full set of experienced players, you'll be doing well to finish in that time. Even allowing two hours for a game, however, The Expanse succeeds in keeping players fully engaged and on their toes throughout. The designer has done an excellent job of adapting the two-player Twilight Struggle card mechanic so that it works effectively with four players. The game incorporates a couple of well thought out catch up mechanics that mean that even a player who lags behind can surge ahead if they make judicious use of the catch up mechanism and manipulation of the tantalising scoring bonuses.
What lets this game down are the disappointingly poor production values. We’re not saying this game needs plastic ships in place of the cardboard chits that represent each player’s fleet, but we’re pretty sure a lot of people buying this game will want to swap out the cardboard for pieces that are a little more atmospheric. And isn't Wizkids the company that has seemingly built an entire industry on churning out plastic space ship minis?
It's not a problem if you sleeve them, but the cards are quite flimsy. All the action/event cards use images from the TV show but the photos are all rather dark. It’s a while since I binge watched the TV series but I don’t remember the photography as looking quite so universally dreary. The playing board is functional but it too appears dull. Wizkids could surely have done a better job here. During the course of the game, each faction is able to upgrade its ‘tech’ (add a special ability). We were disappointed that each of the upgrades is strictly defined so that they are exactly the same in every game. For the extra production cost of a few additional cards, we’d have liked instead to have seen players offered tech upgrade options to choose between.
The Expanse is certainly a good game. If you’ve enjoyed the books or the TV series, it’s a game you’ll want to play. The disappointment is that, with a small tweak and better production values, this could have been a really great game.