Updated: Jan 2, 2020
A lot of people love 4X games. More often than not built around a space colonisation theme, 4X games involve mechanics that take the players through the four stages of eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. One of the downsides of most 4X games, however, is that they can be very long. Publishers have attempted to streamline their 4X games, as FFG have done with their recent 4th edition of Twilight Imperium, but you can still expect the average 4X game to run for several hours.
With Helios Expanse, Greenbrier Games have attempted to deliver a 4X game for 3–5 players that you can finish in under an hour. Designed by Shawn Richard Macleod, with art by Henning Ludvigsen, Helios Expanse is a card-driven area control game that gives at least a flavour of the 4X experience. It is played over just five rounds. The game comes with a two-sided board and markers to block areas off, so the playing area can be appropriately optimised for the number of players.
Players represent factions expanding their civilisations and competing to colonise new solar systems. Each player has their own unique special ability but each plays using an identical deck of action cards from which they draw a hand. Players then, in turn, play five of the cards from their hand to, in effect, pre-programme the actions they will take in that round. Action cards are mostly played face up (once per round, a player can choose to play just one of their cards face down). This means you will usually have a clear notion of what your opponents are planning to do. When eventually players do come into conflict, players who take damage add damage cards to their draw deck. This, in effect, serves to clog up their deck and is likely to limit the options subsequently available to them when they draw their hands. This is a neat mechanic: a kind of reverse deck builder. Given that players may well not come into conflict before the third or fourth round, there's a strong likelihood that deck damage may only prove to be a relevant consideration in the final round. That said, damage cards also represent negative victory points in end-game scoring.
Play in this game is quick because there are fewer options than you might typically find in a 4X game. In the interest of speeding game play, all four of the Xs have been curtailed. As you’d expect, there is a 'tech tree' but it is preset: advancing along the training (military) and research tracks unlock predetermined advantages as you reach them. These include increased movement, increased military strength and increased hand size, along with unlocking the second and more powerful option on each of the action cards.
Greenbrier launched Helios Expanse in April in an unusually short (week long) Kickstarter campaign that set only a very modest funding target. The game is due to be published in March 2019.