Game Review: Soloing a Four-Player Game
Firefly (technically, “Joss Whedon’s Firefly The Game“) is a resource management and acquisition game for 1–4 players ages 13 and up. The game is based on the long-gone but still wildly popular TV series Firefly and remains completely faithful to its source: perfect fidelity.
Firefly is intended to be a “big box” game. It is complex. It takes awhile to learn. It takes awhile to play. And it is supposed to be that way.
The game was designed by John Kovaleski, Sean Swigert and Aaron Dill and was first published in 2013 by Gale Force Nine. As far as I can tell, this is the first game for all three designers. GF9 is most famous for creating Dungeons & Dragons miniatures but have recently started buying licensed properties like Firefly (and Homeland and Sons of Anarchy) and creating games to match.
Firefly The Game has already had two expansions; one would assume it is doing well. This is a good sign, generally a game that sells well is also one that plays well.
Each player is the captain of their own Firefly-class cargo ship, flitting about from planet to planet in the Firefly “Verse”, doing jobs, hauling cargo and/or contraband, trying to improve their position while avoiding Reavers and Alliance cruisers.
The adherence to the TV series may or may not be the best part of the game, but it is undeniably the biggest part of the game. Fans of the TV series will recognize every character, every object, every action; expect a lot of squee if you are playing with a Browncoat believer.
But under all that there has to be a game or there is no point. And there is a game. I think it is a card game, although one rolls dice a lot as well. There is a lot of moving your ship about on the Verse map board too.
But still, I think it is mainly a card game.
Find a Crew
Certain spaces on the board contain “suppliers”, where you can acquire crew, or gear to upgrade your crew, or gear to upgrade your ship. Each “supplier” is actually a deck of cards. Some supplier decks are overloaded with a specific type of card: for instance, the supplier Silverhold is overloaded with weapons. You may pick through the deck’s discard pile or draw from the unknown. Buying a card costs money.
The point of having crew is to accumulate capabilities and skills. There are three skills: Fight, Tech, and Negotiate. Throughout the game players are faced with “skill tests” where they try to roll a specific number or higher on two dice. Crew skills count towards skill test rolls. Shepherd Book, for instance, has one Fight skill and one Negotiate skill. Having him in your crew gives you a +1 on each of those skill tests.
In addition to skills, crew may have additional attributes. Looking at Shepherd Book’s card, we see that he is Moral (a disadvantage performing immoral actions), a Soldier (earning a bonus when performing Soldier jobs) and carries a Fake ID (which may make it easier to pass certain skill tests or maybe even avoid them altogether).
Some crew are better than others; most are generic, such as “Gun Hand”, possessing a single skill and no additional attributes.
Gear cards upgrade your crew. Most gear cards are weapons that add to Fight skill, but others add to Tech or Negotiate or add special non-skill attributes similar to Shepherd’s Fake ID. Ship upgrade cards upgrade your ship, increasing maximum movement or cargo space or crew slots or providing a way to avoid Alliance attention.
Find a Job
Certain spaces on the board contain “contacts” where one may sell cargo or acquire jobs. Each “contact” is really another deck of cards, with each card containing a job. Jobs consist of going somewhere specific on the board and doing something, or picking something up and taking it somewhere else on the board.
Some jobs have prerequisites, requiring you to have certain skills at minimum levels. Many jobs require the player to draw one or more cards from the Misbehave deck. Each Misbehave card provides a choice of skill tests, which may result in “botching” the job, or gaining the attention of the law (and “botching” the job), or even get some of your crew killed.
Successful jobs result in money. Less money for easier jobs, more money for harder jobs. You have to pay your crew every time you complete a job; an interesting dilemma actually, seeing as crew enables you to perform jobs while at the same time reducing your reward for doing so.
Moving about the board requires cards too. If you move into an Alliance board space, you draw an Alliance card which probably just says “Keep Flying” but may contain one of a variety of skill tests and challenges including the appearance of the Alliance cruiser. If you move into a Border space, draw a Border card which may cause the appearance of the Reavers but is otherwise similar to the Alliance deck.
It is possible to avoid drawing cards during movement if you are willing to move only one space at a time.
There are eight different sets of goals; you draw a story card at the beginning to see how to win. Two are purely about money, the others require a series of actions and difficult skill tests at specific locations on the board, accompanied by several successful Misbehave card draws.
For instance, winning the story Harken’s Folly requires one to complete a job for four different contacts, then travel to Valentine, then succeed at three consecutive Misbehaves, then pass a Tech skill test, then go to Ariel, then succeed at three more consecutive Misbehaves, then pass a Negotiate skill test. It will take awhile to build up one’s capabilities to the extent that one can pass three consecutive Misbehaves; the game designers indicate that this is a two-hour scenario.
Bits and Pieces
Firefly comes with a full-size full-color board, plastic pieces that look more or less like a Firefly class transport, a Reaver cutter, an Alliance cruiser, custom dice, four stacks of play money, and many, many cards.
The ship pieces are fairly well done, except for the Alliance cruiser which has big blobs of shiny (and not “Shiny” in a good way) visible glue. Maybe that is the penalty one pays for having such an ambitious and complex game piece?
The cards are both good and bad. They are full-size, nicely printed, and cleanly designed. I have reading-glasses-related issues but even so I found the cards to be very legible and usable, in spite of there being so many different types.
Now the bad: they are not coated. I don’t know why so many games invest so much in the pieces and not the cards, but of all the games I’ve reviewed only one had plastic-coated cards. Maybe I am overreacting. We’ve played the game four times now and the cards remain easy to shuffle and deal. But still. This is a premium game, and the cards are the heart of the game. Plastic coat them!
The player mats are thick and fully printed. The game box contains a nicely-designed tray that does a good job of storing and protecting the various pieces. Instructions are clear, but may be more convoluted than necessary; I found it easier to explain the game than it was to understand it in the first place.
The game money deserves its own paragraph. It is really well done, intricately designed, printed on some sort of unusual paper that feels like money. It’s like they had it engraved for real. Very nice. The best paper money I have ever seen in a game.
Firefly has excellent production values. I still wish they’d coat the cards.
There is a lot of game here, and it is so very, very Firefly. But I kept asking myself, is it fun? I was enjoying playing, but I was playing with enjoyable people. What about the game itself?
Figuring out things can be fun, and learning the game required some epic-level figuring out. I am convinced we still have at least one thing wrong, but so be it, searching the rules and online errata did not provide the necessary clarification and so the (in my opinion) wrong interpretation prevailed.
But what about the game itself. Is the game fun?
I am gradually coming to the conclusion that no, it is not. I am having a hard time getting to this conclusion; I love the series, and the movie, and I want to love the game too. Look at all the Fireflying I am doing! But still, no, not actually fun.
I think the problem is summed up by the number of players: 1–4. This is a game that can be played solo. And that is the downfall; even when playing with four people, each of us is playing solo. There is no interaction between players at all.
It is possible to have a very limited interaction when both players are at the same planet. But the interaction is very limited, cannot be forced if the other player doesn’t agree to participate, and never happens anyway because players are almost never at the same planet.
You take your turn and then are completely done until it is your turn again. You can plan your next turn, and the extra time is handy for times when you will have lots of choices. But most are not like that; most turns all you are going to do is move and hopefully avoid drawing a bad card: no planning needed.
I found myself completely zoning out when others were playing. Nothing they could do would change my actions, and vice versa.
Another side effect of the lack of player interaction is that there is nothing you can do when someone pulls ahead. This happened in every game we played; someone got off to a fast start, or conversely everyone else drew an unlucky card at a bad time and got off to a slow start. Either way, one person was clearly the leader for almost the entire game. Knowing that you are going to be spending the next two hours fruitlessly chasing an inevitable winner is not fun.
If you are a fan of the series, then you have to play this game. You will love it, at least for awhile. The designers did a great job of emulating the experience of captaining a transport in the Firefly universe.
But they did not do a great job creating a fun game.
My Gamer Girl says: “At times the game was harsh, but I liked the complexity, the balance, and especially the attention to detail from the TV show.”
My Awesome Daughter was less enamored: “If I wanted to play a game that took this long, I would play something like Axis & Allies, except I don’t because I don’t have the attention span”.
As for me, I really enjoyed it until I had it fully learned and had experienced all the cards. Then I found it too isolating, with no player interaction at all. I do not recommend Buying this game unless you are a truly diehard fan of the series.
Awesome Daughter: Skip
Gamer Girl: Play again, Buy a copy
Gamer Geoff: Play once, but don’t buy