You can never be exactly sure what you are getting yourself into when you pick up a game that is based on an existing intellectual property. The theme is going to hold an immediate attraction to existing fans, but if you require too much knowledge of the source material, then you run the risk of losing players who aren't intimately familiar with it. On the other hand, if the game is good enough, players will be able to connect with the game in a way that doesn't require any prior knowledge of the theme, which can actually cultivate the desire to seek out the source material and find out more about it. I've actually played quite a few games, one of which is one of my personal favorites, that fit into the latter category, and The Expanse is the newest game that I'm adding to that list.
The Expanse board game is based on the Syfy television series of the same name, and if the television series is even half as tense as a playthrough of the game, then it's bound to be riveting viewing. At the start of the game the board is relatively open, and there appears to be plenty of room for players to spread their Faction's influence and expand their control of the various Bases scattered between Earth, Mars, the asteroid Belt, Jupiter, and Saturn. It only takes a few turns for The Expanse's board to morph from "relatively open" into a claustrophobic traffic jam of intrigue that has players jamming their elbows into their opponent's ribs in order to take control of every piece of increasingly valuable real estate available.
The crunch and tension aren't simply a result of players trying to outmaneuver one another, it's as much a result of how the players attempt those maneuvers in the first place. The primary mechanism for taking actions in The Expanse revolves around the Action Track, and the Action cards that live there. On a player's turn they make one of two choices: they either select a card from the Action Track, or they play an Event from a card that they chose earlier in the game and held on to. The nuances inside of those two choices are where the game really shines.
The Action cards can be used in one of two ways when chosen. Each card details an Event that can be undertaken, and the Factions that are able to activate that Event. A player can take a card for an Event as long as it matches their Faction, and then either activate the Event immediately, or pay a point to hold onto it until later. Choosing when to fire an Event off can make a huge difference, although being too carefree spending points can be costly in the long run. The Action cards also show a number of Action Points that can be gained by taking the card in order to perform actions, such as moving fleets of ships around or adding influence to a Base. The catch when taking cards for their Action Points is that it gives the other eligible Factions a chance to activate the Event on the card.
In addition to balancing the need for Action points (which are always in demand) against playing an Event, against giving your opponents the chance to play an Event, there are always five Action cards available, but only the first in the line is free to play. Cards slide forward into cheaper slots after a card is taken while new cards are always dealt into the most expensive slot. The cards have a variety of effects, and it can be agonizing to watch a particularly powerful card fall into the hands of your opponents, but you are able to take any card available as long as you are willing to pay for it. At any given point in the game there will be cards that are more or less useful to each faction, and trying to find the right balance, and make the right choice of which card to choose, how to use it, and what options it leaves your opponents gives the game an awesome, chewy puzzle-like quality that keeps every player engaged during every turn. In The Expanse every decision matters to every player, both from the perspective of what you might be able to do if someone chooses to use a card for Action points, to what options you will have when it's your turn to choose a card.
Mixed in with the Action cards are the Score cards that any player can use to initiate a scoring phase by selecting it as their card for the turn. The player who chose the card then chooses one Sector on the board to be the Bonus Sector, which increases the points awarded for controlling the Bases in that Sector. All players then have one chance to use an Event card that they've been holding on to, and the player who controls the Rocinante (I'll touch on this in a bit) can use either a kept Event or one of four Rocinante abilities. Once the sixth Score card is revealed, there is one final Scoring round and then the game ends. Deciding when to score is just as tricky as picking any other Action card because what may seem like a sure thing for nabbing points (such as having control over Bases in the Bonus Sector) can quickly turn into an opportunity for your opponents to undermine your plans if they've chosen to hold onto a powerful Event card. The board state almost never looks the same when scores are tallied as it did when the Score card was selected.
After Scoring, the player in last place gains control of the Rocinante. The Rocinante is a ship that counts as one of your fleets while you control it, it can never be destroyed, and it has some powerful abilities that can be used during scoring. Since The Rocinante always sides with the underdog, it acts as a sort of catch-up mechanism that gives a boost of power to the trailing player in all three phases of the game. Because it acts as one of your fleets it can help you take Orbital control over Bases, granting an extra influence and helping you take control. During the main phase of the game, having control of this ship can let you focus on the cards you want to play immediately, since you know that you'll be able to use one of its abilities during scoring, meaning you don't have to worry about paying points to hold onto a card to play later. The Rocinante is thematic without feeling cheap, and keeps the game tighter than it would be otherwise.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Factions as well. Each of the four Factions in The Expanse is unique and asymmetric. They all have their own starting positions, a special ability that only they can use (the United Nations can choose the first two Action cards for free, while Mars gets powerful Battleships etc.) and each has a 3 tiered tech-tree that unlocks as Scoring rounds are initiated. The game scales to accommodate the number of players, with numerous action cards designated specifically for certain player counts so that the choices of which cards to choose remains strategic regardless of player count although the game is at its most interesting when all four factions are in play. You only have the option of the UN and Mars if you play with two players, the O.P.A is added in with a third player, and ProtoGen doesn't make an appearance until you have a full count of four players, so keep that in mind when deciding if this game is right for you.
A note on “chrome”: The art, fit and finish in The Expanse is fairly sparse. Most of the art is simply screenshots from the television show that the game is based on, and the components and board that don't feature those pictures are best described as utilitarian. One of the player mats that came in the review copy is cut very poorly, with some of the text cut off, but thankfully it isn't show stopping. The biggest knock I have against the game is that the screenshots and art direction are rather bland, although if you are a fan of the show you the pictures may actually be a positive for you.
The bottom line:
The Expanse is a tense, considered experience. Every card you take, and every action that you perform effects your opponents in at least some way, and often in a major way. The decision of which card to take, and how to use it lends every single turn weight, as you have to balance what you want to do versus what that action will allow your opponents to do in response. The Expanse is an excellent game for players who like to directly interact with their opponents in ways that don't involve combat, and while there is some abstracted combat in the game, The Expanse focuses more on choice, positioning and making the most out of the options available to you at any given time. It's very rare for one player to get an outright, insurmountable advantage in The Expanse as long as everyone is paying attention, and it has an excellent catch-up mechanism for the player with the lowest score, which keeps the the game running at peak tension levels through to the end.
Get this game if:
You like games that force you to make difficult decisions.
You like games that revolve entirely around the tension between players.
You like games that let you directly interface with and interfere with your opponents in ways other than combat.
Avoid this game if:
You dislike games with high levels of inter-player tension.
You dislike confrontational games.
The copy of The Expanse used for this review was provided by Wizkids Games.
The Expanse excels at keeping tension and player interactivity high. Every choice that you make effects the other players in some way, and you live and die by the decisions that you make. The Expanse is a wonderful game for people who like to compete in more nuanced and subtle ways than simply blowing each other up.