When I mention science fiction games, what comes to mind is something like Mass Effect or Halo - typically a first-person shooter on a console. Occasionally people think of PC strategy games like Starcraft or Command and Conquer, but there are a growing number of science fiction board games which capture the archetypes of the genre. The complexities of intergalactic power struggles, the subtle differences of species, the perils of the wider universe can be encapsulated very well in a board game. Below I have chosen five of my favourites, arranged in order from most accessible to most complex.
This is a really fun and very innovative game, in which you build and fly a cargo truck through a hazardous area of space. Galaxy Trucker has two sections: first you must build your truck, against the clock, using pieces from a pile of upturned ship components. Make sure you do not leave any internal sections exposed or modules loosely connected, or you will be in trouble later! Then you fly your ship around a system, collecting cargo, dodging asteroids and fending off pirates. Any weakness in your truck from the building stage will be quickly exposed as bits fall off, are knocked off, or are blown off.
Galaxy Truckers is unadulterated fun, from the panic of trying to piece together a working truck to the nerve-racking encounters on your cargo-hunting voyages, this game is an emotional rollercoaster. It is rather light on the details of specific sci-fi concepts, but there is enough to evoke the sense of the genre. The only flaw of this game is that if your ship falls apart completely early on, then it can be a dull round, but there are three rounds in a game and after the first I became pretty skilled at putting together a ship that would (mostly) survive. It is no secret that this is one of my favourite board games, which I would recommend to any serious board gamer or sci-fi fan. There is also a special bonus board on which you can build the Enterprise. Full marks for fan nods.
Pandemic is a contemporary-Earth-based game, but the story comes straight out of a science fiction novel. Several diseases are ravishing the world and a group of scientists, doctors and emergency response personnel must save humanity before it is too late. Pandemic is a globe hopping, disease fighting, cooperative game. Each player chooses a role (medic, researcher, etc.), and they must work together using each character's strengths to stop the spread of disease and research a cure.
Pandemic is different from most games because the players must work together against the game mechanics, the spread of disease. It is somewhere between an unusual board game and a very complex, constantly-changing puzzle. If you are tired of competitive board games causing family and friends to fall out, then Pandemic could be a solution. However, if you have a particularly bossy friend, they can make this game unpleasant by taking over. The story Pandemic tells is different each time and the narrative formed by the battle against the diseases is very engrossing. The game also becomes a lot more fun with the addition of the On The Brink expansion, which adds a Bio-Terrorist role whose mission is to work against the other players to aid the spreading of the diseases and bring about the end of the human race. Now what could be a more typically sci-fi villain character than that?
Eclipse is a game with a lot of replay value. The map can be put together in any number of ways and each player chooses a different alien race that has varying abilities at war, research, trade, etc. They then occupy areas of the galaxy and build a space fleet to engage with the other players. The board is built from segments as the player's fleets explore it, meaning that each game will have a different configuration.
The process of capturing space territories, extracting resources and building fleets is a lot of fun, as is customising the design of your warships with different components that your scientists research. The options are almost endless, which is why Eclipse is never boring. There are a lot of rules, and being a new player facing experienced players can be frustrating until you learn the game's details. This game perfectly captures the archetype of space opera in the range of weapon, shields and drives that are available. Finding all the different ways of fitting them together is what makes the game so addictive
A full scale galactic power struggle between diverse aliens, taking into account environmental, culture, political, military and technology differences modelled with painstaking detail is how I would describe Twilight Imperium. On the surface it is similar to Eclipse as you have different races with different characteristics, these characteristics vary the resources, technologies and warships each race has, then spaced-based combat occurs. The difference with Twilight Imperium is the variety of play options: it has more races, more technologies and more worlds, but more importantly there are more ways for players to interact with each other. As well as military conflict, Twilight Imperium has political, scientific and economic competition, which each race handles differently.
Twilight Imperium’s selling point is that it is more complex, more involved and more realistic than most similar games. Despite its complexity and how long it takes to play, Twilight Imperium is a lot of fun. It really allows players to be devious and underhanded in many ways, as well as providing lots of different tactics to suit the style of the player. Certainly this is not a game for board game beginners, but avid gamers and sci-fi fans will find lots of fun here. Twilight Imperium really does capture the scale of galaxy-spanning epic science fiction, and the imagination that has gone into designing each race, its history, each world and all the technologies is commendable. The realism of the simulated conflict in Twilight Imperium has inspired the details of several writing projects of mine, as the plot produced by an individual game of Twilight Imperium can be as complex as Dune.
Android is a complex narrative based noir/detective/sci-fi game. It takes place in a vaguely Blade Runner-esque future and revolves around different detectives solving a crime. Similarly to Twilight Imperium, the appeal of Android is the sheer variety of ways that the game can be played. The entire game is set up around a complex narrative with various events pushing your character towards optimism or depression, as well as towards any series of solutions to the case. Unlike Cluedo (Clue for our American readers), where the solution is fixed at the beginning of the game, in Android everything is constantly in flux and as you peel away the layers of the narrative, the culprit changes.
This game borrows heavily in terms of tone and plot from the sci-fi noir of Philip K Dick and Adam Christopher, and all of the different possible options means it has a complex and varied plot. Each game is like reading a different novel, which gives Android a lot of replay value. It is however, very complicated due to the sheer number of possible narrative changes. Generally I enjoy complex board games like Twilight Imperium, but even I thought Android had too many game modifiers and additional rules. It is impressive how they have managed to create a game mechanism which realistically recreates the feel of a novel narrative. I would recommend this game to any lover of sci-fi stories.
These are my choices, what are yours? Is there anything I have left off? There are sci-fi board games I have wanted to play but I have not had a chance yet, such as Space Cadets and the Starcraft board game. What are these like to play? Let me know below.