Firefly: the game

fireflyI found Firefly spectacularly disappointing.  It’s a game which epitomises the idea that complexity and depth are definitely not the same thing.  That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy playing it – I did.  In a similar way to the way I enjoy eating a bag of crisps or a giant chocolate dessert – the taste is quite nice, but halfway through I start feeling a little gross, and afterwards I realise that what I just did was actively bad for my health…

So, the good bits:

Component quality.  The components in Firefly are pretty solid; the minis, the cards, the cash, the dice, and the board are all well-turned out and agreeably presented.  The chits for fuel/passengers/parts are a bit wanting though.  And you can tell that a lot of work has gone into the art and the graphic design, it has a lot of great little details to notice, more if you happen to read (I think it’s) Mandarin.

Theme.  You definitely can’t fault it (much) for theme.  It ticks all of the Firefly boxes well, for the most part, and includes all of the in-jokes from the ‘verse that a dedicated fan could wish for.

Play time.  It’s at least short enough to play in an evening, or at least, it has been on the occasions we’ve tried it (and I’ve heard criticism that it can really drag, which given the randomness of it doesn’t surprise me).  But I couldn’t help but feel that just… watching the show… would have been a better way to spend the time.

Aaaand the bad:

Endless, unplannable, mostly uncontrollable randomness.  Everything in this game is drawn from one of no fewer than THIRTEEN random decks (though you can choose from visible discards when shopping for goods/crew or missions, they’re usually discards for a reason; very rarely will anything worth having end up in discards for long) or rolled for with random dice, or both.  It makes the whole game feel extremely arbitrary to me – which is fine if what you want to do is shoot the shit in a Firefly-themed pseudo-RPG for an hour or two and not care how well you actually do.  But when you want to… win… it becomes next to impossible to actively do anything to improve your chances other than trust to luck.  You can’t improve your likelihood of drawing the right cards (unless, as noted, you are lucky enough to get something good in discards), you can’t improve your likelihood of arbitrarily bypassing misbehaves or missions with keywords except by randomly accumulating more of them and hoping for the right draws.  Worse, on many of the win conditions, if someone gets lucky and gets ahead it’s functionally impossible to claw them back unless they happen to randomly lose (mostly by drawing and/or rolling badly, though I gather one of the expansions does go some way to fix this… by adding PvP which is something I dislike). It also has a major mechanical issue in that not being able to repeat the same action twice in a turn means you can easily find yourself in the annoying position of having to waste your second action – in a game where you might only get single digit numbers of turns and only double the number of actions – because, of course, of randomly failing a thing (usually a misbehave, sometimes a travel or shopping attempt leading to the wrong thing) which is super-painful because it’s half your entire turn you can’t do anything with.  It feels really anticlimactic to just… try, and fail, with no control and no recourse.  It feels especially irritating to botch a mission.  Doubly so when you flew halfway across the system to pick up the mission, then flew most of the way back to attempt it.  Then failed irretrievably in a manner over which you had no control.

As noted above, this is a prime example of the adage that complexity isn’t the same as depth.  There are, as noted, no fewer than thirteen decks of random, unique cards, which you more-or-less randomly might need to access, and might be able to access depending on how some other cards randomly screw or help you when travelling or attempting to do jobs or shopping.  Some of these decks randomly interact, so a bit of luck getting a keyword out of one of them will give you a free pass on one card in another, but you have no way of easily controlling access to that free pass, nor of drawing the specific, unique cards it works on.  So as a result, it’s a very complex game; most components are unique, things interact in a lot of fiddly, unpredictable ways.  But because they’re unpredictable and random, there’s no way to plan for them or optimise them unless luck is in your favour, so it feels shallow, like a complicated game of snakes and ladders with better theme.  There’s nothing for the engine-optimiser in me to enjoy, at all.  It’s nice when a combo comes together, but not satisfying in the same way it is in Dominion or Dungeon Lords or Caverna, because you’re not in control of whether it works, and you haven’t taken positive actions to make it work.

Oddly, I’m going to put theme in here as well.  The theme is good and the cards are well-designed and have nice quotations from the show and a LOT of well-thought-out little details in their artwork, but there are a lot of thematic issues for such a thematic game: It’s weird that all the ships are Fireflies, despite Serenity being the only Firefly that actually appears in the show.  Albeit it’s implied in the show and stated in the expanded ‘verse that they’re fairly common ships, I’d really expect to see some other models on show, and they might add a little to the tactical elements of the game if you could choose between a fast light ship with little room, and a large slow ship with a tonne of space, for instance.  It’s weird that half the captains featured… weren’t captains, and quite a lot of the characters and items don’t really have any business being put into spaceships, let alone spaceships doing mercenary work and/or trading and/or crime (a lot of the items and crew are people/belong specifically to people who were firmly planet-bound in the show).  And things like Jayne’s hat and Kaylee’s dress showing up are completely meaningless to the wider ‘verse, though they’re instantly recognisable to fans, and add to the slightly… desperate feel of the theme; the writers seem required to include every single little thing from the show in the game, rather than designing a strong game that happens to be set in the ‘verse.  And it’s very weird that at least two of the captains (neither of whom were ship captains in the show) were dead before the end of the first (and of course, only) season, and never went into space that we knew of except as passengers.  It’s weird how easy it is to steal other captains’ crew when they’re disgruntled, despite the fact that family, and trust, and not screwing over your crew at a moment’s notice were core themes in the show.  It’s weird that you CAN freely trade crew during burn movement in empty space when you’re going in opposite directions (if I work, burn, then burn, work on two subsequent turns, and someone else does the same in the opposite direction, we can trade crew and things, despite us travelling at full pelt in opposite directions.  Accelerating and decelerating are THE most expensive things to do in space…  And I know, I’m very much of the opinion that games which ignore realism in favour of mechanics should be lauded, but… the freeness with which disgruntled crew can be bought is just another point where the randomness of failure within the game is problematic, because disgruntling is easy, re-gruntling is hard (and usually takes place in a different location), and losing the crew you’ve put a tonne of work into gaining is both easy and almost impossible to avoid if you’re unlucky enough to get them grumpy, so in this case this is managing to be both thematically AND mechanically bad!  So the theme, whilst it’s strong, feels tacked-on and ill-thought-out in places.  And at the same time, the theme is almost nonexistent in most of the missions – they’re frequently ‘got to $planet and misbehave to win’ regardless of what the flavour of the mission actually is.  Which often leads to the misbehaving being entirely irrelevant to the purported theme of the mission (because misbehaving, of course, involves doing a random thing drawn from a random deck, then rolling random dice to see how well you do), so you might find yourself trying to deliver a VIP to a planet and… getting into a bar fight.  Or having to break into a building.  And having a sniper rifle-wielding crewman make it easier.  Or a case of explosives.  Or a fancy hat.

Win conditions.  I found it really off-putting when halfway through my first play of the game having mostly enjoyed meandering around the board trading and doing merc work and missions and misadventures a fair amount, I realised that I was irretrievably in second place, and unless the person in the lead got unlucky, I had no way to catch up.  I really didn’t like the feeling that the game was punishing me for enjoying it and not really paying attention to the entirely arbitrary win condition – though, on the other hand, I had been paying at least some attention to the condition, and working as fast as I could to fulfil it whilst making sure I had a decent chance at success if I did, but I was still at least a turn behind the winner.  It felt a lot like it needed multiple win conditions, or a single generic endpoint condition (maybe that might be ‘someone fulfils the win condition’) with ‘most money/missions/points/rep/some combination of the above’ then deciding the victor afterwards.  It felt like despite having been fairly successful in the end at space trading and mercenarying, I still hadn’t actually succeeded at the game, which was disappointing, and the people who came in third and fourth were still further behind.

Basically, the question I found myself quickly asking after playing it, was ‘if it wasn’t for this being Firefly, if it was just a generic space or even high seas trading/piracy game… would I have actually enjoyed it?’.  The answer I quickly came to was ‘no, I wouldn’t’.  Even the funniest bits of the games we’ve played (such as completing a mission to blow up a party on Niska’s space base then immediately going and picking up a new mission FROM Niska in the same turn) were only really funny because of the references to the show.  If instead of Niska it had been ‘generic space mafia dude’ it would have been a lot less amusing.  It could be house-ruled to be better for me, but it would more or less involve rewriting the game to have stronger, more carefully balanced mechanics and dramatically fewer and less-mixed card decks and die rolls, less-random win conditions, and probably multiple possible win conditions so that there’s some semblance of chance for people who are behind, to actually work positively towards winning.  And when you’re basically reconstructing the game from the ground up… why not just play something better, then watch the show afterwards?  Although having a genuinely GOOD space-trading game would be lovely, because there really aren’t that many, and those there are are generally very flawed in one way or another, and I really like scifi games.

So, if what you want is to shoot the shit and reminisce about the show for a couple of hours, and for some reason you don’t want to just… watch the DVDs… this game might be worth the cost.  It’s not without its charms in that situation.  If, however, what you want is a balanced, mechanically strong, optimisable space trading/mercenarying game, look elsewhere, and don’t even glance at this.  It’s really not a well-designed game from that perspective.  I’d probably play it again but I would have to make a conscious effort to avoid thinking too hard about playing well or to win.  So for me, it rates no more than a 4 out of 10.

Or, to put it another way… why was I playing this theme-heavy mechanics-light super-random game when my preference is almost the exact opposite? (spoiler: because one of my group bought it and wanted to try it out)

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