NOTE: I took 138 photos while we played the Tutorial 5 mission (Mossy Inferno aka Death Trap). But I decided to NOT use them in this article – I can talk about our mission without giving the details, so I think there will be minimal if any spoilers here. (I can hear a sigh of relief from Jordan who is peeking at this article:)
So … as I noted, my daughter and I finished a fun filled exciting mission and we survived! All four of our crew survived! Only two got injured. We played very cautiously, had some great dice rolls (as opposed to terrible dice rolls while landing on the planet) and used our Section Cards well to do things like reroll dice. An important aspect of the game is that as your crew ranks up, they are able to use more dice, but I don’t have enough dice for that to come into play yet. However, they also get additional Section Cards that are only available to rank 2 and rank 3 crew! Some of those advanced Section Cards have some very good options at the bottom of the cards. These are dice combos that you can check when you are done using the dice for your main objective. This is a really cool fantastic aspect of the game. As you roll section dice (red, blue, green) for Special Actions and such, whether you accomplish your objective with the roll or not, all the dice are available for the combos listed at the bottom of the Section Cards:
These dice combos make use of your dice for a SECOND TIME … so you have to keep all your dice together even after you are finished. Why? Because you can compare them with the symbols on the bottom of the Section cards for the Section who is taking their turn! You check to see if your roll (including dice from any crew that assisted you) matches any of the symbol combos shown at the bottom of YOUR Section cards. The top card in this photo has four A symbols:
The A symbol represents a specific symbol on one of your dice. The other three A symbols represent three more occurrences of that SAME symbol on any of the remaining dice in your roll. You must have FOUR of that same symbol to meet the criteria for the section card. But remember that the WILD (Vanguard logo) can be any symbol you want, so you could, for example, get two DNA and two WILD (see dice below) and that would grant you the combo on the bottom of that card.
You must discard the Section Card when you use it and you can’t use it for both the benefit at the top of the card and the combo at the bottom.
All this just so I can say (without spoilers) that we had a Section Card with a dice combo at the bottom that looked like it would be very hard to match, but if we did match it, the action granted by that Section card would give us something that we really really needed at the time. However, you can’t roll your dice just to attempt to match the symbols on a Section card. You must roll for something that is one of your two actions for your turn, such as a Special Action on a Point Of Interest (POI) card. So we viewed rolling the dice for the POI Special Action as a formality. We didn’t really care if we accomplished that Special Action. We rolled LOTS of dice (and had another crewmember assist with one die). First (the formality) we checked if our roll met the requirements for the POI Special Action (not really caring if it did or not – and it didn’t:). THEN we were able to see if the roll met the symbol combos on the Section card. Drat… not a match (I told you it was a difficult one)! But our crewmember had a skill that allowed her to spend one charge to reroll ALL the dice in that roll. We had to use that skill several times before we finally matched the symbols at the bottom of that Section card.
That might have been a turning point in the game for us!
So … the Section cards are not just minor aspects of the game to glance at after you accomplish what you wanted with your dice roll (or not). They can be an integral part of the game itself. And that is the mark of great game design!
But, as you might guess, our success did utilize some very good dice rolls that allowed us to avoid injuries (though we played very cautiously in regards to risking injury). Two crew were injured and one of the two got all healed up (the injury included it’s own dice combo that would allow you to discard the injury card and injury die with a specific dice symbol combo, so we set out to get that roll … and did). Not only that, but we all got back to the lander and did the lift off just in time (yeah, we were being attacked – no spoilers about that though).
We got four success tokens during the mission, enough to qualify all the rank 1 crew on the mission to rank up to rank 2. – but Petra (crew for Science Section) was a rank 2 already and needed 5 success tokens to rank up to rank 3 – just missed. Two of the rank 1 crew DID meet their other rank up criteria on their rank up cards, so we ended the mission ranking up two crewmembers! If we had wanted to play a more risky strategy we probably could have gotten the 5th success token that Petra needed for rank up, but decided to not risk any crewmember dying in order to get Petra ranked up! That is an aspect that I love about this game … there are so very many choices and decisions! They are NOT complicated… but they DO have consequences. You can play cautiously for a while, and then risk everything for a couple turns and then say “phew” and go back to your more cautious mode :)
We also got SEVEN discovery cards, and to do that we used up ALL the Lead tokens in the black bag! Awaken Realms says this is part of their game design … you are meant to run out of lead tokens! Meanwhile, we are sad that even though we did quite a bit of exploring (ie, we got to EVERY sector on the map) we never found either of the two Unique Discoveries that were supposed to be on this planet (so, obviously, we did not get them… drat).
We were on the edge of our chairs at the end of the mission, hoping to make it! I won’t spoil it for you, but boy it was a blast! We were OUT OF SUPPLIES before everyone was back at the Landing Site. This is bad. The usual way to refresh your dice is to REST. However, in order to rest you must spend one of your supplies. We had none at the end so we could not rest in order to refresh our dice. One section finally used the EXERTION (Emergency Dice Refresh) option to get dice back into the available dice pool.
Exertion is a cool concept and works like this: You can “sacrifice” one die (this means it will no longer be available for use during THIS mission) and in return ALL the rest of your dice are refreshed and available again. Since it was so close to the end of the game, sacrificing one die really was not that bad (but it was sad to do it anyway).
Now … a few thoughts about the ISS Vanguard after playing six games (the five tutorials plus one more as we continue in the game’s campaign).
FIRST … this game is fun. Both halves of it – Ship Phase and Mission Phase! Right now I’d say it is a toss up which I like better. The Ship Phase is more my style… but the Mission Phase was so very intriguing that I enjoyed it A LOT. Even as a prototype everything seems very well designed and it was cool how the various aspects of gameplay all interacted and intertwined with each other!
HOWEVER … since I have a second hand prototype (ie, Awaken Realms told me how to get it, but they did not send it to me themselves) I did not have access to any of the developers to answer my questions! However, I did provide over 150 items of feedback to Awaken Realms, including some important questions about some very confusing aspects of the game. But all my feedback was just TO Awaken Realms and I never got any replies back other than from their Public Relations guy (thank you!!) who basically told me that much of my feedback was similar to the feedback they got from their official play-testers (who DID have access to the developers). Moral of the story … you are on your own with a second hand prototype :) Thus, there were a couple aspects of the game that we just could not figure out … so we made educated guesses as to what the “rules” likely were.
NEXT … Tutorial 5 introduced THREATS and we encountered two of them. One doggedly chased us, so YES, they do move around the game board. How to actually play the threats aspect of the game was absolutely totally confusing (I got a headache trying to figure it out). And, as noted before, this was because the prototype did NOT include the “manual” or “rulebook” sections that the threat cards referred us to. But that is NOT the fault of Awaken Realms … because I am sure that the “official” play-testers and reviewers got more info on these threats than what we had to go on (and the final game will have a rule book written by Paul Grogan – yay). All we had was what it said on the threat card. The first three pages of the Quick Start Guide goes over all the different components and aspects of the game … but NOT threats … so I am thinking that the “threat system” (which they were trying to automate in an interesting way) was not final enough when our copy of the Quick Start Guide was made.
As we continue playing this campaign (which should be at least 6 more games) I plan on writing more articles to explain how the transition between the Ship Phase game and the Planet Exploration Mission game works. Part of my feedback to Awaken Realms was regarding the overlap between the two phases. For a short time I needed to use the Ship Phase components but the Planet Phase components were still on the table. A small TV table at your side would be helpful as a place to put the Ship Book during this time, otherwise it may end up on your lap. Hopefully the final game won’t have this overlap problem (I offered some suggestions regarding it).
Which half of ISS Vanguard do we like better? My daughter likes the Planet Phase Missions better while I like the Ship Phase better. But we both totally enjoyed BOTH halves of ISS Vanguard and find it refreshing in a way to bounce back and forth between the two aspects of the game. Rather than one mission immediately followed by another mission, you fist go into the Ship Phase. And even if you favor the missions aspect, you also likely will enjoy the Ship Phase because that is where you GET READY for the next mission. You can TRY TO buy more dice (you need success tokens for this, and lots of them … or you can assign available crew to help). You get to add new recruits to each Section PLUS you can assign available rank 2 or rank 3 crewmembers to TRAIN the new recruits! Both become “resting” and are unavailable for the next mission, but when you come back to the Ship Phase after the next mission, they both will be all rested up and the new recruit will be RANK 2!
During the Ship Phase you get to work on research projects and build things. You also have two new SITUATIONS popping up each time that you need to address (ie, resolve). And if you let your Morale sink too low, there will be three new Situations (instead of just two). If you don’t resolve them during the current Ship Phase … it will cost MORE the next Ship Phase. This puts pressure on you to keep all the Situations in line and resolve them, but sometimes you just don’t have the necessary resources to meet the cost to resolve all of them, so you need to choose which to resolve and which to let go until next time (when they will be even more expensive).
There were TWO of us playing the game, but we each played TWO Sections, so we had all four sections on the missions. At first it was hard for me to keep track of my two crewmembers on the game board … but the solution (for me anyway) was to play with the standees and use a Sharpie marker to color them the color of their section (ie, rose for Recon, blue for Security, etc). Or you could paint your crewmember miniatures the four Section colors! Once we did that I managed two Sections at the same time easily. Thus, I think playing this game SOLO should be fantastic. Just remember which section you are playing at any one time!
And the dice … lots of dice. Remember that you need to keep the dice for each Section separate from the other Sections. When one Section rolls one die to assist another section, you need to look at ALL the dice rolled (by both sections) but at the same time, keep them separated into two “piles” or “areas” of the board. One time I accidentally grabbed all the dice (including the one from the Section that was assisting by rolling 1 die) and then had to figure out which was the die to put back into that other Sections crew tray. In my case, I had been taking photos, so it was easy, but it is something to consider – you need to not mix the dice between Sections! Perhaps taking a photo of the dice in each Section at the start of the Mission would be wise!
How long does each game play? I can’t say for sure since I was pausing so much to take photos as well as trying to figure out things that were not in the manual yet (alas, playing a prototype). But I do think the prototype plays longer than estimated by Awaken Realms. But maybe that is because we were thinking about what we were doing and not just rushing through the game.
My final thought (so far) is that this definitely is one of my all time favorite games (and I have hundreds of games). I am pretty sure that the final game may end up as my #1 favorite game (dethroning Terraforming Mars and Pandemic games).
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