“The basic gist is that we fly across the map and blow each other up. Last captain standing wins.”
There’s a little bit more to Mothership than that of course, but the fusion-powered core of this svelte space battle is simple. There is only so much room in this corner of the galaxy and it belongs to you.
Mothership technically has all the Xs necessary to be called a 4x title. Neutral planets dot the starscape ready for you to eXplore for artifacts and eXploit for resources. You begin tucked away in your own corner but need to eXpand rapidly if you want those planets or want to blow up your enemy. But it’s the eXterminate part of the genre that is blasted up front and center and Mothership really does it well.
Your fleet is small. 3 fighters, 2 bombers, and the eponymous Mothership are all you have to both protect your Colony Stations and attack your enemies. The board is cramped too, especially with the full contingent of 6 players. Between the planets and the asteroids, there isn’t much free space to fly around; space that is rapidly filled with brightly colored spaceship, weapons systems armed and hot.
Ship types function in a sort of Rock-Paper-Scissors system. Fighters can kill other fighters, bombers, and damage shields. Bombers can on only damage shields and hull points. Motherships can destroy everything. It’s with this small fleet that you have to skillfully navigate the system and attempt to gain the upper hand. Turns are open and fluid: you can move and attack in any order, zipping your ships around to cluster up or spread out as strategically necessary. It’s a system that keeps things moving rapidly and pushes the tempo.
As you conquer planets and destroy enemy ships you will collect valuable resources. These are used, among other things, to take advantage of a light tech tree that culminates in game-warpingly powerful final upgrades. Positioning doesn’t matter to the mothership that can attack any space on the board from any space on the board and it can be tough to kill one that can add +8 to its roll. Good luck beating that with a d6.
Surviving long enough to buy those upgrades is the tricky part. The tempo and energy packed into this title are what set it apart from many games. The rules are super simple and the combat system is brilliant in the way it drives interaction. There is only the slightest advantage to being the attacker vs the defender. Combat is nothing more than opposed rolls with some modifiers. Whoever rolls higher wins and who ever rolls lower takes lasers to hull and is likely destroyed-even if they were the attacker.
This simple rule blows away so many of the issues that can plague other games of this type. There’s no need to turtle or dance just outside an enemy’s flight range because you’re just as destructively potent on defense as you are on offense. The natural whims of dice and action cards ensure that you’re never completely out of it until you’ve been eliminated, and those powerful tech upgrades offer a shining glimmer of hope for those who can just hang on long enough. The fragility of fighters and bombers means there are few situations where players roll handfuls of dice back and forth impotently turn after turn, and the excellent mothership control panel allows you to divert energy from shields to engines to guns depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.
If Mothership has a flaw it’s that the end game, when played with the standard rules, can drag a bit. It’s a last man standing-type of game, which means some players may have to sit around while two players with decimated fleets chase each other around. For some, there’s a drama in this situation. Damaged pilots limp through the stars, valiantly striving to complete their mission in a last gasp of heroism. For others, this might become stale. Luckily the game comes with a Victory Point variant that eliminates this issue.
It’s not for those who enjoy a longer more strategic game. VPs are award to those who strike fast, eliminating ships and taking planets as quick as possible. The game can end quickly, though it typically ends while lasers are still flying hot and fast through the void and not with small fleets limping along in the shadow of an asteroid. I prefer this variant myself; I can sacrifice a dramatic arc to ensure the game ends at the peak of excitement.
It’s rare that a game this good flies so far under my radar. From the design to the production, Mothership raises the bar on indie Kickstarter games and is an impressive outing for a first-time designer and publisher. My shelf is full of space operas and grand games of intergalactic strategy, but the box that shines brightest and hottest just might be this one.
Mothership returned to Kickstarter for a second printing and expansion on April 4, so you can get in on the action.
Shields, Engines, or Guns: Which system gets the most power on your ship? Tell us in the comments!
Image Credits: Peter Sanderson
In addition to Geek & Sundry, Raf Cordero writes for Miniature Market’s The Review Corner and co-hosts the gaming podcast Ding & Dent. Chat with him on Twitter @captainraffi.