I was recently contacted by JT Smith, CEO of TheGameCrafter.com, which is an amazing Print on Demand service for gamers of all kinds! If you have never seen or heard of them, I implore you to check them out as soon as you can. They provide a unique service at an affordable option to designers of independent games, and even have the option to sell your creations on their site. In addition, they are a breeding ground for creativity and imagination!
One major bonus at TheGameCrafter.com is their online community. From chat rooms to forums, there is never a lack of resources to assist, suggest, and collaborate with on your projects. We've reviewed other games from them in the past, and this time, are happy to bring you a Critical Review of one of their newest games, designed actually by JT himself, the Lacuna Expanse.
The Lacuna Expanse is a co-operative card game, designed around the property of the same name from the online, free to play game. It is, at the core, a race game where you and your fellow players work together to build colonies that are efficient, defensive, and ultimately, ones that will lead you to completing your Space Station, the goal of the player's winning. It's built for 1-4 players, ages 12 and up and plays in roughly between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on the number of players.
The story goes that humans have discovered a vast area of space called The Lacuna Expanse, and of course, are trying to settle and populate there. However, we were not the first here, and the original dwellers, the Saben, are not all that pleased with us. As we, the players, develop our settlement communities, the threat from the Saben grows stronger each turn, and if they send enough enemy ships after us, it's doomsday.
Yup, essentially it's the space age sci-fi story of Christopher Columbus, except in this case, the natives are restless and not lying down!
Each player starts the game with the above "Colony Ability Tracker", the "Ability Reference Card" as a reminder for the symbols and their abilities, and a handful of colored markers. Each player then places one marker on each of the red circles on their Colony Ability Tracker, indicating they can begin the game with the "draw 1 Planet card", "Play 1 Planet card" and "Max hand size of 2" abilities.
In the beginning, space exploration and colony settlement is slow. When you draw and play cards to your colony, you must connect them correctly, using "pips" on the orthogonal sides of the cards. All placements must have adjoining connectors and be of the same color. This, at times, can feel like a game a space pipes. Especially the first few times when you are getting a handle for the cards you'll be drawing.
In addition, the game becomes very sprawling almost immediately, even despite it's use of half size cards in every deck. The first 1/3 or 1/2 of the game is spent gaining abilities from Planet cards you place into your Colony, drawing more cards, and avoiding Enemy Ships. When an Enemy Ship is drawn, it is either played face up in the center, or it may have an immediate affect to impact the game, none of which is generally good for you. Hey, they are the enemy right?
Once the players have revealed seven Enemy Ships, they have been invaded, and they have lost the game. There are cards that will increase the number of Enemy Ships it takes to lose, but it's essentially, build your Space Station fast, before the bad guys blow you to asteroids!
If you can work together with your fellow colonists to maximize the efficiency of your individual colonies, then you will start to acquire cards that let you dig into the Ship deck. Upon searching through it, you'll find, sooner or later, the one copy of the Statin Hull. This will signify the beginning of the endgame, and also accelerate a lot of play!
Unfortunately, there's only one copy of the Station Hull, and it's needed to play the Station Command, to then be able to play the 8 other individual cards that make up your Space Station. The Space Station is built by everyone, not an individual player, and is usually built in the center of play. However, with less cards in the Ship and Station Decks, and only one copy of the Hull and Command needed to win, you will always lose the game if you can't find those precious pieces.
We've found it very valuable to increase your hand size and max that ability out, so as not to end up having to discard valuable late game cards. In addition, there are some cards that will let you play with the Ship or Station deck face up... these are both fun, but dangerous, as it could put the next card you needed to draw, sitting on top of the deck, immediately on the bottom and you'll never know until the Saben annihilate you!
Additionally, there is only one "Path to Victory" in the game, as well as one path to defeat! It's either you build your Space Station as a team or get blown out of the sky by the Saben. Unfortunately, since it's really that simple, it's something that you can immediately start to manipulate from the beginning to mathematically benefit the players and almost always win. Providing you plan correctly, after a few games and some better familiarity with the cards, there are some formulas that will almost always lead to success.
Essentially, as a team you have to build the Shipyard to get into the Ship Deck, to then be able to acquire and play the Station Hull. In addition, one player has to have built Station Labs A through D, connected as seen above, to then be able to get into the Station Deck, to play the Station command, on top of the Station Hull. Additionally, when you have the Space Port Card, it'll let you play Ship Cards, which will ultimately let you play Station Cards, and tada, you have the ability to win against the evil, rebellious people you just simply invaded and asked to move out of their homes so you could plop down... can't imagine why they don't like us... of why humans are always the aggressors in situations like this... or.... well, I digress...
As mentioned in the Critical Review video for the Lacuna Expanse, this is an interesting game. It's one that I go on record as calling it, "A fun game, that's a Miss, but will appeal to some people". I know, odd, but let's explain...
Are the components and artwork good? Yes! TheGameCrafter.com is much better quality than one might expect first out of the gate. The cards are good quality stock, don't crease or fold easily, and the artwork is right from the online game.
Is the gameplay fun? At first yes. At first, you feel as though you are exploring, but once you've played a few games and are familiar with the cards, it won't seem as much fun stepping out of your door to find adventure with this one. It'll soon become "draw, gain abilities, fend off attackers by shuffling them back into their decks, and repeat until you have a Space Station" which is honestly too bad, as the basic design works well enough.
Sure, if can feel like Space Pipes. Sure it can be brushed off as "basic". If given the right amount of love though, there is a foundation here to potentially be a very fun co-op game. At the moment, the sprawling effect of the cards just simply taking up a lot of room, especially in a 4 player game, can really bum you out. I think perhaps have "upgradable" buildings could have helped with that, however instead, there are a lot of "plain connector" cards in the Planet deck that simply allow you to join things together and don't do much else.
If you are a fan of Science Fiction though, this may be right up your alley. In our play group, no one was familiar with the online game, but those that were Sci Fi fans said they liked it. They could see themselves playing it and owning it, but with some of the challenges it has in simplicity, it could see more time on the shelf than the table.
In the end, unfortunately, this Space Age Christopher Columbus odyssey gets a Miss from Crits Happen, but it's one we'll be watching! Just as the theme in the game is settling your colony, perhaps if time is kind to The Lacuna Expanse, more expansions (pun not intended) could make this a much more enjoyable and more varied game!
Final Critical Score (Crit, Hit or Miss):