Space Explorers: Age of Ambition

Back in the before times (early 2020), I dropped by a game store in Illinois while I was traveling for business. I like supporting local game stores when I can, so I made something of an impulse buy: Space Explorers by 25th Century Games. I knew the art was fantastic, depicting the US and USSR sides of the space race in a style right out of a 1960s Life magazine. What I didn’t know was how good the game play would be!

Players take on the roles of heads of space research centers, recruiting a variety of experts to build and launch satellites and spaceships, hoping to have the most impressive set of projects and specialists by the end of the game. You get to recruit scientists and engineers, test pilots and astronauts, while you work toward missions taken from the US and USSR space programs, including Sputnik, Voyager, Voskhod, and Apollo.

The game play is a bit like the popular game Splendor, in that players get resources of various types to spend on cards that available in a common market. But Space Explorers is a step up in complexity from Splendor, in part because the ways you get and spend resources are a little more varied and in part because every card represents a recruitable specialist with an ability of some kind. Making the best use of your specialists’ abilities is key to winning at Space Explorers.

Flash forward to fall of 2021, when people could gather in fairly large numbers to play games together and I had the chance to attend Gen Con, one of the biggest game conventions in the world. I brought my microphone along and interviewed Chad Elkins, the one-man show behind 25th Century Games, about Space Explorers. You can hear that interview in Episode 19 of the First Player Token podcast. Chad gave me my first podcast exclusive: 25th Century had an expansion in the works for Space Explorers! And it would feature other countries who were among the first to space!

Space Explorers: Age of Ambition is that expansion, and it’s now available on Gamefound for pre-order. Chad kindly sent me an advance copy so I could preview the expansion. Age of Ambition features seven different modules, any of which can be added to the base game to give the game a new feel. Some of the modules just tweak the game a little, while others change the game mechanics significantly. The instructions recommend adding three modules at a time, which means there are <does the math> 35 different combinations of modules you can use to vary your Space Explorers experience.

Age of Ambition continues the base game’s stylish 1960s Life magazine vibe with illustrations of space program leaders, new missions from Japan and France, and crises that set back your exploration. There’s an Apollo 13 or For All Mankind look and feel to the game. With seven new modules, there are lots of cards and cardboard and other components in this box. My favorite might be the wooden “Talent” tokens used with Module 5: Executive Talents. Each is a stylized rocket taking off, and I wouldn’t mind a four- or five-inch version of one of these to set out on my desk.

As for the new modules, they are numbered from 1 to 7, with the lower-numbered modules adding a lot more to the game. Let’s start at the other end, however, with Module 7: Higher Directives. This one is dead easy—everyone gets an extra “Directive” resource token illustrated with a briefcase. You can spend this token to copy another resource token you’re spending. That’s it! It’s a small addition, but it seems to speed up the game a bit by having more resources in the mix.

The next few modules are fairly straightforward, too. Module 6: Remarkable Projects adds eight different projects, which are either worth more points than regular projects or variable points depending on what you’ve added to your research hub. Module 5: Executive Talents gives all players a special power, providing another tactical option for players and making the game a little more interesting and a little faster. Module 4: Strategic Goals gives all players a random set of goals to achieve, awarding points for having at least one specialist in each of your divisions or recruiting three specialists that have double skills or something else along these lines. This means players aren’t just competing for the big projects, but also these other, smaller goals.

Module 3: Impeding Crises is where the game starts to take a different shape. This was our favorite new module when we played the expansion. You’ll add six different crisis cards to your game, selected from ten possible crisis cards. While a crisis is active, something doesn’t work. Maybe you can only use one specialist power on your turn or maybe all the projects require another astronaut skill point or maybe you can’t add test pilots to your research hubs. The crises require some creative problem solving and more competition for resources, since they affect all players and since you can see which crisis is coming next. Module 3 will slow down the game somewhat, but it adds a lot of fun problem solving. (Oh, and I double-checked: It’s Impeding Crises, not Impending Crises. They do, indeed, impend, but they also impede.)

Module 2: Prominent Leaders adds 18 “Leader” cards to the game. Think of these as powerful specialists to recruit to your hubs. They act a bit like wild cards, since they can add skills points to whatever division of your hub you put them in, and they can bring some end-game points if you fulfill the requirements listed at the tops of the leader cards. On the other hand, they cost more than regular specialists and some of them have penalties for not meeting those requirements. For a game where players are often competing to recruit the same specialists, the leaders open up some options when a popular category of specialist (say, astronauts or builders) happen to be scarce in a game.

Module 1: Space Powers is the big one. Every player takes on one of the first four nations to launch space missions: the US, the USSR, Japan, and France. Each nation feature a player board with multiple unique player powers. The module adds a lot of variety and strategy to the game, especially since you can’t just trigger those powers, you have to earn them by paying premiums on certain specialists available for hire. There’s a new way to score, too, that triggers off of which premiums you pay, those belonging to your nation or those belonging to other nations. There’s a lot happening in this module, which adds to the game’s learning curve but also to the strategic options that players have.

You’re encouraged to play with not just one module, but three of them, and the modules interact with each other in very interesting ways. We played with modules 1, 4, and 7 in our first game (Space Powers, Strategic Goals, and Higher Directives), which gave us a lot of things to aim for and some extra powers to try to get there. Our second game featured modules 3, 5, and 6 (Impeding Crises, Executive Talents, and Remarkable Projects), which meant we were using our unique player powers to navigate a series of common crises. This combination felt simpler, but very satisfying with the crises in play. Combining modules and the variability within the modules means that Age of Ambition adds a lot of replayability to an already fun game.

The original Space Explorers does a great job connecting its mechanism to its theme, and the Age of Ambition expansion continues that tradition. Some of the connections might not be obvious at first, but reading through the appendix explaining all the details of the expansions, it’s clear that the designer, Yuri Zhuravlev, took a lot of inspiration from real space programs. Again, Module 3: Impeding Crises shines here, with crises like “Top Secret” which limits the abilities of some of your specialists since they’re working on projects where they don’t know the details or “Personnel Shortage” which limits the number of cards (that is, specialists) you can have in your hand since there’s a tight job market.

Age of Ambition is, indeed, an ambitious expansion. I haven’t even mentioned the new solo mode for the base game that works with all seven modules. It captures the tense feel of a space race between you and another smart player. As great as the solo mode is, I’m fortunate that I don’t have to play it that often, since my game group loves Space Explorers. I foresee we’ll be getting it to the table even more frequently to explore Age of Ambition.

Space Explorers: Age of Ambition is currently available for pre-order on Gamefound. As noted above, I was sent an advance copy of the expansion so I could preview the expansion. Thanks, Chad!


2 years ago

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