Review: Dominate the solar system in The Expanse board game

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The Expanse just has it. George R.R. Martin can’t stop professing his love, and the franchise is fresh off a Hugo award nomination in the new TV category. Now, the sci-fi series is flaring its engines and painting a target on your tabletop.

The official new board game from publisher Wizkids features the events of the first two seasons to craft a compelling strategy game of political jockeying. Players take on the roles of one of four competing factions: the United Nations, the Mars Congressional Republic, the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), or the Protogen corporation.

The blend of political brinksmanship with a slow escalation toward war is gripping—and captured expertly in this design as factions vie for control of the solar system. As a player, you’ll do everything from launching OPA insurgencies on Saturn to deploying Martian troops to Tycho to building up a UN diplomatic presence in the Outer Planets.

You accomplish this using a system similar to the venerated Twilight Struggle Cold War board game mixed with the “priority mechanic” of the Counter Insurgency (COIN) wargames. The core system consists of a row of event cards dealt face-up at the edge of the board. These depict key moments or characters from the series, like Bobby Draper, the Protomolecule Hybrid, and even Julie Mao’s Razorback. While the stills and titles are familiar, how the cards affect the board state remains unpredictable.

The active player chooses one of these cards to execute, then pays a cost in victory points. The card at the far left of the row is free to select, but the cost increases the farther right you go. So you can take the cheapest offering or give ground on the scoring track in return for more choices.

Once you’ve made your choice of card, you have three options: receive the action points listed in the top right corner, fire off the special text at the bottom, or save the event to use later in the game. (The catch is that you can only trigger the event text if your faction is listed as eligible on the card.)

Card effects vary wildly in power and can provide key opportunities to shift the board dynamic in your favor. You can move a group of ships to a different planet or deploy influence cubes to leverage strategic positions for eventual scoring. There’s a distinct lack of reliance on dice or randomization beyond how the row of events unfolds.

The event card selection mechanism also highlights the agile way this design scales with player count. At four, the card row is more volatile; it’s harder to rely on a specific selection being available when it comes back around. At two players, the game is much more chess-like.

Some of the game's many event cards.
Enlarge / Some of the game’s many event cards.

If you settle on a card and scoop up those action points, you’ll want to consider fueling your faction upgrades. These provide asymmetry and a satisfying injection of personality. Wait until you hit the fully developed Protomolecule and can wipe out entire populaces at your whim; this is powerful and chilling stuff. The asymmetry doesn’t run nearly as deep as in the aforementioned COIN series, but it’s just enough to thematically anchor Expanse‘s hour-long experience.

But if you do select those action points and forego the card’s event, each other faction eligible to trigger the special text now has a shot to do so. A priority track determines the order in which each player makes this choice, with the first to confirm receiving the benefit.

The faction executing the event then drops to the bottom of the priority track, foregoing control of short-term opportunities. This system of hopping in and triggering special actions off-turn adds a great deal of strategic nuance to play (and keeps players engaged when it’s not their turn). Decisions can be tough—should I snag those four juicy four action points even if it might allow the OPA an event that could shift the tide on Ceres?

There’s little direct conflict early in this game, with only a handful of events actually removing enemy influence cubes or ship tokens from the board. But things open up a bit mid-way through when everyone gains access to the “open warfare” development. This allows the expenditure of two action points to destroy an enemy ship, weakening another player’s foothold in a system. But it’s costly enough not to be used regularly.

All of this wrestling for control builds toward key moments when scoring options appear on the event row. Six identical cards are spaced deliberately throughout the deck; when selected from the event row by a player, scoring is enabled. The enacting player secretly chooses an area of the board to benefit from, while the remaining bases offer much less to their controlling faction. This selection—and its timing—is key to large point swings and does a great job of representing hot spots of geopolitical (or astropolitical) interest spiking into relevance.

Players have one final chance to trigger an event they’ve saved in an attempt to gain ground. The participant owning the Rocinante sheet may instead utilize one of the abilities listed there, such as Amos Burton’s ability to destroy a bunch of ships or Holden’s effect of placing a single cube anywhere on the board. (The latter is typically met with a bunch of groans and general loathing for the man as he swoops in and mucks up everyone else’s plans.)

While the design is smooth from a mechanical perspective, the engines stall a bit when it comes to presentation. The game does not exactly grab hold of your eyeballs. While this is positively reflected in the game’s modest list price, it doesn’t quite jibe with momentous events occurring on a galactic scale. It would have been ideal to see such a beloved IP featured in grand fashion.

Fortunately, The Expanse overcomes those visual shortcomings. An asymmetric area control game devoid of bloat and spanning a mere 60 minutes is as rare as a modest Belter or peaceful Martian. It offers all of this while remaining an engaging enough strategic experiment that you need no familiarity with the show to play. As long as you get the basics of the setting—political maneuvering and nations on the verge of war—you’ll get The Expanse.

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