Firefly (2013)

You can find our accessibility teardown for Firefly here.

I might end up spending a few chunks of this review being something of a massive fanboy about Firefly. In doing so, it might seem like I may not have the necessary emotional distance to be entirely objective about the franchise. It’ll only seem that way though because I absolutely don’t have the necessary emotional distance to be entirely objective about the franchise.

Firefly box

Hey, what’d y’all order a dead guy for?

I have watched the unfortunately brief show in its entirety more times than I’m willing to admit. I have named fictional creations after characters in the show. I spent several days living in a box outside of Summer Glau’s house until the police made me stop. When I die I am going to have my body mailed to Nathan Fillion for him to return to my parents like that one guy in The Message. I watched Castle for years just for the occasional Firefly related in-joke.

None of that’s really a good sign when reviewing the Firefly boardgame. The game is just dripping with references to a TV series that I still spend time grieving for as if it were a beloved relative murdered in their prime. Every inch of this game is Browncoat Fan Service, and I absolute adore that. The minute I took the box in my hands and felt its heft and weight and saw Mal and River and Jayne and Inara and the rest staring up at me. Well… I’ll be in my bunk.

Ships

But it ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is?

Look! You can fly Serenity! Or… one of those other ships! But you absolutely can captain Serenity through the inky black, and that actually fulfils a number of childhood dreams. As well as a depressing number of adult ones.

Serenity

My sister’s a ship…We had a complicated childhood

And look! You can be one of several captains, all of them people you may have seen on the show.

Captains

Yessir, Captain Tight Pants.

You can be Burgess, or Monty, or… THERE’S MAL! YOU CAN BE MAL! Back off, everyone, that’s me. I swear by my pretty floral bonnet I will end anyone that tries to play with Captain Reynolds. You can’t take the Mal from me.

Each captain has a number of traits that define them – they get a profile of skills showing their ability at fighting, technology, and negotiation. Mal has two skills points in fighting and one in negotiation. Corbin has two technology skill points and a negotiate point. They also each have a special ability – Nandi can hire crew for no cost, and Mal gets extra money whenever completing a crime job. Burgess gets extra cargo for certain kinds of jobs, and counts as having ‘Fancy Duds’ at all time. We’ll get to that. Captains, and the crew you eventually acquire, also have various traits that may ease or complicate jobs you undertake. Mal is a pilot and a soldier. He’s also ‘moral’, which has an important impact when you undertake work of dubious ethical value.

So, you pick a ship (SERENITY!) and you pick a captain (MAL!) and then you position yourself on the map. Then you pick a game scenario, which outlines the winning criteria and any special rules for setting up the game. There are a few of these, including a dedicated solo game variant that works surprisingly well.

Scenarios

Now I did a job. I got nothing but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character so let me make this abundantly clear. I do the job. And then I get paid.

The first thing you’ll notice as you setup the game is that it’s absolutely massive – you’ll need a pretty big table to comfortably accomodate it. There’s a six-fold game map, a set of five supply decks, a set of five contact decks, an alliance space encounter deck, a border space encounter deck and a stack of misbehave cards. And then there are discard piles for each of these. And four stacks of currency. And then each player needs a place to setup their ship and keep track of money, crew, jobs and equipment. You may need to acquire access to the house next door to setup the game comfortably.

Setup board

Looked bigger when I couldn’t see him.

Once you’ve positioned yourself on the map you get your starting supplies – you get six units of fuel, and two spare parts. These will be spent as you go through the game, either to get you zooming around the ‘verse or ensuring that you don’t end up floating out there in the black. You also get $3000 in horrible paper money, to start you off on your new and exciting career as a space cowboy. You’ll be using that to fill up your ship with crew, equipment, and Space Petrol.

Cargo

I had to rewire the grav thrust because somebody won’t replace that crappy compression coil.

Finally, you get a set of possible jobs to consider – you can have three inactive and three active jobs at any time, and you spend a fair bit of time in the game flying to contacts, considering the jobs they have available, and deciding which ones you can feasibly make happen. If you don’t do jobs, you don’t get paid – and your crew needs to get paid. Remember, ten percent of nothing is nothing.

Jobs have a number of moving parts – let’s look at how it works for the ‘Postman Only Rung Once’

Postman job

You wanna explain to me why you got yourself all corpsified and mailed to me?

This is an illegal job – that doesn’t do much except indicate that we’re almost certainly going to have to ‘misbehave’ during the attempt to complete it. It’s also an immoral job, and that’s more significant – when we work immoral jobs, the moral members of our crew are going to become ‘disgruntled’. When crew become disgruntled, any other player can hire them away from us if we meet out there in the black. If they become too disgruntled, they leave our employ. If our captain becomes too disgruntled, he or she has a massive temper tantrum and fires everyone on the crew. That’s not very shiny.

The job card mentions a target – the Space Bazaar in the Red Sun system. If we go there and work the job, we’ll need to successful misbehave three times. If we succeed at that, then we must ‘cover our tracks’ to see if we got away clean or if we lose some reputation. However, as long as we succeed in the misbehave checks, we’ll get a sweet $4000 for our trouble. We’ll come back to this.

Cattle rustling

You ever see cattle stampede when they got no place to run? It’s kind of like a… a meat grinder.

Cattle rustling is an illegal job too, but it has a slightly different set of requirements. We need to go to Three Hills in the Georgia system, and misbehave twice. But, before we can do that we need to have some ‘transport’ available, and we need to work the job with crew members that have at least two fighting skill points between them.

We pick three jobs from a hand of initial candidates – one per contact deck. Then, once everyone at the table has their jobs, we ‘prime the pump’ – we deal out three cards from each supply deck in their discard piles so people can see what they can pick up if they want to visit the appropriate planet. Again, more on this later.

The supply planets are where we get the good stuff – crew, equipment and upgrades for our ship. For example, Jayne can be found in the Silverhold munitions plant – we can head over there if we want to pick him up. He won’t necessarily be available for our first attempt to acquire him, but we’ll likely find something that takes our fancy. All our favourites are in the supply deck, as are some miscellaneous and interchangeable generics such as the ‘Med Staff’ or ‘Hired guns’ or ‘Hill folk’. Crew let us build up our skill sets, and often have special abilities that influence the way in which we interact with skill checks and contacts. They’re also how we work jobs – picking your crew well is a major part of being a good captain. You have to pick your ship and your crew with love – after all, if you take a boat in the air you don’t love she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds.

We spend a lot of time setting up the ‘verse – it’ll serve as basically a big Firefly sandbox that we can fly around.

Now we can get to playing the game. In turn order, we take up to two actions from a slim roster of choices. We can’t take the same action twice in a turn, so we have to divide our attention between our options. Sometimes bad planning or bad luck will leave us with no options for a second action, so we may find ourselves cursing our inattention or lack of foresight. The four actions we usually have available though are:

  • Fly
  • Buy
  • Work
  • Deal

Each of these though is broken down into a number of sub-choices. When we fly, we can ‘mosey’ which moves us a single spaces along the map, but doesn’t use fuel and doesn’t provoke attention from the Alliance or the Reapers. Or, we can go ‘full burn’ which spends a fuel token and lets us move a number of spaces determined by the range of our drive. But…

Each time we move a space when operating under full burn, we draw a card from either the Alliance or Border space decks, depending on where our ship is moving. These are chance encounters that impact on us as we make our way between the systems – usually they just say ‘keep flying’, but sometimes they don’t…

Alliance event

You had the Alliance on you, criminals and savages… half the people on this ship have been shot or wounded, including yourself, and you’re harboring known fugitives.

There are two NPC ships on the map – the Alliance Cruiser, which begins in the centre of Alliance space. And then there’s the Reaper Cutter, which begins off in the far right corner of the map and we hope it stays there because we don’t want to meet it…

Reaver cutter

But these Reavers… last ten years they show up like the bogeyman from stories. Eating people alive? Where’s that get fun?

Sometimes the cards will have opportunities for us. Sometimes they’ll have checks we need to pass in order to continue – if we fail, we make a ‘full stop’ and have to end our movement where we are. Sometimes these will allow us to use up a part in order to continue, but sometimes they won’t. But not us, because no power in the ‘verse can stop Serenity.

Ships in Firefly

We’re still flying.

Let’s say we fly to Regina, spending a fuel token to initiate a full burn. We land on the planet and decide to make use of our next kind of action – a ‘buy’. For that, we get to take three cards and ‘consider’ them, buying up to two of the cards we have drawn. We consider a card by either drawing it off the discard pile (so we may need to consider multiple cards to get to the one we want at the bottom) or by drawing a face-down card from the stack. We grab three cards, and this is what we get:

Kaylee!

My daddy says I got natural talent.

Well! If you think Serenity is leaving without Kaylee on board, my time of not taking you seriously is certainly coming to a middle. We can pay $300 to hire her on to the crew, and we’re absolutely going to do that. We’re also going to buy the fast horses for $200 and add them to our roster. They can be used once to act as ‘transport’ in any check that requires it. We can also choose to buy fuel ($100) and parts ($300) when we’re buying from a supply planet. If there’s nothing in particular we want from a supply planet, we can instead send our crew out on shore leave – we pay $100 per crew member, but in return we get a disgruntled token removed from each of them.

If we had made our way to the Osiris Shipworks, we might get to consider three ship upgrades:

Ship upgrades

Grav boot ain’t your trouble. I seen the trouble plain as day when I was down there on my back before. Your reg couple’s bad.

These cards can be bought to increase the capability of our ships – they might give us more cargo capacity, escape opportunities when dealing with the Alliance, or entirely new toys to play around with. Each ship begins with a reasonably standard drive core, but we also might end up replacing that as we go along.

A new engine

I am a leaf on the wind – watch how I soar.

Let’s say we’ve loaded up on crew, and equipment, and want to make a little cash. We’ve got the ‘Cattle Rustling’ job, so we’re going to do that. We fly off to the target location, and use our third kind of action – ‘work’. We work a job by choosing to make it ‘active’, and in order to do that we need to meet the Needs listed on the card. We do that in turn by assigning crew and allocating equipment. Each crew member can (usually) only take a single piece of equipment, so if we need a lot of special things we’ll need to have a deep bench. For this job, we need transport (which we’ll get by discarding our fast horses), and two skill points in fighting. So we’re sending Mal. It’s an illegal job, so – we aim to misbehave.

Now we have to try and actually accomplish the job, which we do by drawing two cards in turn from the ‘aim to misbehave’ deck. These will have skill checks we need to resolve, and usually offer us a choice as to how we want to do it. Sometimes they even include a special pre-requisite piece of equipment or crew that just allows us to pass without needing to roll any dice at all.

Misbehave deck

Let’s be bad guys

We draw our first card, and find out that we’ve just been denied docking rights to the planet:

Docking rights

Captain will come up with a plan.

Well, how about that. We’ve got two choices – we can attempt a difficult negotiation check, or an easier tech check. The negotiation check is a bribe, which means we can pay $100 to add a point to our roll, and we can spend as much money doing that as we like. If we had ‘fake ID’, we could just move on to the next card without needing to pass a check at all. We decide instead to try for the second, riskier, but more exciting option. We grab our die and roll it, and it comes up with…

Rolled dice

Shiny!

The firefly symbol acts as a six, but it also acts as ‘thrilling heroics’. We get to ‘explode’ the die, rolling it again and adding it to our previous total. And we keep doing that until we stop rolling fireflies! It’s the Crazy Ivan of dice rolling. We roll the die again and get a three – adding that to our previous firefly gives us a total of nine. We proceed to the next check without incident.

A second check

Possibly you’re not recalling some of his previous plans.

Our second check allows us a charm check, or a tech check. If we had Fancy Duds, we’d pass the first one automatically. If we had the ‘Medic’ trait on any of the crew on the mission, we’d pass the second one automatically. We don’t have either, so we try to roll for the first. Mal has two points in fighting, but he also has a point in negotiation – whatever he rolls, he gets to add one to it. Let’s say he rolls five, and that job is done!

Payment

Better go take their money.

You do the job. You get paid. The job reward is $2000, but Mal gets an extra $500 for completing a crime job (his special captain power). As Mal is a soldier he also gets the $300 bonus the job card indicates. That’s a total of $2800 for rolling a couple of dice, which is a good day’s pay. But, we don’t get to keep all of that – we have to pay the crew, and we pay them whether they went on the mission or not. We had to pay $300 to hire Kaylee, but we also have to pay her another $300 every time we succeed at a job. We still have $2500 left though, so we shouldn’t complain.  Or we can choose not to pay her at all, at which point she becomes disgruntled:

Turns out there is indeed a power in the 'verse that can stop Kaylee from being cheerful

Turns out there is indeed a power in the ‘verse that can stop Kaylee from being cheerful

Having completed the job successfully, we also become ‘Solid’ with Patience – we can now offload cargo and contraband whenever we visit her. Also, being solid with her gives a game bonus – when it comes time to pick up new jobs from her deck we can consider four at a time rather than three. Shiny.

That brings us to our fourth action – ‘Deal’. Let’s say we go visit Patience now and see if she has any new jobs for us. As with supply planets, we can draw from the discard deck or the face-down deck – we consider three, and can accept as many as two. Except because we’re Solid with patience, we can consider four and accept as many as two. We don’t have to accept any, of course. Since we can only have three inactive and three active jobs in our hand at any one time we want to be a little discriminating in terms of what we want to take on. We need to weigh up risks, rewards and the logistics of meeting the needs and demands of the job. If we’re solid, we can also sell off any cargo or contraband that we’ve picked up along the way.

We continue in this way, each player taking two actions per turn, until one of the goal conditions of the scenario is met:

Scenario goals

I got no answers for you, Inara. I got no rudder. Wind blows northerly, I go north.

If we complete a job for a second contact, we’ll be Solid with them and we’ll get a goal token. When we have our first goal token, we will acquire the second when we have a total of $6000 in our hand. When we have two goal tokens, we fly to Ezra in the Georgia system and pay off our ship debt to win.

So yes, it’s all absolutely dripping with Firefly love – the terminology of turns, the references on the cards, even the equipment you pick up is all pure Molten Serenity Gold. It’s no surprise that when I was taking the photographs for this one I was humming the Firefly theme tune constantly, yelling ‘Gorram Alliance’ every time they raided my plucky little Firefly. If you’re a fan of the show, you won’t be disappointed by the theming.

Buuuuuuut…

The thing is…

It’s not actually an especially good game. Immersive, yes – lovingly crafted, absolutely. But the thematic elements that I mentioned above make it look far more special than it really is. Fundamentally, it’s an entirely competent space mission sandbox. If it weren’t for the heavy Scoops of Serenity ladled atop it I don’t think I would ever find a reason to play it again.

First of all, the rules are kinda ropey – a big deal is made of certain things that don’t really have a lot of impact in the game. You’d be forgiven for not being entirely sure how particular core concepts are meant to be handled because they don’t really link up well to the game presentation. You’ve got ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ jobs for example – but aside from one (I think) card in one deck it means nothing other than a sprinkling of thematic sugar. That’s fine, as it stands, but the rules make special mention of illegality throughout, and it doesn’t actually mean that much. It leaves you thumbing through the manual for game impact even though there isn’t any. The differentiation between the cargo hold and the stash too makes it look like this is hugely important. Aside from a few special cards it doesn’t really do anything much despite its prominence in the ship card design. You get two dice, but you only ever roll one – why do you get two, then? Is it just convenience? If so, why not five dice because the game supports five players? There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t quite align cleanly, and it just seems quite rough and unpolished.

And aesthetically inconsistent. It’s a beautiful game in parts:

Artwork

Instead of us hanging around playing art critic till I get pinched by the Man, how’s about we move away from this eerie-ass piece of work and get on with our increasingly eerie-ass day?

But for every gorgeous art-deco card back there’s a cheap and cheerful screencap from the TV show:

Screencaps

Gotta say, doctor, your talent for alienatin’ folk is near miraculous.

It would have held together much tighter if they had gone with the original art throughout, because there’s something about the cinematic stills that just look half-hearted. It detracts considerably from the love that has been spread so liberally elsewhere.

There are numerous edge-case scenarios that need you to basically decide on a house-rule before you can progress. Consider the ‘fast horses’ above for example. You can discard these to act as ‘transport’, but what does that actually mean? Do you get ‘transport’ for a whole mission? Is it for a single check? Does it count as gear that needs a crew member? Or is it a special ‘consumable’ that occupies a different kind of slot? Any interpretation is valid, but I couldn’t see anything in the manual that gave any clarity. The rules that *are* clear are also kinda clunky or strangely prudish, and need you to check and counter-check the consequences of action. If you get a warrant while working a job for Niska, for example, you have to kill a crew. If you’re solid with Ammon Duul, you can pick up passengers at the Space Bazaar – the asynchronous nature of the benefits are fine, but they’re pretty fiddly. There are just so many decks, and so many different ways of dealing with how they work, and it all takes up so much space. It’s a clear example of a game that becomes reduced as a result of addition.

And then there are the missions themselves – you can meaningfully influence the chance of success with clever loading of crew and equipment, but you can’t eliminate the fact that luck is fundamentally the deciding factor. One job you might find is trivial because you loaded a hacking rig, the other is impossible because you got four difficult fight checks in a row and only brought along negotiators. Nothing in the jobs influences the misbehave deck, so you get the strange juxtaposition of heading off to essentially count cards for Badger, and ending up kidnapped by hillfolk in the middle of a reaver raid.

I absolutely can visualise this episode of Firefly, but I need to invest a considerable amount of imagination and knowledge of the theme to do so. For those not quite so invested, it just seems a bit incongruous. And that brings us to the more significant problem with the jobs – they’re only as thematic as *you* make them. Every incident of misbehaviour comes with a reference to something cool that triggered it – ‘an alliance patrol’ or ‘a gun fight’ for example. It then basically offloads the job of making it interesting in your own mind. All you’re doing for the missions is chucking some dice, after all – it’s not in itself particularly thrilling.

Maybe that wouldn’t be true if the stakes were higher, but it is absurdly easy to get out of danger and poverty. In the Firefly show, disaster is a broken compression coil away. In the Firefly board game, you’re fanning out thousands and thousands of dollars to buy the best upgrades and hire the most competent crew. Becoming solid with a contact happens without effort, and before too long the only limit to your adventuring is the cargo space you have for parts and fuel. There’s never any real sense of tension or pressure, or of actually feeling the weight of authority squeezing the freedom out of the ‘verse. And then the Reavers – you can basically ignore them for most of the game, because they pose little genuine risk. Even when you do encounter them and end up losing some crew, all you need is to drop in to the nearest supply city and solve the issue with a little cash.

For all its theme, the Firefly board game doesn’t really manage to capture the heart of the TV show. The crew of Serenity weren’t a mercenary army, they were a family. The jobs that they undertook were just to keep Serenity flying – it was about freedom of action in a universe becoming more tightly constricting with every passing day. ‘It’s getting awful busy in my sky’, Mal remarks in one episode. Funny, it never felt cramped to me when I was in charge of Serenity.

And it comes with paper money. Urgh.

But for all that, it’s not at all a bad game. Like Lost Cities: The Board Game – it’s competent. Unlike Lost Cities, I can see it being a favourite if the clunky mechanics and tonal inconsistencies don’t bother you. There’s enough to do that you’re unlikely to be bored, and each game turn has enough narrative and mechanical weight to your decision making that you’re almost always making interesting decisions, even if the way you arrive at the outcome is somewhat dull.

Firefly and Lost Cities got the same three out of five result, but they couldn’t be more different in terms of the reasons. Lost Cities: The Board Game strikes me as a concept and an execution that has already hit its full potential. As far as I’m aware, it never got any expansions or extensions, and that’s fine – I would be entirely uninterested in seeing that game with more added to it. Firefly on the other hand makes me think that a few expansions down the line, it might actually be as shiny as I’d like. The game already has a considerable amount of heft to it, and I think there are great strides that could be made by slimming it down rather than fattening it up. But I think there’s an interesting and potentially highly configurable gameplay engine in there that some polishing could bring out. You need to try to see past what she is, and on to what she can be.

Firefly ships

You can’t take the sky from me

Firefly in its vanilla incarnation is not a game I’d strongly recommend – for serious fans of the theme, it’s probably three and a half rather than three, but that’s as far as I could go. For everyone else, Merchants and Marauders is a better execution of almost every key concept that Firefly implements. But, I’ll almost certainly be buying the expansions for Firefly because I’m sure a game I could love is in here somewhere. I’m willing to make the effort to find it, find my crew, and keep flying.


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  • Kenneth Taylor

    Pretty spot-on. Expansions have come out that add quite a bit, but it still has the inherent problems you mentioned. If you love the show, you’ll almost certainly love playing this game. People who aren’t so enamored (do they still exist?) will find a kinda dull game I think. That said, I still love playing it and get every expansion and joyfully play again and again and beg my friends to play it.

    • I think genuine enthusiasm for Firefly is enough to propel it forward, because it is just so lovingly reverential of the setting that it can draw you in. Even just looking at the box starts me whistling the theme tune. If I want to dip new stories from the ‘Verse, this is probably the best way to do it. And that ain’t nuthin’