Friday, September 26, 2014

Plumbing the depths of space

When I was a kid, one of our go-to family games was Water Works, the original (as far as I know) pipe-laying game. Fun as it was, I have no actual interest in plumbing, so the theme was always a bit lost on me, although the game is abstract enough that it doesn't really matter. It doesn't need to be leaky water pipes, it could be anything.

It could be a space station.

Already a fan of Cheapass Games, I was instantly intrigued by Starbase Jeff, a game which takes the basic concept of Water Works and puts it squarely in outer space. Even better, it has my name in the title.

Each player starts with their own color-coded deck of square cards representing parts of a space station, including 3-way and 4-way junctions, corners, and end caps. They also start with a set amount of tokens representing money. The idea is to add tiles to the space station in such a way that you have as many tiles as possible in a row between your oppoents' tiles. They have to pay you in order to "play through" when they add a new tile to the station, one token for each of your tiles that lies between where they're playing, and their nearest tile in the station.

Money gets passed back and forth in this way, and it also gets paid into a "pot" in the center of the table whenever anyone plays a new tile (they each have different costs depending on how useful the tile is). The player who closes off the station, by playing a tile in such a way that there are no openings for further tiles, wins the pot. Play can continue over multiple rounds until one or more players are out of money, or no one feels like playing any more.

An advanced rule adds the use of symbols printed along the sides of the tiles which, when connected to a matching symbol, give the player who connected them a special advantage such as being able to play more than one tile, or collect more money from players playing through.

The core idea of building a starbase and gaining points when other players need to connect through your parts of the station is quite ingenious, but it's a game in search of an ending. Winning the pot by closing off the station feels tacked on and anticlimactic, and it means that games can vary wildly in length. I guess that's the point of playing multiple rounds, but I would prefer a more satisfying conclusion, rather than just playing until everyone is tired of the game.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) An ingenious variation on an old classic, only slightly marred by a vaguely unsatisfying end game.

Date played: August 31,2014

UPDATE April 20, 2015: Another look at Starbase Jeff

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