You, know, the Chinese one. Less than a week away and all. Like the groundhog that came out only to squint in the oppressive light and wonder just what the hell he’s been doing, I have emerged from hibernation to catch up. It has been a little while since I posted but it hasn’t been all mai tais and hoop skirts. The new year brought a new role at work and some other life changes (all good-ish) that will disrupt my hobby and gaming time a bit more before it is all over. In the meantime, we can catch up.

While I haven’t been hitting too many games, digital or otherwise, I did get the chance to try out Core Space from Battle Systems. I initially passed on this game as I thought it was a completely different game but luckily Colton convinced me to try it out (via Tabletop Simulator).

The core game has been out for a little over a year now and has a lot of reviews and accolades already built up. If you’re like me though and have been living under a rock, the game is a small figure count skirmish game set in a generic “gritty” sci fi universe. It is scenario driven and can be played solo or with other players, each controlling their own crew.

It is not hard to say that this game is “Frostgrave in space” but the emphasis on small crew counts means that each crew levels up and progresses as opposed to just the key elements of your wizard and apprentice in Frostgrave. This is good and bad since no one is expendable for the greater good but each can bring about their own story. The system has a lot of expansions that create tons of options in crew composition and AI enemies.

As a one-off skirmish game, I found the game relatively weak. The opening mission is to search crates and get loot for your crew so they can take on stronger enemies. Coming off a lot of recent Infinity games, the limited action options and plodding you-go-I-go mixed with a totally random placement of enemies each round made the game seem a little purposeless. It did not carry the tactical and cerebral charm that Infinity brings. The completely wild swings in luck that Frostgrave is known for is also missing. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t engaging. It felt like a weaker version of Walking Dead but in space with better AI enemies.

I think the biggest thing I was missing in the skirmish micro level of this game system was either the option to play very tactical with a lot of realism like Infinity or be able see an epic David vs Goliath moment from Frostgrave that would make something memorable. There is no opposed rolling in any engagement. You do an action or have an action done to and it either passes or fails based on some special six-sided dice.

Playing on Tabletop Simulator made the game a bit slower so we only got through the first half of the game (maybe 3 rounds) and both of us were decidedly ‘meh’ about it. Talking in between sessions, Colton and I agreed that the game really needed more and so we decided to push farther into the system and make sure we were not just testing the single mission out but rather part of a campaign to see things grow and die and maybe eek out a narrative. With this in mind, our next session went much better. The actions are still a little boring still as you try to game the AI into bad positions and mitigate dice luck with better weapons and range bands. However, the overall events that take place gain more perspective.

It is in this perspective and the narrative that ultimately develops where we found a game we wanted to play. Random events and enemy spawns can quickly ruin your day but character death is not something that closes options off like losing a trooper in Infinity or even a soldier falling in Frostgrave. In Core Space, tragedy opens up mechanical options in game play.

Colton’s Captain was roaming a little farther afield when he got ambushed by a bunch of enemies and eventually dropped. In most games, you play some sad music and move on but in Core Space, that is your crew. This guy means something to you since you have so few crew to work with and you need this guy. If you can get to him, you can try to get him back on his feet or start dragging his unconscious body back to the ship. You can loot him or he can be captured by your opponent and dragged back to their ship to ransom him back to you later.

This little change speaks to the main theme behind the game. It has a lot of simple little rules. Some are a bit pedestrian but build in layer upon layer and rarely does a bad thing not trigger something interesting. That is not to say that bad things can’t just completely upend the game and dole out actual loss but most of the time, these events allow for opportunity to engage the game in a different way.

Colton eventually had to abandon his fallen Captain and flee back to his ship. This led to even more layers as we did started the post-game wrap up. For Frostgrave, this is simple, rolling for casualties, scoring loot, and leveling up. That is present in Core Space but those left behind offer a more nuanced approach to just rolling a die to see if they limped back or not. They give you options including one where you won’t let a fickle die determine your comrade’s fate but instead, you will re-arm and rescue him, playing starting the same mission over just as you left things only with some recovered health and ammo.

While the concept of a rescue mission is pretty interesting on its own, the options are there to run that on your own solo or entice other players to join in and help out. I wanted a sweet looking jetpack but the enemies were getting too hot so I bailed early. I offered Colton my assistance if he’d snag the jetpack for me. The deal was struck and an alliance forged. I had some nice ranged equipment and I’d be his cover while he grabbed my jetpack and pulled his Captain out of the fire.

It looked like Colton was going to pull it off and rescue his Captain. I was taking down most of the enemies that could bother him, even a deadly Assassin droid and the predatory “Live One”. Unfortunately, just as we cleared the field of all the main threats and it looked like the rescue was going to be successful, a pair of droids popped in at just the wrong place and took Colton’s crew down. I was across the map and couldn’t even get angles on the enemies so I bailed.

It’s funny how a flip of perspective can enhance the gaming experience. What was first thought of as a weak skirmish game quickly became what we talked about in between sessions as we plotted our next game night. I have the physical core set coming and I’m looking forward to setting it up in real life and maybe running my own solo campaign.

I don’t like owning games that overlap too heavily but the options and layers Core Space offers in contrast with some of the other campaign skirmish games I own are too hard to ignore. There is a lot to explore in that box and I’m looking forward to getting back to the physical gaming experience. It’ll be slow to start out as I have a lot of other irons in the fire but this game is one of those ones that has its claws in deep and is perpetually on my mind now.