The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine
Back when I was a wee nipper, living in the wilds of Kent, I used to while away my time daydreaming about becoming an astronaut, fuelled by the optimistic illustrations of Usbourne books and Space: 1999. Sadly, it was not to be, due to my flat feet, myopia, allergy to vigorous activity, not being American and the staggeringly large amount of work that I would have to have done to become an astronaut (what can I say? I’m a lazy, lazy man).
I still loved the idea of exploring space, a love that I have carried into my relative dotage and hopefully passed onto at least one of my much-cleverer-than-me sons (I want my space elevator, okay?) – in summary, I’m a sucker for space and love a good space game.
The Crew, designed by Thomas Sing, illustrated by Marco Armbruster and released by Kosmos (best known for their challenging one-shot Escape-Room-In-A-Box games), is a co-operative, campaign-based trick-taking game for 2 – 5 players that follows the adventures of a crew of intrepid astronauts as they attempt to find the elusive ninth planet (not Pluto – Pluto has been downgraded to ‘dwarf planet’). Now I know that, regardless of hapless astronauts or Pluto’s diminished status, you’re probably looking at that collection of terms describing the game and thinking ‘are you sure?’ Oh yes, I’m sure.
The Right Stuff
The Crew is incredibly simple to play at first glance. At the start of a mission, all cards are dealt to the players and whoever has the 4 rocket is ‘the captain’. The captain lays down a card from one of four different colours – pink, green, blue and yellow – numbered 1 to 9. Each other player then plays a card of the same colour (if they have one) or different colour (if they don’t).
Whoever plays the highest card of the opening colour wins the trick. Unless instead of a different colour, they play a rocket card (numbered 1 to 4), which will trump the trick, and a higher rocket card will trump that rocket card and so on. Very simple. Only… it’s not that simple because 1) this is co-operative and 2) it’s a campaign – you can’t just wade in and take as many tricks as possible (this isn’t Whist, you know) because certain players will have to win certain cards. These are determined by the task cards.
There can be any number of task cards (smaller cards with a number and colour that corresponds to one of the playing cards) which have to be achieved to complete a mission. There are different ways in which they can be distributed, but they are usually distributed like this: the captain chooses a task card, then the rest of the crew take it in turns to choose task cards until all the tasks are taken. The idea is that you take tasks that you are sure you can complete… or are pretty sure you can complete. To complete the task, you have to make sure that you win the trick that contains that card. Not looking so simple now, is it?
Ground Control to Major Tom
Fortunately, you’re not completely on your own out there, because for most missions you have a couple of ways of getting some assistance – communication and the distress signal.
Communication can (usually) be carried out after the tasks have been distributed but not while a trick is being played, and can be done by each crew member once per mission. To do this, the crew member takes one of the cards in their hand and places it in front of them - but it has to be one of three things: if it is the highest card of a colour that they have in their hand (communication token placed at the top); if it is the lowest card of a colour that they have in their hand (communication token placed at the bottom); or if it is the only card of a colour that they have in their hand (communication token placed in the middle) – rockets cannot be communicated.
Now this is where the crew might realise that they have made a horrible mistake in choosing their tasks, but fortunately you (usually) have the distress signal. By using the distress signal, each player can pass a card from their hand either left or right (the crew have to choose) – after that, they’re on their own with the mission. As for the missions? Well, they don’t make things easier…
Houston, We Have A Problem
Missions can be played on a pick and choose basis, but the game is supposed to be played as a campaign, so the more you play, the harder the missions get – on some, the captain might have to choose who gets missions or just get all the missions themselves; comms might be out or the distress signal might be kiboshed.
The most common problem, however, is that the tasks will have to be done in a specific order, either through numbering, prioritising or both – it can be a real problem when you might be able to complete more than one task in a trick but have to stick to the order or fail the mission. The missions also have a story line, starting with the crew coming together for the first time and ending… well, that would be telling – and certain events in the story will determine certain outcomes for the mission, for instance… no, that would be a spoiler, even if it were a minor one but… you’ll see. Suffice to say, you can end up pretty invested in this simple little game.
Let All The Children Boogie…
It is an investment, too – the second half of the rulebook acts as a log book, so you can pick it up from where you left off with your games group… which seems a pretty strange thing to say about this curious little trick-taking game, and that’s the core of its appeal – it may be small, but there’s an epic story to be told here.
For me, though, it has a look that reminds me of those Usborne Books of Space, that frantic feel and against-the-odds play that reminds me of Commander Koenig trying desperately to keep things under control as the moon careers out of the solar system into a bizarre, bewildering galaxy – it is astonishing how they’ve managed to cram so much thematic action and cliff-hanger style peril into such a seemingly little card game. It’s no Gloomhaven, for sure, but a game this size shouldn’t be able to pack the campaign-based punch that it does; and it won’t take up such a huge chunk of shelf space to do it.
We have shut-down.