The sci-fi universe of The Expanse has migrated from an acclaimed book series, to the small screen and now to the kitchen table. However, instead of tackling a noir adventure following the rogues and politicians of the solar system, The Expanse zooms out to present a strategic overview of the factions fighting throughout the events of the series.
The Expanse is a card driven war game in the vein of Twilight Struggle for 2-4 players, that sees players vying to spread their influence across the map and control the most planets, moons and space stations.
Everything in The Expanse is powered by its deck of event cards. These represent characters from the story, like Julie Mao or critical moments such as the destruction of Deimos. The best card in the game being fan favourite detective Miller, because he wears a hat in space.
Events are available for purchase by players on their turn, from an event shop, with some events further along the shop having a cost in victory points, you can wait for an event to move along to a cheaper position, but other players may have used it by then so if it’s absolutely critical you will have to pay this premium.
Two parts make up an event card, an action point value and some event text. When buying an event from the market a player only uses one of these aspects. Action points are going to be your bread and butter usage during the game, each action point lets you build space fleets and move them around the solar system, or put down your influence cubes where you have fleets across Earth, Mars and The Belt. As the game progresses each nation unlocks other technologies they can use their action points on as well, along the lines of their faction themes.
Event text is the other option when purchasing an event cards. These are more specialised uses of your cards and will generally be good ways to remove you opponents’ cubes from the board, or other effects not found through your main action points. An important part of the trade off between action points and events is that if you choose to use the action points on a card, other players will have the opportunity to use that card for its event, depending on if their faction symbol is on the card. If this is a threatening prospect then you have to weigh up if you will take the less flexible event to deny it to your opponents of if you want the action points badly enough to give away some tempo.
The last thing you can do with the event cards is pay a victory point to save them for later use, this can be a solution to how you deny thing to your opponents without wasting them yourself and also comes into play with the game’s scoring rounds.
Mixed in with the event deck are six scoring cards, they are purchased from the market in the same way and start the process of converting your board state that you built up into victory points. Choosing when to start a scoring round is an important decision and being the person to trigger it comes with a big advantage, so if it is in the expensive section of the market it might still be worth those victory points to buy. The player who starts this scoring round gets to choose which of the three regions of the board is worth bonus points this round, and this can be worth quite a leap forward if done right.
In this scoring phase there are also benefits to having some good event cards saved up as each player can play one to get a little spurt of extra board presence. This also includes the use of the iconic Corvette for hire; the Rocinante. This ship hangs out with the lowest scoring player, forming part of their fleet and letting you use the ability of one of its crew when scoring, like you would a held event card.
The name of the game in The Expanse is control, have the most cubes in each territory, nice and straight forward. Territories in the bonus region will be worth more each scoring round and each territory has one of fours resource types, each nation has preferred resources and scores a bonus for controlling these locations.
This simple victory condition, combined with the limited amount of action you can take on your turn, is a good foundation for a strong strategy game. It’s easy to see your goals and your tools but not how you use one to get to the other.
Asymmetry and Balance
The four factions of the United Nations, Mars, the OPA and the Protogen corporation all mostly play by the same rules with a little twist. The UN focuses on placing bigger, beefier influence cubes, Mars has an advantage in space combat and the remaining factions have different takes on guerrilla warfare. The OPA pops up its cubes out of nowhere and Protogen can convert cubes to their side.
Some factions handle this asymmetry better than others, The OPA and Protogen are good checks on the UN’s strong influence cubes, disrupting their attempts to lock down territory. However, Protogen does this much better and makes the OPA feel under-powered sometimes. Conversely, Mars has such total domination of space and fighting them is so expensive for most factions that they can get left alone to be in charge up there.
The designer, Geoff Engelstein, clearly has a set idea for how factions should play together in different player counts, with just Mars and the UN in two players, the OPA coming in at three players and Protogen with a fourth. This is definitely for the best as other combinations of factions at two players could get quite one sided.
Components and Theme
The Expanse crams quite a lot of game into a nicely proportioned box, with some high-quality components. The board takes a minimalist approach and looks more like a tactical display on a computer than any artistic or photographic representation of the solar system, this works well at fitting with the high tech but realistic world of the series and also makes things very easy to identify on the board.
The event cards are a mixed bag, the game uses stills from the TV show so some are pretty good and others are entirely forgettable. Unfortunately this is also the place where mechanics butt uncomfortably against thematic considerations. The streamlined and abstract gameplay, while good for the game overall, really limits the way you can have an event affect the game. Most just add, move or remove fleets and cubes which doesn’t feel like a good way to bring the characters and events they represent into the gameplay and ends up with most being fairly interchangeable. The game feels more like a good framework that could apply equally well in the 17th century, the cold war, or a fantasy setting.
Final Thoughts on The Expanse
This is certainly a game you’ll get a lot out of if you play regularly with the same people, trying to get better and overcome your friends can be very satisfying. However, you won’t necessarily develop the long-term strategies and counterplay like in Twilight struggle, The Expanse tends to be more reactive.
The Expanse is a knife fight at the scale of the solar system, very limited actions and resources mean every decision will be important and you certainly can’t ignore the actions of other players. For fans of the books and show it is a must play but even without the aesthetics you might find something here for you.