It’s the kind of thing where you play it, and then wonder why no one had thought of it before. Quantum, above all else, is novel and elegant in its main conceit–essentially using dice for every task. Your dice act as ships set in a vague, uninteresting sci-fi universe. Your task? Drop off some cubes on some planets. Cubes are basically naked dice, right? There are some cards too, which wreck the purity of the whole dice thing, though they also add a lot to the game.
Quantum occupies a strange space in between an abstract game and a space combat dudes-on-a-map style game. The map is constructed, usually, of nine planet tiles. The tiles have square spaces surrounding the planets, so together they form a grid. Each player, on their turn, gets three actions, which they can spend to move their dice-ships, re-roll a ship, bring one onto the board from their reserve supply, place a quantum cube on a planet (which takes 2 actions), or invest in research.
Research is, of course, tracked on a die, and when you hit 6 you get to take one of the cards from the display to either gain a one-time ability or a permanent upgrade. You also get one of these cards whenever you place a quantum cube. They’re decently interesting, and if you get the right combinations, you can become a real juggernaut in combat. All of the cards seem helpful, even if none of them are particularly exciting. This is a hard thing to explain, but there’s a difference you can feel between choosing from well-balanced fine options and well-balanced excellent options. I don’t even think it’s necessarily about the severity of the upgrade, either. These can be compared to the upgrades in Kemet, I think, but for some reason I feel much more excited to get an upgrade in Kemet than I do in Quantum. Perhaps it’s because I can see all of the options in Kemet, while in Quantum I’m stuck with a rotating display of three of both kinds of cards. Sometimes that can be a bit of a downer when you don’t particularly want any of the cards, while the player before you snagged the one you were eyeing.
In fact, the comparison to Kemet might not be so far off, on many levels. Both games heartily encourage combat, with Quantum breaking ties towards the winner and also providing a “dominance” point to the winner, which is tracked with another die on your player board and turned into a free quantum cube placement when you acquire six. This is difficult, though, because every time you lose a battle you lose a dominance point. The game does a great job, then, of both incentivizing and rewarding combat, providing an option to strategize around a combat-heavy build, while keeping that a fairly risky path.
If you don’t want to get your cubes through violence, you can instead place them by surrounding planets. See, each of the planets in the play area will have a number associated with it. In order to drop off your precious cube there you need to have dice orthogonally adjacent to the planet totaling exactly that number.
And this is just the first of many clever things Quantum does with dice. The die face also determines the type, speed, and power of the ship. Each of the six types has their own special power that can be activated once per turn. For example, the 5 ship can move diagonally, the 2 ship can carry other ships, and the 4 can turn itself into either a 3 or 5 ship. They all have names, but like the thematic backstory to the game, they weren’t particularly interesting or integrated into the game, so I forgot.
Combat is initiated by simply moving onto the space of an opponent’s die-ship, and is resolved by each player rolling a die, adding that value to the value of the die-ship, with the lower number winning. I have no idea how I’ve never seen this before, but making the unit’s strength and speed inversely proportional is painfully clever. Why hadn’t I thought of it?
Anyways, the loser of combat, in addition to losing a dominance point, also loses the die-ship itself. Losing combat is therefore very painful and to be avoided at all costs. This creates a neat tension in the game where you kind of want those 4’s and 5’s in there to move quickly and try to race everyone out to dropping the first cube, while at the same time fearing anything with a lower value slowly coming your way. Even more devious is the fact that you can spend an action point to re-roll a die, so you can dart over to a spot with a high value ship, then suddenly transform it into a deadly behemoth. Of course, you can’t move the same ship twice on the same turn, so your opponent then has a chance to run away.
This is the heart of the game–figuring out how to utilize your ship’s attributes to make clever plays and outwit your opponents. It has kind of a freeform chess feel to it–that abstract game core seeping into the experience–but with more varied pieces and a bizarre goal.
Unfortunately, while this game sounds so good on paper the actual experience leaves a bit to be desired. One of the joys of playing many abstract games is in the specifically zero-sum 2-player experience. Each move that takes from your opponent benefits you equally, and vice versa. I feel like 2-player games, because of this, can often be tighter, more grindy experiences. Quantum wants to be that kind of experience, I think, but there’s too much variability with the cards and too many kingmaking opportunities. Because the game is more granular than many multiplayer games, those kingmaking situations stick out like sore thumb. I mean, each game is played to 5 cubes. If one player has a clearly advantageous attack on one of two other players, and they’re both at 3 points, whoever they don’t attack gets a massive tempo boost.
The game’s also not interesting enough thematically or varied enough to be interesting outside of the abstract tactical play. It’s easy to learn and simple, yes, but there’s no scope to the game. The objective is straightforward and the combat is perfunctory. There’s no sense of progression at all–indeed you often feel the opposite as your ships are beaten, forcing you to slowly incorporate them back into the game. And being able to drop a single cube doesn’t feel like enough of an accomplishment to overcome that general feeling of defeat.
These are problems with the multiplayer game, but what about with 2-players? Abstract games thrive here, and there’s obviously no kingmaking problem. Unfortunately, while some parts of the 2-player game are good, because each player starts on opposite sides of the map, the first couple of cubes are always more or less freebies with no interaction. Why dart across the map trying to attack your opponent when you can spend that time advancing your own win condition while letting them come to you? This makes for a very underwhelming start that annoys me greatly. A deliberately tiny map construction can help this a bit, but not entirely.
On top of that the runaway leader problem becomes an issue in the 2 player game when there aren’t others to help balance through combat. Since this is essentially a race, trying to score quickly and efficiently is a priority. But if you fall behind, you need to try to slow your opponent down while also getting into position to score yourself. Unfortunately the person in the lead also has a lead in upgrades, so winning combat against them is going to be tough. And every time you lose combat you also help them get to that free domination cube, which sets you even further behind. Very skilled play can overcome this, but not easily.
Moments of Clarity
What Quantum does do well is occasionally make you feel exceptionally clever. In these moments the clever bits of the game and your own ingenuity seem to align and you do things you didn’t think you could given the restraints of the rules. The ship abilities in particular provide for a number of mind-bending interactions. When you first start playing the game you feel a hair restricted by only three actions per turn. Individual turns frequently don’t feel complete or satisfying. But this limitation has the hidden benefit of making turns where you are able to combo multiple abilities into a virtuoso attack or cube drop or defense feel great.
And I say that sincerely. There are few things more satisfying in gaming than looking at your options, pondering, working through the possibilities, and then suddenly finding a solution you didn’t previously think possible. It’s one of the reasons I adore Mage Knight so much. Quantum contains those moments, but rarely and with much difficulty. If you play the game a lot, like with Chess your knowledge will expand the play space you know is possible, and those great moves will become more frequent. Me? I get a couple per game that bring that feeling of accomplishment. Sometimes that’s enough.
Does this excuse the criticisms? No, but it certainly helps Quantum become a decently enjoyable experience. I think even very experienced players will find the randomness of combat and the upgrade deck to be tiresome, and there are too many obvious problems elsewhere for everyone else to ignore. Deep down there’s an excellent abstract game here, but with all of the trappings it doesn’t give you that feeling of having played a classic game, merely a moderately clever one. And really, don’t abstract games uniquely need to feel like a classic to succeed?
+Some very clever systems
+Potential for some very satisfying tactical plays
-Snowballing issues in 2-player game
-Feels uncertain–not quite an abstract and not quite a thematic game