When you’ve played over a hundred midweight eurogames how do you get excited about them anymore? When you’re faced with a game that once again assembles tried and true pieces of the great games that come before it, can we fault it for doing what we know works? True originality is so precious and rare that we certainly can’t demand it of every game. Greatness often comes in the assemblage; the framing; the bits in between.
These are some of the thoughts I’ve had playing Exodus Fleet, a game that makes no effort to hide its influences (most notably Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy). I’ve built so many tableaus over the last few years, and yet I still find the process fascinating. I’ve played 14 of the top 20 highest-ranked role selection (called “follow”) games listed on BGG and the mechanism still reveals new depths.
Strangely, Exodus Fleet is not on that list, perhaps due to its auctioning twist. Instead of actions automatically handed out to everyone based on what the active player chooses, players bid for the right to perform that action, and one person is guaranteed to miss out. I suspect this was chosen as a response to one of the biggest mechanical criticisms of Puerto Rico, that too many moves are forced. By de-synchronizing the players from the start, Exodus Fleet creates space for individual strategies and a freer flow.
The tensions in Exodus Fleet sit between the desire to play as efficiently as possible, pushing the margins as close as they can go, and the necessity to remain flexible because so much of what happens is outside of your control. This is the beauty of role selection as a mechanism: it forces you to constantly consider the desires of your opponents as the primary drivers of uncertainty.
Point scoring in Exodus Fleet tends to be a bit more tableau-focused than the “for the Galaxy” games which allow stronger production/shipping strategies with a smaller tableau. The two primary methods of scoring are building ships and transporting tribes off of a doomed earth onto your ships. The special powers included with nearly every ship card in the game drive your strategy one direction or another. You know how it is.
Exodus Fleet softens some of the harshest edges of its inspirations while keeping decisions meaningful. There’s an action card deck, for instance, adding a splash of luck, but the cards are actually quite powerful, making them difficult to ignore. I haven’t yet seen a complete obliteration like I’ve seen in Puerto Rico or Roll for the Galaxy, but it’s not as gentle as, say, Wingspan.
The primary limitation you’re working with is your capacity to hold resources. At the start of the game you don’t have enough cargo space on your starting ship to purchase the more expensive ships. You’ve got to build up to that, but even if you do, hoarding resources can lead to missed opportunities. Find yourself in a situation where you’re the only one sitting on a pile of colorful cubes and you’ll have to twiddle your thumbs as an opponent selects the “mining” action and everyone else stocks up. It’s a strange dance, this role selection. Sometimes you want to be in lockstep with the rhythms of your opponents (often when they’re the ones choosing the “role”) and other times you want to break away into your own little dance.
I’ve waited too long to talk about the art and graphic design. It’s a head-scratcher. I thought for the longest time that this game had minis because the cover art seems to depict plastic ships. No, that’s just what the ships look like on the cards. I’ve no clue why. Some of the cards depict, like, rooms in ships, and those look fairly normal. It’s just the ship art that’s trapped in this weird plastic world.
More critically, so much important information is written in tiny, thin typeface. I’m relatively young, my corrective glasses work, and I have no hope of reading any of the cards when they’re sitting in the middle of the table. Be prepared to be constantly picking cards up just to see what they do. God help you as you squint to try to decipher the tiny symbols. The rulebook uses a similar font against a grey textured background. No joke–this game sat on my shelf for over two years because I tried reading the rulebook when I got it and it gave me a headache.
That said, despite the look of it, Exodus Fleet has been a game night favorite for a few weeks now. There’s a familiarity to it, which lets us explore its different strategic paths comfortably. It’s not going to blow anyone’s mind, but there’s a comfort food quality in a game like this.