I can explain a lot of the emotions that board games give me. Tension and release; the satisfaction of solving a difficult puzzle; the greedy glee of outthinking a smart opponent; the casual serenity of a trick-taking game–I could go on. I can explain precisely why the games bring out those feelings. Indeed, I see my role as a critic as primarily doing just that. It’s simple to tell someone what a game is, and it’s equally simple to explain if you enjoyed playing it or not.
The tricky part is understanding the connective tissue. You, probably a couple of other people, and the game all exist as independent entities. But when you sit down to play all three influence each other in complex and fascinating ways. Untangling that intermingling, with an eye to the game’s contributions and what future play may entail, is a tough task.
SpaceCorp 2025-2300AD brings me joy, and joy is difficult to grasp. I can explain how a game brings me excitement, or thrills, or laughter, but I can’t quite explain this joy. Maybe it starts with the name, which, with its starting date, was hopelessly optimistic even 3 years ago when the game was released. The superfluous anno domini sits there like a cherry topping.
Maybe it’s the audacity of the concept, in which the game is split into three distinct eras, each with its own map, deck of cards, and focuses. The shell of the game is the same each time, but the nature of it shifts as you venture deeper into the unknown.
The simplest answer is that there’s joy in flipping over a token to see what’s on the other side. Yet many games have this fundamental unit of discovery and none of them make me feel like SpaceCorp does. The pieces don’t even start out on the map, all but destroying the idea that a piece given a home on the board feels less random and more part of the world than a piece drawn from a bag.
Whatever the reason, I find myself forgiving SpaceCorp for a lot. The triptych structure is genuinely intriguing in theory (stories are often placed into 3-act structures–why not games?), but doesn’t fully work in practice; the first segment serves as barely more than a tutorial with how inconsequential it is, and the third loses dynamism while gaining length. Both primary methods of gaining points–accomplishing objectives and exploiting the resources you’ve uncovered on planets, moons, and asteroids–are the least interesting parts of the game. The experience swings wildly between player counts. I think it was designed for 4, with Butterfield content with the 2 player game having dramatically less interaction.
SpaceCorp is also relentlessly optimistic, seeing the future of space exploration as both inevitable and almost entirely peaceful. The titular corporations do compete against each other but only passively. If someone establishes a base on the location you wanted to go to, you’ve just got to go somewhere else. There’s no sabotage or violent conflict. There’s also no government involvement, a curious omission given how governments tend not to squander the opportunity to utilize a frontier to push their power. Instead there are a couple of mechanisms by which players can piggy-back on each other’s resources for modest payment. Most frequently, you’ll use someone’s tableau, representing infrastructure and tech, to play your turn, allowing that player to draw a card.
SpaceCorp’s future is idealized, and perhaps that’s something we need. There’s certainly enough pessimistic and cautionary sci-fi out there. It functions as a salve, envisioning a future of exploration, technological advancement, and wonder. The harshest it gets is with the “exploiter” base which allows a player (only once per era) to suck dry the resources of an asteroid/moon/whatever all in one go rather than set up a more sustainable profit center. This would bite more if there weren’t an abundance of resources floating all over the place. Perhaps someone de facto against the idea of corporations leading space exploration would find the game more dour.
You’re not going to be ruminating about the political and economic challenges of space exploration very much while playing, however. You’ll instead be trying to figure out how to most effectively stake your claim in this frontier. Mechanically, SpaceCorp is surprisingly simple, which gives it more space to fiddle around with fun diversions and sub-systems.
You’ll be drawing from a shared deck of cards that list up to two different action types on them followed by a number. The basic process you’ll be repeating throughout is one turn to move a team into place on whatever space rock you fancy, one turn to meet the exploration requirement of that rock, revealing what natural (or alien) resources it contains, and a third turn to build a base there. The bases, broadly speaking, either help make that location more profitable for you when you pump it for cash (one of the other actions available) or give you a small tempo boost for exploring further into the cosmos.
Card play involves simply selecting an action and playing however many cards are needed to accomplish it. Suppose you want to travel from Earth to Io, one of the moons of Jupiter. This requires 6 movement power (1 to escape Earth’s gravity, 3 to travel the distance, and 2 more to account for Io’s gravity). You can simply discard that 6 movement from cards in hand and you’re there. Or, if you have built up your infrastructure by spending a turn locking in a movement card in your tableau, you can use that to help you reach 6. But suppose you want to use those cards later, or simply be more efficient. Amber’s invested a lot in movement, and you can borrow her infrastructure to get there without spending any cards at all. She gets a free card draw out of the deal. Is it worth it?
The tradeoffs in SpaceCorp are clean and easy to understand, in no small part because the game’s objective system forces them to be. Objectives reward points to the first player to accomplish any number of things associated with progress, and there’s very little time to waffle about. Targeting a couple of objectives early is important, and you’d better keep an eye on what the other players are doing to see if they’re outpacing you at any of them so you can pivot early.
The sense of time compressing upon you is palpable as the draw deck quickly diminishes. Another tradeoff: ideally you’d like to keep drawing cards until the deck runs out and then cash in everything once you know what you’re actually capable of accomplishing. There’s a hard barrier to this plan (you can’t use the “draw cards” action if you have 7 or more in hand) and a number of soft barriers to less extreme variants. SpaceCorp is in many ways a race, and getting to the prime locations or establishing yourself as the person who is definitely going to get this one objective are priorities. Additionally, at the end of the game, if you’ve got a fat stack of cards in hand and two other people pass, you’re only allowed one final turn. Making the decision even more difficult is the fact that you get a free card draw at the end of your turn if your hand is low: running lean is more card efficient but also more uncertain.
More tricky decisions: The first and second eras of the game have an off-board location that gives you a head start in the next era at the expense of one of your teams. Investing in infrastructure gives you passive action efficiency at the expense of tempo because the investment takes up an entire turn. Exploring by itself is lucrative but if you don’t spend the time to build others can follow behind and profit off of your explored spaces. Building for profit and taking the production action as much as possible will score you points but keep you constrained on exploration and limit your objective-scoring potential.
Every one of these inflection points are straightforward, baked naturally into the design, and engaging, but none of them are particularly grueling. SpaceCorp isn’t a “baroque euro”, modeled after designers like Lacerda and Turczi, where complex systems interlock like Ezekiel’s wheels within wheels. It has a gentle touch, prickling the mind with genuine decisions but never overwhelming it. I don’t care one bit about becoming good at SpaceCorp. Partially I’m afraid that adopting a competitive spirit will ruin my enjoyment, partially I’m fearful that it can’t stand up to such rigor. You feel pressure to play well not to amass points and win, but to do cool space stuff. If you don’t plan well and play your cards intelligently you’ll be able to do fewer things. Space exploration is its own justification.
Maybe that’s the source of my joy. SpaceCorp is awkward and misshapen by normal game standards, but it shrugs off such criticisms with childlike abandon. “Look! You could reach Neptune this turn, if you’d like. You’d be the first one there. Or you could shoot off into the Oort Cloud, pushing humanity into new galaxies!” I haven’t even mentioned a number of the other systems you’ll find in the game yet. You’ve got two different kinds of tech, both offering a tantalizing menu of upgrades. Establishing a colony in the third era feels like a true accomplishment (but, admittedly, it’s the clunkiest mechanism on offer). Radiation becomes a threat in the second era. Aliens can be discovered! Slipping mentally into the setting of a game has never been easier.
Nothing highlights this exuberance better than the third era of the game, where the numbers required to do things shoot up and multiplicative cards arrive. 9 times out of 10 this wouldn’t make it past development, as it introduces more complicated math for very little obvious payoff. Sure, it’s thematic (though heavily compressed by a few orders of magnitude by my napkin calculations), but the real currency is cards. Going from one star to the next is about 2-4 cards just like going from Earth to Mars. None of that matters, because every time I pile up 150 move points to launch into the unknown a part of me cackles in glee.
This is the core experience of playing SpaceCorp. It taps into something deep, that part of you that, as a kid, picked up a stick and saw a mighty sword. That fluttering thrill of a great book taking you to a place you literally had never imagined before. Imagination. Yeah, that’s it. That’s the source of my joy. I hope I never reach a point where I stop enjoying SpaceCorp.