Kosmonauts – The Space Race has never been so much fun

This year we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings. This was one of the major blows in a crescendo of tension between the US and the former USSR, that marked most of the second-half of the 20th century.

For years, space was announced as the final frontier and these countries decided to spend massive budgets in what is often considered the mother of all e-peen contests.

Still it gave us knowledge of what is up there, both scientific or otherwise. This crescendo of public interest in Space has helped immensely in consolidating Space in Pop Culture.

SPAAACCEE – the final frontier and a fine racing track

Kosmonauts is set in an alternate reality, where each player is his own super-nation – trying to be the first to visit all planets and to return to Earth, probably to brag about it. Each planet you visit will give you points depending on the order you’ve arrived. If you got there first, well you got an early pick on the “good stuff” and so you get slightly more points than your opponents.

To make things interesting, each player is assigned a couple of agenda cards. These will be varied – some will award you extra points by being the first visiting a specific planet. Others will award you points if you are NOT the first one visiting a specific planet. This will not only force you to plan your course carefully but also to pay attention on what your opponents are doing in their turns.

Look out Dimitri, those pesky americans are on your tail!

But the most important part of this space race is fuel. And this is precisely where Kosmonauts is a refreshing approach to space tabletop games.

If you consider most space-based tabletop experiences – such as X-wing, Star Wars: Outer Rim, Firefly – among many others – whenever you command your ships to move somewhere on the board, they will glide effortlessly and efficiently to wherever you’ve decided to move them.

In Kosmonauts, movement takes into account the inertia of spaaaccceee – much like in real life space programs. Contrary to popular belief, movement in space – where friction/resistance is low or null – is based on inertia. So contrary to what you see most media, ships don’t need to be at full thrust all the time – they’ll just accelerate when needed to keep the inertia going. Otherwise, at our current technological level, ships would be running on an empty tank very very quickly.

In the silent blackness of space, there is only Cold War.

In Kosmonauts – much like in the old computer game Asteroids – your ship will move in the oposite direction of the sum of the directional thrusters you’ve activated. Sounds complex – well, it might be, but kosmonauts implements this in a very clever way.

Fuel is a very limited resource and you’ll need to waste a full turn refueling whenever you land on an celestial body if you are running low. Apparently in this alternate reality, each ship is equipped with a fancy sci-fi engine that is able to convert any planetary matter into fuel. This means each movement must somewhat precise towards a place where you can land- or you’ll end up adrift in the cold black space.

Each player is assigned a finite amount of fuel and can spend it on a circular grid. This grid represents the directions you can activate your thrusters. If in a previous turn you’ve commited a certain amount of fuel in a certain direction – this will carry through to the next turn, and you’ll keep going in that direction. If you want to slow down or stop – you’ll have to commit fuel in the opposite direction. If you want to slightly change course, well just assign some extra cubes on the grid to shift movement slightly towards where you want to go.

This player really wants to go slightly right.

The really cool-looking board represents a space chart of our Solar System, with the 8 planets (Pluto apparently was already demoted before the game came out) and Halley’s Comet.

You can see traces of each of their orbits and effectively each planet will be moving each turn. So you’ll need to aim your ship – not where the planet is currently, but where it will be next turn. This becomes particularly interesting because each orbit moves differently, so some planets move faster than others.

Planets – running in circles since Big Bang (or shortly afterwards).

This can be used to your advantage because if you land or comet and stay there (either refueling or just hanging around), you’ll move with the planet at the end of the turn. So you can catch a space lift. This can be great if you are moving towards your next course – or catastrophic if you’re not.

In my last game, as I found out I was lagging behind at the end of the game, I’ve decided to take the leap of faith and take off towards Earth on the last stretch of the race. Seconds later I found out that my calculations were wrong, and I’ve missed the blue planet by a couple of grid spaces. And I got front row seats to watch someone else finishing the race as I drifted in silence towards the Sun.

To add further complexity there are events that will be happening each turn, that might either facilitate or foil your carefuly laid plans. But that’s the beauty of it – just adapt to the new circunstances and you’ll be flying again in no time. Also, there are some areas of the board that will damage your ship if you finish your movement on them – because that’s what asteroid belts do.

The player board, where you store your fuel cubes and the point token souvenirs from the planets you’ve visited

Kosmonauts was designed by Nadezhda Penkrat and Yury Yamshchikov and Filipe Alves and Gil D’Orey were in charge of the art direction. The game was released in Essen Spiel 2012, as a collaborative effort between the designers and a portuguese publisher and it created a moderate amount of buzz at the time, reaching even hotness lists at the time, and receiving positive reviews from several proeminent reviewers.

Sadly, it seems the print runs were relatively small and, apart from a few exceptions, it never got the international attention it deserved. It’s first print, led by MESAboardgames (presently MEBO Games, a major portuguese board game publisher) was met with critic acclaim, but unfortunately never fulfilled its full potential.

Presently Kosmonauts is out of print – it is still relatively easy to find in the second-hand market (that’s were I have found my copy).

The game is relatively simple and easy to teach, but the way you have to program the ships movement, and to try to pinpoint which is the best course to take – and where your target planet will be next turn – is just amazing.

This game as a missed opportunity and we are keeping our fingers crossed for a new print. If you find a copy, give it a go – you won’t regret it.

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