Theseus: The Dark Orbit

Michal Oracz
2 - 4
8* - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

*Seems a bit young for this game, really. We’d recommend 10 at least.

We will shortly close to visual distance with space station Theseus. Long range sensors confirm what we already knew, the station has gone dark. The last radio transmission from the Theseus was several weeks ago, hence our deviation from standard sector patrol. Sensors pick up no energy emission from the station. While we are prepared to deal with other possibilities, I suspect a cold reactor failure with subsequent failure of the life support system. While tragic, at least this option is preferrable to any sort of hostile involvement. I am, however, not worried about encountering hostile non-humans on the Theseus. There is, after all, the long-standing joke that we, of all ships in Her Majesty’s Space Fleet, are the only one to never have encountered xenos of any description.

Captain’s Log of the HMSS Giger, 17:37 January 17 2357

As it turns out, the Captain could not have been more wrong. Something else entirely has gone wrong on the Theseus, and the stations corridors are the field of battle in a conflict between two to four very different parties: the Space Marines, the monstrous, H.R. Giger-designed Aliens, the X-Files-like Greys and the station’s original crew still defending the wreck of their station, the Scientists. The Space Marines and Aliens are only there to eliminate the other parties, the Scientists and Greys can also win by collecting enough data about their opponents.

[pullshow/]The Theseus is split into three common sectors plus one home sector for each faction. Each sector has four chambers that can be occupied by one unit each. On a player’s turn, they can move one of their three units, and this is where things start to get interesting. A unit moves as many sectors as there are units in its starting sector and occupies any of the four rooms in its new sector. This gives each player some control over every other player’s movement and makes a very compelling, strategic engine that you want to make the best possible use of, because where a unit ends its movement decides over many other things that happen next.

First of all, if the sector you end up in is full, all your units start attacking. Depending on your faction and if your units are upgraded or not, they can do no damage, one point of damage or one point of damage for every enemy unit in sight. To keep things simple, units don’t have individual health pools, the damage you do comes out of the other player’s 20 points of health. You’re allowed one guess what happens when someone runs out. But the Onslaught is still not the main event, although the Space Marines and Aliens can do some serious damage. The real fun is in the sector actions and the cards you have installed in those sectors.

Extra Hot
Extra Hot

The sector actions are the more simple of the two. In the Control Room, you can disable one enemy card anywhere on the station, the Tech Bay immediately gives you another move and in the Corridors you trigger an attack of all your units everywhere on the station. Best of all, in your own home sector you collect upgrade tokens. Those can either flip one of your units to the upgraded side – useful for Marines and Aliens who gain a strong attack from the upgrade – or they can go on any card that has a number with an upgrade icon and increase that number by one. The second option may not sound like much, but it’s often the more powerful of the two, because of how useful the cards are to start with.

Getting cards into the game is not so easy. First, you put them into a pending card slot. On a later turn, when you enter the same sector again, you can install it, and only then is it ready for use. But while it’s pending, another player entering the sector can remove it and replace it with a card of their own. That’s where planning movement options a few turns ahead becomes a priority, because you really want those cards in the game, not removed from the game forever because you couldn’t install them fast enough. The effort of getting cards into the game is well worth it, however, because those cards are powerful, and after you end your movement you activate all the cards you have installed in that sector. What they let you do is different depending on the faction you play.

That makes one joke that won’t be told around the fleet any more, the HMSS Giger has officially made contact with xenos. The station is overrun with some form of extremely quick, strong and above all ravenous alien life. Exactly what we have been trained for, a good ol’ bug hunt. But that doesn’t seem to be the only movie showing on Theseus. Part of the station has been taken out by a collision with an alien craft of unknown origin. The boffins suspect the impact was what caused all the other damage. So far, we haven’t seen tails or ears of the ship’s crew, we just know there where survivors because they have installed devices across the station, purpose unknown. Finally, to avert boredom, the station’s original crew of scientists is using guerilla tactics against us, either turned against us by some alien perfidy or driven mad by the conflict with two alien factions. In their typical bravado, our crew is confident we will have the situation under control within the hour. I hope they are right.

Captain’s Log of the HMSS Giger, 23:15 January 17 2357

Don't mess with the Geeks
Don’t mess with the Geeks

The Space Marines are the most straightforward of the four factions, virtually all their cards are made to deal damage. They have cards to trigger an Onlaught in any sector, cards that let them shoot through walls, cards that make them deal more damage when they shoot and the very nasty fire trap that deals damage to any enemy walking through the sector it is installed in. Their only slightly subtle tool lets them move an enemy unit forward by one sector.

Aliens, while still packing a good punch, are not quite so focused on pure mayhem – ironic, isn’t it? They have more control over their movement, skipping sectors or ending their movement early using ventilation shafts, they slow enemy units’ movement with forests of tentacles and they have some other tricks up their sleeves, like parasites that attach to other units and deal damage whenever that unit moves.

Scientists, unlike the previous two factions, can not only win the game by blowing stuff up but also by collecting enough data through cards like the camcorder, a trap that collects data instead of dealing damage to its victims. But the Scientists also get to use their superior knowledge of the station. They have access to the med bay to heal damage and the cargo grippers to immobilize enemies. They have hideouts scattered over the station, a remote control to activate cards from afar and they have access to the stations automated defense system, the biggest single source of damage in the game, and that’s before it gets boosted with upgrades. Don’t mess with the geeks, for they know how to build combat lasers.

Finally, the Greys are the most stealthy and subtle faction. They only have one type of trap card that deals damage, even their units’ attacks don’t hurt anyone but collect data instead. But what they lack in firepower, they more than make up in other tools. Their teleporters let them finish their move in any sector they wish to and with a time loop they can choose to spend more time in a sector and slow down their movement. They can turn invisible and they can take control of an enemy unit’s movement. They try to avoid detection and steer enemies into the probes, the Grey’s bread and butter card that collects data. Realistically, collecting enough data is the only way for the Greys to win, there’s no way for them to deal enough damage for a combat victory.

In the Shadows
In the Shadows

The different faction decks are very cool, they require different styles of play to win and to win against, every encounter is different. But the four decks are not without their problems, as is always a risk with asymmetric games. While the factions are balanced well enough to give each a chance to win, some simply need more luck than others. Each game is played with only 15 of a factions 25 cards. That works well for the Space Marines, all their cards go boom in some way, and they still have their units strong attack on top of that. If, on the other hand, the Greys don’t draw any of their Probes, the game is over for them before it started. They have few options to deal damage, lacking the tools to collect data on top of that is just too much. It’s not that the Greys are weaker than the Space Marines, they just rely on the right tools more. We experimented with a variety of drafting rules to fix that problem. What worked best was this: each player picks five of his cards that he definitely wants to use. The rest of the cards he splits into two stacks of ten each, and the other player decided which of those he uses. That way, no one gets to pick all their best cards. However, with the original rules there are problems, which are reflected in the score.

The above comments on game balance are from the two-player game, and for the most part, I’d recommend that you play with two players and enjoy it. Playing with three or four, balance really suffers and the less combat-oriented factions have little to no chance of victory over Aliens or Space Marines. So either keep it at two, or bring in a third player using the Pandora faction, a sort of mini expansion that is included in the game. The Pandora are different from the other factions. They don’t have a home sector and they don’t have their own cards. Their units move around the station and spawn embryos, and because the Pandora don’t have cards of their own those embryos can take over enemy cards for one turn or permanently. They aren’t so easy to play, but they aren’t so easy to play against, either, and they actually make the three player game work.

Theseus: The Dark Orbit is a great two-player game when you eliminate some luck from the card draw, and a very good three-player game if you use the Pandora faction. It’s a shame that it’s not really balanced for three players without the Pandora, or for four players at all, because if it was, that would easily catapult it into the eights on our point scale. But [pullthis]if a two-player game is what you are looking for, then you’ll find a game that is tense and atmospheric in Theseus[/pullthis], a game that doesn’t get boring any time soon and that challenges you strategically without being heavy on the rules. It’s the basic movement that really makes the game work, that’s where you plan and manipulate, and everything else builds on that foundation beautifully.

Good old Space Marine bravado, as it turns out, is not always a match for big teeth and acid blood and a brain that is as large as the whole human digestive system. Yes, we did get a Grey corpse for an autopsy in the end, but we were not able to save Theseus station. With even the station’s Science crew turned against us, it was all we could to to evacuate before they could blow up our other engine. Theseus station is still in conflict, and it doesn’t look like the stalemate there will be resolved any time soon. When we finally limp home on one engine, we will bring the case to Fleet Command which will probably decide to eradicate the alien infestation with long range nuclear charges. May got rest the souls of the men remaining on board.

Captain’s Log of the HMSS Giger, 23:15 January 17 2357

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