|Exodus: Proxima Centauri (2012)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Heavy [3.59]
|Agnieszka Kopera and Andrei Novac
I’ve never actually played Twilight Imperium and that’s one of my main board gaming regrets. As a forty-one year old man though, carving out a day to play through one session of a single game is a bad use of my time. As part of the Meeple Like Us review process, a game needs to be played at least three times to meet our standards of a review. Thrice times. It would take twenty-four full hours to get to the point I’d be comfortable in thinking about reviewing a game of that scope and I get the feeling there’s a lot more depth in there than three sessions would uncover. Twilight Imperium feels like a lifestyle game that doesn’t work with my life or style. Luckily, Exodus: Proxima Centauri is here to give a taste of cosmic conquest with a much shorter expectation of time invested. A mere three hours, and with a play count that works well from two to six. I can’t tell you if it’s as good, or better, than Twilight Imperium. I can tell you though that it’s a very good game.
As you might imagine for a title with a BGG weight of 3.59 and a play-time of three hours… there’s a lot of game here. As such, I’m not even going to make an attempt to give you a comprehensive view of the rules. I will touch relatively lightly on its systems, but even then the result is going to be cursory. There is so much going on that I realistically can’t do the topic any justice at all. It’s a bend of conquest, economics and diplomacy that will ebb and flow in importance as the game goes on. Sometimes you’re the conquering hero, other times you’re the Grimma Sandwormtongue talking everyone into following a counter-intuitive course of actions. Your role in proceedings will evolve over the course of the game. You’ll be starting off with a defensive posture and gradually becoming increasingly more confident as the ships and worlds of your empire increase in number, prestige and capability.
Every turn of the game follows a set order of procedure.
First there’s the politics phase in which turn order, bonus actions and galactic policies are chosen. Contention over these is handled either by diplomatic prominence, or through hidden bidding. You might take some of your precious currency reserves and put them towards securing your elevation as the chancellor, dominus over all mankind. Or you might let others spend their resources so as to conserve your cash for yourself – the cost of that is being at the tail-end of every action that follows. Enacted policies will allow for everything from research subsidies to enforced divestment of resources. Again, greasing palms with cash will mean that you get to influence the votes here – everyone gets to decide what they support from an available selection but this is a democracy where money talks.
Then comes the main phase of the game – everyone selects an action to which they direct their efforts. Especially important among these is the ‘research’ activity which permits you to buy advanced technologies for installation in your empire. Sometimes these developments act as passive upgrades – giving you more money when you bank, or enhancing your ability to mine planetary resources, and so on. Sometimes they are military technologies that can later be built onto the different classification of ships that you have in your armada. You might research cloaking technologies which hides your ships from enemy sight. You might invest in civilian transport so as to reduce the difficulty of moving your population around the planets of your dominion. There are a lot of things that you’ll want to research as the game goes on.
Gradually these research endeavours will give you an empire moulded to your will, and a fleet of ships capable of enforcing it… hopefully . In order to build ships though you’ll need axium, which is only available in limited amounts on some planets. In order to upgrade ships to the keenest technological edge you’ll need phasium, which likewise will be in desperately short supply.
Other actions permit the building of ships, installing of upgrades, and the other day-to-day activities of an empire on the rise.
Every player will get to choose two actions during their turn, and every action also permits a reaction from other players. When a player chooses to research, they open up a ‘trade’ activity for the first player that wishes to sacrifice planetary population to take advantage. Someone trading will open up the build ships action. Someone banking gives a player a shot at researching. Population grows naturally over the course of play so your people are, sadly, a currency to be spent. However, they’re also the way you ensure your dominance on a planetary system and open up its resources for plunder. So… maybe don’t throw them into the banking slave pits too readily.
Once this has all been done, the game moves onto a Weapons of Mass Destruction phase where distant planets can launch devastating rockets, should they be available, at the resources and population of a distant world. You know things are getting hot when the interplanetary nukes start flying indiscriminately. Merely researching the necessary technology can be interpreted as an act of war – or at least a reason why everyone should try their best to bottle you in where you can do the least harm to the rest of the system. Of course, you know what happens to wild beasts when they get cornered…
If you would have peace, prepare for war.
Finally the game turn concludes in the conquest phase. Players load up their ships with passengers, fly them off to distant systems, and conquer them. Many systems are protected by ‘centurions’ that must be defeated before settlement is possible, and when the ships of two opposing powers enter the same system they have a battle. Each player rolls attack dice proportionate to their ship capabilities, and the fives and sixes count as successful attacks that sap at shields and destroy unshielded ships.
Battles in Exodus can be brutal, but also rewarding. Defeating alien ships gives access to free upgrades and victory points. Dominance over other players deprives them of capacity, perhaps their control of planets, and also comes with a victory point boost. Importantly here though, every player moves ships for conquest at the same time – just because you sent an attack fleet to a player world it doesn’t mean their ships will be there to wait for you. Maybe they’ll use the opportunity to sneak an attack at a vulnerable world of your own. Every combat in Exodus is like throwing a dart at a board on the back of an excitable puppy. Don’t expect the target to be where you aimed.
At the start of each turn, conquered planets give up their resources. Each planet can be exploited a certain number of times before its supply is used up – mining permits for some of the deep core resources to be unlocked and for the supply to be refreshed. Mining though is an action all of its own and sometimes it’s best to move from a husk planet onto richer, more fertile prizes. Having the largest population on a planet then is something you’ll want to engineer when it’s worthwhile and then reconsider when it isn’t. All planets are worth victory points in the end though, so it’s really up to you. Multiple strategies are viable in Exodus, and picking the one that’s a likely winner is what a galactic emperor needs to do well in order to succeed.
And that’s Exodus – seven turns of scheming, mining, researching, upgrading and eventual battle where every action you take is likely to enable an opponent in ways you’d prefer it didn’t. It’s a game of launching an attack fleet against a fortress moon only to find its defender slink behind the front-lines and right into the orbit of your home-world. A game where you’ll send an armada of warships against a single carrier only to find your pea-shooter lasers can’t penetrate its thick masses of shields before it whittles your numbers down to nothing.
This is an undeniably complicated game. This isn’t a game for sitting down with your pals just because they like Star Wars. This is a game for people that don’t blanch when you bring out your heavier fare. Even the box weighs a metaphorical ton. It’s genuinely quite intuitive once you get into the swing of things. When the gaming boards are laid out in front of you for the first time though the only sensible response is to say you forgot an important appointment and need to leave the table.
What’s it like though if you throw ‘sensible’ out of the window?
Well, that’s easy. It’s absolutely great. Exodus offers a good blend of luck, tactics, and strategic planning. It’s a satisfying game. An exciting one. An absorbing game driven by the need to balance so many competing needs with so few opportunities. This results in a logistical puzzle that can keep you immersed in the experience to the point you don’t even notice the time passing.
Really what makes Exodus work so well is the integration of its systems and the fact each one progresses at its own unique tempo. There’s always a long loop of strategic planning. That’s where you try to leverage your actions in such a way to give you the resources needed to bring your ships in line with the growing threat represented by everyone around the table. The greater vehicle of success is your ability to win battles, claim worlds, and dominate the politics of the galaxy at the right time.
All of those though need you to iterate quickly and optimally through the other game systems, and often before you’re ready. They all encourage you into spending resources you can’t spare, at times you can’t afford. That bigger game loop too is full of compromises. Ten credits to guarantee chancellorship means you won’t have those credits to spend on ships or upgrades. The right galactic policy might be put before the council but securing it might involve more negotiation and horse-trading than falls within your comfort zone. Claiming a world ripe for conquer might be a bad prospect if you think another player is heading there too. A battle against centurions might be a safe bet, but the wildcard of also encountering an enemy fleet of uncertain composition might give you reason to pause. Your long term planning is constantly influencing your short-term goals, and that makes everything feel like it matters to everything else.
But also within this larger loop are smaller, more intimate and exciting activities. Combat is a great example of this because it feels so satisfying and terrifying. You might send a carrier with an escort of fighters into a world only to find your opponent mirrors that decision. At that point you’re not simply facing 50/50 odds but rather the odds as interpreted through the research priorities you’ve each followed. If you went down a heavy military route you may find your fighters chew through your opponent’s carrier escort and emerge unscathed. But even if you have a tech advantage in a fight, the dice rolls keep it from being predictable. I’ve seen war cruisers absolutely destroyed by smaller, weaker raiders just because the dice weren’t on my side. But still, this isn’t like in a game of Civilization where a spearman manages to stand up against a modern armour unit and destroy it in the least satisfying way. This is like a game of craps in a casino – you roll the dice and you hold your breath because you can’t take anything for granted.
The larger loop of galactic strategy is ponderous, but it’s full of really energetic moments of sheer excitement. It helps too that both participants in a combat roll simultaneously and assign hits at the same time. It also helps that hits are assigned by your opponent. Sure, you might have a devastating engine of war throwing out six dice per turn. If your opponent focuses all their fire on it and manages to cut through its shields, you’ll only get to enjoy it as an after thought. Victories in Exodus are often pyrrhic, and the cost of rebuilding is rarely factored into long term strategy. The consequences of a loss can be to unbalance everything just at the point you thought it was all going so well. Combat focuses the game in the moments it flares up, and keeps everything feeling pacey despite the length play-time.
Similarly with research, which serves to put small but significant new tools into your work bag. Some of these permit you to pivot wildly in the middle of a game – to build out solutions to structural weaknesses. Others can be so powerfully transgressive of the game flow as to be borderline broken. One of the more costly research options for example permits its owner to have a third action during the turn and nobody gets to respond to it. As a bolt-on to logistical throughput, there’s nothing more effective. If you’re finding it difficult to balance everything you need to do, how about just making sure you can do more every turn? Still, to buy into that is to not buy into many of the other attractive options you have and it’s a costly development.
Whatever way you go with your agenda though it’s a single action that comes with a meaningful catharsis. When you research, it really feels like it matters. The regular drumbeat of upgrades gives you a kind of leveling up mechanism that comes at just the right time in the overall flow of the game to feel satisfying.
Even handling resources can be a fun little mini-game. You have dice on each world that show how many turns of resources are left. If you upgrade your factories, you can strip-mine worlds at twice the speed. If you upgrade your mining, you can replenish their resources at double the efficiency. Building up an engine for getting the resources you need, as quickly as you need them, requires you to settle wisely, research prudently, but never to neglect defense. Once worlds have been secured, they must be retained. Managing even a small pool of rich planets requires paranoia the size of a nebula. The acquisition of new worlds is an act that is enjoyable simply for the prospect of the future exploitation it permits. And if you take that world from another player… well. So much the sweeter.
I like games that give you small goals and accomplishments that work well to enthuse and encourage you on your way to something larger and more abstract. Exodus has this quality in abundance. I’ve often found myself so absorbed in the day to day business of the empire that I’ve forgotten about the need to win the game at the end. But you can see from this hopefully what I mean by the integration of systems. Research gives you access to better mining and better ship tech. Protecting your income needs you to build up your ships, and building up your ships and conquering new territory opens up new opportunities for economics. That in turn needs you to acquire ever greater amounts of money, phasium and axium. That needs you to spread out and acquire. However, the more you spread out, the harder it becomes to keep everything safe. There is no part of Exodus that doesn’t ground meaningfully in the larger circuit of play. No game mechanism that feels flapping in the wind. Everything is neat, tucked away into genuinely satisfying curls of engaging and coherent gameplay. In a game this complex, that’s quite an achievement.
Ah, but of course it isn’t perfect. The diplomacy aspect is perhaps the one that feels least satisfying because it rarely gives rise to interesting decisions. You get three things dealt out in front of you for voting, and usually they’re all pretty good in the mid-game. For example – a discount on installing shields versus a discount on research. The only thing that changes depending on what is picked is the order in which you’ll want to do things. If I wanted research and everyone else went for the shields, well – I’ll use this turn taking advantage of that and leave my research for the next turn. While there is an opportunity for horse-trading and convincing people in some situational circumstances, generally I find that I honestly don’t really care which of the policies get enacted and neither does anyone else. I get why the voting is there, and it does occasionally get heated towards the end of the session. I think though that you could substitute flipping over a random card and enacting it with no real loss in the game experience. When that’s the case you have to wonder – why bother with it at all?
Similarly when it comes to paying for Chancellorship. I have never done this except at the last round of the game where political standing translates into victory points. Going last is rarely all that much of an issue – sure, you only get the leavings as far as reactions go and it sometimes means you don’t get to actually trade anything if everyone else has used up all the market spaces. But there’s no strong interleaving of consequences for actions, and in conquest all ships are moved simultaneously anyway. Being higher up on the turn track is useful, but not useful enough to warrant a whole bidding system that adds complexity and lethargy to the experience. Again – simply rotating chancellorship and removing its points value would have, in my view, limited negative impact on the game.
Weapons of Mass Destruction, while a great idea in theory, tend to go underused in the sessions I’ve played. Their impact is sufficiently limited that they’re rarely worth the risk of turning the entire table against you. In a very aggressive group it’s likely that they’d be more of an issue but I’ve played more than half of my games of Exodus in circumstances where nobody bothered with them at all. A whole phase of the game, in other words, that wasn’t considered important enough for anyone to bother with. Stripped out, it would have had zero impact in most of my game sessions – and there have been more than a dozen at this point.
People sometimes talk of Exodus as a streamlined version of Twilight Imperium. It strikes me though that what I’d really like to see is a streamlined version of Exodus itself. Its flaws certainly aren’t deal-breakers. They’re not even particularly enough to diminish enjoyment of the game as it is – they’re just cumbersome and often met with indifference. They make the experience feel less elegant than it should, with no real corresponding positive impact on the game design. Perfection is what’s left when everything extraneous is stripped away. Exodus by comparison seems pretty heavy on extraneity.
Make no mistake though, Exodus: Proxima Centauri is an excellent game and I recommend it wholeheartedly to your attention. Its minor imperfections are a shame, but this is a game that swings hard at a difficult design goal and manages to knock the ball almost entirely out of the park.