Review – Theseus: The Dark Orbit from Portal Games

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Review – Theseus: The Dark Orbit from Portal Games

Design – Michal Oracz

Art – Mateusz Bielski, Piotr Foksowicz, Tomasz Marek Jedruszek, Maciej Mutwil

Portal Games brings us a new SciFi Space game called Theseus: The Dark Orbit and me immediate thought was cool, although I am not a fan of Euro Games, perhaps this one will be something that I am attracted to. After all, they did produce Neuroshima Hex, which is pretty cool. Well, I did some reading and watched a couple of videos and it looked different and fun so let’s see what I’ve discovered.

Theseus: The Dark Orbit puts players in the heart of a conflict between five factions trapped on a space station in deep space. Only one can survive…

  • Command the marine forces! Use deadly weaponry, setting traps and mines in corridors to defend the human race.
  • Command the alien race! Use secret passages and ventilation ducts to launch surprise attacks and grow small aliens to take control of the station.
  • Command the scientists! Use computers and technological devices to gather data and record information about other inhabitants of the station.
  • Command the Greys race! Use their mind powers to control the enemy and use them for your own purposes.
  • The fifth faction? It’s a mystery. It’s precisely why you made the trek to Theseus, and it’s precisely why you will die…

Ok so that’s the blurb from the rules which gives you an idea of the theme and backstory. What you don’t have here is a universe and an Ameritrash approach like Space Hulk here. In fact, it sounds more abstract and apparently a Mancala mechanism for movement… uh… ok, that’s different. So I was a bit hesitant as I do like my theme as critical to my enjoyment but the art work drew me in…

Unboxing

Component list

  • 1 life and data board where you keep track of who is winning
  • 4 faction sector boards
  • 3 different sector boards

These sectors will include such things as:

– Pending card slots for placing cards which you would like to install

– Installed card slots where you will choose where to place pending cards

– Units areas where there are rooms, connected by passages, for placing your units

– Trap tokens area where you place traps

– Sector action symbol

  • 1 rulebook
  • 12 unit pawns
  • 24 faction stickers
  • 58 various tokens
  • 14 pandora army Tokens
  • 110 cards (44×68):
  • 25 marines cards
  • 25 scientists cards
  • 25 aliens cards
  • 25 greys cards
  • 9 bonus cards
  • 1 turn card

The components are solid and well produced on cardboard stock and will survive many plays. The information and icons is clear, although the print on the cards is rather small for my eyesight and therefore difficult to read. The cards should have been a standard deck size I would argue, not the smaller size found in the game.

The artwork is pretty nice on the box cover which is very atmospheric. The images of the faction tokens are ok as is the rest of the artwork on the components and cards which are colourful and functional but for me, disappointing overall. I had hoped for more theme to be depicted in the space station and cards at least. As it is, function has overruled theme here and although not a problem in game functionality, is really a lost opportunity.

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Gameplay

Although this is supposed to be a 2-4 player game with 2v2 play, from what I have read, it seems that 2 players is the best way to play so that’s the perspective that I will give here. The main objective of Theseus is pretty straight forward – the Marine and Alien player each start with 20 life points and you simply want to ensure that your opponents runs out of life points first. If you play with the Greys or Scientists, they begin with 0 data points and want to be the first to reach 20.

The sector boards are set up in a circular formation surrounding the scoreboard. There is an initial setup recommended for new players (a good idea) and with familiarity this can be altered. There are also some introductory suggestions to make the game a little more accessible until players get used to the system, which actually isn’t too difficult at all. Its more a case of learning what the cards do as they are the key engine of gameplay and decision making.

Starting bonus cards are placed. Then the players will take their faction starting card hand. They then place their starting units in the sections and have the rest of the game tokens ready to use.

The game sequence is as follows:

Movement phase – you move your units around the space station sectors. You move a number of sectors equal to the number of units in the sector currently being moved from. If there is no room to place a unit in the sector being moved too, one of the units in the full sector gets ejected into space! Units can also end in a sector where they must undergo the effect of a trap left by their opponent. A unit can trigger a Lesser Onslaught as well if it is the last one into a room.

All kinds of risks are here…

Action cards phase – After finishing their move, a player then resolves the actions of all their installed cards in the sector arrived in.

Sector Action phase – the player performs the action indicated on the current sector board

Pending cards phase – the player may opt to take actions regarding pending cards

Note – there are a number of Bonus cards placed in the beginning of the game which you will want to try and pick up as they can prove very useful.

Ending the game

As the players go through their limited Faction decks, the time marker will be moved forward as the first player to need to reshuffle their deck does so. When this happens for the 4th time the game ends and the winner declared. The game can end earlier if one of the players gets to zero life points or 20 data points.

The rules go further into rules for the sectors, attacking, and so on.

It takes a number of turns to get comfortable with the system which isn’t in itself difficult, but there is a lot to take in and get used to. Especially the faction cards as it takes time to see ow the cards can work together to benefit or threaten.

So overall, Theseus has a relatively simple in structure but I don’t think that players will be comfortable without a number of plays as there are a lot of little features which will just take time to get used to and learn.

Did I enjoy Theseus: The Dark Orbit?

This is an unusual game and I can’t reasonably compare it to anything else. For this alone, I would recommend it as an interesting and challenging game. It seems to be more of a puzzle than anything else as you try and work out the best way to use your cards.

A lesson that I learned is that time is not your friend. you need to be decisive and take actions to quickly damage your opponent as soon as possible. It is very dangerous to give your opponent the opportunity to build up cards in any one area so you need to be looking to interfere with your opponent and not let them get too many installed cards in any one sector as the cumulative effects of getting a good combination of damaging cards can be fatal for you. At the same time you need to look for opportunities to place a couple of good combos if you can.

A game for thinking gamers as you figure out optimum card placements but be prepared to be frustrated as you are subject to the cards available. But planning ahead is not very possible and down time due to AP can be difficult in this game. But there is definitely a fun payoff if you get the right cards in the right places and can set up good attacks. Placement of your figures is key as well as it affects combat and movement. Having different factions with different strengths and weaknesses is interesting and makes for differing choices and adds to the challenge for sure.

The downside of the game for me is that the story is rather missing amongst the mechanics and system. You spend more time playing the system than bringing a feel of an epic fight for survival on a space station to life. I enjoyed playing it but it feels too abstract for my Ameritrash leanings I’m afraid. The artwork is mostly vague and doesn’t help although it looks nice.

So if you are looking for an interesting abstract puzzle with enough randomness to keep things spicy, Theseus: The Dark Orbit is definitely worth playing but if you are looking for an epic space battle with heroic deeds and strong theme, this is going to be disappointing.

For more information go to – http://portalgames.pl/en/theseus-dark-orbit/

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