I picked up this game because it was designed by Craig Van Ness, the man who designed Heroscape and Heroquest: two excellent games that combined tabletop wargaming and RPG-style dungeon-crawling (respectively) with an easy set of rules. His games are quick, thematic, and easy to learn and play, while still having a surprising amount of depth. Heroscape, for example, is simple enough and “toy-ish” enough to be sold in Walmart and Toys’R’Us, yet strategic and deep enough that I still enjoy it as an adult. Van Ness is a great designer with a solid track record, and I when I found out he was doing a tactical space combat game I was hugely excited.
Space combat games are a weird case, at least for me: I grew up watching Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, so I want to love space combat games, but I’ve never actually loved one. Space combat games suffer from a number of sever handicaps, most notably the massive variance of scale (how do you run a Star Destroyer and a TIE fighter in the same rules system?) and the complete lack of terrain in space. This is the biggest problem, in my experience. Tactical combat games are primarily about positioning: you need to get into the right position to have the greatest impact on the battle. In a standard wargame you maneuver around buildings, hide on forests, gain high ground on hills, and so on, but in space you just…shoot the other guy. No position is better or worse than any other position, because you will always have an identical line of sight to your target. Naval wargames have the same problem, which they solve not by adding terrain but by differentiating the specific positioning of the ships: you can come alongside an enemy ship to hit it with more cannons, you can try to get behind a ship to hit its least armored locations, and so on. Some space games do the same, but some try to be so simple (in the interest of easy gameplay) that the game becomes ridiculously boring. There was a Star Wars space combat game a few years ago in which ships had a huge range and nothing blocked line of sight–there was literally no reason to ever move your ship, you just sat there and rolled dice until something blew up.
Battleship Galaxies kind of solves these problems, mostly. That sounds like a weak endorsement, and it is: it’s a better space game than any of the others I’ve tried, but something about it just doesn’t do it for me. I don’t know what to say. I like it, but I don’t love it.
The game has two sides, each with a good mix of big ships, small ships, and fighter squadrons. You build your fleet with a point total, and each ship comes in three different ranks, each with different powers and worth different points, so you have a lot of variety in putting together a team. It even has cards you can play, adding more strategy and an element of deck building. Most of the ships have relatively short ranges, meaning that positioning will be important; I find that I tend to move most of my ships every turn, which is a good sign that something interesting is going on. The exception are the two big capital ships, which have a tendency to just plow down the center of the board and start hammering on people. Even that, though is interesting: some of your ships are blunt instruments, and some are scalpels you need to use more carefully.
Best of all, the game includes terrain tiles and scenarios, giving you something more interesting to do than just sit back and roll dice. Some of the terrain tiles are simple things like asteroids and space junk that you need to maneuver around (or can, in some cases, risk passing through). Other bits of terrain are more complex, providing bonuses for ships that can take and hold them–one, for example, is a shield regenerator, which helps make whatever ship is sitting on it much more survivable. Things like this help make the battlefield dynamic, and offer some cool tactical choices–is it worth heading to the shield generator, or should I just try to kill the other guy before he gets to it? And being a Craig Van Ness game, it accomplishes this measure of strategy in a way that is simple and thematic and fun.
And yet…. I don’t know. It’s fun without being awesome. If you love space games, or have a kid to play with (my 8yo loves it) it might be worth picking up. I suppose the simplest thing I can say about this game is that I enjoy pulling it out every now and then, but given the opportunity I’d trade it away and not miss it.