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Onward to Venus Review

Jason

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Posted by Jason on Mar 11, 2015

I wasn't familiar with creator Greg Broadmore’s graphic novels and at first glance guessed that I was venturing into “John Carter meets steampunk” with Martin Wallace’s Onward to Venus. But the world of Dr. Grodbart is more accurately described as “retro-futuristic” sci-fi replete with radio power, rockets, atomic ray guns, and plenty of techno-babble. Instead of a romantic, swashbuckling, interplanetary space opera, I was surprised to find biting criticism of the racist and naturalistic exploitation wrought by European colonialism of a bygone era. I have little interest in- and even less to gain- from calling anybody’s great-great grandfather a jerk. Broadmore’s world is certainly creative, his creatures imaginative, his humor infectious and his artwork captivating.

Onward to Venus pits 2-5 earth-based imperialists in a race to exploit our solar system’s presumably habitable planets and moons. Befitting any colonial power worth its pith helmet, you’ll build up your military and deploy it to claim mines, establish factories, suppress crises, generally control things and even go on galactic safari. All of these activities produce immediate points or go towards earning them at the end.

Billed as a game of “inter-planetary conquest,” players spend the majority of time claiming tiles with military units, which are just cardboard tokens. A number of tiles randomly seed each planet at the beginning of a round. They represent a variety of things like mines, factories, and the Venusian equivalent of a 15-point trophy buck. Others allow you to perform certain actions such as drawing cards, taking money, or attacking another player’s mine or factory on that planet. Mines and factories earn income and are used to calculate economic mastery of each planet at the end of the game where each of the colonized celestial bodies is worth varying points for first, second, and sometimes third place.

The “combat” in Onward to Venus is relatively deterministic – to a degree. Many tiles have printed defense values. When attempting to capture an opponent’s mine/factory, its defense value is equal to the number of its owner’s troops on that planet and in orbit. To win these, players simply expend a number of “combat points” equal to the defense. Each military token deployed to the planet lends either one or two points. However, before an attack, the player must roll three dice, subtract the difference between the highest and lowest number, and add that result to the defense value. So anyone making an assault will likely need additional help in the form of cards which can provide more combat points or alter the results in some other way. The roll can also result in casualties whether the invasion succeeds or not!

One of the most interesting elements about Onward to Venus is its unique action point allowance system. Rather than a restrictive set amount, as in most other designs of the mechanic, the number of actions varies each round, and often widely. In addition to claiming tiles, players may also buy units, move them up to two planets, play action cards, or pass. When passing, the player removes a cube from a pool of pass cubes. As soon as someone removes the last cube, the round ends. Otherwise, you may continue performing actions as long as you have sufficient military tokens. When a unit claims a tile, it remains planet-side and sits out the remainder of the round. So you know you’ll get plenty of actions in a round, but you’re never certain exactly how many.

All of these actions and tiles present many options that elevate the game above the ordinary. Because while you may be staking a celestial claim for national glory, you’re really just swapping cardboard rather than blasting holes through ranks of Martians with your Moonhater Death Ray and the depth and range of options imparts a strong sense of decision making and theme. The tactics are rich- deciding where and when to employ your military efficiently to grab tiles is challenging. Pushing your luck to make an attack is exciting. And beating opponents to lucrative mines, factories or windfall tiles is rewarding. The design’s mechanics also inject a lot of randomness, which can be frustrating. Unlucky rolls can increase a tile’s defense value enough to inflict defeat and casualties. It can be quirky, resulting in variable game situations that aren’t always balanced or consistent. There’s a chance a planet never receives a mine or factory and so will not score for majorities. But this felicity also adds excitement and ensures that every session will be unique.

Further, there are planetary crisis tiles, another mechanic which adds variability, choice and chance. If players do not resolve these tiles, they may trigger certain no good, terrible, very bad events. Each planet’s crisis is different and some can potentially end the game in communal defeat. For generating story and tension, the crises are incredibly effective. Alas, because of the random seeding, they’re not a factor in many sessions. But it’s tremendous fun when they are!

Essentially, Onward to Venus is not completely as it appears to be. However, the disguise isn’t so much about putting lipstick on a pig, but rather dressing up a wolf in sheep’s clothing. While exuding a pulpy vibe and claiming to be all about conquest, it’s really more of Euro where resource optimization and shrewd action point management are critical.

You can certainly get into the space colonizing theme, thanks primarily to the artwork rather than a sense of strongly integrated theme. Regardless, it’s a medium-weight title that moves quickly and packs plenty of action. Onward to Venus has ample variety and just the right mix of interaction to create tension, generate surprise and keep everyone engaged.


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