Board games are like hiking. No matter what you see while standing at the trail head, you never really know how difficult the hike will be until you start walking.
It’s the same when you start learning a game. Sometimes a game is as difficult or more difficult than it looks. Sometimes a game that seems to be difficult at first glance is not difficult at all: the learning curve is steep initially but plateaus or declines immediately. For me, this is often the case with games containing iconography. At first glance it looks like a foreign language that will be impossible to speak. It’s only after seeing how it gets applied to the game mechanics that I can really figure out if it is intuitive. And that usually makes or breaks how often it can get to the table, because if teaching it will be a slog no one will have fun.
But wait. You didn’t come here to see my discourse on hiking and iconography. I assume you wanted to see if Lift Off, designed by Jeroen Vandersteen and published in the U.S. by Z-Man Games, is good. Well, it is. Once you realize it is way easier than it looks.
Lift Off pits 2-4 players in a space race to see who can score the most points over eight rounds. Most of the game will revolve around trying to acquire the resources and technology to launch missions into orbit. Points will be scored pretty often throughout as well as a nice chunk from end game bonuses. Below that surface there are several aspects you’ll have to pay attention to in order to succeed. At the beginning of the game each player will get three objective cards dealt to them. Then they will draft and each player will end up with the objective cards they keep for the rest of the game. These objectives mostly consist of collecting the four resources in the game, launching certain types of missions, or contributing to the international space station.
There are big points waiting in reward, but in order to get them you’ll really need to focus and not waste time on peripheral tasks. For instance, one of my objectives was to launch five or more 2nd level missions into space by game’s end. That forced me to focus less on 1st level missions early which put me way behind out of the gate. I didn’t even launch my first 2nd level mission until round four! I felt like I was getting crushed. But, that changed later in a very rewarding fashion.
The eight rounds in Lift Off consist of two main steps. Each round is divided into two parts, playing specialists and launching missions. Before the first round each player will be dealt three specialist cards. As with the mission cards, there is a draft. Specialist cards dictate the actions available to the players. Players alternate playing two of their three specialist cards each round. Among other things, specialists will let you upgrade labs and rockets, acquire resources, and launch extra missions or reduce their costs. Specialist cards also have an instant or round lasting effect which provide much needed cash and temporary benefits. The decisions here are robust and important, and have both tactical and strategic ramifications. So, while the actions are simple, there is much to consider if you want to succeed.
Once the specialists have been played, players draw missions from one of four levels. In the first four rounds only levels 1 and 2 are available. In the second half of the game all mission levels are available. Once missions are chosen, everyone checks to see if they can launch a rocket (or sometimes multiple) into space with missions on board. There are cargo limits, research limits, and cash costs that need to be satisfied in order to launch. Again, success at this stage would have required good planning previously. Once rockets are launched and points are scored a new round begins. Players get income and draw two new specialists to add to the one remaining from the previous round. A draft ensues and then players are ready to play specialists again. The game continues until the end of round eight at which time objective bonuses are added to victory point totals and a winner emerges.
Launching Yoshi into space. (Lift Off from Z-Man Games)Posted by The Madrigal Inn on Saturday, March 28, 2020
Everything in Lift Off comes together well for my tastes. It is a euro style game through and through, but the theme is well incorporated and the art enhances the theme quite well. It has a sort of Fallout, retro look going on. Going back to my original premise, it looks harder than it is, given the iconography and list of choices available. But at its core, it is simply drafting three cards and playing them sixteen times (two per round). Doing well requires you to plan ahead and fit together a puzzle of items to lead to the rocket launching payoffs, but that is something you can aspire to in future plays if you don’t do so well up front.
There is very little down time in Lift Off and points are awarded pretty often so there is an instant reward for most actions. Game duration is about 30 – 40 minutes per player (possibly less if everyone is familiar). Despite falling behind early, my focus on the more difficult objectives got me a nice bonus at the end of the game. I ended up launching six 2nd level and two 4th level missions which gave me a 225-204 point victory in our two player match up. Re-playability seems adequate because even though you’ll see the same specialist cards every game, familiarity should enhance players’ decision making capabilities, and this may lead to some serious cutthroat drafting and resource deprivation. Depending on the group, that type of player interaction could be a plus, though I don’t think this game is your best choice if you’re looking for a fistfight.
I was really surprised by how much I liked Lift Off given that I am not a big euro gamer. As I stood at the trail head (I will not let this analogy go) I was a bit intimidated. But after the initial shock of the first few steps it became a pleasant and rewarding hike that I look forward to taking again soon.
That’s all I have. Stay safe out there and keep nerding on!
This review was originally posted 3/30/20