Tobold's Blog
Monday, January 30, 2023
ISS Vanguard - Pre-play Considerations

In December 2020 I did not back the Gamefound crowdfunding campaign of ISS Vanguard. Mainly because I am more a fan of the fantasy genre than science fiction. Two years later, in December 2022, ISS Vanguard got delivered to backers, and I was able to watch people play it on YouTube. It was immediately clear that this wasn't the game I would want to play with my wife, or my board game night group. In many aspects, ISS Vanguard resembles a RPG video game, but as there is not computer to take note of what you did, there is a relatively heavy bookkeeping part of the game, where by writing things down or moving cards from one space to another you create a memory of what you did, and the game state for your future action. There is a part of the game where you do nothing but move cards around in a three-ring binder. Not an activity that is much fun to do in a group.

However, I don't mind doing that sort of administrative work when playing a solo game. I love 7th Continent, which involves a lot of moving cards around in an index card box. And the more I watched people playing ISS Vanguard, the more interested I became in the game for me to play solo. So I "late pledged" the game on Gamefound. Unfortunately the site wasn't very explicit about what "late pledging" means in detail. Turns out it means that you'll get a copy from a second print run in Q3/Q4 2023. And I didn't want to wait that long. So I searched the internet and found an online shop that sold a copy of the first wave that had been delivered in 2022. That copy is now in the mail to me.

So why the growing fascination with a game that has so much busywork? I think it is in part because of a challenge, and in part because ISS Vanguard has elements that I do like from playing JRPG video games. I have a peculiar way of playing JRPG: I love doing side quests and even some grinding in order to make my characters stronger than what is expected from somebody who is just following the main story. And from what I could see, that sort of strategy would work rather well for ISS Vanguard. My observation of the YouTube streams was that if you do what is logical for somebody who is streaming a campaign game, and never go to the same planet twice, but prioritize advancing the main story, you end up being underleveled for the campaign content.

A part of that is definitively flawed game design, especially of the rank-up system. Planetary exploration in ISS Vanguard is about pushing your luck; you have a dwindling number of dice and supplies to refresh those dice. There is a temptation to concentrate on your main mission, and leave the planet as soon as you did that mission. However, to rank up the characters you took onto the planet, you need to collect a certain number of success tokens, and fulfil a random secondary condition. Unless you are very lucky, if you only do the main mission on a planet, you will probably not rank up your characters. Maybe from rank 1 to rank 2, but unlikely from rank 2 to rank 3, which requires twice as many success tokens. And unbeknownst to you, if you don't rank up early, it will come to haunt you later.

Basically I have seen people play, and done some theory-crafting, and I think that A) I know how to play the game more successfully, and B) that more successful strategy is one that I am more comfortable with. It involves not only pushing your luck further on any given planetary exploration, but also visiting planets more than once to grab really everything there is on that planet. That has the added advantage that if you do a planet twice, you will also go through the ship phase (the phase with the three-ring binder) twice, and advance your research and production projects further. ISS Vanguard is a game that challenges you with nasty surprises and the necessity to roll specific symbols on your custom dice; by going deeper on each planet, and a bit of grinding, you can get prepared for those challenges, because you have more dice and more dice manipulation.

In a way my interest in ISS Vanguard is the same psychological phenomenon than the one that is used in a lot of mobile game ads: They show somebody failing at the game, which makes you eager to try and to do better. In this case it probably wasn't intentional, nobody could have known that I was watching a series of streams where people didn't do very well in the game. But my reaction was the same, I am eager to try and to do better. I just hope that works out and I will actually have fun doing so.

P.S. Another observation about ISS Vanguard is that it pretends you can play with anywhere between 2 and 4 characters, but in reality the game isn't balanced around the character count. 4 characters are more likely than 2 characters to reach the rank-up condition of a planetary exploration, and then all 4 of them rank up, instead of just 2. Playing with 4 characters is giving you an advantage, so I will solo the game 4-handed.


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