I didn’t sign up for many events at Gen Con this year, instead opting to let the winds take me wherever my heart fancied. One of the board games that grabbed my attention before the convention, however, was LANDER. So, I signed up for a two-hour block to learn the game and see what it was all about.
Much to my surprise, I was seated at the table with none other than Dan Alexander, one of LANDER’s credited designers. You could see the excitement and pride radiating off his face as he set the stage for the game. Now, I love space-themed games but I also know that they’re a dime-a-dozen nowadays so I wanted to see what sets LANDER apart from the rest.
This review is based on the Beginner version of the game, which excludes more complex decision-making points in favor of learning the core mechanics. Keep that in mind as we explore the Kaimas-2 surface with LANDER.
LANDER: Expand and Upgrade
Lovingly described as a brainchild of Catan set in space, LANDER pits corporations against each other as they attempt to colonize and expand. Each player commands a crew that will develop skills and traits over time. As they get better, you’ll be able to successfully complete missions. Once a player reaches seven mission stars, the game is over.
Players need to be focused on multiple fronts – the crew, the explored tiles, and the mission cards. One of your crew members is a Leader, which activated their special ability for as long as they command your crew. Don’t get too attached, though! Crew members can be stolen, swapped, and killed throughout the game so it’s generally a good idea to spread improvements amongst your crew.
The game also utilizes a modular set of triangular tiles that click together in a satisfying way to create the explored surface. Each tile contains a resource that will change based on the player’s upgraded stations on that tile. Mission tiles may require players to have a certain number of claimed stations or a fully upgraded tile of a certain type, so pay attention to what’s available.
Again, I’ve only played the “core” version of the game, so there are some mechanics that I didn’t get a chance to play with. One key takeaway is that it’s important to keep tabs on the other players to prevent them from winning out of the blue.
Staking Our C.L.A.I.M. On LANDER
LANDER really shines with its components. The game might not even be released yet, but the presentation of everything is at the top of its class. According to the designer, the game is about 98% locked-in, although there is still room for changes.
Out of everything, the triangular tiles are a wonderful addition to a game centered around exploration of the unknown. Every time you play, the surface of the planet will be different. By locking together, you can ensure that things won’t be sliding around if the table gets bumped.
The little plastic stations are well-made, albeit a bit simplistic. In a similar vein, all of the cards serve their purpose as, well, cards.
Something else to note is that the storage trays for the tiles and resources is important, especially for the exploration and resource-generation phases. Using cards instead of fiddly bits for the resources reduces the tactile pleasure but greatly decreases the amount of time it takes to divvy them up.
Although it’s not a luck-based game, there are a few points in the game where having a bit of luck is important.
When you draw a random tile to place as a part of exploring the surface, you can place the tile anywhere you’d like. Some tiles are inherently better than others, which means you could consistently draw “bad” tiles while another player draws amazing ones. You can combat this by blocking them with your worse tiles, but that doesn’t make your surrounding area any more enticing.
There’s also a bit of luck involved with the initial crew members, as there are definitely more powerful leadership abilities than others. At the same time, it allows players to shift their strategy to cater to their current leader. Recruiting a new crew member also gives the opportunity to promote them to Leader, so you’re not completely locked in.
I’ve already touched on this, but everything from the box to the components looks professional. Each of the crew members had unique art and identity to set them apart from one another, which is a nice touch. Similarly, the action and trait cards share the same style which brings a cohesive quality to the entire package.
My one qualm with the aesthetic is actually in the triangular tiles. Being a solid black, this kind of detracts from the theme. I understand that with the resource types being front and center, you don’t want to detract from that information or make it too “busy”. However, it would elevate the central playing area if it were done in a more thematic way.
It’s not hard to spot the similarities between LANDER and the games that influenced it. Catan is the clear comparison here. Other people have made comparisons to Terraforming Mars, which is more thematic than anything.
My favorite change implemented is in the negotiation mechanics. In Catan, trading is a primary fulcrum of the game but it also can take an insane amount of time to conduct meaningful business. With LANDER, there is a time element introduced to trading, as well as collateral, so that only serious negotiators are brought to the table.
Anybody who really digs space themes, take-that mechanics, resource management, and “road-building” elements will appreciate this game.
Due to the nature of the resource generation, players’ progress is tangible. On turn two you’re already going to be cashing in on tons of resources. By the time turn three rolls around, you’re going to be like that “Too Many Limes” guy, wondering how you’re going to manage so many resources!
That being said, the game could play the same with a wide variety of other exploration themes. It’s not to say that the space theme doesn’t work, because it definitely does, but I could just as easily be exporting a jungle or a forgotten island.
You know what they say – “space sells”!
LANDER: Landing in Your FLGS
The Kickstarter isn’t launching until early next year, but the designers understand the gravity of making a commitment to a game that you haven’t played. For that reason, they’re employing a “Play Before You Pledge” campaign to give players a chance to test drive the game before making the investment.
Head on over to their Play Before You Pledge site to see a map showing locations of all 130 copies of LANDER waiting for you at nearby game stores. There’s one only ten minutes from me! Every store on the map should have a copy available to them as of August 14th. Just stop in and ask to try it out.
I’m excited to see how this campaign TAKES OFF! In the meantime, I’m going to sneak out of the house and play another round of LANDER!