Your sacrifice is appreciated – a review of Space Ship Omega

The sounds of our footsteps echoed across the empty corridors of the S.S. Omega. Arriving with the rescue mission, we expected problems, maybe even deaths among the crew. Having stepped aboard, however, we found no one but the dark rooms which have been abandoned in a hurry and the chill and darkness surrounding us. There is not a single trace left of the crew, and only Omega’s main computer – an artificial intelligence, which manages the ship when the crew is in hibernation for the flight – responds to our callouts. I hope we will find out what happened to the crew from the main computer’s logs….


Space Ship Omega is a thrilling semi-co-operative survival horror, which takes place on board of an abandoned space ship. The ship’s initial mission, one of extremely importance for humanity, was unexpectedly interrupted and all we received back home was an abrupt call for help. Shortly after that all contact with the ship’s crew broke off. A few years later, a rescue ship sent from Earth reaches the S.S. Omega. In the game 1 to 6 players aged 14 and up will take on the roles of crew members of the rescue mission, who during a roughly 60-75 minute playtime will try to discover what happened to the original crew. Shortly after entering the ship, however, it turns out that danger also threatens the rescuers. In the face of an oxygen supply ending at an alarming rate, players will have to unravel the mystery of the missing crew before they share its fate.

 

S.S.O. is the latest work of Glen Ford, co-author of Gaslands – a miniatures game set in a post-apocalyptic world. This time, however, the author takes us into the far reaches of outer space, where, with some similarity to the premise of the Event Horizon movie, players as members of the rescue team will find themselves inside of an abandoned space ship. Worse yet, a ship whose previous crew has disappeared in unexplained circumstances. As the unknown threat starts to grow, the participants of the game will try to overcome continuous challenges, at the same time making meaningful decisions in order to perform various missions, whose goal is to bring the unlucky mission of the S.S. Omega to an end. However, as befits a survival horror, not everyone will survive until the end…

 

One of the author’s design assumptions was to combine tension and the grip of terror accompanying players throughout the game with a compact game size and minimalist approach to components, which would allow the game to be quickly set up on the table and played nearly in every circumstances. The game fits in a very small box, which can easily fit even in a man’s jacket pocket. Its main components are cards and a handful of tokens. The first ones, made of rigid cardboard with a smooth surface, are divided into several types: a deck of crew cards, activation cards, challenges of a given scenario and related missions, as well as aid cards and cards that make up the ship itself. The Graphic design by Henry Peters evokes the images displayed on the old monitor screens, which at the first contact with the game immediately reminded me of the style used in the game Fallout, which also sported a similar retro-futuristic visual setting..

 

The tokens, however, are used to mark the position of individual crew members on board the ship, as well as the level of air (both that in the general tanks of the Omega and in the players’ spacesuits) and the morale of the expedition’s participants. Unfortunately, at the start I must point out that the tokens are the least well-made element of the game. Despite the fact that they were made of thick, 2mm cardboard, the tokens with which one marks their character’s statistics are completely unsuitable for this purpose. They are too big for the statistics on the cards, so they do not fit on them. To make matters worse, the hole in the middle of the token is too small for one to be able to see the value that the token should indicate. For this reason, I quickly replaced these chits with small wooden cubes that I had laying around from an old euro game, which turned out to be a more practical solution.

 

Another element that leaves much to be desired is the instruction booklet with the rules. It caused me a lot of trouble learning the game, but I will write more about it while summarizing the experience of the game later on.

 

Air lock secured, pressure leveled. We may come on board.

Depending on the number of participants in the game, during the game each player will manage the actions of one or several crew members from among the members of the rescue expedition. For this purpose, each participant should be randomly assigned a character card with a matching marker. First, the members of the command crew should be drawn at random, then the remaining players are given ordinary crew member cards. Each player also receves one additional character card, which they put aside for now. Next, we next mark on the card the initial morale and oxygen level in the suit of our crew (4 and 0, respectively).

 

S.S. Omega in all its glory.

The next step is to prepare the ship itself. It consists of several cards arranged in an appropriate configuration as described in the manual. The cards are double-sided. On one side they contain „clear” (readable) rooms with a description of the actions that are available in them, and on the other side they contain the „dark” or otherwise inactive versions. We place the cards with the active side up, remembering that the door from one room should be connected to the next. After completion, our ship will consist of cards depicting solar panels, gondolas and modules attached to the main corridor, where the players will place their character markers. All that remains is to shuffle the challenge deck and spread out the six mission cards for a given scenario, and with this final action … we are ready to play!

 

The goal of the game

The goal of the players is to survive on the ship long enough for it to perform its mission, which is somehow important for humanity. What is it all actually about? It is not known, because the outline of the story remains extremely skimpy in terms of clarifying what is the actual mission of the SS Omega. One thing is certain, that the action of the game will always take place on board the S.S. Omega, while the plot and rules of the game will slightly change depending on the scenario. As part of the Kickstarter campaign, apart from the basic scenario, which is inspired by the movie 2001: a space odyssey, another adventure was unlocked, which seems to have been inspired by Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. In the first scenario, we will face the rebel AI of the ship. In the second one, the crew of the rescue ship will face a madman trying to kill them, who turns out to be the original captain of the S.S. Omega. In practice, however, the fun translates into the fact that during each scenario players must survive long enough to run out of cards in the challenge deck, which contains 24 cards. Challenges and related missions create a closed story that allows players to have a different experience each time they play.

 

Rules at a glance

The game is played over a series rounds, each of which is divided into three phases: activation, control and challenges, occasionally intertwined with the death phase, which takes place out of sequence, whenever one of the crew members is killed. Without going into too many details, the phases run as follows:

The activation phase: Each of the crew members is assigned one activation card (those with a blue reverse), by means of which they are programmed to move in the given round. After turning the cards over, each of the crew members has the option of completing the action shown on the card or rejecting it and passing without making a move. Alternatively, a crewman may move to any other field inside the ship, where another crew member is located, and then the activation cards for both of them are rejected without carrying them out.

Control phase: During this phase all „automatic” effects on the ship’s and character’s cards are activated. It is also worth taking care of one’s company while wandering around this dark ship, because if any crew member is alone in the room in this phase and his morale level is at zero, this character dies. In the further part of this phase, the air level on the ship is also reduced and the players’ actions are carried out. The last step is to check the conditions for the success or failure of the ongoing missions in which the crew members take part.

Challenge phase: We start with turning off all rooms adjacent to inactive solar panels (we turn these cards to their „dark” side). Next, players face a new challenge card that must be selected from a deck of cards with a red reverse. The consequence of the challenges is usually the loss of oxygen or morale of the crew. Depending on the scenario, some of the rooms on the ship may also be switched off, which will lead to the death of the characters in them (crew members can never be in or use inactive rooms). The second feature of challenges is that they often activate a specific mission. When this happens, players on the basis of voting assign an appropriate number of crew members (those who voted „for”) to implement the mission, or decide not to implement it, as a result of which the mission card will be turned back to the top. Additionally, in this phase of the game the victory or loss in the game is checked.

The death phase: An optional phase that takes place immediately after a given step of another phase in which one or more crewmen have died. Death always results in a decrease in the morale of other crew members and the introduction of a new character, awakened from cryogenic sleep (ie the introduction of one of the additional characters given to players during the preparation for the game).

At the end of the challenge phase, players go through the activation phases over and over again until the victory condition (no challenge cards in the deck) or loss (no live crew members in the challenge phase) is reached.

 

Impressions of the game

SSO was released through crowdfunding on the Kickstarter platform, where it was advertised as a micro-game with a great story-telling potential at the cost of a modest £10.00. In the case of similar productions on this platform, it is always a hit or miss. Either we get a piece of crap and waste a tenner or we get a gem-of-a-game in our hands which we will play during the long winter evenings. Fortunately, S.S.O. falls into the latter category, although I would rather call this game a rough diamond, because there are a few things that I did not like. First things first, though.

S.S.O. it’s primarily a fully-fledged semi-cooperative game. In it, players control archetypes of heroes. We will not find any names here, only the roles i.e. the botanist, computer specialist, captain, astronaut etc. This treatment is aimed at preventing the players from subconsciously getting attached to the character they are playing, as he or she will most likely die before the end of the game! Death happens quite often in S.S.O. and although it is associated with negative effects for other crew members, the protagonists are only a means to achieve the goal. After the death of our crew member, we will come back to the game with a backup character, whom we have received during the preparation for the game. However, there will be situations in which players will be required to sacrifice themselves for the good of others, often as part of fulfilling the conditions of a given mission. Successful implementation of the mission, in turn, directly translates into victory, because the most common reward for completing them will be the ability to discard a few additional cards from the challenge deck, which will bring players closer to winning. Not infrequently, as part of the prize, you will be able to regain some air in the tanks, which in turn will allow players to keep the fight going a bit longer.

Oxygen itself is the second (after the challenge deck of cards) clock that measures the time in game terms. We start with a stock sufficient for 12 rounds, which is roughly half the time needed to pass through the challenge deck. Characters can also use oxygen in their spacesuits, although in the scenarios that we receive with the game, none of the crew members have oxygen in their personal supply at the beginning of the game. Everyone is forced to use the public air supply on the ship. From the get go it puts the players in a situation in which they will have to try to produce more oxygen or preserve supplies in every possible way, even at the cost of the lives of other crew members. This opens up quite a large range of decisions that players will face and part of the game will oscillate around the discussion over the table related not only to the completion of another mission (players vote whether to go on missions) but also who to put in the hibernation chamber to save some oxygen for the rest of the crew. However, the loyalty and spirit of cooperation will be put to the test during the last few rounds of the game, when it will be known that there will not be enough air for everyone. It is then that despite the emerging crises on the part of the scenario, the remaining members of the crew will be the greatest danger to our heroes. The last rounds will be a great test of character – will someone sacrifice themselves for the good of the group or will they sacrifice someone else whilst driven by their survival instinct? In the end the game can be won cooperatively if more than one character survives or alone by a single survivor. In the first case, the instruction gives the formula for counting points, the sum of which will allow you to read the appropriate epilogue contained at the end of the rulebook. In the case of winning alone, the winner will simply be able to feel content for surviving until the end of the game.

Despite its small size and few components, S.S. Omega offers really solid mechanics and very difficult choices, going to pair with a story that develops with great tension. The game draws handfuls of theme from the best horror and sci-fi movies which take place in the depths of outer space and you can see it during the game. During one of the games, mission guidelines required placing one crew on each of the solar panels outside the ship. By fate, as soon as the crew were out of the ship, the next drawn card of the challenge deck ordered us to disable the air lock chamber, which ultimately cut off the crew outside from coming back and sentenced them to slow death by asphyxiation. Immediately I was reminded of a scene from 2001: a space odyssey, in which HAL 9000 refused to let astronaut David Bowman come back aboard. IT is clear that the AI of the S.S. Omega has definitely picked this trick up from his older friend HAL! Eventually, the death of these crew members did not stop us from winning the scenario, but only two crewmen who were completely devoid of morale, trembled with fear, sitting together in the last working room and taking their last breaths of the remaining residual oxygen … This ending was extremely satisfying for us, after long struggles with the perishable systems of the ship and at the same time the final scene, which would also be a worthy end to many horror films.

Gameplay in S.S. Omega resembles a continuous extinguishing of fires, and effective coping with this task requires the coordination of all characters and constant response to subsequent events. There is no lack of diversity, because the game’s replayability is assured by subsequent scenarios. As I mentioned, as part of the Kickstarter campaign, a second scenario has been unlocked, in which our heroes face the original captain of the Omega who lost his mind and during the game he’ll try to murder our crew one by one. I liked this scenario very much because, unlike the previous one, in which the members of our rescue team tried to be in every possible place at once, here they had to show a more methodical approach and caution. The crazy captain would kill every lone crew member at the end of the round, therefore players are effectively limited to moving in pairs, which hinders the completion of the mission, not to mention the mad captain’s tendency to open the air locks, venting precious air from the spacecraft. According to the assurance of the publisher, the upcoming scenarios that will appear in the future will introduce new adventures filled with horror as well as changes in the game’s mechanics, which will diversify gameplay to an even greater extent and increase the replayability of this title.

Whether it happens, time will show. In Kickstarter terms, the game achieved medium success and as part of the original campaign, only one of a number of additional scenarios was unlocked. One of the reasons for this state of affairs was the instructions, in which the rules were explained in such a horrendous way that I almost passed on reviewing this game. For almost a month, I alternately returned to reading the rules to put the game back on the shelf again. The publisher, citing a small amount of space has included in the instructions something that in the best case can be called a brief description of the rules. The truth is that there is enough space in the booklet, but the rules are presented in a very unreadable way, filling the reader with a lot of keywords written in bold and with colorful fonts, which only makes it harder to sort everything in one’s head as they read through the manual for the first time. Only reading the expanded tutorial, placed on the publisher’s website allowed me to master the rules governing gameplay. However, while summing up the learning experience of the game I have to say that if the Golden Raspberries were given out in the board gaming industry, one would surely go to Man’o’Kent Games for botching up the rules of what is – in a way – a very simple game, once the rules are mastered. I know that it is harsh to write this, but I write this to entice the publisher to re-write the rulebook for future prints. SSO is in fact a very easy to master game – rules-wise – and this is actually one of the pros of this game, but one can easily miss it, because of the rulebook.

 

The Verdict

In summary words, I must admit that I am glad that eventually I managed to get through the game’s poorly written instructions booklet. Fortunately, under this unfortunate façade of badly written rules, there is a thrilling game, topped with stories defined by difficult choices about several astronauts struggling to survive in a hostile environment of the dark and cold abyss of the cosmos.

After learning the rules, teaching other players should not take more than 5-10 minutes, which I count towards the advantages of the game. Another thing that appealed to me is the very mechanism of voting on emerging missions. Players do not have to undertake the completion of each mission that appears, and decide on the principle of general voting. The missions themselves are carried out over several rounds, so the members assigned to their implementation will not only have to focus on meeting the requirements of the given task, but also on continuing the normal activities related to keeping the crew alive. This introduces an element of player action management, which forces co-operation and discussion among participants of the game, related to planning the optimal movements of individual characters, especially in situations when it is necessary to sacrifice one of the characters during the course of our way to survival. Speaking of which, one thing that may not be liked by some players is that during an hour and a half of gameplay, they may be forced to put their character to sleep in a hibernation chamber or sacrifice it completely, so they will be forced to sitting at the table for the rest of the game (after losing our first, or even the second, spare crew member, there is of course the possibility of introducing another crew member to the game, although this involves the necessity of spending a huge amount of oxygen, which the other players will rather disagree with, hence one will have to sit out the rest of the game). Among other things, it is this aspect that makes S.S. Omega a semi-cooperative game, but at the same time it was better for me to play alone, because I did not have to burden the other players with a choice that would exclude them from playing. It was easier to make the decision to sacrifice a crew member when there was noone else controlling them. An interesting fact is that the game itself leads to the perception of crew members in such a way, which makes it all the more important to lead the game to a close with the most crew members still alive.

The atmosphere in the game, apart from the elements of negotiation and deciding the fate of crew members, is also created by visual design. We can see the elements of the ship from above, and the sterile rooms are filled with white. Only in some places do we see some scattered papers, a blood trail or an abandoned astronaut suit. The emptiness inside the ship becomes even palpable, thanks to which we can easily feel the sense of dread as we walk around the empty spacecraft wondering what had happened to its original crew. On the other hand, the effect gets spoiled by the low-quality tokens, which constitute half of the components we find in the box. One could argue that, as for a game that costs a tenner, the quality of make is quite good, but it is not exactly the right course of reasoning. At this price, I would perhaps not expect wooden pieces, but I would expect better designed tokens that would not require immediate exchange for something that allowed to be used to track character statistics normally. However, these are minor inconveniences that any player can somehow handle, and the publisher will have a valuable lesson to improve on the occasion of the second edition of the game, if it ever appears.

In general, I think S.S. Omega, with a bit of oldschool visuals and a sense of dread that builds as time passes, gives a lot of satisfaction with the game. Especially if the players manage to bring the mission to a happy end. For such a small size, the game really gave me a lot of fun even when playing alone and during the recent holidays often returned to the table. For my part, I definitely recommend this game for both solitaire and group plays, with the provison that sometimes it will be hard to look them in the eye after we unscrupulously push the character they control into the dark abyss of space through the air lock in the hope of saving these few extra breaths of air.

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PROS:

  • Compact size of the box, making it easy to transport.
  • Gameplay filled with difficult choices (how far we are ready to go to survive).
  • Minimalist style of graphics, which has a positive effect on the feeling of isolation on an abandoned ship.
  • Gameplay on the border of cooperation and puzzles. You need to plan well to survive until the end.
  • The game scales well enough.
  • Suitable for solitaire play.
  • Large potential due to the announced future scenarios.

CONS:

  • Very badly written instruction. I recommend that you read the tutorial and video on the publisher’s website (link).
  • The quality of the tokens and their design leave a lot to be desired. It’s best to replace them with components from other games if you have spares lying around.
  • The elimination of players, though well-fixed in the game, means that effectively several people can sit idle at the table, watching as others play.

 


I wish to thank

for providing a copy of the game for review


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