Finally boldly going where no man has gone before we arrive at our mini review for ISS Vanguard. So I was hoping to get a couple of sessions of ISS Vanguard in over the Christmas break but instead I caught COVID which was considerably less fun… And there’s the pull quote for the box Awaken Realms… “ISS Vanguard, more fun than COVID 19”.
However we did eventually all recover and finally we got our away team together to explore the next planet on our starmap, Brimstone. ISS Vanguard is an expansive game of space exploration. Your ship is on a voyage to the stars to unravel the mystery of a message discovered in the DNA of all life on earth. Every game of ISS Vanguard consists of two distinct halves, planetary exploration and ship management.
In the former, the game focuses on your away team down on the planet. This part of the game is filled with lush art and intriguing story moments which are all fully narrated in a free companion app. Players move through the planet controlling one or more sections of the crew, Engineering, Science, Recon or Security, performing dice checks to advance the story.
For example in our most recent play we discovered a hidden micro culture, however, our intrusion into their habitat caused them to begin to die. We were faced with a choice, seal up the entrance and hope that would reverse the damage or attempt to save them. Then as we raced back to our ship, pursued by a mechanical giant alien, our suits became infected and Vanguard refused to allow us to return until we had analysed the bacteria and rendered it safe.
And all this is accomplished with a series of dice checks, modified by various cards and abilities allowing you a reasonable degree of control, while still allowing for failure. As you continue to explore new planets you’ll unlock new equipment, new discoveries, new crew all of which add to the puzzle of the dice checks while drip feeding you story with cool and interesting choices.
Then when the Planetary Exploration is done you can return to the Vanguard and the game takes on a zoom out macro perspective, you’re no longer a single character but an entire crew. Solving situations, training, researching, building, healing your wounded and memorialising your dead. Again the game drip feeds you new upgrades and abilities here too, allowing the ship to grow organically around you, never overwhelming you with new stuff, while still never feeling like it’s holding out on you. When you complete a research project you might unlock several new cards, not just one. When you complete an engineering project a whole slew of extra cards are added to your armoury, and yet it manages to be just the right amount of stuff.
Is ISS Vanguard as incredible as I had hoped? I don’t know. It feels a little too removed, with half a dozen crew under my command, I don’t feel attached to my characters as I might in other campaign games, I don’t see their names, just their icons and abilities. But that said, I can’t fault the scope of the game, they set out to deliver something vast, something truly epic and they absolutely did. We’re five games in and it feels like we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface and I’m looking forward to continuing our adventures in deep space over the coming year and cementing my thoughts on this truly ambitious game.
On the Eleventh Day of Christmas, Santa gave to me... Eleven Crew Hurtlin' Through Space