Lift Off

Jeroen Vandersteen

Publisher: Hans im Gluck / Z-man Games

Is that Pip Boy in space? (Photo credits: Eric Martin @BGG)

Lift off from Hans im Gluck came out of Essen 18′ as one of the hot favorites. Seeing as this was my favorite publisher and the game was favorably reviewed by many veteran gamers that share a similar taste with, I was eager to try the game. However, it wasn’t until late 2019 before the English version of the game appeared in retail shelves. The hype had died down by then, but it was always on my peripheral vision. I jumped at the change to snag a used copy recently and had high hopes for the game. So does the game match my expectation? Suffice to say, my initial impression after a few plays was slightly underwhelming.

Lift Off is clearly a space-themed board game with cartoon art reminiscent of those found in US bill boards and comics in the 1950-60s’. The game certainly has an old vibe to it and the tinted pastel colors and art certainly help to evoke that feeling. The theme here is actually fantastic and quite appropriate. I suspect that the designer started off the game having very much a space theme in mind. It helps that he is apparently working in a space agency. As much as Euro games gets knocked for featuring trading or economic themes, Lift Off and Terraforming Mars shows that it is possible to feature Euro-style mechanisms in diverse and non-traditional themes including space. So, two thumbs up for the art, design and theme for Lift Off.

In Lift Off, players try to score victory points by launching rockets to complete missions. Missions come in at 4 levels of difficulty with higher levels of difficulty spotting higher requirements but also scoring more points. For most of the game, players are trying to upgrade their facilities, research and ships so that can fulfill more missions at higher levels of difficulty. The game has 2 phases with 4 rounds each. Levels 3-4 missions are only available in phase 2 as the requirements are not easily met. To launch a rocket, one must meet several criteria: First, the minimum cost of each launch must be met. It starts at 5 and can be lowered by purchasing propulsion system upgrades to the ship. Second, the minimum payload weight of the mission must not exceed the ship capabilities. Each mission launched has a payload requirement. Level 1 payload is at 1 tonne and each level of difficulty increases payload by 1 tonne. If you ship is big enough, it can carry one big payload or several smaller payloads as long as the maximum weight capacity is not exceeded. Payload upgrades can be done by purchasing additional rocket segments. Third, the mission level must match the research laboratory levels. One must upgrade the lab to at least match the appropriate mission. Hence, a level 3 mission requires at least a level 3 lab. Improving labs also help to score more points per rocket launched. Fourth, each mission level requires a certain level of technology. There are 4 technology branches: life support, food, energy and fuel. Level 1 missions require very minimal technology while level 4 missions require multiples of each category. These technology enhancements can be purchased and stays with you for the whole game. Certain technology like life support even score bonus VPs’ in the end. Finally, you need to have a launch icon to send a ship to space. Your research lab will always provide you with one launch icon. Additional launches can be obtained by means of specialist cards detailed below. If all these requirements are met, then the ship is launched and the mission is successful. Points are given for successfully launching a ship and also for completing the missions. Bonus items such as money, ship upgrades or technology are also provided by some successful missions.

Clearly, launching a ship is not trivial. To meet these requirements, one must purchase the upgrades by drafting 2 specialists at the beginning of each round. Drafting occurs round the table for 3 specialist cards, 2 of each will be played each round and 1 will be leftover for the following round. Drafting feels most similar to the game 7 Wonders. All specialists have some immediate bonuses and actions which allow you to purchase the requirements stated above. You can purchase or sell technology cards, upgrade ships or labs, get money or invest. You can choose to perform some or none of the actions but in general, this is the only way to get more stuff to meet requirements for launching ships.

After playing specialist cards, players then have to draw mission cards. As before, you can usually draw 3 cards and keep 1, but some specialist card immediate bonuses allow you to draw and keep an additional mission. Mission cards obtained this way are Earth-bound until they are successful launched into space. Critically, there are only 7 missions per level and repeats are not allowed. In this way, players ARE forced to slowly progress from level 1 to 4 missions.

One interesting specialist action is investing in a space station. Players can spend money to build a space station cooperatively and score points in the process. Initially, the investment is hefty, but each investment makes the subsequent investment cheaper. Late in the game when you have already fulfilled many missions, building the space station can score you a lot of points as you score 1 point per successful mission in space. This action is almost like a standalone method to score points late in the game.

Apart from immediate victory points for launching ships, some mission cards have end game scoring. In addition, players also draft three end of game objective cards at the start of the game. These end game scoring cards are of your typical Euro genre scoring with set collection or bonus scoring for collecting specific items or meeting specific objectives. Collectively, these cards should shepherd your strategy for the entire game as they provide some pretty hefty chunks of points at the end.

That’s the general gist for the game. The rules itself is not complex and everything is straight forward, the components itself look nice and not necessarily fiddly, but the scoring itself can reach the 200-300 range. I find the scoring fiddly. Points are given quite liberally and in huge chunks for many actions. I sometimes find it hard to gauge the relative value of an action when the range of scores are so diverse. Is a 5 VP immediate bonus really worthwhile to spend an action on? This is partially mitigated by repeat plays but a high scoring game makes figuring out the point values not intuitive. Moreover, a runaway winner on the score track alone can sometimes dampen the enthusiasm for some players. It is possible to lead by half a lap on the VP track in our plays. This is not necessarily a criticism of the game, just an observation.

Ultimately, Lift Off suffers from a term I hate to use: JASE. I should qualify by saying that Just Another Standard Euro is not always bad. Unlike others, I don’t need a game to always be innovative to enjoy it. You could do a lot worse than playing a solid Euro. With Lift Off, there is really nothing new mechanisms-wise and everything is pretty derivative. I cannot think of one unique element of the game even though the marriage between theme and mechanism is way above average. So far, our two player games fell a bit flat. There is minimal player interaction and even the draft was a little deflating since most of the actions aren’t vastly different. There are lots of overlapping actions in the specialist cards. The game is largely solo effort in maximizing individual efficiencies and a race to upgrade launch requirements. In that sense, the replayability part might be suspect. I also don’t want any expansions or modules added to the game as I feel the game is already quite integrated and has the right amount of complexity.

It is true that this game certainly needs a few more plays to nail down a verdict. Perhaps the initial plays were quite lopsided victories and that colored our judgement. Perhaps this game requires more players to shine, though I doubt it since it has a multiplayer solitaire feel to it. Nonetheless, as it stands, the first plays felt…. underwhelming.

Initial impressions: Average

02/2020 : subsequent plays showed tighter and more competitive scores. Nothing has changed about my impressions of the game even though scores are closer. Lots of micro calculations and optimization in last two rounds. I wonder about mission cap and why instead of fixed missions per level, why not feature all unique missions with no cap. It makes for multiple paths for victory instead of shoehorning all players toward same advancement pattern. Right now, all players needs to progress upward. Feels limited in scope and variable paths to victory.

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