Game Buzz: The Phantom League

Continuing with some games that may have slipped through my radar before Essen, I want to take a look at The Phantom League.  It ended the fair at #3 on the Geek Buzz chart, just ahead of 7 Wonders, so that’s enough to grab my attention (Survive came in #2, with Junta: Viva El Presidente at #1).  Now, all that means is that 22 people rated The Phantom League an average of 3.9 out of 5 (as opposed to the 191 that rated 7 Wonders a 3.8), but still, it’s something to take a look at.

PL Cover - image by BGG user Eridis

The Phantom League comes from Finnish designer Timo Multamäki, as well as publishers Dragon Dawn Productions and Tuonela Productions.  Art was done by Karim Chakroun.  The game is for 2-6 players, takes about 90 minutes, and is for ages 12 and up.  The basic premise is that you’re the captain of a merchant spaceship who is building your fame and notoriety through trading, piracy, exploration, and attempting to eliminate your rivals.  The game is based on the old video game Elite, designed by David Braben.

This game comes with a modular board that includes one central hex and 36 hex halves that will be used to make the remainder of the board.  At the start of the game, you’ll separate the two different colored backs, then pair two random halves off (one from each group).  The inner ring, which surrounds the central hex, will be face up, while the outer ring will be face down.  The result looks like the setup for Settlers of Catan if that game was in space and began with the outer region face down.  There are tokens that represent narcotics, slaves, fuels, food, and ore.  There are money chips (hooray for no paper money!), ship tokens, and player mats.  There are also cards, including 9 captain cards, 9 spaceship cards, 30 mission cards, 11 alien cards, 10 pirate cards, 40 improvement cards, 69 battle cards, 19 hyperspace cards, and 20 docking cards.

Before the game starts, you set up a DESTINY DECK (by the way…does anyone else want to say DESTINY in a booming Buck Rogers style voice every time it is used in a game?  I can’t seem to help myself, even while typing).  The DESTINY DECK contains 3 support cards, 3 attack cards, and 3 defense cards, taken at random from the battle cards.  This gets replenished throughout the game.  Players start with $1000 (or whatever the unit of currency is), a play mat, three mission cards, and a Captain.  This Captain is chosen from the Captain cards, with any unused getting returned to the box.  Each player will also buy a ship (in opposite order of choosing Captain…another reminder of Settlers).  All players can then buy improvements, with the player who has the most expensive ship going first.  You start with max fuel, structural, and escape values, and your ship starts in the central hex.

I’m kind of doing this in a stream of consciousness fashion, reading the rulebook as I go.  I’m a little surprised that the next section after set up is “Winning the Game.”  Odd that this is here.  I understand that many rules explainers tell you what goal you’re shooting for, but this is a full explanation of how you win.  Before the game rules.  With no further explanation later in the rules.  Hmm.  Well, anyway, you win with a recongition level of 8.  You gain recognition through completing missions, trading and buying recognition, destroying other ships, and exploring uncharted space.  You lose if you die, so it seems that there’s player elimination.

There’s a specific sequence of play.  First, if you are in a blockade (when another ship is in the hex where you are docked), you can try to break out.  You can either attack the blockade, attempt to escape, or make an agreement with the other player that you can leave without bloodshed.  If you’re blockaded, you can’t move.

And movement is the second phase of the turn.  Standard movement is one hex, though you can increase that speed.  You spend one fuel every time you move from hex to hex.  If you’re moving around the same hex, you spend no fuel.  You spend an extra fuel if you’re heading into unexplored space, and you’ll need a speed of two.  If you run out of fuel. you can be towed by another ship with a tractor beam, but you’ll have to make a deal with them.

To move into unexplored space, you’ll remove the fuel, and draw a hyperspace card which will tell you if you actually succeeded.  If so, turn up the hex halves, gain Recognition (only if your current level is under 6), and then take planetary system actions.

So, now it’s time for actions.  Planetary system actions are first, and you take these generally when you enter a hex.  You can only take one.  You can mine up to three units of ore; you can use the fuel scoop improvement to fill up your gas tank; you can attack other spaceships on the same hex; you can blockade a docked ship; you can dock with other ships if they agree, and then can transfer cargo, fuel, or improvements; or you can dock to a station or planet, drawing an indicated number of cards and resolving them.

If you’re docked at a station, you can perform any or all of these actions in any order and as much as you want (or can): buy improvements; resell improvements; spend $50 to repair any number of improvements; spend $50 per point of structural damage you want to repair; trade; or buy up to half of the remaining supply tokens.

On a planet, you can move cargo from ship to ship; trade; or buy recognition.  You can’t buy your eighth point – this must be earned in another way.

And that’s a turn.  Once you’re done with your actions, I guess it’s time for the next player.  I have to say, these rules are very poorly laid out.  I’m looking at the most recent update from BGG, but they are really terrible.  There’s no synopsis of a turn, there are very few examples, and there are cross-references throughout.  I’m not really clear on how things will play – I suppose I’ll need to try it to find out.

One of the most interesting things I’m finding about this game is the interaction between players.  You’re constantly going to have to be making deals, trading, threatening, attacking.  I’ve mentioned Settlers of Catan a few times, and I think this is comparable in that respect.  I’m not saying this game is going to be nearly as great as that one, but there are definite elements of similarity and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Timo Multamäki was inspired by Catan.

I’m always saying that the rulebook is the most important component in a game.  After reading through this one, I’m much less enthralled than I thought I might be.  However, I think it might be worth a look.  You can find other opinions on BGG.  I have no idea how much it will cost or when it will be available.

Thanks for reading, and insert clever tagline here.

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