Board games are a lot like the Terminator. Bear with me…
Any given board game consists of two key attributes: mechanics and fluff. Mechanics refers to the system or rules that enable gameplay, ranging from the simplicity of a coin toss to the complexity of an Avalon Hill war game.
Fluff, however, refers to a given game's thematic elements -- the setting, characters, artwork, writing and everything else that brings the cold, mathematical precision of the gaming system to life.
So you can think of game mechanics as a T-800's robotic endoskeleton and fluff as all the pink, muscly Arnold Schwarzenegger stuff on the outside: The game "works" just fine without it, but normal humans have a harder time relating to it -- much less selling it guns and ammo when it walks into a shop.
The fluff makes it fun, enabling us to achieve a flow state within the system of rules. We pour our consciousness into a self-contained universe that presents a manageable challenge, immediate feedback and a sense of control. Board games are pretty trippy when you think of them like that -- more like a mind-twisting plot element in a Phillip K. Dick novel than an afternoon-killer in a cardboard box.
So let us explore 10 board games in which engaging mechanics underlie equally engrossing science fiction fluff. I'm sure we left off some of your favorites, but hopefully you'll be able to balance your rage with a new discovery or two.
Author's Note: I originally wrote this article for HowStuffWorks.com back in July of 2015. It became something of a lost article for a while, but now it can at last see the light of publication. I didn't update it, however, so please forgive the exclusion of your favorite new sci-fi games that didn't exist yet. The ones on this list, however, are all still great.
Our grandparents had cowboys and Indians, but we have our space soldiers and alien hordes. From the 1957 novel "Starship Troopers" and the 1986 movie "Aliens" to such modern video game franchises as "Gears of War," we're all about the macho conflict between armored super soldiers and the inhuman threat of insectoid horrors.
That's where "Space Hulk" enters the picture, and many a gamer's heart. The fluff in this one stems from the "Warhammer 40,000" gaming universe, a kind of space-age dark fantasy setting in which "there is only war." One player commands a squad of heavily-armored Space Marines and the other manages innumerable Tyranid Genestealers.
"Space Hulk" leans heavily on tense, claustrophobic combat -- all in the cramped corridors of derelict, alien-infested space ships. The mechanics also give each side a couple of thematically-fitting advantages. The Space Marine player benefits from ranged weaponry, but has to work within a time limit for each turn's moves and actions. This reflects the desperation of their battle. Meanwhile, the Genestealers are limited to melee combat but have no time limit, reflecting their collective hive mind and home court advantage. Heroic last stands and horrific blood baths ensue -- just as "Space Hulk" fans have come to expect.
UK-based Games Workshop published the first edition way back in 1998 and they've been regularly re-releasing it every few years like a film from the Disney Vault. So don't hesitate to grab a copy!
Dune/Rex: Final Days of an Empire
If you're looking for great board game fluff, Frank Herbert's "Dune" saga has it in spades: space drugs, sand worms, a desert planet and multiple, byzantine factions to squabble over it.
But of course great fluff is useless without great game mechanics, which is why Avalon Hill merged its "Wheels Within Wheels" gaming system at the "Dune" franchise in 1979 to create one of the most beloved sci-fi board games of all time.
Each player controls a key faction, such as the noble House Atreides, the devious House Harkonnen or even one of the setting's more mysterious factions like the Bene Gesserit order. The factions employ military action, political treachery and the formation of alliances to win control over territories on the planet Arrakis. The game mechanics reflect this via a circular game board, treachery cards and a hidden bidding system that determines how many lives a player's willing to sacrifice in combat.
Here's another thing about great fluff, though: It can prove a bit difficult to hold onto. While Avalon Hill released the game as a licensed "Dune" product in 1979, the franchise and gaming system have sense gone their separate ways. Parker Brothers acquired the license and released an unrelated "Dune" game in in 1984, while Avalon Hill released two more expansions before their "Dune" went out of production.
In 2012, Fantasy Flight Games acquired the rights to the mechanics of Avalon Hill's "Dune," but none of the copyrighted fluff. Luckily, they had their own space opera setting in the form of their Twilight Imperium universe, and simply applied it to "Wheels Within Wheels" to produce "Rex: Final Days of an Empire."
If you're a purist, however, you can probably find a print-and-play version of the original "Dune" game online, or drop a few hundred dollars on a used copy.
Battlestar Galactica/Dark Moon
One of the best things about board games is that we play them with each other. Sure, that means a game of Monopoly results in trashed friendships and knife fights, but it means that a truly well-designed game can bring us closer together.
That's why Fantasy Flight's "Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game" is such a great experience, no matter what you thought of the SyFy Channnel TV series. The plot is pretty straight forward: humans aboard the Galactica fend off the robotic Cylons as they try to cripple and board the ship.
Sounds reasonably fun, right? Well here's where fluff and mechanics elevate the game to fan favorite status: Some of the human players are secretly Cylons, each plotting bring down the ship from within. When the game begins, there may be one or even zero secret Cylons in the game -- and then halfway into play a sleeper agent suddenly discovers their cold, mechanical heart and starts to work against their former compatriots.
Most of the drama comes down to secret votes in the game that determinate the effectiveness of defensive strategies. Which player is sabotaging the votes? Soon, everyone's accusing each other of being the enemy in disguise.
So the next time someone suggests a workplace icebreaker, bust out a copy of Battlestar, or try out "Dark Moon" from Stronghold games which employs a stripped-down version of the mechanics with franchise-free fluff.
In "Cosmic Encounter," players assume the roles of alien civilizations competing for galactic dominance -- and, granted, that sounds a bit like every other sci-fi strategy game out there. But "Cosmic Encounter" was a trend setter, first hitting the market in 1977 and influencing numerous designs in its wake.
Here's how it all goes down: In the course of the game, players shuffle around starship tokens, planets and cards that represent different encounters, reinforcements and useful artifacts across multiple game phases. Players also engage in the politics of their galactic ambitions, forming alliances and making deals. In this, a game of "Cosmic Encounter" tends to be a far more social affair than many competitive board games.
While each player starts the game with equal abilities and powers, a random "alien power" activates for each player upon gaining three planetary colonies. Each power bends or breaks the rules in the player's favor, such as allowing a player to win the game by losing all their ships, or allowing unlimited ship movement. This game feature ensures that no game of "Cosmic Encounter" is entirely alike, which helps explain the game's continued popularity 38 years and several publishers later.
If you crave the adventure of a good "Star Trek" bridge scene, then the 2008 board game "Space Alert" delivers the goods without all the flailing around.
Yes, "Space Alert" is a cooperative game in which each player assumes the role of a spaceship crewmember on a mission of cosmic discovery. Each game revolves around a single mission lasting exactly 10 minutes. To keep things tense, a thematic 10-minute audio track serve to keep track of the time. During this action phase, the players move around the ship and activate the necessary ship systems in order to mitigate threats. Afterwards, a 10-minute resolution round allows the players to see if they survived and how well they performed.
Counting set-up, a whole game takes a mere half-hour, significantly shorter than a full episode of Trek. The threats vary from meteorites to monsters, all drawn from a deck of 55 threat cards, so each game plays out a little differently. Most importantly of all, the game stresses teamwork. If the players can't work together, their survival is doubtful.
"Space Alert" is the creation of Czech game designer Vladimír Chvátil, who also designed "Galaxy Trucker," another popular sci-fi board game. As the name implies, it favors space-age industrial shipping over cosmic exploration, but you do have to contend with space pirates.
Much like cyberpunk, post-apocalyptic sci-fi tends to focus on Earth-bound dystopias rather than conflict in space. As such, the future depicted in the polish board game "Neuroshima Hex" is one of decimated cities and robotic armies, of rampaging mutants and human war bands. Each player picks an army, each with its own special tactics, and then sets out to crush its enemies.
This might not sound very exciting at first. Long-winded war games are everywhere and who needs another miniature-crowded map on the dining room table? That's where "Neuroshima Hex" differentiates itself: confining all action to a 19-tile hexagonal board no larger than a dinner plate. What's more, the average two-person battle tends to run 20-30 minutes -- far easier to fit in your day than 1985's "World in Flames" and its much-touted 6000-minute playtime.
Each player begins with a single hexagonal headquarters tile in play and subsequently deploys tiles from his or her hand representing military units in that given army. So if you're playing Moloch, you send out killer robots with high-power ranged weapons. The Neo Jungle, on the other hand, will deploy interconnected tiles of mutated vegetation. Game play continues until only one headquarters remain or the players run out of unit tiles in their army.
Originally published in 2006 by Poland's Portal Games, "Neuroshima Hex" is now available via a number of international publishers -- including Z-Man Games in the US. Given its small game board and streamlined design, it even works well on a smart phone in the form of Big Daddy Creations' app version.
We've covered some pretty serious, high-stakes sci-fi board games so far, but that doesn't mean every game has to center around the fate of humanity and interstellar war. Just consider "RoboRally," the game of bumbling, cartoonish robots in a pointless factory environment.
It's essentially a racing game, with cards determining how everyone's moves playout in real time. Only instead of proceeding around a racetrack, each player's dimwitted droid rolls through an environment full of conveyor belts, flame throwers, teleportation platforms and other hazards. Plus, you can also collide and blast each other with laser beams.
"RoboRally" was actually a 1985 design by Richard Garfield, who would go onto create the highly-popular "Magic: The Gathering" collectable card game. While originally a Wizards of the Coast property, Avalon Hill serves as the current publisher. Not only is it a fun game, it also makes for a pretty hilarious and light-hearted evening of robotic slapstick.
Interstellar drama makes for great board game fluff, but a lot of great science fiction is purely terrestrial. Just consider the cyberpunk genre, typified by such properties as William Gibson's "Neuromancer" and the "Matrix" trilogy. You know the deal: brooding hacker-types rip and run all over cyberspace, generally drawing the ire of powerful AIs and villainous corporations.
And so, in 1996, William Garfield and Lukas Litzsinger unleashed the world of Netrunner on the world. While originally a collectable card game like Garfield's cash cow "Magic: The Gathering," 2012's "Android: Netrunner" utilizes Fantasy Flight's "Living Card Game" system, in which regular expansion packs add continued variety to fluff and mechanics alike.
When it comes to cyberpunk flavoring, "Android: Netrunner" is fairly boilerplate. One player controls a white hat hacker known as a "runner," while the other plays one of several soul-crushing corporations. Cards fly as the corporation seeks to secure its interests, the runner tries to hack it and both sides try to undermine their opponent.
But there's something about the complexity of a good card game that meshes so well with Cyberpunk, with card interactions mimicking the labyrinthine ecosystem of programs and systems in the virtual realm.
Race for the Galaxy
Here's another game that follows the competing, technological ascension of interstellar civilizations. However, two main differences set "Race for the Galaxy" apart from the pack: It's entirely card-based and depends more on abstraction and symbolism.
Players start the game with a home world and, across five possible game phases, build out a tableau of technological and social development cards representing their civilization's development. When any one player accumulates a tableau of 12 or more cards, gameplay ends and everyone adds up victory points.
Of course, there's a bit more to it than that, and multiple expansion packs add additional game features and cards to what is already a complex game design. Still, serious gamers can't get enough of this very serious sci-fi board game.
Truly epic science fiction often concerns the rise and fall of interstellar empires, and in the gaming world this often takes the form of 4X strategy: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. Cheerful, eh?
4X games are often complex in nature, filled with technology trees, detailed empire management and the strategic acquisition of resource-rich territories -- true black holes of time and space for the dedicated gamer. It's no wonder that computer games like "Master of Orion" and "Sid Meier's Civilization" stand as some of the foremost examples of the genre, unloading much of the game mechanics on the programing.
But board games also make an important contribution to 4X gaming, and the most popular modern example of this is Touko Tahkokallio's "Eclipse." Amid an expanding galaxy of hexagonal tiles (and hours of gameplay), up to six players command competing interstellar civilizations as they pursue multiple pathways to greatness.
Gameplay ends after the 9th round of play, and whoever has the most victory points reigns supreme. However, since civilizations earn victory points for numerous accomplishments, there are several pathways to dominance -- and each civilization benefits from key advantages.
So while the powerfull-armed Orion Hegemony will likely stick to military expansion, the cybernetic Hydran Progress will likely devote its energy to technological innovation in an attempt to rule the known galaxy.
Author's Note: It was a tough job deciding on 10 game titles for this article, and I know a few favorites didn't make the cut. If you're interested, other beloved sci-fi board games include "Twilight Imperium," "Star Realms," "Galaxy Trucker," "Alien Frontiers," "The Resistance," "Xia" and "Star Wars: Imperial Assault." Plus, who knows what the future will deliver to our gaming tables?