It’s about damn time we reviewed a smaller game, isn’t it? While not a proper microgame by any means, Sensor Ghosts from UK indie shop Wren Games is a far cry from the million-piece board games I’ve reviewed in the past. Instead, it’s a simple and elegant puzzle game that requires just as much brainpower as much bigger, flashier games. It’s a thematic successor to Wren’s Assembly line of games, and recently has come off a quite successful Kickstarter. With the Late Pledges up and running, it seems like a great time to check the game out!
What’s In The Box?
Quite a bit, actually! Much like it’s sister series Assembly, Sensor Ghosts is all about the cards. Unlike that series, cards pull double duty as both the method of play AND the board for the game. Laid out on the table in a large rectangle, they form the maze through which you navigate. You navigate with a pair of lovely little wooden tokens: one for your spaceship and one for your (optional) escape pod. There’s also similar tokens that represent useless asteroids and valuable data (more on that later). There’s also roles cards that give you special powers and action cards that are used to perform your actions. The game’s look is really, really wild. It kind of has that British retro-scifi look that reminds me of the old Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy show or the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who. There’s lots of glowing numbers and swirling stars in bold, easy to read colors.
How’s It Play?
It ain’t easy, I can tell you that much. In its gameplay, Sensor Ghosts reminds me a lot of a mini-game from Mass Effect or Ratchet & Clank: there’s a pattern here you just have to learn it. The base conceit of the game is that you (and your fellow astronauts should you have them) have recently escaped a dangerously infected space station and its evil computer (the “enemies” of Assembly) and must navigate your way to earth through an asteroid field. Seems easy enough, right? After all, you’re all experienced explorers with a whole ship’s worth of sensors at your command. But is it ever really that simple? As it turns out, the aforementioned evil compute hitched a ride and is now hellbent on stopping you from getting home. That’s where the fun part of the game comes in: cooperative hidden movement.
The main part of the game is fairly standard: avoid asteroids, move to the end of the maze, gather randomly placed virus samples to destroy your malicious hitchhiker. But said hitchhiker is listening to you and won’t take kindly to you destroying it. As such, players are expressly forbidden from planning their actions out verbally, sharing their hand, or telling the other player what to play (or else the computer will hear). What this means is that you might end up not moving, moving too far, or outright dying thanks to your fellow traveller’s choice of action syncing badly up with yours. Maybe you want to go for one sample and they want to go to the other? It’s a fascinating mechanic that I think more games should try out, as it merges elements of co-op and competitive gaming quite well.
Even without the above restriction, which the game has rules for and recommends for first timers, this is not an easy game. There’s three samples to collect but five tokens on the board, two of which are asteroids. You can only go in straight lines unless you use extra fuel (extra cards) to change direction. Oh and did I mention that any collision is a one hit kill? And not only that, but the “board” is shifting beneath you as each round the cards move down and over! This isn’t a game where the time limit is an estimate, this is a game where it’s a guarantee. As such, you’ll probably end up dying many, many, many, many times as you learn the ropes and get a handle on things. But luckily its a very quick game, and you’ll soon get a hang of the strategy and memory needed to survive long enough to gather your samples and get out.
If that’s not hard enough for you, you can also try the escape pod variant which adds in a semi-uncontrollable follower pod who moves on its own based on your last movement. If it dies, you die with it. It’s like having a very stupid dog with you in a disaster movie. There’s also plenty of ways to increase and decrease the difficulty based on who is playing and what kind of game they want.
I’d definitely recommend this game to anyone who loves solving puzzles. It’s not easy, but it has that same “one more try” addictiveness that makes games like Dark Souls so popular. It hurts you but you just want more! It’s also an incredibly elegant design for a game that does some very interesting stuff, all packed into an incredibly simple and appealing little package. While not necessarily the party game of the future, Sensor Ghosts is definitely something you can pull out with friends who want a quick game with not much setup or cleanup needed.
Keep an eye on the Kickstarter if you’d still like to make a late pledge, after which the game will be available at Wren’s store, at cons Wren Games attends, and select game stores in the UK. (Update: The Pledge manager is up and running here, so get in on it before it’s too late)
All Images via Wren Games and the BBC