Gunship! First Strike: I’ll Blow You Up Just As Soon As I Can Figure Out How!

A couple weeks ago the folks at Escape Pod Games offered me a copy of Gunship! First Strike to review in anticipation of their latest Kickstarter, slated to start in a few days. I accepted as I’ve really wanted to play it after Michael Barnes mostly glowing review, plus, I haven’t written as often as I’d liked in the last six months due to several issues revolving around some Circus members getting sick with cancer, among other things. The long and short is that the game has tons of great ideas, and it delivers on a whole lot of them, but in all the years of playing games, I’ve never found one that was so absolutely polarizing. The people that I played this with either loved it, or as one person said, “It’s amazing…it’s what capital ship combat should be!”, or as one person who hated it said, “I feel like this game just raped my mind. Is that even possible?”  In short, it really was that polarizing.

The game’s initial incarnation is a two-player, head to head battle between two gunships, two space carriers, and some fighters. It allows you to put whatever weapons on your ship that you want, without restriction, and hockey fight until one side’s carrier is obliterated. You can even head to the carrier to repair your ship or change weapons, which is really cool. In between rounds your big carriers shoot one another too, which acts as sort of a timer and adds some tension, which is also really cool. You can even deploy fighters to screen your attacks against the carrier, which is super cool. Like I said before, it’s got a lot of great ideas.

A subsequent expansion to the base game added even more weapons and options to lock onto your ships in the form of upgrades, so you could really customize your ship to be in lock step with your strategies. These additions to the menu are really very cool, giving a lot more flexibility in how you build your gunship and adding a lot more to think about. 

Another expansion added two more sets of ships, allowing four players to go head-to-head in team games or all-out death matches. And yes, yet another expansion added terrain effects in the form of asteroids, and yet another expansion still added crew members, making it much more like Star Command in that you can assign and move crewmen to make your ship more effective. With all these expansions, the game really became much more a game system than a stand alone product. I love sandbox designs, and this really is sort of a dream come true in that regard, because it pushes all the right buttons in that respect.

The artwork is really nice, and while the cards are really kind of cheap in that they’re flimsy and easily bend, and the chipboard ship boards are a little warped, the production value in the game is really very good. If I had to make one overwhelming complaint, it’s that the gunship boards are truly huge, and if I had my way, the boards would’ve been half their size and the cards would’ve been the same half-size cards that are found in Arkham Horror and other FFG games. There’s just no credible reason that the main boards had to be so large. In a four player game, my four by five foot table was almost entirely covered with stuff, which made the game feel cramped, even though the game is mostly played off of those boards. It’s no disparagement of the game, though, it’s just that it takes up a disproportionate amount of table space for such a simple game. My review copy also had the ship tokens upgrade, and of all the bits in the game, those were the real icing. I ADORED them because before those bits, you used cards to denote the location of your fighters and gunship. They just look pretty and they save some space, both of which kind of float my boat. I think they might even be better than if miniatures were included, which is high praise from a miniature nut like me.

One of my favorite things about the game’s physical design, and my opinion was shared by everyone, not just the people who liked the game, was that the ship could have its wings and other parts blown clean off, and when they got blown off, they literally come off of the ship. No tokens, no “blast markers” or anything, you take those parts off and they’re gone. That’s just fucking cool. It’s the difference between Hot Wheels and Hot Wheels Crack Ups, if you’re old enough to remember them. 

Now, there’s one tremendous blemish on the game that almost got me to the point of Toe to Toe reviewing the game, and “they shoulda betta known betta“: the rulebook is utterly terrible in every conceivable way. All seven of us who played this game agreed on this point. It didn’t come with a player aid, which totally sucked ass, but after some googling and BGG hunting, I found that they rectified the situation by making one that you could print. After printing, you could almost play the whole game off this thing. That said, the learning game was BRUTAL for all of us, and I had to do it twice because I played with two groups.

The fact is that there’s a lot of rules questions that came up, and there was no easy way to figure out the answer. For instance, your ship gets hit with an Ionization effect that makes affected areas impossible to repair, and to make matters worse, the ionization travels around your ship board indefinitely, screwing up your plans. We wanted to know how to get rid of it in-flight, but we read and reread the rules over and over trying to find it. The only reference to getting rid of it is on the carrier, if you land, but that wasn’t even in the section about ionization, but rather in the carrier section. So, we assumed (correctly) that the only way to get rid of it was on the carrier, but it would’ve been SO MUCH BETTER had they simply put one sentence in the Ionization Damage section, “The only way to remove ionization cards on your ship is by removing them on the carrier, or if X happens.” With an over-long rulebook to begin with, really, would one sentence hurt? There’s a lot of little things like this, and it made learning and teaching the game a truly painful experience.

All that said, the game is surprisingly quick and fun to play, and easy to understand once you get past the initial steep learning curve and go searching for answers. The FAQ on their site is also utterly devoid of half of the answers found on BGG, which kind of pissed me off, since it’s their game and they shouldn’t rely on BGG to host their answers, especially those that cover important aspects of the game. Anyhow, turns literally take under a minute in almost all cases, and combat is simple and easy to resolve, yet effective and fun. Combat is resolved with specialty dice in some cases, and gunship attacks are initiated by playing cards in your hand that match the weaponry on the ship. 

The trick to using your gunship is that you can either bet on catching lots of certain kinds of cards by loading your ship with one kind of weapon, which allows you to have devastating attacks, or you can mix it up a bit, loading many different types of guns on your ship to ensure that your odds of being able to attack at all are high. None of the players complained that the game was too random, even after I got ultra lucky and managed to tag an enemy gunship with three ionization cards, effectively fucking his shit up like there’s no tomorrow. Incidentally, for him, there was no tomorrow after my teammate subsequently gutted his disabled ship on the following turn, destroying his sad, pathetic little gunship.

The base game is fine as is, but the upgrade packs really add a lot to the game for a reasonable price. I like that you can buy them a’ la carte or can get the Arsenal bundle, but at a total of ninety bucks for the base game and the arsenal pack, I’m not sure the game commands such a high price. Like I said before, you’re going to either love it or hate it, but I honestly think that the pain of the learning game takes the shine off of what would otherwise be a really killer game, and that tainted people’s perception. A couple players refused to play again after the learning game, but those that played a second game really dug it a lot and once we got in the groove of understanding how everything worked, the game sped by and we were blowing smoking holes in one another. 

I like the game well enough to want to play again, once I figured it all out, and it reminded me a lot of another game I really liked, Zombie Survival in the fact that you can build your ship up the way you want and then you have to deal with the decisions because you can’t control the card draws or the game state after the game’s started. It also has a strong similarity to games like Battletech and Ogre because hit locations matter a lot. There’s not many games that I’ve played with this sort of “hit locations matter” and it really adds a lot of tension to the game, especially when you have the “Bulls-eye” card which allows you to choose which location to apply damage to.

I think, in the final analysis, if you take the time to muddle through the poorly written rules and use the player aid, you’ll end up with a really good time. I think the game has tons of merit, and aside from my complaints of having boards that are just too damned big for what they are and the game being hard to learn, it’s a really fun, fast playing game. I think it shines the most with two players, as my daughter and I had a blast blowing each other into space junk, but it’s still good with three players, although I think human nature kicks in and causes players to casually team up and beat on the most wounded guy mercilessly. That’s not really a game flaw as much as taking advantage of a weak player. Four player team games are also really fun, so it’s pretty good with four as well, although it can add some downtime. Some people don’t like player elimination games, but I relish them as it forces a player to play smarter, knowing that he’ll have to sit and watch if he is killed off.

Why I’d Name My Band “Jefferson Gunship” And Be A Rock Legend:

– Cool art and bits make this fun to look at on the table
– The fact that this is more a “game system” than a “game” gives huge replay value
– Fast and furious turns keep the players’ attention on the game
– Hit locations and moving damage effects add huge tension
– Lots of expansion material and each adds something cool to the game

Why I Wouldn’t Recommend This To Everyone, Even For A Klondike Bar:
– The boards and cards are too damned big and take up too much space
– It’s a Kickstarter game, and “Kickstarter” translates from Gamese to “Fucking Expensive”
– This may be the worst rule book I’ve ever had to decipher in 20+ years of gaming
– You kind of HAVE to have an experienced player teach the game or it’s brutal

This game isn’t an autobuy for me, and it’s expensive if you get the full monty, but if you have a hard on for space combat games that are part simulation and part action game, then this might very well be something you like a whole lot. I highly recommend that you play the game with someone who has played it before and can explain it well to alleviate some of the “first game blues” that we experienced. Further, if Universal Head made a rules summary or if Escape Pod Games rewrote the rules in a more streamlined, cross-referenced manner I think it would really garner the support and following I think it probably could garner.

3.5/5 Stars

Check it out here, at the Escape Pod Games site:

Check it out the rules, if you dare:

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