Sometimes, you want the flavour of a big, expansive tactical board game without having to spend three or four hours working through the rules. Mothership: Tabletop Combat, an Aussie-made game about blowing other ships into smithereens, understands this well.
This story originally appeared on 4/3/19, and has been bumped following the launch of Mothership‘s 2nd edition campaign, which you can check out here.
Originally released in 2017 following a successful Kickstarter, Mothership is the creation of Melbourne designer Peter Sanderson. It’s best described as a sci-fi tactics game, although it does borrow bits and pieces from the 4X genre with researching abilities, conquering planets, a few random encounters, and so on.
Designed for two to six players, Mothership comes with two general modes out of the box: a no-frills deathmatch offering, and a victory points mode, which is much faster, encourages aggressive play and is just all-around better.
Each player starts with three fighters, two bombers, a mothership and a colony ship. The fighters and bombers start out with a fixed movespeed, and have certain rules on what they can and can’t attack. Bombers can’t damage fighters, and while fighters can have a go at anything, they can’t do hull damage, so they’re pretty useless for attacking larger objects.
The mothership, on the other hand? Well, how much damage it does – or doesn’t do – is entirely up to you.
Every player gets two of these cards. The top one is your “Mothership Control Panel”, which basically has three rows for your mothership’s movement, shields and attack. Every turn, before you move your mothership, you can adjust all three of these any way you see fit. Sitting next to a planet and want to ensure a capture is an absolute success? Then dump all your movement points into attack, boosting your chances there. If you’re at the start of the game, and need to make a beeline for a planet – or perhaps you need to make a hasty retreat to get back to your colony station – then you can dump a ton of points into movement.
You’ll note that I mentioned “chances”, which is kind of the key part. All combat, as well as the capturing and defence of planets, is resolved through dice rolls. But it’s a good dice roll system, with plenty of opportunities for players to effectively plan and guard against the luck of the dice.
At the end of every turn, players get to draw a certain amount of resource cards based on the amount of planets they control and whether they still have their main colony station. Those resources can then be spent on a tech tree, which in the original version of Mothership has three main branches: economy, combat, and bomber/energy upgrades. You also get resources every time you destroy a fighter/bomber, mothership or colony station, as well as victory points to go with it, so it’s in your interest to be real aggressive from the off.
Ships also respawn (provided you still have your colony station) in the victory points mode of the game, which is another reason why that’s generally the better mode.
In any case, the combination of it all – hunting down planets for faster resource generation, setting up tactical engagements so you can stall your enemies while getting a quick resource injection yourself, and plotting future upgrades while calculating the status of your opponents’ tech – makes for a snappy, entertaining 4X-lite game. The colonisation and research is not even close to the same level as an actual tabletop 4X (like Gaia Project), but it’s infinitely easier to pick up as a result.
Once you’ve got the hang of the general flow, three people can comfortably knock off a victory point match within the space of an hour. Individual turns are quite rapid: you move your ships, decide whether you want to those ships to attack, capture any planets or resolve any combat if required, and then draw resources to end your turn. The original and updated manual doesn’t do the best job of outlining this turn order, which makes the starting process a little slower than it should be.
If anything, that’s probably Mothership‘s biggest weakness: the game makes it seem slightly more complicated than it really is. But once you get into the thick of it, the game is remarkably easy to understand, and it doesn’t take long before everyone is rapidly trying to make alliances to buy them and their planets a brief reprieve before launching a counter-attack of their own.
I mentioned before that you can guard against the roll of the dice pretty easily, so here’s how that works. Each fighter, bomber and your mothership rolls a certain die to attack. Fighters and bombers are fixed – 1d6 and 1d8 respectively – while players determine how much attack their mothership has by shifting energy around at the start of every turn.
If players want to combine ships for an attack, or just to guarantee that they’ve captured a planet, then you just need two or more ships that are adjacent to the target. You roll the respective die for each ship and combine the total roll, and if it’s higher than the defender, you win the fight. Same goes for planet captures.
If you lose the multi-die combat, however, all the attacking ships will be destroyed – unless you’re attacking a bomber with fighters (because bombers can’t damage fighters) or you’re attacking a colony ship, which can’t fire back. Both the original and updated manual are pretty clear about combat, though.
There’s also various upgrades that boost the rolls of your various ships. The economy tree, for instance, has an upgrade that lets you double all die rolls while capturing planets. But the very next upgrade – if you want to go down that branch – also gives players a +7 bonus to defending their planet. Similarly, there’s upgrades for your bombers and fighters to add +1 or up to +4 to their die rolls. And in the very last tier of upgrades, you can get some truly overpowered shit – like the ability to launch an attack from your mothership to literally anywhere on the board, a tractor beam that locks enemy ships within in place, or a shorter range attack that lets your mothership bombard enemies from within 6 spaces away.
Those upgrades are meant to be game-ending, though. Mothership is designed to be a fast game, and when you play it in the vastly better victory point mode, and with three or more players, you run into some truly fun tactical scenarios. The layout of the board changes every game as well, with players moving asteroid fields around to their preference (although some ‘balanced’ setups are provided in the manual).
All of my playthroughs have been with the original version of Mothership, although the game has been updated since it first launched. A reprint of the game, complete with nicer components, an expanded tech tree (with four main branches instead of three), and some extra new mechanics including new planets, defensive emplacements and a new resource that can be used for buffing certain rolls, is due to go live on Kickstarter later this week.
Not a great deal has changed structurally. The updated version uses green cubes for tracking resources instead of a deck of resource cards, but the main difference is that the components are a bit nicer and there are extra variants you can add for future playthroughs, like development cards for planets, and moons that can further increase the strategic value of certain planets. There’s a solo mode, as well.
Mothership is one of those games that’s smarter than it looks. It’s never going to be the most beloved sci-fi strategy game, or topping any geek lists, but it does a good job of mixing that tabletop tactics flavour with dice into a format that feels fair. The reprint is live on Kickstarter now.