Maybe it’s just me, but I am just a little bit uncomfortable with the nomenclature for this game. I worry about the use of the word Freaks. It’s a word that is so often bandied about as a term of abuse that I suspect it is on track to go the way of the racist epithets that we have all but expunged from the lexicon.
Putting this niggle to one side, what are these Space Freaks and what’s this game all about?
Space Freaks: Extraterrestrial Robot Wars
If you’ve ever watched the TV programme Robot Wars, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the basic concept behind the theme of this game. Designed by Max Wikstrom, the premise for Space Freaks is a television show very similar to Robot Wars, but one produced not by the BBC but by an Alien Broadcasting Corporation (the publishers, Lautapelt.fl would probably have called it ABC but that network name was already taken in the US). Although Space Freaks also incorporates robots, the difference is that, in this extraterrestrial TV show, it isn’t, in the main, killer robots attacking each other but trios of genetically engineered sentient beings. Unlike us humans, these alien television producers obviously have a sadistic side to them.
The game itself is played over six rounds and, over this time, players will each be seeking to amass the most victory points. They’ll be doing this by having their avatars shoot each other and by completing ‘missions’. And just to shake things up a bit, the ‘Arena Master’ in charge of the contest will throw in a new game-changing rule each round (ie: each round, the players turn over a random event card).
But before your avatar contestants can enter the ‘Arena of Annihilation’, you have to create them. The starting point for this game is players determining the characteristics of their particular space freaks. For this, you need to put yourself in the mindset of the Founders of the Dominion in the Gamma Quadrant in Star Trek Deep Space 9. Players are each, simultaneously, going to be creating their own peculiar equivalent of the Jem’Hadar. Happily, your space freaks remain loyal and obedient to your every command; no need for you to keep them drugged and dependent on ketracel-white.
Create your very own Space Freaks
Each player starts with an identical pack of cards representing the various body parts from which they can select. The body torso establishes the freaks’ core health (the number of hit points each can take). Players might choose a torso with a high base number of hit points but no other benefits or they may instead plump for a torso with less health but with other compensatory abilities; for example, armour and/or the ability to dish out damage automatically to an attacker who inflicts damage on them.
The right and left arms are separately selected. The right arm will be a weapon; with players making a choice, for example, between the ability to make a ranged attack inflicting a small amount of damage or the ability to inflict much greater damage in a melee attack (requiring the attacker to be an immediately adjacent hex). The various left arms on offer give a choice between various modifiers; for example, to armour or movement. Movement, of course, is primarily determined by the ‘legs’ (I use the term loosely because some ‘leg’ units look more like tank tracks) but, again, players will want to consider taking a reduced movement capability in return for valuable additional benefits such as modifiers to other characteristics.
As you might expect, the freaks’ heads all differ but these are not selected by the players; they are dealt out randomly. Each head comes with its own unique special ability. Expect complaints from players that these are unbalanced: just as the grass always seems greener on the other side, so your opponents’ special abilities always seem to look much more powerful than your own. That said, one or two of the head powers do seem to stand out as objectively stronger than others.
Once each player has set all the characteristics and capabilities of their species of Space Freak, you can mostly expect these to remain permanently in place for the rest of the game. Just occasionally, however, one of the Arena Master’s random event cards will force a ‘mutation’ that requires players to swap a body part, or you may yourself use a ‘sponsor’ card that allows you to swap one of your arms. Doing so can catch an opponent by surprise if your swapped arm permits a type of attack that they didn’t see coming.
A message from the Space Freaks ‘sponsors’
With each of your three avatars placed on the hex-divided Arena map board, players’ team of freaks move and do battle according to the abilities you have set for them. However, players can further supplement their capabilities during the game by playing ‘sponsor’ cards. These will mainly be additional weapons. Aside from bashing each other up, players will also have missions to achieve (typically involving playing certain combinations of cards or getting a freak avatar to a particular location). Meeting these requirements will also score victory points. Players’ mission cards are played face up, so you will always know what missions your opponents are trying to achieve. This allows players to position defences in order to hinder an opponent from scoring. During the course of the game, players may be able to recruit robots or aliens to assist them, for example, and they can erect ‘turrets’ that add to their defensive capabilities.
On their turn, a player moves all his avatars. This allows players to set up combos using two or more of their freaks. The downside is that, if you let it, this can lead to excessive downtime between turns. If you allow it, there is ample scope in this game for long drawn out analysis of options and careful measurement to optimise exactly which piece can go where. Please ignore all that. The best way to play this game is not to overthink it but to play it intuitively. Trust me, it’s much more fun that way.
There is a decent amount of variety in Space Freaks. Though the body parts are not all wildly different, players still have access to an astronomically high number of possible combinations of body part cards. This means that no two games are ever likely to play out in exactly the same way. And on top of this, the game board is two sided with each of the two different arenas inviting slightly different strategies.
Space Freaks: Chaos Reigns
On reflection, however, strategy is perhaps rather too grand a word for this game. With two players, Space Freaks can have an almost chess-like alternating cat-and-mouse tension but if you play with three or four (the full complement) then you will inevitably find the game quite chaotic, given that everyone is essentially attacking everyone else. That’s not a bad thing – it makes for a fast and furious fun game – but it is definitely anarchic.
Unless you are playing with someone who tries to overanalyse every move, this isn’t a game that’s likely to outstay its welcome. Be warned, though, if you attempt to play Space Freaks with someone who suffers from AP (analysis paralysis) then either set a strict time limit for each turn or play something else.
Space Freaks is quick to learn and, played properly (no dithering), you should expect to be able to complete a game in about an hour. With two players, you can probably get through a game in around 30 minutes. Because your characters are chasing around a board shooting at each other, it may put players in mind of the game Adrenaline (Czech Games Edition), but, belying the title, Adrenaline turned out to be quite a ‘thinky’ game. Once your initial planning (freak build) is out of the way, the actual rounds of play of Space Freaks should be quicker and more instinctive than in Adenaline. That means, paradoxically, that, of the two, it is Space Freaks that is the more likely to give you an adrenaline kick of excitement as you play the game.
Space Freaks comes with generally appropriate freak minis (they are of fixed design, so obviously they won’t actually match the look of the freak you end up with on your design board) and a batch of minis to represent the aliens and robots that players can recruit during the course of the game. The cards are attractive, making use of ersatz Dan Dare-style cartoon art. The flat hexagonal tokens that players can place out in the arena to represent turrets, wormholes and the like are just a little disappointing, however, because they can be difficult to distinguish. The rules could be clearer in places, too, but you should be able to find answers to any of the queries that arise during the course of play.
All in all, Space Freaks scores 6/10. Take your cue from the artwork: this isn’t a game that the designers expect you to take too seriously. It will be grindingly dull if even one of the players insists on overthinking every move. Space Freaks is fun to play but only if you ensure you play it fast and furious!
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.