Close encounters of the eighties kind

1981: The year yours truly was born, and the year Voyage of the B.S.M Pandora was published inside Ares magazine. What do we have in common? A waste of potential. But we're not here to talk about me.

As soon as I discovered the Ares magazine online archive a couple of days ago, I dug into it with the fervor of a hipster. The game that stood out above all the others in my eyes was Voyage:

Voyage of the Pandora is a solitaire game of interstellar exploration. The player controls the Biological Survey Mission Pandora as it travels the starways in search of extraterrestrial life forms. The player uses the crew, robots and equipment of the Pandora to collect exotic specimens while attempting to minimize the loss of human life and return home with the Pandora intact.

Sounds a lot like the upcoming ISS Vanguard from Awaken Realms, doesn't it? Considering that a Polish version of Voyage had circulated in 1985, I wouldn't be surprised if it was a source of inspiration for the Vanguard creators.

Now, let's see what this vintage game holds for the contemporary gamer. The material you will need to print is the rulebook, and the accompanying files posted on BGG by Ryanmobile (for your convenience, I am linking to the files at the end of this post). It is mainly the maps, some charts and tables, the counters, and the paragraphs that you will be reading to see what encounters you have when you land on the various planets.

The rules are for the most part well-written, but the game is bogged down by fiddly calculations that you have to execute far too often. As soon as the Pandora is set in orbit around a new planet, you have to select the crew and equipment that will board the Shuttle. The Shuttle can only carry a certain amount of weight, depending on the gravity of the planet. When the Shuttle lands on the ground, you decide if the expedition will be on foot or by rover. Again, weight calculations have to be made. You also have to carry supplies. When you spend hours exploring, the supplies will be spent, and you have to do supply checks. After a while, I decided to do myself a favour and dispense with most of the checks. I just limited my carrying and my exploration time, and focused on the enjoyable part that is the exploration itself.

The Pandora is traveling in space for a maximum of 30 months (you can choose to do a 10 or 20 month session instead, if you want shorter playtime). It can visit up to 9 different planets. Upon arrival, you roll a die and consult a chart that leads you to a paragraph. The paragraph gives you the basic characteristics of the planet: Gravity, Atmosphere, Geology and Climate, as well as your starting hex on one of the maps. Each map shows different terrain (flat, vegetation, mountains, rivers, caves etc.), and the terrain difficulty will define how many hours it takes you to move and explore. To explore, you roll two dice, check a chart and read the corresponding paragraph. Sometimes nothing happens: the terrain/atmosphere mentioned in the paragraph doesn't apply. When it does, you read some more to see what you found.

For example, my first destination was planet Suwathe. Suwathe has earth-like gravity but the atmosphere is corrosive. This means my crew has to wear special suits that doubles their weight. So just the Science Officer and the Ground Survey Officer disembark the Shuttle, carrying a turbolaser, a scanner and an energy cage. As soon as they step out, they see a giant tortoise. Since it couldn't be captured, they decided to move on. The tortoise chased after them (it was slow) but eventually grew wary and stopped. A few meters down, they find a big bipedal insect, peacefully grazing. 'Look, a mosquito-man!' 'Yikes, I hate mosquitoes. What if it's blood-thirsty? It could suck us dry with a straw'. 'Shoot it, Bob!' Pew-pew! Down goes the 'erequito' (erectum mosquito?), but the beaming clogs the turbolaser. Long story short, no creatures were captured on this planet. Captured creatures give you Victory Points at the end of the game, so it's not good if you don't catch anything.

A few planets later, we arrive at Opoplo. Heavy gravity, arctic climate. A big alien city is covered with ice. The Commander and the Science Officer go out to inspect. The neuroscanner senses a group of invisible aliens, but the officers only fancy some sight-seeing and pretend they didn't notice. After a while, they find an egg. The Science Officer holds it carefully like a diamond encrusted Faberge, but the damned thing cracks open, and a tentacled creature springs out. More killing ensues.

I may have had a few entertaining encounters, but all in all, the game ended up being tedious. The resource management part requires some serious streamlining: a player board on which to manage your crew, tools and supplies. A way to conduct communication and combat with creatures that doesn't ask you to roll on charts. As for the narrative section, it has enough paragraphs to stay fresh for two-three times, not more (an inherent problem of paragraph games, of course).

All that said, it should be mentioned that other people have enjoyed the game because of sweet nostalgia or maybe because they are more patient with clunky mechanisms than me. I certainly think it deserves a try, if only for the visual pleasure of the different terrain maps and the occasional amusing encounter. Vintage games have a certain charm just because they are vintage, but it's a pity Voyage of the B.S.M. Pandora was never revisited, developed and re-published in an improved edition (an identical boxed game had come out at the same time as the magazine). As I said above, ISS Vanguard seems to be following this direction, and I'm curious to see the outcome. Too bad it won't have hex terrain maps.

If you feel like printing it, here is what you'll need:

#VoyageOfTheBSMPandora #Butterfield #AresMagazine