I can’t be the only one noticing the trend of an endless onslaught of licensed board games for the past few years. Major publishers such as CMON or FFG games, companies that once created original settings with a hefty budget, are now grabbing as many intellectual properties as they can. Not saying these are bad games, as I have enjoyed quite a few of them, but we are currently living in a visually boring era.
This is why I am stunned that in this age of familiar pop culture icons transmuting into tabletop games, Cowboy Bebop didn’t get a single glance. It is a show that combines the love of science fiction and cowboys into a beautiful partnership. If you are a fan of American films, this show is a buffet of references to the movie industry and not done in a pretentious Quentin Tarantino way. Before anyone bellows out Firefly, that show ran in 2002 while Cowboy Bebop aired in 1998.
So after 23 years since the show’s original running, Japanime Games has grabbed the license to make a game out of it. What is it? An anime deckbuilder.
I’m sure those of you who got their feet wet in the deckbuilder trenches are probably getting chills right now with those three words. I understand the concern, but let me assure you, I wouldn’t be wasting my time with this review if it wasn’t worth talking about.
Too Familiar? Possible
As expected in these licensed games, you play as one of the protagonists, and since this is a show about space bounty hunters, the focus is on flying to different planets to capture criminals. However, this is not about earning the most money. Staying loyal to the show’s theme, money is always fleeting for the Bebop crew due to the many debts, property damage, and other never-ending expenses. Instead, your victory comes in the form of renown. In other words, this entire game is about bragging rights, and for some silly reason, I love that idea.
Before we go into the basic outline, we do need to talk about the deck itself. Much like other deckbuilders out there, you have a basic starting deck loaded with mediocre cards. You also have five random cards in the middle that serves as the marketplace with the cost listed on the card itself. During your turns, you will be buying cards and adding them to your discard pile. There are also four colored suits in the game, representing the four protagonists of Cowboy Bebop.
I’ll admit that I’m getting tired of this trend with every deckbuilding starting the same. I understand that Dominion, the Patient Zero of deckbuilders, had this setup. After 13 years, it’s frustrating to see the same gimmick played over and over again. Fortunately for this game, it’s everything else surrounding this template that makes it work.
Besides shredding your deck like it’s a New Years Resolution, you also have a miniature to move around the galaxy and different bounties to capture. You also have a player mat in front of you that will keep track of your fuel as well as your own special ability. This is a hybrid deckbuilder, and while the concept itself isn’t unique, it is a welcome change.
Like any other deckbuilder, you will play all five cards from your hand in any order you like, executing one card at a time. You will get the usual resources and trigger the card’s effects. Some cards will have a “team effort” listed at the bottom of the card. Team effort is an additional effect or resource if you played a card with the matching suit on that turn. It’s very similar to the faction system in Star Realms and Eternal: Chronicles of the Throne. An important aspect to note is your starting deck has four cards using your character’s suit, giving you a bit of direction of what to buy from the market. Any cards bought will go to your discard pile and your entire hand will be discarded at the end of the turn. Not much change so far.
Planning To Spend
While resources aren’t new to deckbuilders, Space Cowboy: Space Serenade has four different resources, with previously mentioned Fuel tracked on your player mat. The three other resources, Woolongs, Clues, and Strength, disappear into the vast emptiness of space if they aren’t used on that turn. Woolongs, this universe’s currency, can buy cards from the Marketplace. Both Clue and Strength will help you capture criminals, while Fuel has various uses.
One of its major uses is moving one location to another. At the start of the game, everyone starts at the Bebop ship with their miniature standing proud, and there are three planets you can visit to go after your quarry. Each planet starts with one criminal, and every criminal has two stacks of tokens on it: Investigation and Resistance. To get a token, you need to spend a Clue for the Investigation pile and Strength for the Resistance. These tokens are potential renown, but only if you capture the criminal. If the criminal runs away, then all that criminal’s tokens are discarded with no reward.
When either stack depletes, the capture is a success. Every player with that criminal’s tokens gets renown for each token, while the bounty hunter delivering the final blow gets a bonus renown. Two cards are drawn from the criminal deck that can either increase the escape value of a criminal, or place a new one.
This already puts you into a minefield where you have to be careful where you go. Assisting your opponents sounds like a good plan, but there is only one winner. Trying to trigger an escape for another criminal is a bold move, yet it will also likely destroy your goodwill for the rest of the game. Even how you capture the criminal has consequences. Trying to capture by grabbing clues is the safer and more expensive option. Fighting criminals can yield plenty of renown, and it’s cheap, but each time you take a resistance token, you must take an injury card. These injury cards have various effects, such as forcing you to lose fuel or remain as a junk card in your deck until you pay to remove it. It’s a bit of your push your luck element. There is also the option to spend fuel to reset the market cards, a feature that I have been longing for in these types of deckbuilders.
Abusing Your Abilities
All of this sounds pretty good so far, yet I didn’t disclose the most important feature. I’ve already mentioned that everyone has special abilities. To activate these abilities, you must spend fuel. However, your player mat doesn’t just show your character’s special abilities. You see other character’s abilities as well because you can use them, but only if you are in the same physical space as that character.
It was at this moment that I knew I stepped into something special.
Not many deckbuilders give you this Thunderdome of ideas to play around in. Most of these games often force you into isolation with your main goal to simply craft a better point machine than your friends, while deckbuilders with a board have you trek along a linear path such as expanding your armies in Tyrants of the Underdark or moving your adventurer in Clank.
That doesn’t apply here. Each turn gives you a shopping cart of resources to examine and one question begging for an answer: What are you going to do? That question will always burn in the back of your mind on every single turn. You need fuel to fly around, cash to buy cards, clues to investigate, and strength to fight. You are also evaluating the characters on the field and see which abilities you can leverage to your advantage.
Even the deck itself is different. Unlike other deckbuilders, there aren’t many cards with a chunk of text to plow through. Most of the cards simply give you resources. Don’t get me wrong, I like to go through lines like Rick James, but having a game where your actions aren’t chained to card text is an interesting change. Instead of curating your capabilities, you are creating your own income through card drafting as if your deck were a benevolent vending machine.
All of these systems work together to construct a narrative infrastructure that you and your friends can stroll through joyfully. Much like the show, everyone will have their own way of dealing with these criminals. Sometimes you will take on a criminal yourself by giving them several roundhouse kicks to the jaw, or maybe you happen to cross paths with a fellow crew member currently investigating one annoying bastard on Mars. You will also argue about who gets the “credit” for that bonus renown like any group of self-serving bounty hunters would act.
To top all off, even how the game ends adds interesting drama to the climax. As part of the game’s setup, the criminal deck is semi-randomized with the Vicious villain card placed in the last few cards of the deck. If he shows up, the game switches gears.
You can tell he’s important because he has his own miniature. The discarded criminals will shuffle into a new deck and now take on the role of Vicious’ movement deck.
The Big Bad Walks
Vicious himself acts like a powered-up version of a criminal. He has two stacks of tokens with the Investigation and Resistance tokens. Grabbing an investigation token requires 3 clues, which is the highest in the game. Fighting Vicious results in two injury cards instead of one and also triggers his movement. Whenever he gets attacked, draw a card from the movement deck for his next potential location. If the deck runs out, he runs away.
This is a great scheme because it adds a deliberate timer to the game. Deckbuilders often allow players to spend as much time as they can building up their deck. While that is slightly encouraged here, it punishes players for not taking a proactive approach to the system. Compared to other deckbuilders I have played, the pace on this one is swift as if it were late for an appointment.
The tail end of my experience with this licensed anime deckbuilder is positive, a rarity in the deckbuilding sphere. For a middleweight deckbuilder, it was a pleasant surprise to see some familiarity cocooning itself with untested ideas such as using other player’s abilities at a cost or the heavy usage of resource management instead of text abilities.
If anything, the only warning I will give about this game is it does lean on the familiar formula quite heavily. As I said before, it still is a deckbuilder where you have a crappy deck and must improve it by buying cards while removing junk cards. It doesn’t push the boundaries as hard as other recent titles such as Dune: Imperium or Lost Ruins of Arnak.
However, I don’t view this as an issue. As a deckbuilder veteran, it’s nice to see a unique deckbuilder I can teach to those unfamiliar with the genre without choke slamming them with numerous rules and complexities. Sometimes simple ideas with great execution are all you need to make an excellent game. Cowboy Bebop: Space Serenade is a perfect example of this design philosophy.
Review copy provided by the publisher. You can purchase a copy on Amazon US