If you follow Space-Biff! with any degree of closeness, first of all, thank you. One day when I am Emperor, I will remember your loyalty. On an unrelated note, regular readers probably will have also noted my love of portable games, the kind that can be taken on road trips, camping, or long flights, or played in hotel rooms and restaurant booths with equal ease, all without resorting to that infernal Uno.
Uno — *Shudder*
Well, step aside pretty much everything else, because I was recently sent a copy of one of the most transportable games I’ve ever played — so portable, in fact, it doesn’t even need a playing surface. Yes, you read that right: no need for sticky airplane tray tables, awkwardly-held spiral-bound notebooks, or laps. Meet oddball Aeronauts (yes, “oddball” is lower case for some unfathomable reason) from Maverick Muse (which, like everything else on their site, I have no idea how to capitalize or punctuate). It’s pretty cool. oddball Aeronauts, I mean, not the punctuation thing.
At first glance, oddball Aeronauts — okay, my OCD won’t let me do this anymore — Oddball Aeronauts doesn’t look like much. Sure, you hold your entire deck in one hand, which is cool in all sorts of ways. You even discard defeated and used cards face-down to the back of your hand, and the difference in the card borders allows you to effortlessly get an idea of how many cards you have left before you run out and lose the game. And the very fact that you can play without ever having to put down a card on a table is naturally appealing. But the fact still stands: at first, it looks like a trumped-up version of War — you know, that horrid game where you draw off the top of a deck of playing cards and the higher number wins, then you kill yourself because you’re playing War.
Oddball Aeronauts is not War. Nothing like it.
Rather, it’s about dueling airships, each commanded by a navy of anthropomorphic animals, which will either make them too cute to exterminate or just cute enough that you’ll want to. Both players fan out the top three cards of their deck and decide which of three skills is most to their benefit. Then you declare which skill you’re going to use that round (sailing, guns, or boarding) and simultaneously announce whether you’re dedicating one, two, or three cards to the combat. Then you reveal your chosen cards, maybe apply your leading card’s special “trick,” compare your skill level to whatever your opponent chose, and, hopefully, blow them out of the air.
It’s simple, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it isn’t meaty. There are a few things that give it surprising depth.
First of all, Oddball Aeronauts is often a mental game. Since any cards you use in combat are discarded (in addition to anything discarded as a result of the winner bonus, which we’ll talk about in a moment), one of your main concerns will be to win each battle with as few cards as possible. You might dominate every single battle by sending a full complement off to the fight — say, an ace squadron of Deck Paws and Gun-Bots under the command of your Squad Marshall — but you’ll lose all three while your opponent only discards the one measly squad of Spotters she sent on a suicide boarding mission because she knew she couldn’t win that round anyway. This means you’ve just lost three cards to her one. The moral of this story is that, in this rare instance, less can often be more.
Those “win effects” I mentioned are also a constant consideration. See, whoever wins a fight gets a bonus based on the skill they won with. Outmaneuver your opponent with the sailing skill, and you get to recover two of your cards, flipping them face-up to the bottom of your deck. Out-shoot them, and they have to discard an extra pair of cards. And successfully board them, and you plunder their hold, capturing one of their cards to press-gang into combat next round. Awesome.
If that isn’t enough to keep track of, each card also has a “trick” to pull. Sometimes these are just handy bonuses to your skills, but at other times they’re perks like setting up your opponent to only use two cards on his next turn, or offering protection from certain types of attacks, or letting you rearrange your active cards to set up a better synergy for that round of battle. Oh, and there are event cards that sometimes show up to screw around with your well-laid plans, like a flying kraken that attacks whichever player can’t drive it off with their guns.
There’s so much to like about Oddball Aeronauts. It’s portable. Fun. Surprisingly deep for its size. The art is great, if you ever bother to look at it. Of all the games I’ve played this past year, it’s easily the one I’m most likely to carry around in my backpack, ready to be played at a moment’s notice when an avalanche blocks my expedition’s path to the summit.
Oddball Aeronauts is on Kickstarter right now. As in, right now. Take a look.