Almost two years have passed ISS Vanguard appeared on Gamefound, Awaken Realms’ own crowdfunding platform and today wave one shipping arrived on the doorstep. This included the base game, the miniatures expansion, and four neoprene player mats, which were an add on. Wave two will see the arrival of the stretch goals.
So, what is ISS Vanguard, well, me being the kind of backer that I am, can’t really tell you much. I liked what I saw on the campaign page, trusted Awaken Realms to produce something awesome, backed it, and then ignored all the updates on how the game was coming along. Best I just quote from the box to get us started…
ISS Vanguard is a 1-4 player cooperative board game that offers countless adventures on vivid alien worlds and distant star systems.
If that’s whetted your appetite, then here’s a little more…
Players control four sections (Security, Recon, Science, and Engineering) on board ISS Vanguard – the first ship to traverse deep space on a mission to save humanity. Gameplay is divided into two main parts: planetary exploration, where players land on colourful boards that represent alien worlds, and ship management, where players use the Ship Book to upgrade ISS Vanguard, recruit new Crewmembers, conduct research, produce new equipment or landers, and more.
If I remember rightly, it was the ship management that drew me towards the pledge button in the first place, but this is an unboxing and more about the gameplay will feature in my first thoughts once I’ve gotten the game to the table.
Without further ado, let’s get the lid open and take a look inside the base game box.
The box is packed full of delightful goodies (did I mention how heavy the box is? It’s HEAVY!) and knowing Awaken Realms production values I’m excited to see what awaits. First off, the top are token boards, which include, amongst other things, the standees – I opted for the miniatures expansion, which replaces these.
The standees and tokens are certainly colourful and accurately die cut, other than they’re as you’d expect.
The rulebook comes out next and I’m impressed by the quality. It’s hard to explain, it’s like handling a brochure for an expensive car, it has that feel to it. The cover art is pretty good, not really to my taste to be honest, but it gives a good impression of what the game is about. Flicking through it’s pretty comprehensive and certainly looks complex though looking at the contents I see there’s a tutorial included in there to get you going, whilst the rest, it says, is more of a reference for when you have a specific question or need a breakdown of a game procedure.
Something you don’t see very often in a board game box, a ring binder! A4 with 3 rings, it’s nice and sturdy and has what looks like a flow chart printed on the inside cover, which ties in with the headings of the 14 ship book pages that go inside it. These, like the rulebook, are glossy finished and adorned with artwork showing the worlds of ISS Vanguard – there’s definitely a blue theme going on here! We have things like Bridge, Starmap, Research Lab, and a host of other headings, each with a breakdown of what you can do and where you’ll find the appropriate rule in the book, which is handy. I pop the pages into the binder for safe keeping.
Mmm! A secret envelope! Who doesn’t like a secret envelope? It’s a weighty one too. Word of warning here – the seal holding the enveloped closed isn’t, at least on mine, particularly sticky and came undone spilling the contents before my eyes, so much for a surprise!
A ring bound ‘Planetopedia’ is up next, which contains, you guessed it, the planets you’ll be visiting. It’s ring bound so as to lie flat when open allowing you to place cards on and around it – each planet is different.
There’s some interesting stuff going on in here. The locations appear to be connected together and some indicate a die roll whilst others imply you need to meet certain criteria to move there. Some locations are named, such as ‘Teeming Plateau’ and reference things you can do there, whilst others simply refer you to a Log number. This is obviously the heart of the gameplay when it comes to visiting planets and looking it over is certainly intriguing.
In another sealed-up packet there are 9-cardholders for the ring binder. Some are double sided, and they vary in the size of cards they hold – they are all labelled up and all very nice quality. Again, I pop these in the binder to organise at a later date, or at least I try to…
It’s at this point I realise that one of them doesn’t go in the binder and is actually the ‘Awaiting’ envelop, which then leaves just 8-cardholders but the rulebook states there should be 9. After going through the set-up, I come to the conclusion it’s a printing error and there should be only 8 of them – fingers crossed!
Another booklet, this one titled ‘System Maps’. IT’s exactly what it says on the tin, maps of planetary systems. These are obviously the laces you can explore and indeed, it ties into the planetopedia, for example: the system TOI-2 contains the planet ‘Pellucid’, which can be landed on and can be found in the Planetopedia. The other areas of interest, such as space debris and non-inhabitable planets also have things listed that you can do.
There’s a small, 16-page, comic book, the prologue of the story you’re about to continue. The quality of this is superb, especially for something you’ll probably only ever look at once; let’s move on…
The A4 Logbook, what I imagine drives the story along and there certainly appears enough here to keep things interesting for some time. Broken down into individual paragraphs (Logs) that will be referenced throughout the game, much like This War of Mine or Tainted Grail, both also from Awaken Realms. Log 991 is the final entry (though there is a map on the rear cover labelled as Log 999), other than that I don’t want to look too closely as I for one enjoy the surprise of this kind of thing. It does say on the cover that you will need to mark and fill in the logbook as you progress the campaign, but you can use the official ISS Vanguard app instead – you can download and print further copies of the book. There’s also an Operations book
Next, we have the three double-sided Lander boards. I say ‘boards’ because that’s how it refers to them in the rulebook but they’re really just thin card, nice thin card, but thin card, nevertheless. So, this gives us six landers, each different in some way to the others, such as the number of utility slots or the load they can carry.
Then we have the four Section boards, think player boards. Now, these boards are very nice, double depth, and linen finished. There are recesses for your dice and crew card, and around the edge it indicates what cards go where, like your section deck, discard pile, and injuries.
From here on in everything else in the box is kept snug using plastic inlays.
The nine miniatures are nestled in their own compartment on top of the inlay, and boy, do they look good! Now, this isn’t a miniatures game, the figures are just representatives on the board, and yet the quality of the miniatures is way above what you’d expect for a board game. There’s plenty of detail and mould lines, whilst present, are quite fine and difficult to pick out.
The majority of the figures are armour encased. One has a jet pack and is just lifting off, another has what appears to be a mechanical hound at his side, and a couple hosting some mighty big guns. Oh! And there’s something resembling a space station!
Lifting the lid off the main inlay I find it is made up of several individual trays. There are 4-section compartments, which hold the cards for each individual section (obviously) and 2-large card trays. There’s also another tray that holds all the bits and pieces together when the game goes back in its box.
It’s an effective use of an inlay making it into separate card holders for use within the game and I like it when publishers do this. These are fairly sturdy and should do their job no problem, but we shall see when I put them to use.
Cards! Lots of cards! With 20+ sealed packs to open I’m not going to go through every one here and now. But for starters, all the sealed decks are easy to get into, no trying to pry a corner open or slit the seal with your fingernail here, they have easy(ish)open tabs. Secondly, they all have quite a nice finish, it’s neither matt nor high gloss, in painting terms one would call it a satin finish, somewhere between the two. This is great because I find high gloss finishes to be too light reflective and I really struggle when playing under our downlighters.
Looking through the decks there’s a lot of iconography on the cards but there is an icon glossary in the back of the rulebook to get you up to speed – I would like to have seen this on reference cards so that each player can have on each. There are reference cards, though, and these appear to cover the main mechanisms of the game including something called ‘Deadly Space Mode!’ interesting!
The artwork throughout the cards is very monotone in colour, usually blues or reds, and the style, which at times can be quite abstract, fits the theme really well. The backs of the cards are kept simple – nice artwork and the name of the deck – making everything easily identifiable at a glance. There doesn’t appear to be any decks that could be confused with one another by colour or art and the naming is obvious – Mission, Point of Interest, Global Condition, etc.
There are two tutorial decks to get you up and running with the game, which we’ve seen before from Awaken Realms, and it’s recommended that a single player plays through these and then goes on to teach the others as they enter into the campaign.
As I say, there are a fair of cards to sort through, but no more than many games contain these days, and the artwork is interesting enough that I didn’t find it a chore sorting them out. The icons will take a bit of learning but again, this is something you’ll come across all the time in games.
In amongst all the cards there’s a ‘Planetary Scanner.’ It holds a landing card, which, according to the front, indicates a cost, and is pushed up when the cost is paid to reveal the next cost – just a gimmick?
There’s also a small pad for recording the planets you discover and some clear card sleeves that have ranks on them. These, I imagine, go over your crew cards as they rank up.
Time to delve into the final inlay tray, which holds mostly dice. Three Sections each have 16-dice of their respective colour – no idea why the fourth hasn’t got any – and these are D6s with icons on each face. Many of the icons I recognise from cards, so there’s obviously a tie in there. These are typical dice, good quality with clear markings, and a decent weight, especially if you have to roll several in one go.
There’s also a standard D10, two ‘Danger’ dice, which are D8’s, again with icons on the faces, and a dozen yellow icon faced D6s, which are the injury dice.
Finally, there are 30 universal markers, read purple ‘Pandemic’ cubes, 8-standee bases, a clear Ziplock token bag, 4-coloured base rings (which are rubber rather than plastic making them easy to get on and off, especially when the minis have been painted – good thinking AR!), and a lovely draw-string bag called the lead bag – I always like to see a bag included if you have to draw tokens out of something, unlike some games I could mention!
And so there we have it. ISS Vanguard out of the box. In sum, it’s another quality production from Awaken Realms, with high grade components featuring some lovely, detailed miniatures. It’s the thought that has gone into the manufacturing process that impresses me though, the little touches like the inlay becoming individual card trays, the rubberised base rings rather than plastic, and the inclusion of a draw-string bag, often overlooked by others.
As for the game itself, well, I can’t make much of a comment, maybe I should start following the crowd funding projects I back a little more closely, but I’m hopeful in getting it to the table shortly to gather my first thoughts. The rules do look complex and lengthy, but the inclusion of a tutorial should alleviate the drudge of learning an in-depth game like this appears to be. There’s also a lot to intrigue me, such as the planet map, which teases of deep space exploration, along with the planetopedia that presents you with challenges when you find something worthy of a landing.
The biggest draw, at least for me, though, is the development of your crew and ship. Things like that always attract me to a game and there looks to be enough uniqueness here to keep me interested for some time. Anyway, the unboxing is done, all that’s left for me now is to get it back in the box – did I mention there’s a handy packing sequence printed on the side of the box?