First Thoughts – ISS Vanguard

Okay, so far all I’ve played is the tutorial planet exploration and one full game round, which included a host of ship management decisions and another planetary exploration, and I have to say, it’s left me begging for more! Why, then, haven’t I? Well, it takes 3-4 hours to run through a full round and whilst it is possible to save it pretty much anywhere, it’s best saved at the end when it tells you to.

ISS Vanguard, what’s it about?

If you’re familiar with the X-COM (or XCOM, depending on when you joined the series) video games, then you’ll be halfway to understanding exactly what this game is. Take away the strategic battles from X-COM and throw in a bit of strategic planetary exploration instead, and you have ISS Vanguard. It’s exactly what I’d hoped for when I backed it!

The production, as I mentioned in my unboxing, is top-notch and it isn’t all just for show. Yes, the miniatures are only there as character representations and could easily have been tokens or, like the other things you may meet, standees, but stuff like the A4 folder that is the Ship Book and all the fancy card holders, they’re there for a purpose and work magnificently.

On the inside cover of the Ship Book there’s a flowchart of sorts. Following this gives you your options for the round, starting with resume a saved game. Each choice is a page in the Ship Book that explains exactly what you can do. This really speeded up the learning process, as I didn’t have to keep referring to a rulebook.

You then move to the Bridge and another unique game mechanism called the ‘Awaiting Envelope.’ This contains all the things that you’ve accumulated, many during the previous planetary exploration, but are not yet in play for one reason or another. Whilst ‘On the bridge’ you take out all the bridge cards from this envelope and see what you can action, such as moving on the campaign objective or installing a Bridge Upgrade. It’s here that your Tech level and Morale are recorded too. You also generate Energy tokens from your Tech level and gain Command tokens based on your objective card.

The Awaiting Envelope, a wonderfully simple game mechanism.

Energy tokens enable you to move around the Starmap, visit new systems or explore destinations within your current system. Command tokens are spent to action a Facility on board your ship – Situation room (Sitrep John😉), Barracks, Research Lab, Production Complex, Add-on facility. I’m yet to visit all of these, as in the one round I played I had 2-tokens to spend, one went to Production and the other to Research.

ISS Vanguard

In the Production complex there are two production queues, one of which requires an upgrade to activate. I discovered some production projects during my exploration and it’s here where I made my first ‘Captain’s’ decision by deciding what to place in the production queue and in what order.

When I next visit the production complex, I’ll be able to advance everything in the queue one place to the right, manufacturing the current stage 3 project and flipping the card to see what effect it has. The research lab, the other facility I actioned, houses the research projects I’ve come across so far. These need certain ‘Discoveries’ to be made before I can complete the project. For example: Researching Alien Materials requires me to have a Mineral Discovery – this will be spent to complete the project, flip the card, and resolve its effect.

It’s these processes that remind me so much of X-COM, where I’d assign projects to be researched and decide on what my priorities were for production – I can’t wait to see what I can do in the other facilities. Of course, I have had a glance through the Ship Book and so have an idea but putting things into practice helps to understand the mechanisms behind the game. I know, for instance, that my Lander can be upgraded and even replaced with a new one, but how will this impact on the game and what I can do is something I need to discover.

The planetary missions I’ve played, the tutorial and a visit to ‘Pellucid’ – you don’t have a choice on your first planet destination – have been very interesting indeed. I love the dice development that can be done with the individual sections – Recon, Engineering, Science, and Security – where you can ‘pay’ for additional dice for each section but the dice you add can be all different and tailored to your needs. What I mean by that is that the dice have different symbols, and each die has a higher probability of throwing up a certain result. Some have more strength icons, some more ‘wild’, whilst another may give you multiple results. These are classified as Basic, Specialised, Universal, Expert, and Wild dice.

The Dice – click for larger image

So, you can specialise each section and of course you’ll want to ensure you have the right people working in them. Again, X-COM like, you get some choice of your crew and where they will be assigned. Each crewmember has their own traits, such as Riku’s, ‘Spend 1 Charge to draw a chosen card from your discard pile,’ and he/she can also convert standard die results into construction ones, useful then for an Engineering role maybe? Crew members also rank up, which is depicted by their sleeve. Sleeves are limited by section and rank so ideally you want the best crew members to climb to the highest rank, but you can bust someone down if they’re not fulfilling their potential – nice! Crew can be active or resting (usually after they’ve been busy) and can be assigned to assist with various tasks, such as boosting production, but once assigned they’re no longer available for that round and will be feet up in the rest bunk for the following full round, so use crew members wisely.

Image of Riku

When it’s time for a bit of planetary exploration there are a number of procedures to follow. First, you’ll have scanned your prospective landing site using the scanner. A card is placed in the scanner and you spend energy to reveal some information about what you might encounter – the more energy you spend the more info you’ll be given. This will allow you to make sure you’re correctly prepared… maybe! Next, you’ll visit your Hangar, where you can install new Landers, add Modifications, and repair any damage from previous landings. You’ll also choose the Lander for the upcoming mission, bearing in mind what you may have learnt from the scanner. You can also customise the Lander before setting off. I only have one Lander and no Mods, so this was an easy task for me.

Image of Lander in book

Time to launch and prepare the away team. Again, you have to think about what information you gleaned from the scanner and choose the right people to head on out. You can load equipment onto the Lander, if you have any, I currently don’t – and don’t forget your supplies, they’re vital!

Permission to launch?

Make it so!

Exploring the planet uses the Planetopedia book, which opens out to lie flat on the table and presents you with a number of linked locations. Some of these will be printed on the book itself, some will have cards placed on them, and others will indicate a number to look up in the Log, we shall come back to the Log shortly. In most locations you can do stuff, which usually involves rolling some dice. There are typically three results of a dice check, pass, fail, and special, and some involve advancing along a track by taking the action several times. What I liked here was the fact that a failure wasn’t always an outright goof, and I often still succeeded in passing the check but with some detrimental effect. For example: Trying to squeeze through a tight space I failed the check. I still managed to get through but took a few minor bumps and scratches that gave me a wound card. Specials usually occur when you roll a specific result, such as a Tech result, and will give you a boon in some way as well as often seeing you pass the check as well.

I’m not going into all you can do with the dice and checks, as I’d be here some time, but it’s a major part of the exploration being able to balance die use, your Section cards, and character charges – getting other characters to assist at the right time is a big help. It gave a good representation of taking a party out exploring the unknown – do I split the team to cover more ground, or keep them together and push the time limits? So far, things have gone well, but it’s early days and I’m sure the old grey matter will get a good work out, as I decide who needs to be where and when – travelling around the planet can cost you supplies, as well as the loss of a die or two from your available die pool, though you can refresh them in a variety of ways. Yes, travelling around is, as you’d expect, hard work for your team and so you need to think things through before moving crew on to another location. You have to consider their skills, will they be better off moving first into a fresh location or second, so they can use take their second action (each crew member gets two) there with someone available to assist – lots of juicy decisions.

During the Exploration you’ll get to discover lots of new things, and I’m not going to spoil any of them here, but these things will most likely end up in your awaiting envelop, ready for the start of the next round, but before then, you have to return to the ship…

There’s a handy page in the Ship Book that runs you through the clean-up of the Exploration phase – what to return to the card boxes, what to keep out, etc. and again, this speeded up the whole process. You then go through the Docking phase: what to do if you failed the mission, sorting out discoveries, and gathering the resting crew together, before moving on to Debriefing.

Debriefing. This is where you hopefully get to promote crewmembers who took part in the landing. You also gather together all your success tokens (gained by completing various tasks on the planet) and decide whether to spend some to get more dice for your sections.

Unloading is up next and, as you probably guessed, this is where you gather all the goodies together off the Lander (which can only hold so much so you have to decide on what to pack it with before you leave the planet). Unique discoveries get stored in the folder and completing a line will give you a Bridge upgrade. Other discoveries will tell you what to do with them on their card.

During the Exploration it’s inevitable that some of the crew will pick up some bumps and scrapes, after all, It’s not safe out there. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross; but it’s not for the timid, and so it’s off to the Med Bay for them. This works in a similar fashion to the production, with those who picked up light wounds placed in the right most column, so they’ll become available again next round. Those with Critical injuries, though, may not survive the night! For those who passed away there’s a nice Memorial Wall for you to remember them, or, more likely, to despair at your failures as a Captain!

Final phase is the Save Point. Here it explains exactly what you need to do in order to pack the game away and be able to resume another time. This is great. It’s simple and it works.

And then there’s the Log. To be honest, I’ve yet to use it. ‘What! How can I have gotten through two exploration phases without referring to the Log?’ Easy, I used the App!

‘Ahhh!’ I hear you cry, ‘Not another App driven game! Are Apps taking over the board game world – Apps make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them!’

Well, no, the App has nothing to do with the game’s mechanisms, you can play it just as well by referring to the book, but… But you’d be missing out!

The App is fantastically atmospheric with voice actors playing the roles of the characters and bringing the story to life, I wouldn’t play without it. It did, occasionally, crash on me, but it restarts quickly and is easy to use – pop in the Log entry and off you go, following any prompts along the way.

I wouldn’t usually do a first thoughts after so little play time, but I was really blown away by this game and sometimes a feeling is all we humans have to go on. It replicates those aspects from XCOM that I really enjoy – the ship management, deciding on research, production, etc. So far, the planetary exploration has been fun too, full of decisions to make especially regarding dice mitigation – how to ensure I get the result I want. I love making decisions about what to research or produce and wonder what affect it will have when it makes its way to fruition.

Building a crew is fun too. Deciding who to employ and in what position forms an attachment, much like it does in X-COM, and seeing them rank up and become more powerful is quite satisfying. The miniatures are very nice but totally unnecessary, whereas the App is something I’ll never play without.

Exploration is definitely the name of the game here and taking steps into the unknown leads to an intense experience full of exciting decisions. I do wonder how it would stand up when restarted, but so far, after the initial couple of rounds, the number of choices to make should keep every game a new experience. I also ask myself how it would play with others, as for me, this game is best solo, otherwise it’s just decisions by committee, especially the Ship Management side. I prefer to play these games on my own, taking full responsibility for each and every action, it’s what I like and Vanguard hits that nail squarely on the head.

I’m very much looking forward to continuing my voyages with ISS Vanguard, to seek out new life and civilisations, to boldly go where no man, no game, has gone before!

Hope you spotted and enjoyed all the Star Trek quotes; I think it was the inner Captain taking over 😁

11 thoughts on “First Thoughts – ISS Vanguard

  1. Sounds like you’re having fun Justin, and it sounds very atmospheric, and role play driven, for me it would be nice if the models played more of a role, but then I like model orientated games ( I’m a modeller after all ! LOL) the length of one round surprised me, do you think that would be normal, or due to you learning as you go ?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, Thanks Dave, a lot of fun to be had here.
      The round length is stated as 3-4hrs but you have to remember that includes a full planetary exploration, which will take the majority of that.
      So, you do a bit of ship management, decide where you’re going to move to and explore, manage your research, production, and such like, and then you prep and land on a planet. The planetary exploration is turn based until you achieve your objective, emergency evac, or meet your demise.
      It’s then back to the mothership for tea and medals.
      I guess I could have gone into the exploration phase a little more but it’s the ship management that really grabbed me. I’ll save it till I do a full review.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Sounds like it’s your sort of game Justin! 🙂 And maybe best played solo to get the most out of all the decisions you make, for better or worse! Glad you’ve enjoyed it so far!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Definitely my cup of tea John, and yes, best played solo, at least that’s how I see it. I like to immerse myself in games like this.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I really enjoy strategy video games but since I’m not an Xbox owner, I’ve never played X-Com. What you’ve described here sounds fun, strategic, thematic, and rewarding which are all good things in my book! I look forward to hearing what you think as you get more game time in.

    This is an Awaken Realms game, correct? What do you think of their games beyond this one that you’ve played (assuming you have of course!). I’ve been interested in This War of Mine for a little bit and am thinking that I should get it soon if I’m ever going to try it as it seems to be getting hard to find online in the US.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So far, it’s ticking all the right boxes, but I’ve only scratched the surface so far and it will be interesting to see how it plays out – might be a while before I get to review it🤔

      X-Com and it’s many derivatives are available on PC with a few of from the series appearing on PS – I don’t do X-Box!

      If you search my site, I talk about Tainted Grail and also have a review of This War of Mine.
      Tainted Grail was good but does have a lot of grind – having to go back and fore to gather resources – that can get in the way of the story.
      This War of Mine contained too much randomness that can’t be mitigated for my liking. Have a read and see what you think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sounds good. I look forward to your thoughts! X-Com is on Steam, I think, and I really have no excuse for not trying it then because I play some PC games.

        And shame on me for not thinking of that! I’ll have to give those a read and see what you say about both games. I’m certainly in the market for some more thematic board games so I’m in the fun “research” phase 😀 What better place to look than the Solo Meeple as well! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. thisisthethud Dec 3, 2022 — 16:42

    Hi old friend, I’ve only just gotten around to reading your review of ISS Vanguard and I must say it sounds right up my alley, budgetary constraints means I haven’t spent anything on gaming in a considerable time, but your review is enough to draw me from my gaming isolation. I’m particularly enthralled by the comparisons with X-Com, as I have a profound love of that series (barring the relaunch that was dumbed down for mainstream audiences) and still fish out Terror from the Deep occasionally on the old PS-1. I am intrigued to hear if the initial shine wears off with you as you progress further into the game.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello matey.
      I think you’d enjoy this one, Ian, though I really need to get into it a bit more before I go making any solid recommendation. Hopefully, I’ll find time over the Christmas holidays to give it a good thrashing.
      You can download the entire series now from Steam, if you’re into PC gaming that is – I’ve got them, and the old ones do look a bit dated, though to be honest they still play the best.
      ISS Vanguard certainly captures the ship management side of X-COM, at least it has so far, and it makes you want to keep playing so you can find out exactly what your latest discovery will do when researched (unless you cheat and look at the reverse of the card before you’re supposed to!).
      I’ll drop you a Christmas e-mail soon, honest


  5. thisisthethud Dec 4, 2022 — 11:54

    I look forward to your follow on review. The lack of combat doesn’t deter me, I always loved Millennium 2.2 on the old Amiga, and that was pure base and exploration strategy with no combat. Catch you later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll try and delve into the game of X-mas and see what I can put together, failing that I’ll e-mail you my thoughts.
      Later mate.


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