A preview copy of Sensor Ghosts was provided to me by Wren Games for the purpose of writing this article. No requirements or constraints were placed on the content.
Wren Games recently launched a Kickstarter for their new game Sensor Ghosts, a “cooperative moving maze and hidden information puzzle game” for 1-2 players. It is set immediately after the events of their previous game, Assembly, in which the player was tasked with escaping from a space station after a virus outbreak. The computer, rather sensibly, attempted to ensure that no one broke quarantine, using lethal measures if needed. I imagine this playing out a lot like the start of the first Resident Evil movie, but in space. The player’s character had a natural immunity to the virus and quite understandably didn’t want to die. Whether escaping after presumably being exposed to the virus was a good idea is left as an open question. But the answer is “no” #TeamComputer
In Sensor Ghosts, the player has contacted Earth ahead of arriving there, and the authorities planet-side have decided that potentially unleashing a virus that wiped out the space station is perhaps not a great idea. Pretty sensible. As a result, the player has been tasked with bringing back an uncontaminated virus sample to use in creating a vaccine and has been told in no uncertain terms that unless they do so they will not be reaching the planet surface intact. The only solution to an out-of-control virus is more virus! I’m sure the authorities on Earth know what they’re doing. Right?
You have escaped the space station and crazed computer in Assembly and now you must guide your ship back to Earth. However there is an asteroid field between you and Earth plus the station’s computer has hacked your navigation systems so not everything is as it seems.
– Sensor Ghosts Kickstarter
In Sensor Ghosts your goal is to travel across the playing field from the bottom left corner to the top right corner. Sounds simple. Unfortunately, the playing field is actually an asteroid field that is constantly moving around. Oh, and your sensors are either malfunctioning, hacked by the AI running the station you escaped from, or both, so you don’t necessarily know what you’re moving in to. And did I mention that entering some parts of the asteroid field result in instant death? Seems a little harder now doesn’t it?
The player has a hand of three cards representing actions they are able to perform and they are able to perform one such action each turn. They have to play multiple movement cards if they want to move in a different direction than they are facing, due to inertia. Alternatively they can play all three cards to perform an action of their choice. At the end of their turn they draw back up to three cards. Why not play three cards every turn? Because the deck is quite limited in size and once you run through it twice you lose by default.
At the end of each turn the row of sector cards ahead of the player rotate to the left by one space, meaning that the player has to plan for where the sector cards are going to be, not where they currently are. This is where the tactics and the need to plan ahead in Sensor Ghosts comes from. Additionally, when you move on to a sector you flip the card over to see what’s actually there. This represents your malfunctioning sensors and often the card remains the same but sometimes it throws a surprise at you. Usually exactly when you can’t afford a surprise. The game knows.
The Sensor Ghosts game contains the following components:
- 30 Navigation cards
- 30 Sector cards
- 7 Role cards
- 10 Distruption cards
- 1 Shield Tracker card
- 2 Player Reference cards
- Ship and Escape Pod tokens
- 5 Sample tokens: 3 virus and 2 rock (no virus)
- 2 Shield markers
- 3 Memory markers
As the copy of the game that I used for the purpose of this preview was a… well, preview copy, the components weren’t at the quality that they will be in the final released version of the game. The card quality is always a concern with games that make extensive use of them and currently they are expected to be 300gsm with a linen finish. There is a stretch goal on the Kickstarter to upgrade them to 320gsm though. The shield cubes were not the final colour in the preview copy, being red rather than green, but I substituted my own green cubes for the purpose of the rest of the shots here.
My slightly optimised setup, as shown above, required a 60×55cm playing area. The “official” setup requires a little more space.
Let’s talk about the all-important first play. Obviously you’re going to want to read the rules before playing and that’s something that games can fall down on if the rules only make sense while you’re staring at an in-progress game or there’s no clear connection between your actions and the final goal. Did I bounce off some dense or complex rules, or did I slide into playing it like… some metaphor involving sliding comfortably? The rules aren’t yet final, but I can say that the version I played with (updated while the game was on its way to me) were definitely easier to follow during a pre-game read than the version that came before. There are still one or two items that need a small example or an extra sentence to clarify, but I would say they’re fairly easy to understand.
I was caught off guard a little at the amount of player choice during setup, allowing you to choose where the virus samples are placed and which sectors to remove and turn into obstructed ones. It allows you some influence on the overall difficulty as you won’t place all the virus samples on obstructed sectors, for example. It doesn’t come close to making the outcome a forgone conclusion, however, as your hand won’t contain all possible actions and the board is always shifting, meaning you can’t predict far enough ahead to maintain any plan you create at the start of the game.
When it came down to actually playing I eased myself in using the “introductory” difficulty, which determines the number of cards in your draw deck, and “low memory mode”, which tweaks the rules to give you a chance. If you get through your deck twice then the game ends with a loss and I can say that it is easy to burn through the relatively limited number of cards, so even removing one or two as you go up in difficulty can make all the difference. As for low memory mode, the game just feels slightly too unfair to me without it. Specifically it adds the ability for your shields to save you when entering an obstructed sector, which is the only rule modification I actually used but which definitely saved me.
So how did I fare in my first game after being saved once from entering an obstructed sector? Well I was on the verge of losing by default due to running out of cards so I had to make a run for the end, which was looking completely possible… until I entered the empty sector immediately adjacent to the exit, flipped it, and found it was an obstructed sector that I’d just entered with no shields. Did I mention the game is always standing by to crush your dreams?
Perhaps it’s best I didn’t reach Earth though. I’m not entirely sure I trust their containment procedures.
As you play more games you start to get a feel for how the board is going to shift as your turns progress. It definitely doesn’t get easy though, at least not in my experience so far. Despite the movement of the rows being completely fixed and predictable based on your ship’s location, they always seem to shift to exactly where you don’t want them. I suspect some form of witchcraft is at play.
Alternative sector layout
Something that Wren Games have been experimenting with is alternative sector layouts. This is a straightforward way to increase replayability and provide more difficult challenges. Possibly also easier challenges, but where’s the fun in that? The first of these alternative layouts is an hourglass shape.
The choke point in this layout changes how you approach the game. On the plus side it makes it easier to remember what the cards around that point are and thus makes it easier to plan your moves and predict or manipulate the state of the sector cards. On the other hand it drastically restricts your options in crossing the choke point, so you just have to set them up the best you can and plow through.
Speaking of it being easier to remember what the sector cards around the choke point are… turns out player incompetence shouldn’t be underestimated. I died when I misremembered what a memory cube on the choke point meant and happily plowed straight into an obstructed sector.
Still, I stand by what I said. This layout provides an interesting twist on the game and I look forward to seeing what other ones are officially suggested in the future. I suspect we will eventually see some interesting layouts from players as well.
If I could sum Sensor Ghosts up in one word it would be “unforgiving”. I might even throw “brutal” in there if I’m allowed another word. This is not a game that accommodates mistakes, but it doesn’t want you taking your time either. You’re on the clock and one wrong move could be instant death. In some regards it feels a little more unfair than I’m happy with—a random event that you had no way (or very limited ways) to predict or avoid shouldn’t really end the game as a loss. Some people may like that, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bug me. There is the “low memory” mode that alleviates this a little, but perhaps simply delays your inevitable demise rather than prevents it.
That said, this is a fun game. The shifting and changing asteroid field adds an interesting memory element that elevates the game beyond just picking the best route through a static play area. It’s this that adds the excitement and challenge that makes you keep coming back for just one more attempt.
And in the end, if you enjoy the game but you don’t enjoy some specific way it kills you then there’s nothing stopping you just tweaking the rules a little. Personally, I’ve decided on a house rule that I’m allowed a single swap of any two sectors after they’ve been placed, in addition to the standard swaps that ensure crossing each row is possible. This works to avoid some obviously unfair random setups but doesn’t allow you to remove the challenge of the game.
If this preview has piqued your interest in obtaining Sensor Ghosts for your own enjoyment then remember to check out the Kickstarter.