Cardboard Children: Theseus – The Dark Orbit

Hello youse.

You move in a circle, and you can only move as far as you can manage. You can lay plans for the future, but you might never get the opportunity to enact them. Your plans will be changed on you. You’ll stumble into traps and dead ends that you never knew existed. You will lose, and the loss will often be sudden – everything will collapse in on top of you.

But enough about life. Today we talk about a wonderful board game.

THESEUS: THE DARK ORBIT

I will struggle to explain how this game works. Here’s reality – my head’s been all over the place this past while. Am I over-sharing? Yeah, probably, but hey – that’s just my style. And now I have to explain to all of you how this board game works, and it’s not like anything else I’ve ever played. I’m not going to do a great job today.

But games have meaning. I’ve always believed that. So we continue.

Theseus: The Dark Orbit is set on a space station. You’re trapped there. You’re doomed to carry on moving in a circle until you survive or die.

Basics. We get a foothold on those basics, so let’s kick our toes into them. The game comes with sector boards that you lay out on the table. Each sector contains “rooms” where units can be placed, and areas where you’ll install cards. Each player controls a faction, taking a handful of units and a deck of cards. There are five factions in the game, each one very different from the rest. It’ll take many plays before you wrap your head around even two of these factions, and what their strengths are.

You will be confused.

The game (we’re talking about the game here) is made up of phases – there’s movement, where you can move your units from sector to sector in a fashion reminiscent of the ancient, beautiful game “Mancala”.

From Wikipedia, on Mancala – “Players begin by placing a certain number of seeds, prescribed for the particular game, in each of the pits on the game board. A player may count their stones to plot the game. A turn consists of removing all seeds from a pit, “sowing” the seeds (placing one in each of the following pits in sequence) and capturing based on the state of board. This leads to the English phrase “count and capture” sometimes used to describe the gameplay. Although the details differ greatly, this general sequence applies to all games.”

You look at what you have in one place, you take all of it, and you move forward. You sow the seeds and see where you end up.

After movement, players can take any actions that are detailed on cards they’ve installed in the sectors they’ve moved into. They can also take whatever special action that the sector provides. One sector lets you initiate a battle across the entire space station, with your units able to open fire on enemies in adjacent rooms. Another sector lets you make an opponent’s card malfunction. Another sector lets you make an additional move, pushing your units further through the space station. And then, at the end of your turn, you can install new cards in your sector or ready cards for future installations.

These cards are what set the factions apart. The marines set up barricades, protecting their units from attack. They prepare ambushes, lay mines, set fire to areas. The aliens create hives and make shortcuts through vents. They prepare secret attacks, coming right through the walls at their enemies. They spawn new aliens, spreading through the station like a disease. The scientists collect data, studying their enemies and environment as they move through the station, avoiding hostilities where they can…

And on it goes. Five factions. Yet another within the “BOTS” expansion. All of them caught in a deadly orbit, moving from sector to sector. All of them trapped inside a puzzle, a scheme, a plan, a disaster.

Round and round. 20 life points, full health, full confidence – dashed to nothing in a heartbeat. And you probably didn’t see it coming.

A profound game. A game that lands on you cold and dark and strange. “So we just move round and round and then what?” And then you start to install your cards, making the best of what you have, and a blueprint for your enemy’s defeat starts to emerge. Cards combine, traps trigger, everything tilts this way and that.

It’s clever. Devious. A game that makes you think. It’s nothing and then it’s everything. “This is all this is?” and then “This is all this?”

There will be moments when you will become aware of how fucked you are. You’ll look at where you are, and you’ll see that the only move open to you is a march towards disaster. You’ll wish you could find another way, but it’ll be too late. It’ll be something you might have avoided had you seen it coming five orbits ago.

But the orbit is dark. It’s difficult to see where you’ve gone wrong.

“Let’s go again,” you’ll say, in the hope that next time will be different. A different faction, different cards, a new plan. You’ll look further down the line this time, defuse the traps, kick down the barriers.

And so you move in a circle, and you can only move as far as you can manage. You lay plans for the future, but you might never get the opportunity to enact them. Your plans will be changed on you. You’ll stumble into traps and dead ends that you never knew existed. You will lose, and the loss will be sudden – everything will collapse in on top of you.

But you’ll be struck by the wonder of it all. How beautifully it all connects.

You will want to go again. You’ll be ready to go again.

On the space station Theseus, from one mind to another.

6 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Jarmo says:

    When games inspire poetry
    in mechanical explanation
    the mechanics of poetry
    can explain the game.

    Thank you, Robert.

  2. Gilly says:

    Does this have anything to do with Blindsight?

  3. BooleanBob says:

    I really loved reading this. Thanks Rab.

  4. Erithtotl says:

    Clever written, but no clue what this game is like from reading this. Time for youtube.

    • TheLetterM says:

      Shut Up & Sit Down did a pretty in depth review of the mechanics of this, if you want to see how it plays.

  5. claymen says:

    checked ytb and the game isnt all riddickulously blue? you lied robert! ( lost 50% interest because of the colors :(( )