Suddenly I'm Mr. Popular (it won't last, it never does) as Expanse fever has hit my local with all the tardygrades suddenly finishing the series and wondering where the game is. The UK copies sold out months ago, plebs. Anyway, we played my copy a bunch and I hardly lorded it over them at all. It's a little bit Twilight Struggle, card-driven with Ops (APs actually, peasants) or events, and scoring cards with area majority scoring.
The 2P game is a little different and I find it a tad annoying; the card selection is reduced, and certain areas are simply not in play, and various small mechanics are simply no longer used. While some of this makes perfect sense, putting my blinders on to simply no longer see sections of the board is irritating. I do find consolation in that this is done through clever use of components. The 2P game feels different enough as it is, with a lot of the little edges gone from the design, you're left with a purer head-to-head fight of Earf versus the MCR.
The game changes at 3 & 4P, and that's where everything comes into play, from initiative, to resources, wider use of factional events, and all areas of the board. The Rocinante features as the catch-up mechanic and is both versatile and powerful. The basic system of buy card - use card is simple but offers plenty of knobbly decisions including hate drafting/use, and sacrificing your place on the initiative track to use a hefty event is not done lightly. One thing I do love dearly is that although the decisions are much easier on average than those in most CDGs, you buy cards with VPs. And if you want to hold the card for later, that costs you another VP. This is deliciously painful.
The design is very good. I wish there was more variety in the card events; the deck construction is top notch, but the events are often simple and lack any unique dimension (Place 2 influence/Remove 2 influence, Place a fleet/Remove a fleet). This is probably down to the multifactional gameplay, with more powerful, unique events being much harder to balance, so I will shut up about this while at the same time pouting a little. I love the gameplay dynamic with 4P, it's the same reason I love COIN: you can do simple stuff but you're doing your simple actions amidst three people doing theirs, and what are they doing? They're all messing you up. Time to teach them a lesson. All three of them. And bonus, you can do this in 60-90 minutes.
It's WizKids, so you may wish to avert your eyes when I mention pr*duction quality. It's actually not bad. The rulebook is a bit of a mess, it doesn't even have an accurate components manifest, but the rules themselves are clear and simple. The board is of good quality, but could have used some brighter elements. Same with the cards, which feature production stills because if you think they had a budget for art you can think again. The images on the cards need to be a touch brighter, usually they're easily discernible, but not under some common lighting conditions. The event cards are of a common size, the faction tech cards are not, and are in fact the first I have seen of this size. The cubes are cubes, the counters are counters.
I really like this game and I am smug as fuck I bought it.