Get on Back – A Review of Core Space: Wanted – Dead or Alive and Black Star Rising

Wanted – Dead or Alive and Black Star Rising are meaningful releases in the catalogue of Core Space expansions. They mark the end of the first stage of this game, an era beginning with the core set and now concluding just shy of the standalone First Born. As the backside of an excellent run of content, a proper review of these products necessarily beckons reflection.

Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner
But he knew it couldn’t last

This game is in a marvelous state. While the initial set was a very solid product, there were some rough edges with the Core Space line. Publisher Battle Systems ltd. struggled to execute on their expanded vision. This was seen in the first wave of expansions.

The retail releases were fully featured and realized – I’ve already gone into detail with full reviews of these titles. But this transition was not smooth for Kickstarter backers. They received fractured segments of the early offerings. The vision of the formalized product line hadn’t been solidified yet and the rewards were piecemeal. This is understandably frustrating and is the single rough moment in the game’s history. This was also the point where a weak company would have buckled. They could have moved on to their next big Kickstarter campaign, intent on raising capital instead of thoroughly supporting their pre-existing game. That didn’t happen. Core Space has matured and expanded. It has benefitted exceptionally from ongoing development. It’s also worth noting that Battle Systems has avoided this previous blunder by preplanning the entire first wave of First Born expansions.

As much as I adored Core Space in the early days, my infatuation has only grown.

A significant factor is how thoughtfully new content has been produced and integrated. This is a malleable system, adaptive to the whims of its players without feeling fragile or reliant on house rules. It finds a very narrow gap to position itself in, one occupied solely by old school hits such as Necromunda and Car Wars.

Here’s how it works. Every single expansion includes components that slide effortlessly into the existing framework. It feels analogous to the technology stack in software development, each module linking seamlessly to the next. New shiny equipment tokens are tossed into the bag waiting to be found. Additional crew members are added to the pool ready to be recruited. Fresh scenarios can be played at your leisure, easily integrated with the open campaign format. And most critically, the event deck is expanded.

The event deck is the spine of the game. It holds the structure together and presents much of the character. When you grab an expansion, such as Galactic Corps or Purge: Outbreak, you can simply toss the two or three new event cards into the large stack and move along. One, two, maybe three plays later – the jack-in-the-box pops and your heart lurches.

If you’re feeling particularly lazy, you can even refrain from reading the pamphlet for the new content until that moment. Most everything in this game is delivered in a page or two of rules text and it won’t seize momentum to take a breather and discover how gangers or the Annihilator works when they first step foot inside the station.

This spontaneous appearance of expansion material is so damn thrilling. It compartmentalizes additional content, pulling pieces here and there at random to organically create story. I can vividly recall plays where an eerie quiet was supplanted by the arrival of Zed’s crew. Small scuffles served as annoyance, eventually erupting into all-out war as the streets became Mega-City One with the Galactic Corps serving justice. I was caught in the middle. Then the Purge started pouring in.

Here’s the thing – all of this compounds. With each new expansion set the combination of narrative threads multiply. It gets wackier and far more unpredictable. No matter how you envision a scenario playing out, it never quite works that way as random sparks are belched from the deck.

Jojo left his home in Tucson, Arizona
For some California grass

One quality of this approach is a large degree of authorial control granted to the player group. While certain scenarios will explicitly feature expansion content, Core Space also gives you the freedom to add those event cards into any situation. It also suggests you toss out some starting NPCs occasionally, such as including a scavenger from Black Star Rising from the get-go, even if you’re playing an old scenario from the base game. Yes, free-wheelin’ like this can result in oddball plays where weird stuff happens, but that’s also much of the appeal.

My preferred method is to play scenarios straight, but to ignore their suggested event deck composition. Typically, you will be instructed to include a subset of cards tailored to the mission you’re engaging, but I don’t do that. In Wiz-War fashion, I throw it all in. My games of Core Space are an MDMA-infused cyberpunk bebop of braving the apocalyptic singularity. It’s glorious.

But there’s an immense sense of authorial control granted. If I’m not feeling like squaring off against the terrifying robot spider “Mother” because the difficulty of the scenario is already teetering on pandemonium – seriously, this thing is absolutely bananas and ate my captain in a previous campaign – then I just ignore the card draw and pull a second. It doesn’t feel like cheating because the motivation isn’t tipping the experience in my favor, rather it’s a mixture of either advancing or easing up on the throttle. Other times there’s already enough NPCs wandering around, and I don’t want the added burden of yet another table to reference or rules pamphlet to open. That is of course the large downside of many different sub-groups of NPC types – rules bloat – but I counter this by riding on my evolving intra-play preferences. Of course, if you go with the restricted event deck setups you won’t have this additional weight or concern.

None of this feels forced. It works because this game is played primarily from a co-operative or solo stance. This means negotiating all of this is simple and a non-issue. This contrasts heavily with something like the new Necromunda or Kill Team, products where optional expansion features need to be negotiated by the group which often leaves you in an unsatisfying spot. Core Space feels more like a co-operative RPG, despite the ability for it to go off the rails with competing crews.

Battle Systems has leaned into this. Besides shirking away from player vs. player conflict in First Born, both Black Star Rising and Wanted – DOA include a series of co-op linked scenarios. It feels as though the design team has fully grasped the strengths of their system and how their player base is engaging it. These co-operative scenarios are strong and interesting, which bodes well for the new core set.

Get back, get back
Get back to where you once belonged

These really are two fantastic expansions. Black Star Rising is slightly less noteworthy as it’s the re-release of civilian workers and scavengers. These NPCs were previously added to the game with the now out-of-print Shift Change at MegaCorp. This content was repurposed and re-released here due to the previous set featuring a smaller print run and containing resin figures requiring assembly. I discussed this in my review of the Dangerous Days material, but despite some backlash from Core Space fans, I didn’t have too big of a problem with the quality of those miniatures. Still, I prefer these plastic figures and it’s great to see them made available again.

Also, the plastic seems to be getting better. Earlier sets suffered somewhat heavily from warped bases in particular. The new miniatures are crisp and not misshapen. They’re also wonderfully posed, particularly the new bounty hunters.

Wanted – Dead or Alive then is the much more intriguing release. It’s completely new material, functioning as a nod towards some of the content we’ll see in First Born. This includes auxiliary units such as a cargo hauling robot on treads you can hire to lug around your scavenged treasure. Or a gun-toting alien thing that can rip it up as well as sherpa. There are even floating drones perched on clear flight stands. These are utterly cool.

Then there’s the bounty hunters. These badasses pop into play intermittently and pursue their marks. You generate a bounty randomly among player characters and NPCs. This is a tense process as you roll some dice and pray one of your people didn’t do something stupid previously on leave.

These new characters then go full tilt in pursuing their mark. They try to apprehend or kill the target – the stipulations randomized upon contact – and may even haul your unconscious crew member off the board. It’s wild and I’m sure you can conjure the implications. Trying to hack into a terminal while battling a group of Devastators is painful enough. Imagine doing this while a bounty hunter comes barreling down the opposite end of the corridor catching you in a pincer.

I must admit that I am slightly disappointed that the bounty system is transitory, remaining in effect only for the current mission. I can see the challenge in developing a system where your wanted status rolls over. It would require a decision tree of sorts determining whether you should generate a new mark when a bounty hunter randomly appeared in play, otherwise there would simply be far too many floating bounties. But this could have made for an exceptional emergent campaign arc of battling it out with a specific bounty hunter who won’t give up the job. I suppose that can still happen if the almighty event deck deems it so, but that is reliant on the inclinations of chaos.

Regardless, the system as implemented is a riot. Handling the bounty hunters is as smooth as the other NPC types and it’s all expertly balanced between complexity and ease of application. Also, you can recruit these new gunslingers into your crew if you’re lucky. I haven’t had that quite work out yet, but the strength and allure of these two cowboys is strong.

Get back, Jojo
Go home

As with most games, I’ve long held the belief that you’re best off acquiring the expansion line in the chronological order of release. No more. My principles have re-aligned. This is such a compelling addition that I would heavily encourage adoption for anyone looking to bulk out their Core Space experience. It illustrates every guiding principle of this design. Black Star Rising is certainly appreciated and a worthwhile title but Wanted – Dead or Alive is simply the pinnacle of Core Space thus far.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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