Core Space just gets me. It does so much of what I want from a miniatures game. A restrained yet satisfying ruleset that is easy to recall even with months between sessions. A free form and light campaign system which can be engaged on my own terms. An interesting and characterful setting that remains vague and open. And a beautiful environment that is picturesque and teeming with life.
Core Space is an inspired system, and First Born does not diminish any of these qualities. In several ways, it meaningfully expands upon them.
First Born is the new standalone box from publisher Battle Systems ltd. It mimics the original Core Space’s mechanical framework and three-dimensional environment, while taking the setting to a corner of the galaxy previously undisturbed.
Out are the Purge, robotic invaders hell-bent on rending flesh and conquering humankind, and in are the First Born, ancient beings awoken from indefinite hibernation. This ancestral race of terrifying creatures is not alone, however. They sit upon a hoard of exotic tech, wares laying beneath space dusted cobwebs under the watch of machine sentries and silent guardians. There’s a dreadful sense of malevolence permeating the walls and it sinks into the flesh.
The setting and themes are surprisingly foreign. Instead of pilfering salvage from abandoned stations while under fire from local authorities and soulless metallic trespassers, you’re sneaking into a hostile vault towing away the weird accoutrements of an entombed and nameless villain. The horror of the situation is refocused, the threat ghastly and casting a pallor over the serialized Indiana Jones adventures that await.
There’s actual sneaking around now. The board starts quiet, with First Born drones moving on robotic patrol around the map, causing you to duck and hide as their sensors flare.
It does parallel the previous title’s tempo in a broad sense, loot what you can before feces hits the rotary blade, but it feels more dangerous as you have to dip behind obstacles and nestle into the environment. There’s a sense here that the temple itself is out to get you, and it’s paralleled in the new hazards such as vents that occasionally flare and rock worms that burst from the surface of the asteroid grotto. Less emphasis is placed on neutral characters wandering the maps – there’s no civvies at all actually – and instead is focused on the harsh habitat and how it slowly threatens to swallow you whole.
Everything is deadlier here, including your crew and the items you can scrounge. This is needed as the power level of the First Born can be quite unwieldy. Just like its predecessor, however, the whole experience is very swingy and unpredictable. It’s part of the reason why I adore this game as the emergent narrative is erratic. You will still run into scenarios that quickly turn sour. Sometimes you will instead find things all too quiet, the alarm never sounding and your traders sleeping comfortably in their freighter after a light day’s work. There are ways to tune this somewhat, such as adding expansion content to turn the difficulty nob, but the script never seeks nor attains a level of consistency most would expect from the typical dungeon crawl board game.
Board game is a funny term, one which I was never quite comfortable ascribing to the original release. First Born embraces this form more cordially, trading out the default measuring of movement with a ruler, and instead suggesting you count squares. While I think this is a solid move from a marketing and product standpoint as this game absolutely should appeal to traditional board gamers, I find this adoption of precise positioning in reference to the grid a little rough.
Mostly, it’s easier to eyeball the placement of terrain elements when measuring for movement because the physics of everything feels looser. If I’m moving by squares, it feels important that I place that oversized Dyson reactor exactly three squares away from the wall and two squares away from the pillar, since it’s beholden to the squares beneath if I wish to interact with or fight around it. If instead I’m running wild with imperial units of measurement, I can just put the big dog where it looks to be right and no foul.
That’s about the only real system change gnawing on me. In fact, it’s really the only fundamental shift in the overall engine. Everything else feels more setting specific as opposed to a Core Space 2.0. Which is fantastic, as I wasn’t looking for Battle Systems to invalidate the previous extended product line.
It is however clearly obvious that lessons have been learned. Some of the more difficult upkeep rules from Dangerous Days are included natively in First Born. That’s fantastic, as money is still very easy to come by as long as you play relatively conservatively and avoid adversity.
I’m fond of the shift in loot from mundane to First Born items, as this makes your scores all the more peculiar. It’s also a quality-of-life improvement as you can permanently leave the regular gear segregated outside of play to ease the between mission shopping experience. This was a sore aspect of the previous core and one which caused me to neglect upgrading equipment more often than not.
The inclusion of mining is a low-key boon, but one I’m keen on. In addition to searching rooms, you can now perform a mine action as well. This requires some new equipment, but it allows you to interact with the environment by scraping ore from the surface of the temple and packing it away in your rig. While worth credits at the trading post, you can also elect to keep the curious minerals and utilize them to craft powerful new gear.
This does smash up awkwardly against some of the limitations of the current system, however. First, there’s simply a great deal of equipment with too slight granularity, much of it a result of this crafting system. Pawing through dozens of pistols and looking up all of the symbols to find just-the-right-one is not at all worth the effort. Just grab something that hits with three dice at short range and call it a night.
Secondly, requiring a precious equipment slot for a pickaxe and then additional spaces for the ore means you’re likely neglecting more enriching First Born artifacts. You can feel the designer’s awareness with the follow-on utility dashboards expansion which adds backpacks and satchels for the traders. This integrates well overall with mining but presents other shifts in campaign tempo and balance. Unfortunately, with just the core box mining is perhaps underutilized.
There is one neat little effect in that you can get bitten by a grub, a carnivorous wormling often found in the depths of this space. These tokens are seeded in the item bag as well as the ore pool which means a quick search of a First Born crate can result in a bite and some unblockable damage to your crew. I find this a smart and subtle inclusion that reinforces the menace of the environment.
I adore the NPC duo of Big Game Hunters and Rock Worms. I mentioned how the beasts particularly enhance the risk of the environment, but the hunters are quite a thorn. Both enter play through event cards, the poachers seeking the worms at all cost to harvest their bits as trophies.
If you get in their way, they will waste you. Turn you to godforsaken ash.
They also serve as excellent distraction for the First Born, wandering into combat zones and setting off fireworks. The ensuing chaos can be glorious and results in the wild dramatic narrative that this game revels in.
One of the strongest impressions this new cycle of product has left me with is in how distinct this new threat and environment feels. It’s still Core Space, but it emanates an esoteric liminal aura at times. The immersion is once again a hallmark of the design, and it’s perhaps even stronger in this iteration. This of course begins with the slick three-dimensional terrain, but it extends marvelously into the efflorescent interactions and outcomes.
The new enemies will push your tactical brain muscles. They threaten at a distance and with greater effect, with most foes rolling a Knowledge die that results in varied attack outcomes and plenty of heartache. This adds to the mystique of the setting.
As an aside, I do want to examine one aspect of these foes that is underwhelming. While the tempo of First Born arrival is gripping and a well calibrated intensity, there is a somewhat perplexing gaffe concerning the True Born. This is the primary antagonist of this enemy set, roughly the equivalent of a Live One in the first Core Space. However, this new enemy is substantially tougher and more frightening, clocking in closer perhaps to the Annihilator from the Purge Outbreak expansion. That’s fine, wonderful even as I appreciate the presence of a terrifying entity.
But the True Born is a bit of a ghost. They’re rarely seen, as it’s trivial to stuff your bags with loot, accomplish the goal, and fight your way back to the ship before one even arrives. There’s a neat process of this potent foe groggily stumbling out of their stasis pod and triggering a new sub-objective for the First Born. Nearby underlings will attempt to wake the commander, seeking to usher in its reign of terror. Yet, getting this deep into the threat track is so uncommon that I’m left disappointed. I actually never saw a lucid True Born until the 10th and final mission of the campaign. I’m concerned I may never see one again. I don’t know what to make of that exactly, but it feels a bit of a tease.
True Born disenchantment aside, the bulk of immersive qualities make for a product that serves well as an expansion for a seasoned Core Space enthusiast. It provides variety and a strong alternative campaign path for extended play. There are a few rough spots in terms of transitioning content between both sets, such as some of the class boards being updated for First Born specific effects. The new setting also does not thematically support the pre-existing NPC expansions, which are some of my favorite content, although you can force them into the scene if you’re an animal.
Alternatively, this only partially succeeds as a jumping off point into the game. It is much appreciated that the 10-scenario campaign has several strong missions and is focused on solitaire or co-operative play. That format is likely how the majority of Core Space veterans engage the game, so it’s wonderful that the included content hones in on this format and presents the game on its best footing. There are no actual rule changes in this regard, simply the design of enemies in terms of threat and pressure combined with scenario writing that challenges a combined group.
Where this box struggles for newcomers is in iconography elaboration. Many more of the items have unique and unintuitive effects as compared to the original set. This is actually a pleasant facet for experienced players as it enhances the mood and depth of the First Born artifacts, but it also uncomfortably highlights the limitations of the equipment system and how sometimes complex effects must be illustrated with a modest amount of token real-estate. You will find yourself flipping back and forth through the rulebook quite often as you asses gear, even after several plays. Personally, I think the variety in abilities is absolutely worth this inconvenience, but I can’t deny that it makes for a discouraging first impression.
There is also some trickiness in deciphering the greater Core Space product line if you’re a newcomer. Compatibility is not altogether clear, as it appears you can grab the older crews to use in this new game, but that has a couple of issues. As mentioned above, the previous classes have been reworked to a degree, but touchier is that none of the included scenarios in any of the old content will work in First Born. In fact, this is the biggest downside of this new branch of material.
Battle Systems released dozens of missions over the past couple of years. Many of them free and later compiled into Dangerous Days. But expansions such as Wanted: Dead or Alive and Galactic Corps included neat options that presented new approaches to scenario design. It will take quite a while for First Born to catch up. I’m sure it will get there as the company is still clearly dedicated to this magnificent game.
This is a hell of a box. It has some challenges and it’s certainly not blemish-free, but it exemplifies that the team behind this game is still capable of tapping into an electric pool of creativity.
This is a lot of words for a game that already existed. I plan on bringing more as I dissect the expansion content and address how this new era of Core Space radically changes the campaign progression arc. The amount of material we have to explore in this system is staggering, but the overall threshold of quality remains markedly sharp.