You and your crew have been in space for years. R&R at nearby planets doesn’t count for much, and you’re all fed up with space and ready to head home. But no. Just as you think it’s safe to head back, a distress call comes over the sub-space ether: The S.S. Omega has gone radio silent and it’s up to you to board, diagnose, repair, and finish their mission. Succeed and you’ll get a nice bonus. Fail and it won’t matter that you aren’t going to get paid since you’ll all have died. The challenge is figuring out what the heck’s actually wrong with the Omega, something that’s exacerbated by the fact that there are endless problems that crop up, pods and modules that fail, and a general lack of oxygen on the ship.
That’s the premise of the challenging card game Star Ship Omega from Glenn Ford and Man o’ Kent Games. You build the spaceship out of a set of cards, populate your crew from a second deck, place a set of missions to attempt on the table, then alternate between Activation Cards that detail the actions of each crewmember every turn and the Challenge Deck that specifies problems that arise. Survive the entire challenge deck of 24 cards and you’ve won, which is not easy to accomplish!
STAR SHIP OMEGA: BASIC SETUP
The ship is built from the 13 location cards, then you deal out the number of crew you want – six for a solo game + 1 in cryogenic freeze – place the six mission cards face down, and add the oxygen tracker. Here’s the setup, which I’ll explain in more detail momentarily:
As you can see, the Omega has a big central corridor, with pods and modules connected in all four directions. Most importantly, it has four solar arrays, two atop and two at the bottom. Let’s look a bit more closely at the ship:
The top right is the oxygen tracker: Everyone on the ship needs to breathe every turn, either their personal oxygen or from the shared oxygen source. If that runs out, well, it’s going to fade to black and you’ll lose the game. You randomly choose a crew from 1 of 4 commissioned officers and 5 non-comms (for solo, with a different mix if you’re playing 2-6 players). Each crew has a token that denotes its location in the ship, and to start, everyone’s in the Central Corridor, as shown. It’s a bit hard to see in this photo, but each location has a capacity limit denoted on the top left, a unique name and actions that apply if one or more crewmembers are in that location during the turn.
Note: One unique thing about the solar arrays is that the crew can only breathe their personal oxygen, so they must fill up their oxy tanks prior to reaching those locations.
Let’s have a closer look at the crew too. Each crew member has a personal oxygen level, a title, rank, special capability, and morale level:
The Psychiatrist is our commissioned officer, hence its high rank (18). At the start of the game, everyone has an O2 level of zero and a morale of four, as denoted with the half-circle markers. Each crewmember also has a matching player token (already in the Central Corridor) and a matching rank token, which will prove important when potential missions arise.
Each crew also has a special power or capability. For example, the Psychiatrist May treat one person in the medical pod as if they were two people, allowing the morale of those crew members to be restored more quickly. This is also where you bump into some of the nomenclature confusion that is one of the most confusing parts of the game. Events and actions revolve around the differences between must, may, and try. For example, the Botanist, above, must “reduce crew in hydropod’s morale by Y” while the Psychiatrist may treat one in the medical pod as if they were two crew (allowing that crew member to gain morale).
Generally, must denotes an action that must be taken, may is an optional action or event, and try means “must, if possible”, which, arguably is the same as must in the first place. This will come back again and again as we step through the game.
The quick reference cards will definitely be your friend in S.S.O. as they concisely summarize each turn, which is comprised of Activation, Check, and Challenge. If a crew member dies, the Death section is also referenced:
It’s tempting as you get familiar with the game to skip steps but a diligent application of steps on the card, particularly during the Challenge phrase, proves critical to ensure everything occurs in the correct order, an important nuance underlying many tactical decisions.
The basic strategy of the game is that you’ll plan where you want all of your crew to move, execute the movements, deal with any actions or events triggered, consume oxygen, perform Crew actions on location or crew cards, flip over a Challenge card and execute its actions. Sound easy? It’s not…
PLAYING STAR SHIP OMEGA
At this point, the game’s all set up and it’s time to start playing. Each turn a Challenge card is going to be flipped up (but not until Challenge phase, step 5). To start, shuffle and deal out N+1 activation cards, where “N” is the number of crew still alive. Since I have six crew, that means I deal 7 cards, from which I will choose six and assign them to individual crew. Here’s what I draw:
The three I’ve stacked on the left are all “Must move to any adjacent location”, the most generic of the movement cards. The next, for example, has both a Must and a May clause: “Must move to central corridor” and “May move one other crew in the central corridor to any module.” The blue portion is flavor text and can be read or ignored as desired. This card will move the corresponding crew member directly to the corridor and once there, they can move any other crew member to any of the modules on the ship. If that second crew member then has an activation card that comes up after this one, they’ll move twice, so turn order is critical.
Now imagine you’ve worked to ensure that your Botanist is on one of the solar arrays, poised to repair it and complete a mission, and their activation card, since you put them in the wrong order, forces them to must move to any non-Array location. Frustrating, but it will happen. You have to figure out which activation card applies to each of your crew before any of them are invoked. I found that it was helpful to lay them out in a grid that paralleled the crew grid:
This image is from a bit later in the game: Notice that some crew now have 1 oxygen and that the rank token for the Computer Specialist has been moved. I’ll come back to that momentarily… Which crew member activates first is then critical, because in this instance I want specific crew members to end up in specific locations. Crew activation order is definitely a critical aspect of S.S.Omega.
Each turn requires you to flip over and execute a challenge. Here’s the first challenge presented to my crew:
This again demonstrates the confusion around wording: “Try” is unnecessary here, this challenge simply requires you to lower general oxygen equal to the number of living crew. Six crew = six units of O2 subtracted from the general supply. Most importantly, notice the “Activate Mission 2“. That’s also a must and requires that you flip over the Mission 2 card if you can. Some challenges don’t affect missions, some require more than one mission be activated. Generally, missions are tough and have significant negative consequences if not attained.
In this instance, it’s our first mission, #2, and here’s the card:
I’ve already added a few tokens, but let’s start with the card itself. This is Emergency Oxygen Protocol and we have 3 rounds to accomplish it (denoted by Mission Guide at the bottom). We succeed at this mission if we can ensure each crew member has at least 1 personal oxygen. On success we will gain the reward of being able to increase general oxygen by 6, which is significant! Fail and the consequence is that general oxygen decreases by 4.
But that’s not everything related to this mission because failing a mission automatically means every every crew member loses 1 morale too. Think you can accomplish it? Then your crew is required to vote: Crew members who are supportive add their tokens to the card and once there’s a simple majority, it’s activated. The vote is against the mission? Everyone loses 1 morale and the card flips back over. If it fails and there are crew tokens still present on the card (they can be moved once the vote is complete if you have that crew member head to the radio pod), those crew lose an additional 1 morale, making it risky to support a mission if it goes south!
A few rounds into the game, here’s how the crew is deployed:
The Oxygen Hydro Pod (top right) has a capacity limit of two (the number on the top left corner) and right now it’s the Psychiatrist (orange) and the Radio Officer (green) who are in that spot. When it’s Take Crew Action time, each of them can gain up to four units of personal oxygen by depleting the same amount from the general oxygen supply (that’s what “Crew Oxy + Y, Gen Oxy – Y” means, and remember each crew has a max of 4 personal oxygen). Just as importantly, the second line says “+1 Gen Oxy per 2 Crew here”, which means that if you have two crew in this Pod, you’ll gain 2 general oxygen. Since I only moved one unit of O2 to each of the crew, it was a wash: take two, generate two. Acceptable.
Three of the crew are also in the Rec Room, where they could be improving their morale. In this instance, each can increase their morale by the total number of crew present (as long as there’s at least 2 present, the meaning of “per other crew here“). The Rec Room can hold up to six crew, so it’s a quick way to restore everyone’s morale in a single turn.
Note: If a crew member goes down to morale of zero and ends up by themselves – as the Botanist is, solo in the Central Corridor – then they go crazy and are considered deceased for the purposes of the game. It’s tough to be alone in a haunted spaceship!
Voted to attempt a mission but running out of time? Moving into the Radio Pod – as the Psychiatrist (orange) is below – lets you both move that crew member’s rank token from the mission back to their crew card and add one to the mission tracker, effectively giving you an extra round to complete the mission:
This time everyone’s spread out on the ship, though I have ensured that two crew are in the Hydro Pod to slow down the loss of oxygen and simultaneously have two more crew – the Science Officer and Computer Specialist – gain some personal oxygen. We’re going to succeed at that darn mission!
As I’ve been proceeding, I’m also aware that we don’t need all the solar arrays to recover the ship and that there are benefits with certain mission cards to having less arrays online. Moving a crew member into the Computer Module (lower right of the above photo) allows me to flip a location down, effectively dropping them offline. My strategy plays off perfectly when I pull the Meteor Strike Challenge card (on the left), which flips up the Re-Align Solar Arrays mission card on the right:
It requires one crew in each solar array, but that’s each solar array that’s online; flipping them means the mission is easier to accomplish, and that reward is pretty sweet: discard 2 challenge cards. Remember, when we run out of challenge cards, we win!
A turn or two later I have two solar arrays offline and my crew deployed as shown:
I’m really close to achieving this mission because I can move one of the crew from the Hydro Pod to an adjacent location – the array on the top right – and then if I can get another crew member into the Computer Module (where green is already located) I can flip over the other solar array and achieve the winning condition for Mission 4: A crew member in each online solar array!
Kinda like this:
The Botanist has moved into the array, and the Science Officer is in the Computer Module. Once they’ve executed their actions, I’ve accomplished the requirements for Mission 4 and get to discard two more challenge cards. That’s 2/24ths of the entire challenge deck discarded, and once achieved missions can’t come up again either, so a solid milestone.
THOUGHTS ON STAR SHIP OMEGA
There’s a lot to like in this incredibly challenging puzzle game, and the mechanism of deploying crew, taking actions, and trying to achieve goals when bad things keep happening is quite fun. The artwork grows on you, a sort of retro 80’s sci-fi style that focuses on what you need to do. That’s the good.
The phrasing of the crew actions, cards, challenges and activations, however, are confusing, with the included rules also baffling in sections. Game designer Glenn Ford sent me a revised and updated rules PDF which helped, and kindly answered my questions as I gradually moved past confusion to an understanding of how all the aspects fit together.
Now that I understand the basic mechanics and how everything works together, the rhythm of the game, I believe that the challenge of S.S.Omega is a combination of cards that need a rewrite for clarity and rules that need a separate ‘first few turns’ section in addition to its current content. The game play has a lot to grok, particularly the difference between Auto and Crew, and Must, May and Try. There’s a great mechanic and really fun – and challenging! – puzzle game locked on board the S.S.Omega, but it might just require a major revision to bring out the game’s full potential.
Disclosure: Man o’ Kent Games sent me a copy of Star Ship Omega in return for this candid review.