From the ruddy grit of a Martian insurgency to the hard vacuum of starship combat, we’re back with the other solitaire title in Decision Games’ Free Mars sampler. Ceres: Operation Stolen base tasks a revolutionary fleet with completing missions on and around the crucial asteroid. It’s a much faster game than counterpart ground-pounder Phobos Rising, but retains the core systems and examines this still-enigmatic future conflict from another exciting angle.
The game area is relatively simple; three distinct orbits around the dwarf-planet, peppered with nodes, points and spinal transition tracks. Player fleets start in aphelion, departing towards Ceres or riding orbit. Fleets must chart courses for randomly-placed intercept markers, much in the same way Phobos Rising had your cadre tabbing to installations. Each intercept offers up bonuses, such as orbital bombardment pods, space-borne assault troops, auxiliary electronic warfare modules, fighters and fuel.
Four missions are supplied, and can be played within a campaign structure. They generally require you to tag a requisite number of intercepts and bomb or assault Ceres. Home Base, for instance, asks you to hit at least three intercepts and build an orbital base in middle orbit. Line Drive demands all intercepts and two positive close orbit bombardments of the planet. Each of the missions also stipulates a necessary NET track number, so we see the electronic infrastructure and awareness mechanic from Phobos put to good use here, too.
The NET — Neural Electronic Transfer, if you’re into your fluff — is a catch-all and malleable skill quota. At the end of a fleet action, players can generally choose to either add an Op card to their draw pile, which sustains turns, or to increase their NET awareness. Increased NET boosts modifiers for event initiatives, but also increases the number of enemy fleets encountered during combat. Finding the right balance between choosing Ops or increasing NET is a pretty compelling part of the Ceres, and for something so simple, it’s a pretty effective bit of strategic crunch. Like its counterpart, if you run out of Ops cards or lose all ability to make NET runs, it’s Bill Paxton, man. Bill Paxton.
But what would a spaceship game be without spaceships? Ceres offers an interesting selection of vessels; from beefy battleship-esque attack craft through to assemblers and probes. Each offer different combat, movement, ability and cost parameters, the likes of which are largely selected during setup. Depending on the transport capacity of each craft, you can also augment loadouts with pod purchases. Need boots on the ground? Purchase a couple of detachments of space marines. Need a little boost to your NET infrastructure? Grab a CyberWar module. This remains my favourite part of the game. It’s a conservative catalogue of bolt-on goodies, but the condensed nature of the game turns these tasty tchotchkes into crucial components at the drawing of a card.
Pods can also be built by Assembler ships mid-game, as well as at established orbital bases if you’re lucky enough to survive that long. The initial fifteen assembly points feel rather restrictive, but allow for a couple of serviceable fleets to begin tackling intercepts and growing their cache of arms. The intercepts reveal themselves to be any one of the pod upgrades, throwing in an orbital bombardment overhaul to get the job done. Intercepts aren’t automatically fetched, and do require Ops card draws and NET runs to become viable. Perhaps even more scarifying is that, if that a fleet fails its NET run, the upgrades are lost. The flunked intercept, thankfully, still counts towards mission objectives.
Sharing most of Phobos Rising‘s turn sequences, Ceres differs largely in allowing for more than one unit or fleet in space. The five to six discrete phases, including Ceres‘ task force declaration, still include movement, Ops card events, combat if required and special actions. Once the mission resolution is revealed and achieved, feel free to pop the champers and watch Sol rise over a free colony.
I really enjoyed my time with Ceres: Operation Stolen Base. It is a lot less procedural than Phobos Rising, but still remains markedly complimentary. It also sports those small, economic counters and pint-sized ops cards, with a map and game mat that falls a little short of the Martian campaign in terms of aesthetics. What Ceres does have is a clearer set of instructions. I didn’t find myself peering down the columns of an admittedly lean rulesheet, looking to have my quandaries lessened. The simplified movement lanes are the simplest Decision Games’ mini series has offered yet, but the inherent systems and fleet composition mitigate any accusation that Ceres is a game without real player agency or chin-strokery. Given its brevity and card-driven nature, there’s a pretty decent replayability for the asking price.
If you’re thirsting for a little ancillary spaceshipping now that The Expanse is back, or you’ve been wanting to break out your Ivanova Brow for the last nineteen years, Ceres: Operation Stolen Base is a tidy viability.