As I write this something truly spectacular is happening in what some scientists call the ‘Solar System’. A tiny, carefully crafted package launched into the freezing blackness of space nine years ago has completed an epic journey to Pluto, whizzing past it at 14km per second and snapping pictures along the way. Smartly designed, small-scale, attempting to achieve something greater than the sum of its parts – surely this can’t be a segue into something about board gameohhh my god here it comes
Space-based civilisation-building card game Eminent Domain was a stellar success when it launched onto Kickstarter five years ago, rocketing to more than twice its initial $20,000 target by the end of the campaign. The self-billed “Next Evolution of Deck Building Games” took the base mechanic of players jostling to add increasingly powerful central cards to their own pools, and worked in a role-selection scheme familiar to anyone who’s dabbled in games like Puerto Rico or Glory to Rome.
Fast forward a couple of years and microgames are all the rage, following the knockout success of pint-sized powerhouses such as Love Letter and Coup. Designers everywhere are turning their hands to crafting small-box games you can fire through in under 20 minutes, and Eminent Domain’s Seth Jaffee was no exception.
EXCEPT FOR THE EXCEPTION
Jaffee’s on record as saying he’s “not a huge fan” of microgames due to their lightness and simplicity, but was tempted into the genre to see if he could cram something a bit more heavy-hitting into a similarly-sized box. Despite initially working with a classical civilisation theme, Jaffee was persuaded by publisher Tasty Minstrel Games to reskin the game to tie in with his previous product, and Eminent Domain: Microcosm was born. Expert knowledge, being used to pack more than was though possible into a tiny box? With a space theme? Microcosm might well be the New Horizons probe of board games – but is it mission accomplished, or has wedging so much into such a small package proved too great a feat of engineering?
Right, let’s have a look at this sucker:
It is COMPACT. Tucked away in that tiny box are just 34 cards, with only 18 of those being used as your draw pile during the game. 18! That means just nine turns for each player before it’s all over and you’re counting scores, and once you’ve got the hang of it that 10-minute play time stamped on the front is well within reach. Like Pluto was within reach! But a bit quicker.
Yet within that 10 minutes you’ll be exploring and colonising planets, launching missile-toting spaceship raids on one another, tasking boffins with researching new tech and dabbling in politics in an attempt to out-score your adversary.
Like many smart board games before it, Microcosm manages to reduce decision making for players to just a handful of options each turn, but tries to ensure each of the choices you make has a hefty impact on the rest of the game. Each turn you draw one of the three face-up Domain cards, like the ones below, or a mystery card off the top if you don’t fancy any of the ones you can see. You then either play a card in your hand and discard it, or bring back your entire discard pile ready for the next turn.
That’s it! The secret sauce in Microcosm is the synergy between cards – collecting lots of a single type is the key to grabbing more points at the end of the game. Wave around a handful of warfare cards, for example, will let you conquer increasingly well-protected planets, even if they’ve already been colonised by your opponent. Bagging a lot of research lets you grab more of the scarce, power-boosting tech cards in the middle of the table, or force your opponent to chuck theirs away. Each card has a special points-booster in the top right – netting you extra points for collecting more and more tech, or colonies, or matching a bunch of red planets from the little picture in the upper left of each card, or example. Picking up just a couple of these immediately locks you into a strong course of action for the game, but the small scale of proceedings means it’s easy for each player to see what the other is trying to do and look to block it. If you’re blocking your opponent, though, you’re not necessarily picking up cards to boost your own nefarious scheme – it’s a setup which makes Eminent Domain a nimble little puzzle which changes each time you play.
For all that, Microcosm does have its problems. First plays of games invariably take longer than suggested on the box, but our first dig into Microcosm was far, far above the ten minute mark, as we constantly stop-started to clarify things in the rules sheet. It seemed like perhaps too much actually had been crammed into the game, but with hindsight it’s another problem entirely – the rules sheet is awful. As well as being overly wordy describing what must be one of the simplest mechanics in board games, it still manages to miss out or be hazy on important information, mainly around the intricacies of planets and colonies.
That’s been partially fixed by TMG releasing an updated PDF of the rules clarifing those points, but I still think any microgame where you’re tempted to watch a rules explanation video online is making a mistake somewhere. That fiddliness continues in the end-game scoring – the intricacies of the system mean there are a bunch of different things to count up on all your cards, which is a bit discordant when the main game is so fast-paced. None of these are dealbreakers though, and for a game coming in at under a tenner they’re very much minor niggles.
So what could you buy instead? Love Letter is the obvious choice if you’re hunting a microgame at the same price point which handles more than two people, and fellow micro-deck builder Star Realms looks like the better option if you’re eyeing a similar theme and have an extra four or five quid to spend. But Microcosm is a smart challenge which, if not completely out of this world, is at least on the right trajectory.
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