July 30, 2021

Armchair Dragoons Reviews One Small Step by Academy Games

Henry Vogel, 10 December 2020

Command the United States or Soviet Union Space Agency in this engine building, work placement Eurogame.

Each player or team of players, in a three or four player game, builds a resource engine through event card play and worker placement. Resources allow mission completion, which earns victory points and pushes the country toward a moon landing.

One Small Stepdoes not present an historically accurate recreation of the space race. By that, I mean either country may use the events and recruit any personnel. My game featured the heroic cosmonaut John Glenn and the intrepid astronaut Yuri Gagarin. Each country has their own deck of manned space missions from which players randomly draw missions. This led to the US attempting a moon landing as their first manned space mission.

PLOT & PRESENTATION

The space race is the foundation on which James DuMond designed One Small Step. But that dry statement doesn’t capture the impact the space race had on the world of the 1960s. It drove one of the decade’s biggest news cycles, and I grew up with it. From Alan Shepard’s Mercury-Redstone liftoff to Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, I watched every broadcast, read every news story, and dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Chances are, I’ll never go to space, but can One Small Step help recapture the excitement I felt watching history unfold on television?

SET-UP, GRAPHICS, AND DOCUMENTATION

Check out the unboxing photos here.

The game comes with thick, sturdy, and easily punched counters depicting resources and media / satellite / mission rewards. They’re well printed and easily read. My only quibble is with the two-sided permanent resource counters. The unused side has red highlights while the used side has gray highlights. I played with someone who is red-green colorblind, and the two sides looked the same to him. Fortunately, the unused side’s edges are rounded and provided a tactile clue which side was which.

The game features four wooden meeples per side; two engineers and two administrators. They are typical wood meeples found any many Eurogames. The two meeple types have distinct iconography, and we had no trouble telling them apart.  As with the counters, the board is sturdy, with a clean, easily deciphered layout. The red-green colorblind player had no trouble with the

One Small Step has a slickly printed, well-illustrated rulebook. It clearly explains the game set up and play. A few minor — though irritating — things aren’t included. Some card icons aren’t described, or the icons are described separately, leaving some interpretations in the players’ hands. As of this writing, I can find no updated rulebook or FAQ online. The Board Game Geek forum features several questions about iconography, so perhaps Academy Games will provide one or both documents soon.

Consistent with the board and counters, the cards are well printed and easy to read. My initial impression is they’ll stand up to repeated shuffling and playing. The game has three wooden dice with engraved icons. Again, they’re easily read and should stand up well. Finally, the charts are printed on light cardboard. Players must take minor care of the charts as they will fold easily and could tear. Average attention to detail should prove sufficient to avoid both fates, so I don’t see this is an issue.

click images to enlarge

MECHANICS

Players play Event Cards, place workers, and use personnel cards to procure resources. Resources power Event Cards, personnel, and the all-important missions. Resource costs versus expected rewards drive all decisions. From a mechanical point of view, Phases 3 – 7 are the meat of the game.

In a three or four player game, two players represent a single country. One player heads the Engineering Department while the other heads the Administrator Department. Each department head makes decisions for the meeples representing the department and draws cards for the department. Rather than referring to players, the rules refer to departments. The term works whether one or two players represent a country.

Note: We played the basic game, which leaves out two game mechanics. COVID made scheduling a second game all but impossible, so I wrote this review based on the basic game.Initiative:The country with the higher media rating — i.e. the country receiving the best press — goes first each phase. Initiative can change from phase to phase as countries gain and lose media points, but the country with initiative only changes betweenphases.

Phase 1: Each country advances their current missions. Those in the T Minus 1 slot of their Agency board advance to Launch. Those in the T Minus 2 slot advance to T Minus 1. Each country will attempt the missions in the Launch slot during Phase 7.

SmallStepReview-image 1
The Agency Board has the turn outline, areas for storing resources, and the mission count down section, among other things.

 

Phase 2: Players replenish their displays by flipping permanent resources from the used side to the unused side. They also refill the four Card Draft spaces on the board from the Event Card Deck.

Phase 3: Each department draws one card, alternating between countries. The Administrator may only draw missions, either Satellite or Manned, and immediately places it in the T Minus 1 or T Minus 2 slot on their Agency board. The Engineer may choose a mission card, placing it in an Agency board slot, or draw an Event Card and add it to the team’s hand.

SmallStepReview-image 2
Temporary Resource                  Used Resource                  Unused Resource

 

Phase 4: In initiative order, countries alternate placing meeples. Most spaces are specific to Engineers or Administrators, so choosing which meeple you’ll play is vital. Meeples may play on the Earth board (the lower left quadrant of the pictured board) or on Event Cards (the lower right quadrant).

SmallStepReview-image 3
Board during Phase 4 with meeples played on the board (lower left) and on cards (lower right).

 

Players take their meeple’s action immediately. That may involve acquiring resources — usually temporary (i.e., single use) resources — converting temporary resources to permanent, playing hazard cards on their opponent’s missions, or other options.

Once all meeples are placed, played reclaim them from the board and take any Event Cards on which they placed a meeple. Players place personnel cards (with a blue background) in their personnel roster and add events (with a green background) to their hand.

Both cards have an Administrator action. If either card appears in the Event Card section of the board, an Administrator meeple may be played on the card and the action performed. In both cases, the player gains one media point, rolls the gray Agency Resource die, and gains the resources pictured on the die. If a team plays a meeple on a card, the team gains the card at the end of the phase.

 

Phase 5: In initiative order, players take turns performing one Personnel action for each Department. These actions require the expenditure of a Personnel resource and provide benefits such as media points or more resources.

SmallStepReview-image 6
Personnel action: Spend one Personnel resource (the personal icon) to gain one media point OR draw an Event Card OR play an Event Card after paying the card’s cost.

 

Phase 6: Each Department may play a Development card. These are the green Event Cards players added to their hand in Phase 3 or as the result of another action. Play is simultaneous unless both teams want to perform an action such as drawing a card, where the results vary depending on turn order. In that case, players follow initiative order.

SmallStepReview-image 7
A player pays the cost on the right side of the card — a Funding and a Material resource, in this case — and receives what displays in the box just below the cost. Here, the player rolls the red Satellite resource die, gains one temporary resource of the type rolled, and scores one point (the planted flag icon).

 

Phase 7: In initiative order, players alternate completing the missions in the Launch section of their Agency Board. The phase is the payoff for all the work in previous phases, as players spend resources to achieve minor and major successes on their missions.

SmallStepReview-image 8
Mission costs appear on the left and mission rewards on the right.

 

First, the player spends the resources necessary for a minor success. For Ariel 1, the player spends a Booster resource (the flame) and a Sensors resource (which we called a traffic light during play). Second, if they achieved a minor success, they may attempt the major success, which requires a second pair of Booster and Sensor resources. Finally, the player receives the rewards associated with all success levels they achieved or suffers the penalty if they achieve no successes at all.

Successful manned space missions also advance a team along the track to the moon, where teams can earn points if they reach milestones before the other team. When one team lands on the moon, players complete the turn and the game ends.

Players calculate bonus points and the team with the most points wins.

 

GAMEPLAY

So, how well does all this work at the table? Let’s start with the biggest issue I have with the game. Every board and card action the players perform is described solely with icons. I understand the appeal of icons. They’re universal and reduce printing costs. Many games use icons successfully, but the games I believe work best are ones with a limited range of icons.

One Small Step has 43 icons on its Symbol Reference page at the back of the rulebook. On top of that, the icons combine in manners that are not easily deciphered. The rulebook gets plenty of use as players lookup icons and, in some cases, flip through the rulebook looking for a description of the more complex combinations. Constantly referencing the rulebook slows play immensely for beginning players. Unless someone plays the game regularly, this issue may never fully go away.

Once players understand what happens in a turn, game play should speed up. Depending on who you play with, that may very well happen. It did not in the game I played.

At the end of Phase 3 (drawing cards), each team has almost all information necessary to plan the rest of their turn. Each team knows which missions they must launch and the resources they must get to successfully launch all missions. In my game, that resulted in an extraordinarily long planning session between Phases 3 and 4, as teams examine every card and work out exactly how they will use their resources and actions in Phases 4 through 7 to complete their missions.

There are a few unknown elements — dice rolls, Hazard cards, and the actions of the other team — and they extend the planning time as each team works out their best courses action as well as contingency plans to accommodate the unknown elements. Since this was our first game, we also spent a lot of time looking up icons and rules.

The game’s projected playing time is 60 to 90 minutes. I think that’s reasonable for fast players who know the rules and icons. If you play with more deliberate players — such as the former South Carolina State junior chess champion on the other team — you’re in for a long game. In my case, nearly five hours. While I’ll readily admit part of that time directly results from the people playing the game with me, an equal measure of blame lies with the vast number icons, icon combinations, and our repeated rulebook referencing.

 

IMPRESSIONS

Despite what I wrote in the previous two sections, I enjoyed the game. The subject fascinates me, and I believe One Small Step captures the flavor of the space race. Certain gameplay necessities interfere with thematic immersion, though.

Players draw manned missions from a randomly shuffled deck. As a result, my very first manned mission was the lunar landing and my last mission was launching animals into space. While you’d have better immersion if the missions appeared in chronological order, replayability would suffer. We also got a laugh from John Glenn, Hero of the Soviet Space Program, along with Yuri Gagarin, brave and patriotic American astronaut.

As far as I’m concerned, One Small Step is really a two-player game with a four-player team option added in. The additional players will almost certainly result in a longer game.

Game set-up is quick and easy. It boils down to shuffling cards and separating the many cardboard components. It took 10 minutes.

Your average Eurogame fan will have little trouble understanding the game’s rules and goals. Though there are a lot of rules to go through, One Small Step is not a complex game. Game mechanics are logical and quickly become second nature. The liberal use of icons steepens the learning curve considerably, though. Without repeated play, I don’t know if that problem will ever go away.

One Small Step rewards strategic play. The SC junior chess champion and his teammate planned their turns with care and reaped the rewards with a strong victory. There’s just enough randomness that even the best players could stumble if the dice or Hazard cards go against them, but strategy will win the day far more often than not.

 

REPLAY VALUE & SOLITAIRE PLAY

One Small Step packs a lot of play into this game. Despite the extreme length of my first game, I want to play again. My initial impression is the game has a good combination of the expected and the unexpected necessary for good replay value. I doubt anyone interested in the history of the space race will be disappointed in the game’s replayability.

I don’t play solitaire, so may not be the best person to judge this. But this game doesn’t strike me as a suitable solitaire game.

 

SUMMARY

One Small Step is not a complex. Anyone familiar with Eurogames will have no trouble playing it. Of course, it remains a potentially confusing game because of the icons.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, One Small Step is a worker placement and engine building game of moderate complexity. The worker placement part of the game reminds me a bit of Lords of Waterdeep. That’s because of the limited number of workers and wide range of placement options more than anything else.

The engine building is much less complex than Terraforming Mars or Wings because there are fewer multi-level interactions. Those interactions are present, but don’t occur as often as they do in those other games.

Finally, the reliance on icons puts me in mind of Race For the Galaxy, a game I had a love/hate relationship with because of the icons. I can say I eventually learned RFtG’s icons, but it took repeated play to reach that point. I suspect the same will prove true for One Small Step.

Those who enjoy the history of the space race should find a lot to like here, as should people who enjoy the game’s central mechanics. I don’t think it’s a good fit for people who suffer from analysis paralysis. Also, know your fellow players’ style before you start the game. If you prefer playing fast and loose, avoid games with slow and deliberate players.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

I almost backed the One Small Step Kickstarter but couldn’t fit it into the budget. Had this review opportunity not come along, I’d have found a way to lay my hands on a copy and give it a try. Thanks to Academy Games, I’ve done just that.

While my review may come down hard on the vast number of icons used in the game, I do like One Small Step, love the theme, and look forward to more opportunities to play it. It led me down memory lane and reminded why I found the space race so fascinating as a child.

 

Henry Vogel is a lifelong gamer and long-time writer. His writing career began in the 1980s with independent comic books. Along the way, he became the first online comic book pro when he joined Usenet’s rec.arts.comics. Henry returned to writing in 2012 and released the first of his 16 science fiction books in 2014. He lives in Raleigh with his wife, son, one cat, and a head full of imaginary friends. Learn more about his books here.


We appreciate you visiting the Armchair Dragoons!
Please leave us your feedback in our discussion forum, or in the comment area below.
You can also find the regiment on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and occasionally at a convention near you.

Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

View all posts by Brant G →

Tell us what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: