The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine is a game that has been sat on my shelf of shame for a couple of years now. In fact, it still is - the copy I've played is one I spotted while out with friends at Ludorati in Nottingham (www.ludoraticafe.com) a very nice board game cafe ... but you're not here for a review of that).
It's an odd choice of board game for a cafe, since The Crew promotes itself as a sort of campaign game - your gaming group is now a team of astronauts on a cosmic errand to find a ninth planet at the edge of the solar system. One side of the rulebook is a logbook, where you're encouraged to write in the different crews you've played with and how many attempts it took you to finish the campaign. Thankfully, nobody had chosen to permanently mark Ludorati's copy.
The logbook also contains the fifty individual missions that make up the campaign, so it looks like there should be plenty of game to get us started. Let's begin our adventure...
Game Time: 5-20 mins
Despite the campaign elements, The Crew, published by KOSMOS UK (www.thamesandkosmos.co.uk), is a trick-taking card game. Put simply, that means each player plays a card into the centre of the table, which one player then wins. In The Crew, the winner is the player who places the card with the highest value, but only if that card matches the suit of the card played by the first player, and you must play a card that follows this suit if you have one.
There are two main twists to this traditional card game format. The first is that it's cooperative, rather than competitive. You're all working towards the common goal for the mission you're working towards in the logbook. The game usually sets this goal with a number of task cards, which players draw at the start of a mission; these tell you which cards you need to win from a trick. In most cases, the logbook gives you a number of tasks to complete to call this mission a success. If you fail the mission, you play it again, writing the number of attempts in the logbook.
The second is that, despite the goal being cooperative, it's quite difficult to actually cooperate. You're not allowed to talk to your fellow cosmonauts about the cards in your hand. The only way you may communicate is by a radio communication token - you take one of the cards from your hand, place it face up in front of you, and place the token in a specific position on the card which tells other players that it's your highest, lowest, or only card of that suit. If your card doesn't match any of those conditions, you can't use it to communicate. Oh, and each player is also only allowed to use their radio communication token once per mission, so you might be able to determine how a couple of suits have been dealt out, but never the whole deck.
Before we continue, let's take a look at the cards we're playing with. There's the four standard suits you'd expect from a card game, except the four types here are the intergalactically recognised space colours of pink, yellow, green, and blue; each are numbered from one to nine. However, there's a smaller suit of rockets, numbered one to four, which effectively act as jokers, always winning the trick, but they can only be played if you can't follow the normal suit.
Once we'd wrapped our head around the rules, it was time to begin with the first mission which is... to complete just one task card. The rulebook advises that the first game can take only five minutes, but ours was over in perhaps 90 seconds. The tasks are drawn face up at the start of the game, so we all knew what the task was we had to fulfil, then we played one round that ensured the person with the task won the card they needed.
"Is that it?" asked one of the players. Indeed, that was all there was to it. We checked the rulebook again to see if we'd missed something, but we hadn't.
Obviously, we were in a board game cafe, so we knew completing fifty different missions in one sitting wasn't going to happen. However, we wanted to try out as much of the game as possible, and the game does say you "can easily play missions of your choice, because no two attempts will work out the same way".
So we had a go at mission #4, which involves three task cards. Once again, tasks were drawn face up. We played tricks to ensure everyone won the cards they needed, game over. This lasted a bit longer because there were more tasks, but the gameplay was just as plain.
How does The Crew change it up to make fifty missions work? We tried mission #8 next which introduces a bit more complexity. There are numbered tokens which instruct the order in which you must complete your tasks - so when you draw your tasks, the card with the '1' token on it must be completed first, the card with the '2' must be completed second, etc. Mission #8 is three task cards and three numbered tokens, so there was a strict order in which we had to complete the tasks.
However, we realised after a couple of tricks that the hands we'd drawn made it mathematically impossible to complete the tasks in the necessary order. Rather than see the mission out to an unsatisfying end, we broke the 'no communication' rule, chatted about how it wouldn't work, and abandoned the mission there.
The Crew also has priority as well as numbered tokens, so for some missions you'll have cards which must be completed before other cards, but unprioritised cards can be completed whenever. These tokens use arrows to show priority, so a >> token should be completed after >, but before >>>. An Ω token means that's the task that must be completed last. It's technically a variation, but in practice, the missions play out very similarly.
Finally, we had a go at a mission using the Commander. This is a first player token, given to the player with the four Rocket card. In some missions, though, the Commander has extra rules - like deciding who to distribute tasks to, picking a player who can't use their communication tokens, or being a player who isn't allowed to win a trick themselves.
There are other variations we didn't have time to try out, like having to win a trick with a value 1 card, or that no tricks can be won with a value 9 card, or that players can't use their communication tokens for the first three tricks. For a simple concept, I was surprised by the variation and replayability.
There's a 'distress signal' mechanism too, which all players can agree to activate at the start of a mission, and then pass a card along one player once the tasks are drawn. It's designed to help move the cards around a bit, which makes achieving your tasks a little bit easier. It would make more sense to use it in strict campaign play, if you kept failing a mission and needed to reattempt it, but we didn't feel the need to use it...
...and the main reason we didn't feel the need to use it is because we didn't see any fun in repeating a mission. In fact, we didn't feel like there was a lot of fun in playing the missions at all. There's a technically sound game here, and it's full of mechanics which are interesting on paper, with influences borrowed from different games: repeatable missions and a mission logbook like Pandemic Legacy, trick-taking from old card games like bridge, a wild card type suit like UNO, assigning priority to cards like in Robo Rally, and even moving cards with the distress signal has an engine-building element, fine-tuning your solution to The Crew's puzzle.
But all those mechanics don't make a fun game. Despite the flavour text that accompanies each mission in the logbook, which is supposed to describe the process of finding Planet Nine, you're really looking to understand the symbols that appear next to that text. You never really feel like you're contributing to a space mission, as aside from using rockets as a card suit, the gameplay doesn't really match the space theme. In fact, the gameplay doesn't have much of a theme at all.
The 'no communication' rule makes the 'no fun' outcome even more likely. My tastes skew towards the more abstract, Euro-style games of the DOALG wolfpack, but even then, there's still a social aspect with the most theme-light games I enjoy. The silence of The Crew makes gathering together to play a game less fun; if you like solving puzzles in silence, you might as well be resolving sudokus together, or playing something with a simpler, cheaper 52 card deck.
That's not saying The Crew is expensive. It's a small box game of a couple of card decks, some basic thick card tokens, and a rule/logbook, so a general retail price of around £15 seems reasonable if you're looking at the price against the components. But that doesn't change the fact a standard 52 card deck, which you could pick up for a couple of quid, opens you up to more trick-taking games. You could use a few basic counters to represent card priority if that's something you want to explore. Paying an extra £10 for a logbook to write your game history in, plus a space theme so shallow it wouldn't come up to my ankle, just doesn't seem worth it.
There will be people who will enjoy The Crew. If you enjoy trick-taking games, and like the idea of solving different variations of the same challenge, maybe you should check it out. However, I can't imagine any group or game night I've ever played with enjoying it, much less wanting to play multiple sessions to make up a 50-mission campaign. It's a card counting puzzle with a paper-thin theme, and not a fun group gaming experience.
Also, Pluto is the ninth planet and nothing this game or the International Astronomical Union say can ever take that away from me. Ninth planet found. Game over.