Onward to Venus – Review

Type: Area Control (some Euro mechanics)

Time to play: < 2 hr (Teaching: 20-25 minutes)

Best played with: 4 players (good with 3 or 5)

Onward to Venus is a tight area control game from the designer of Brass (Martin Wallace). This matters because it contains a variant on my favourite part of Brass – the reset part way through. Onward to Venus is a battle across seven planets or moons from Mercury to the Kuiper Belt. The game is played across three rounds where each round is marked by the addition of new game tiles that drastically effect the possible outcomes on a planet – from crisis to somewhat of an industrial revolution. Players race for factories and mines; when that isn’t enough a war might break out!

Onward to Venus is a close game as the planets are adjacent only to two planets with the exception of the Earth & Moon which are adjacent to Mars, Venus and each other. This, plus an allowance to only move two planets in one turn, drives players to a lot of tough choices and makes the game interaction tense. Squeezed into these planets are the means for production and war.

At the start of each round draw tiles to the planets based on the planets and the number of players. These tiles will allow you to draw cards, gain victory points or gain income. It’s income that will drive the victory point allocation at the end. On each planet, the player with the highest income gains the highest reward – other players with lower incomes can receive lower victory points. Victory at the end will require a mix of income on various planets.

So one part race, one part war game – Onward to Venus drives players to seek income across planets with limited reward to having excess income on a single planet. It’s a race, because once the factories / mines are taken it’s hard to take them back. Not only do you need to overcome player defence, you must wait for a TENSION tile to appear on the planet at the start of a game round. Attacking another player’s asset uses the tension on the planet – and selecting when to use this, against who is key. It also means that players will be frustrated by betrayals with potentially limited ability to strike back.

Hopefully all of the above sounds quite exciting, and when you add to that tiles which bring about impending crisis on each planet – crisis that could make all players lose! However, all this good stuff is balanced out and the low ranking on BGG has some considerations. Firstly, the Brass reset is an interesting comparison. In Brass the infrastructure changes but you can predict exactly how and when. In Onward to Venus the changes are random draws from a bag and happen when a round ends. Round ends are determined by picking up pass cubes during your turn. The picking up of pass cubes is a great mechanism to frustrate opponents but the staggered timing / random tiles combination can make the game feel very arbitrary at times.

Secondly, the game is won or lost at the margins. By that, I mean it’s that one factory on Ganymede or the Moon that tips the balance. Why is that bad? The tension tiles are some people’s favourite component because it limits the warfare, but their importance cannot be understated. Where they come up and when they come up is key to having the chance to re-balance the game. If the dominant player is on three planets that don’t have a tension tile then you can’t remove them. If the tension tiles come up in pairs, then its likely you will have a war with the advantage to the second player.

So unbalanced warfare and random game tiles limit how much I like this game. Nonetheless, I did really enjoy it. If you are willing to put friendships to the side and play a ruthless game in 90-120 minutes you could really enjoy it.

Last notes:

  • If you like war games where you race to capture strategic objectives, and have a few tight but important battles with other players then this is for you
  • If you hate randomness and the risk that you can be powerless to change the outcome of the game in the final third, then give this a pass
  • If you win this game, well played. If you lose, don’t feel too bad as the circumstances matter and vary a lot game to game.

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