Table for Two: Oddball Aeronauts

Oddball Aeronauts

Table for Two is a series focusing on two-player board games. Today’s game is Oddball Aeronauts, a card game about battling airships that you can play just about anywhere.

In the past year or so, I’ve seen several games featuring zeppelins (or airships), and I wonder if it’s a mark of a larger trend. In the past I’d played Kings of Air & Steam and Quicksilver, and right now on Kickstarter there are at least three different projects that feature zeppelins: Zeppeldrome, Zeppelin Attack (which I just reviewed on Saturday), and Oddball Aeronauts.

This last one, Oddball Aeronauts, is a two-player-only game, so that’s my focus for today’s post. It has anthropomorphic animals, steam-driven bots, and—you guessed it—battling airships. It also has one interesting feature I’ve rarely seen: you don’t need any table space at all to play, so you could play while standing in line or (as seen in this review) while riding a ski lift … assuming you can handle the cards with your gloves on.

At a glance: Oddball Aeronauts is for 2 players, ages 9 and up, and takes about 15 minutes to play. The Kickstarter pledge amount is £5 for the print-and-play or £15 for full game (including shipping), with an expected delivery date of August 2014.

Oddball Aeronauts
A few cards from the Pirates (top) and the Pendragon (bottom).

Components: 81 cards. The previewer prototype I was sent had some finished art and some unfinished sketches, but the design is mostly in place. I don’t know what the final card quality will be like, though I do know there’s a stretch goal to upgrade from smooth finish to linen, and a tin rather than a tuckbox. The prototype also only had 54 cards: 24 for each of the two factions and 6 event cards. The full game will include extra cards that let you customize your deck when playing, though you’ll still be limited to 27 cards per person. (And, of course, should the campaign exceed its funding goals, there are additional mini-expansions planned so you may end up with more cards, but check the Kickstarter page for specifics.)

How to Play

You can download a copy of the rules here.

Each player gets one of the decks, and shuffles three Event cards into it, and then you’re ready to battle. The way the game is played you hold the entire deck, face-up, and you can look at any number of cards—though you’ll only be using the top three during your turn. When cards are discarded, they are put at the bottom of the deck, face-down. You can also recover cards by turning the topmost face-down card face-up, essentially adding it back to the bottom of your deck. If you ever run out of cards to play (because everything is face-down), then the game is over and you lose.

First, you resolve Events if there are any in the top three cards—these can force a player to discard a card, reduce the number of cards somebody can play, or other effects that basically throw a wrench in someone’s plans.

Oddball Aeronauts
Examining the top three cards to decide what to play.

Once Events are resolved, you look at the top three cards in your deck. You’ll be able to play 1 to 3 cards: you must play the top one, and you can add either or both of the next two if you want. Each card has three skills listed—Sailing, Guns, and Boarding—and each skill has two numbers, a Skill Level (the big number) and a Skill Bonus (the smaller number with the ‘+’ sign). When you choose a skill, you’ll use the Skill Level from the top card and then Skill Bonuses from the other cards you play.

The first player announces which of the three skills they plan to play, and then the second player announces their skill. Then both players decide how many cards they want to play, and simultaneously hold out 1, 2, or 3 fingers. The cards are then played, and you compare the total value of the skills chosen—highest wins, and ties are a draw. The cards played are discarded (placed face-down at the bottom of the deck) and there’s a “win effect” based on the skill that won:

  • Sailing: the winner recovers two cards
  • Guns: the loser discards the top two cards of their deck
  • Boarding: the winner recovers 1, the loser discards 1

That’s the basic idea, but there are also special powers that come into play. You may use the special power of the top card, and there are various types. Some affect the current round, like letting you use any skill bonus or rearrange a couple cards lower in the deck. Others may affect the next round, like restricting your opponent to two cards or giving you a bonus for a particular skill.

Oddball Aeronauts
Card backs for Oddball Aeronauts. Some special abilities have icons on the backs of cards as well.

One interesting bit about the special abilities is that some have icons printed on the backs of the cards. This lets you prove that you have a special ability without showing your opponent the values of your current card—or, in the case of abilities that take effect in the next round, you can shift the discarded card up so that you can see the icon at top to remind you. The icons are placed in such a way that your opponent won’t usually see them unless you choose to reveal them, because they’ll normally be covered by other cards even when you have them fanned out.

You take turns being first player (i.e., announcing your chosen skill first), and the game goes until somebody runs out of cards. The other player wins!

The Verdict

I’ve always loved interesting new game mechanics and features, and there was a point several years ago when I was specifically seeking out games that didn’t require much table space. I remember finding oddities like Warchon, a wargame in which the board is a book and the pieces are bookmarks, or Ace of Aces, a WWI dogfight where each player has a book to flip through that shows the relative position of the other player. Games that don’t require table space can be played at a restaurant even with a cluttered or sticky table; they can be played while you’re traveling or while standing in line at a convention. Oddball Aeronauts definitely falls into this category.

Of course, that in itself isn’t enough to make a game fun. (You could argue that playing War doesn’t require a table, either, but that’s not a shining recommendation.) Fortunately, Oddball Aeronauts has more going for it besides that.

When I first read over it, I thought it was going to be a Rock-Paper-Scissors mechanic with the three skills, and was surprised to find it’s not. Then I worried that the game was like War, where you just see who has the highest number and they win. Wrong again. There are a couple of key decisions that you make each turn, and once you get familiar with how the cards work, it becomes a fascinating game.

Choosing a skill and choosing how many cards to play go hand in hand. Certainly, you want to win as many battles as possible, but playing three cards each turn and always choosing the highest possible skill will run you out of cards quickly. Sailing and Boarding are ways to keep your deck from running out, and Guns and Boarding run your opponent out of cards—but only if you win. If you think you’re going to lose, then it’s important to know which skill your opponent is using to know whether you’ll be discarding anything.

You may also want to play fewer cards (possibly sacrificing a battle) in order to save the next card for its special ability. Forcing your opponent to play Sailing when you have another upcoming bonus against Sailing might make it worth losing a card or two. There are even cards in which the special ability is to discard it—because it’s good as a support card but no good as the primary. Better to weed it out and hope to recover it later than lose a big battle with it.

The game plays pretty quickly, even on the first time through, and is easy enough to learn that kids could play as well. Small hands might find it tricky to hold the entire deck and fan out the top three, but it’s only 27 cards per player and that never changes. If necessary, you could set cards down on a surface. The decks are different from each other, but I haven’t become familiar enough with all the cards to know whether the two teams lend themselves to different strategies.

There’s a lot more information (and images) available on the Maverick Muse website and the Kickstarter page. Higher reward levels include custom decks with your name on the captain cards or airship cards, original airship art, and more. I should note that because it’s a UK project, check the conversion rate for pounds to dollars if you’re in the US. £15 works out to around $25. For some that might seem a little spendy for a card game, but it seems reasonable considering the amount that most EU backers end up paying for shipping in most US Kickstarter projects. Your mileage may vary.

Overall, I think Oddball Aeronauts is a pretty fun little game, and while it might not be the main course in my game night (being for only two players and 15 minutes long), it will quite likely find a place in my travel games. I like the artwork that I’ve seen so far, and it’s clear that Maverick Muse has spent a lot of time on the back story that I’ve only seen glimpses of so far. If you’re looking for a pocket-sized game that you can play on the go, head over to the Oddball Aeronauts Kickstarter page and take a closer look!

Disclosure: GeekDad received a prototype copy of the game for review.

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Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.