Designed by Jeroen Vandersteen and published by Hans im Glück and in English by Z-Man Games
This review was originally published, in an earlier version, in the Winter 2019 edition of Gamers Alliance (http://www.gamersalliance.com/).
Last year at Essen, Hans im Glück – a company that has one of the strongest records of releases for gamers of any European publisher – released a major new game, Lift Off. And for a year, the game was readily available in Germany – and unseen in an English edition. Once upon a time, this wouldn’t have been surprising – and the gaming community at that time was used to playing a German (or French, or on rare occasion other languages) edition using a translation, assuming there wasn’t _too_ much text. And sometimes my paste-ups of cards when there was too much text…
But – that just hasn’t been necessary of late; games are _generally_ being released simultaneously in English, whether by including multilingual components or through simultaneous publication. Some games, not felt to have an appeal to an English-speaking audience, aren’t – but most every major new release seems to. However, while there was an English-language partner for Lift Off announced early on, the game took a year to come to fruition.
Which, to be honest, was frustrating; not because I was delayed – I picked up a German copy at Essen last year – but because no one seemed to be playing it; I was always teaching the game. Not that I mind teaching, but – it’s great fun to see the clever ideas others have had, and it’s hard to get that chance when everyone is just learning the game. But now it’s finally available in English, and hopefully there will still be interest in the game after the long delay.
Lift Off is a game about the early days of space exploration. Players choose specialists to help them develop the technologies and infrastructure necessary to launch missions, while also contributing to the international space station.
Lift Off is played in two phases, each with four rounds. Before the game starts, however, each player drafts three end-game goals. Each round then begins by having each player receive their income, and draw to a hand of three mission specialists, which are then drafted. Each player then chooses two mission specialists to play – each has a built-in capability, which is always received, and one or two optional actions, which can either be taken or forgone for two credits. Optional actions include contributing to the international space station, upgrading your base, and acquiring technologies. Next, each player draws missions – usually draw three, keep one – from those available which they qualify to take. Finally, each player may make a launch, including any missions they have sufficient technology and space for; with some specialists, multiple launches are even possible. Each launch scores points – in general, the weaker the reward for launching the mission, the more points.
After the first phase is complete, players have the opportunity to sell any end-game goals for five credits, and more complex – and more valuable – missions become available. Play continues through the final four rounds, at which point players score their end-game goals, their missions which score end-game points, their food technology, and any leftover credits. The player with the most points wins.
As I played through a large number of new Essen releases last year – many, like Lift Off, being games I brought back myself – very few stood out positively. And only one was exceptional – Lift Off.
Lift Off really takes advantage of a good theme. While space exploration is not an uncommon topic for games, most of the games on the subject have either been significantly more involved (such as High Frontier) or less well connected to the theme. While Lift Off is not difficult to pick up, and there certainly is some abstraction, the mechanisms really do support the theme. The use of mission specialists to enable various actions, the tight money situation, and the various technologies all help to give a feeling of the subject. But it’s definitely the artwork – and the 1950’s feel too it – then really sells it all.
At the same time, the mechanisms also make for an interesting game. There are tradeoffs to be made everywhere – and many different paths to take. Players can focus on improving their mission control, on launching as many missions as possible, on launching as much on each mission as possible, on preparing for the more difficult – and valuable – missions only available in the second phase, or on the international space station. And from my experience so far – any of these directions can be correct.
The components are of the quality one would expect from Hans im Glück – both nice _and_ functional; they even provide components for a space station for players to build as it’s developed, an unnecessary but welcome addition. The is an error on the game board, with a sticker provided to correct it (oddly enough, given the delay, retained in the English edition), which works just fine but which may bother some players. The German rules seem to be clear, if not always logically organized; on the whole, though, a better rule book than average these days; I haven’t gone through the English rules yet to compare.
I should note that while I’ve greatly enjoyed Lift Off, the reaction of those I’ve played with has been somewhat more mixed. What’s not clear to me yet is what will make those who enjoy German games more or less attuned to Lift Off. It is encouraging that I’ve not seen any truly negative receptions – but enough neutral receptions to be hesitant in my recommendation.
Lift Off is my favorite release from 2018. It’s not really close; the game moved to the top for me early on, and has stayed solidly in that position. The game hits all of the things I’m looking for – it’s a good length for the subject, the theme works for me, there is plenty to explore in the game, and I’ve enjoyed all eighteen of my plays so far. Now that the English edition is finally available, I can without reservation recommend folks give the game a try – and recommend those who like the subject consider picking it up to do so.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:
Alan H: Having been introduced to it by Joe, who is clearly enthusiastic about it, I got to enjoy it a lot. I called the ideas in the game, speed and it doesn’t take too long. We were using the German edition, which was the only downside, but I suppose now I’ve learned a few more German words. Well I’m not as keen as Joe I appreciate that the game is really good, I look forward to playing it and of course I acquired a copy after my first game.
Dale Y: I have played on both the EN and DE versions, and while the German version was just fine to play with (needing a single translation sheet for a few words on the cards), it is so much more accessible in English, and I”m glad to have a copy in my native language. Like Joe, I’m surprised that the board wasn’t fixed, but I wonder if the cost of fixing it was too prohibitive for the print run size (not that I know what that size is). In any event, this was also one of my favorite games from SPIEL 2018. One thing I would caution newbies is that the final scores can be high, often 300-400. I have had games where I might be 80 points back at the end of round 2, but there is actually plenty of room in the bonus scoring to make that up – so don’t be discouraged and keep plugging away! I hope that this one blasts off here after such a delay – it’s hard to know whether the market will feel that this is “old news” now or whether its felt to be a new release. I would definitely recommend giving this one a chance – like Palaces of Carrara, this game is worth the wait!
Dan Blum (3 plays): I liked this well enough when it was new and shiny… but I haven’t played it in over a year and I honestly haven’t missed it. I’d be willing to play it again, but if I don’t that’s OK. That being said I’m still rating it “I like it”… let’s say it’s a low like/high neutral.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it! Joe H. Alan H. Dale Y, John P, Craig M.
I like it. Eric M, Mark J., Dan Blum
Not for me…