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Hard Vacuum: Science Gone Mad is the first expansion set to Hard Vacuum. This expansion brings some exciting elements to the game: it extends the Hard Vacuum timeline back to the first liquid fuel ships of the U.S. and Germans, it adds more gizmos and weapons, and the British now enter the Battle for Orbit.
The early liquid fuel ship scenarios require a completely different level of planning and strategy than the ships presented in Hard Vacuum. The early ships have such a limited fuel supply that even a skilled pilot will get, at best, two passes at their opponent before disengaging. Limited fuel coupled with the thrust requirements for a successful atmospheric reentry makes the early scenarios, in one word, short.
Another addition is the introduction of the British into the space war. Like the differences between the Americans and Germans, the technology of the British requires the player to learn a new way to play. Unlike the Germans and Americans, playing the British is almost like having to learn a completely different game.
First of all, the British ships are liquid fuel, and face the disadvantage of an extremely limited fuel supply. Although the British have elevated their technology to the point where the pilot is no longer dissolved during a fuel leak, the British ships are completely outclassed by faster radium and Tesla powered ships. Secondly, the British do not have any sci-fi weapons like the Death Ray or Atomic Fire Balls. All British weapons are naval cannons modified to space use.
To compensate, the British ships have brought their secret weapon into space with them. Low power radar on a British ship means that the Brits never have to roll to see where their enemy is, while their opponent must still roll to see them. British ships also have wide firing arcs for their guns, usually allowing several guns to bear on a target at once. What their guns lack in quality, they make up for in quantity. Finally, most British ships are armored to take more of a pounding.
No expansion set would be complete without new gizmos and weapons. The Science Gone Mad section of the book lists numerous technological advances that have taken place during the Battle for Orbit. Marvelous new toys like radio guided torpedoes, gun mines, magnetic tractor beams, ram prows, and grappling claws are added to the arsenal. New rules for boarding parties, ramming, and gimbaled thrusters are easily integrated into the existing smoothness of Hard Vacuum.
The ship construction section has been greatly expanded to cover all the latest additions. The same simple system has been expanded to cover all current ship types from the miniscule early liquid fuel ships to new capital ships like the HMS Destructor (the big gray thing on the cover) and the Tyrann. A section on building space stations has also been included.
Perhaps the best addition presented in this expansion is the rules for Ace Pilots. Now instead of just being a nameless nobody, pilots earn an experience point for every enemy ship they destroy. Every five experience points allows the pilot to progress in one of several attributes like Eyesight or Luck. After 25 experience points, the pilot is considered an Ace, and, to keep the game fair, at 50 experience points the pilot is retired to a desk job. Pilots are also retired if they manage to survive getting three ships blown out from under them.
If there are problems with Science Gone Mad, it is in the number of teasers presented in the timeline that hint at another expansion (which may or may not be forthcoming, according to the official website) and a rules clarification that only a munchkin would find necessary. The teasers that I found most annoying were the references to “Foo Fighters”, ships of unknown origin that look like giant balls of fire. Building on the phenomenon of World War II pilots seeing UFOs in the sky, the SGM timeline actually states that the Foo Fighters in space go out of their way to attack German, and only German, ships. The timeline goes as far to say that the Foo Fighters were instrumental in wearing down the German forces. So the question is: WHY? :0 If the Foo Fighters are that important, would it have killed them to add a Foo Fighter scenario, with a ship record sheet showing only the essentials to fly a “mystery ship”? The other teasers are the hints that the Russians also got into space. This material is apparently scheduled for the next Hard Vacuum expansion, so I guess I’ll have to wait. The rules clarification deals with the capacity of internal fighter bays, just how big is a ship?
If you like Hard Vacuum, I would recommend you get the expansion. Not only does the addition of the British breathe new life into the game, it adds many other possibilities for expanding on an already good game.