Introduction (the biases):
I am always on the lookout for a great game deal. I had watched the Dice Tower review of Apollo XIII many months ago and remembered what Tom said about the game. “It is on rails”, “Maybe you can win”, “After you win you won’t want to play again”, “the cards determine what you can do”, “it is full of luck” etc. This was a concern at the time and given that the game was new and still full price, I was not going to take a chance on this.
Fast forward to the holiday season and a $15 sale on the game pops up with a number of other titles that I am interested in including another DT thrashed title (which turned out to be enjoyable as well). Now is the time to pick up some great deals and a variety of titles. A recent geeklist of mine explains how I go about picking up games and this was on the list to keep an eye out for.
I like thematic games, cooperative games (especially challenging ones, Robinson Crusoe is a big hit in my book) and games that use cards as resources (Race for the Galaxy, 51st State among them) and this seemed to hit a number of those. When the pile-o-games showed up I asked which game we were going to play first and this was the pick. I was surprised. I think that the theme is what did it.
What I was hoping for:
1. A challenging co-op game
2. Interesting game mechanics
3. Solid player interaction
It did not take long to find out what a gem this has turned out to be.
How would I describe the game?
Apollo XIII focuses on creative card play, teamwork and planning to deal with the onslaught of disasters that doomed the real space mission. The game has a timeline of sorts to add to the thematic nature and engages the players in strong flavor text and action options that do not appear at first to have much bearing on the goal.
The actions are quick and the players have a large amount of control on how successful the mission will be. After a few games some obvious actions need to occur to give you a chance to be successful. Then the game opens up and the “constraints” as they can be seen as fall away.
How to Play:
1. Setup up the tracking board with 11 tracking cubes
2. Deal each player a starting hand
3. Choose or retrieve the event cards that will be used for the game and lay them facedown.
4. Set up the phase decks (A-G) inserting an event card in the 2nd half of each deck.
5. Choose a starting player and start taking actions. The active player can take up to 2 actions (if a card is discarded) and other players can expend Apollo tokens to take up to 2 actions cumulative)
6. Game time has been about 60-75 minutes regardless of the player count.
There is some iconography but this is easily parsed by the chart at the end of the rulebook.
1. Thematic: I love the movie and while playing the game I know that I will need to take care of Fred Haise and that Jim Lovell has a lot to think about. It all comes out as you play.
2. The actions are simple and yet deceptively important. Timing can be crucial. Each player’s turn can go by very quickly.
3. The games clips along at a good speed.
4. The player interaction is great. As long as you can manage your Apollo tokens you are in the game on every player’s turn.
5. The current available price, around $15, makes for a great cost to enjoyment ratio.
6. The solo play is outstanding. I am biased as I put these together as a hobby. But this was a slam dunk. I highly recommend playing the game solo.
7. The randomness is relatively low once you play a couple of games.
8. There is always something to do when your turn comes around.
9. All of the non-stage cards have a useful purpose and need to be considered before being discarded as “useless”.
1. The status board does warp and needs to be bent back into position every other game.
2. The rule book appears to contradict itself in a couple of places. While not horrible, it would have been nice if things were explained a bit more or separated as variants etc. I had no issues with Robinson Crusoe or Mage Knight so I know my way around the rule books and feel that my comment is fair.
3. If the players do not come together, the game can be lost by the 3rd or 4th stage. This can lead to "the game is too hard" or "it is impossible to win".
4. Replayability may be a concern for some but only if you stick to the 3 scenarios that the rulebook suggests. We mix up the cards now and it has given plenty of legs to the game. 10+ plays so far and no sign of stopping.
5. No success rating included in the rules. You either win or lose. I have fixed this with the solo rules but it is disappointing that this was not considered in the produced rules. There are points for the semi-coop game but I don’t feel that the game is at its best with this type of competition.
Card Play Options Detailed: contradicting the “cards are playing you” and “the game is scripted” comments. The cards are a resource that can provide actions but also provide the means by which to shape the game experience. The following are the options that you have with the cards in your hand:
1. Discard to perform the card action, if appropriate for the game stage.
2. Discard, if active player, to perform a second action (the stage is irrelevant) and the action must be different from the first. In other words you can’t use the 2nd action to discard to take a card action if this was your first action. Other actions include moving a status cube, not mission status, draw a card (filtering cards is a good thing) or placing a card next to the status board (either side).
3. Discard to the left of the tracking board if of the current stage. 2 cards in this location permit the reduction of 2 spaces on 1 track or 1 space on 2 tracks, this includes mission cards.
4. Discard to the right of the tracking board if of a different stage. 3 cards in this location permit the reduction of 2 spaces on 1 track or 1 space on 2 tracks, this includes mission cards.
The fact of the matter is that you look at your cards and hang on to cards before they are needed clogging up your hand and not thinking long term, you are not going to enjoy this. If you have played Race for the Galaxy or San Juan you know that you will have to make many decisions where you will need to dump good cards to get something done now. Apollo XIII is that kind of game.
The most interesting thing that I have found it is working together to determine when you want to get the deck to the point of reshuffling. If all of the players are holding current or next stage cards and the deck comes up for shuffle you are improving your odds of getting the cards you will need for later. Then there is the rewind card to mitigate the playing of a card early to pull it back to maximize its effect when you need it.
This game has me intrigued
Team deck management is not something that I have experienced before. If everyone is playing their own hand and not considering the game state, I would expect the game play to feel somewhat clinical. The players might feel that they have no control of the proceedings. To be successful we have to work together like the engineers in the Apollo control room. Gene Krantz was a master at pulling the team together and we have to develop this synergy to accomplish the goal.
If you have not gathered my enjoyment with this game, let me be clear. This is one of the best games that I have played in the last year. It has simple mechanics, thematic presentation and gameplay, co-op actions that carry significant weight and a quick play time. Layer on the solo playability and this game is amazing … $15 well spent. Find it and buy it. It works well with all player counts as long as the group can work together.
Comparing to other co-ops
Gloomhaven = Mage Knight > Robinson Crusoe > Sentinels of the Multiverse > Apollo XIII = Room 25 = Flash Point > Ghost Stories = Xenoshyft >> Castaways
Gloomhaven has the strong theme, challenging play, heavy reliance on cooperation and great card play. This is the king of co-ops right now. We win together as a team and each player has to be relatively strong at playing and constructing their decks. This competes equally with Mage Knight at the co-op, thematic immersion level.
Robinson Crusoe is next up because of its strong theme to mechanics game play. The variability between games was also more than I was expecting. The impending doom but ultimate success (once you have a bit of experience) is very enjoyable.
Sentinels of the Multiverse has its issues but is far surpassed with the feeling that you are controlling an actual character. We all have a role to perform and together we can overcome the baddie. The card play and unique decks is the selling factor.
Apollo XIII falls into the next group with Room 25 and Flashpoint: Fire Rescue. These are all games where you have a small set of actions that you can perform each turn then a random event occurs that the team needs to adjust to. The theme still shines through and the players are highly engaged at an emotional level instead of a mechanical one. Room 25 was another one of those that came out of nowhere for me as the mysteries of the rooms is fascinating and is another game to seek out.
Ghost Stories is a tough co-op, we only play on the 4 big bads levels nowadays and it has a theme but this is just window dressing. The mechanics are solid and the team play is there but there is little room to mess up. It is a very tight design.
Xenoshyft is an acquired taste and while technically a co-op is really just a multi-player thematic solitaire game. The challenge is too high in many cases but can provide some thrilling moments. Sometimes there is little that you can do but fail.
Castaways rounds out this bunch as a failed try at providing the “trapped on a deserted isle” vibe. While light and thematic, it does not take long to give up the ghost with a lot of chaff and overall long-winded experience. The player’s actions are quick except for one which unfortunately is the most interesting and never-ending part of the game.
Summarizing the Comparisons:
The grouping that I placed Apollo XIII in can be a bit misleading as while you have only a few action choices each turn there apparent worth may not be easily determined by some. Being very familiar with the other games and having players who are very adept at playing a hand of action cards does not impact our plays. YMMV.
I feel that I have found a true diamond in the rough. This is much like Glory to Rome all of those years ago before it was one of the most sought after game for a while. I am very glad that I was able to cross paths with it and to enjoy my plays. There is something to be said about keeping an open mind and “playing” the game so it unlocks its secrets (assuming that it has some to unlock).
Excellent review. I was sorry to see "Apollo XIII" appear on "deep discount" as it indicated that the game was not selling very well. As your analysis (reflecting repeated plays, also reflecting your familiarity with other co-ops) demonstrates, there is more to this game than a cursory examination might reveal.
I don't watch "DT" reviews much anymore.
"Team deck management is not something that I have experienced before. If everyone is playing their own hand and not considering the game state, I would expect the game play to feel somewhat clinical. The players might feel that they have no control of the proceedings. To be successful we have to work together like the engineers in the Apollo control room. Gene Krantz was a master at pulling the team together and we have to develop this synergy to accomplish the goal."
Within your comment about playing the deck , I see parallels with cosmic encounter game mechanic wise and also theme even though its realistic space vs science fiction space. Though the difference being a co-operative as opposed to competitive. I thoroughly enjoyed played CE and like the game because of its replay-ability. I think Apollo 13 might be an interesting reversal.
Could you elaborate on the Cosmic Encounter parallel? I don't see that at all, though admittedly I haven't played CE since the original edition.
Thank you for your honest and detailed review. I too purchased this game for $15 and just concluded my first solo play, to teach myself how to play. I really enjoyed the experience. Of course I lost horribly a few turns after the oxygen tank exploded. I realize now that I shouldn't have been saving cards for later stages. I am highly motivated to play again. I love the theme and reject the critique that the game is "on rails." Duh! Of course it's on rails, the game's primary purpose is to tell the story of a real historical event. I loved the card flavor text and the historical trivia. Managing the astronaut stress and body statuses was a tense and absorbing exercise. I will be playing this one again very soon, and hope to do better next time.