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Dice and space exploration: welcome to ISS Vanguard Review

ISS Vanguard is a 1-4 players cooperative board game that features space exploration and discoveries in the uncharted side of the universe to find out the origin of the human specie.

It is a campaign based game that will see your ship, the ISS Vanguard, progress with your crew across different sessions. You play using mostly dice with different symbols and cards that allow to manipulate your rolls.

The game is created by Awaken Realms, famous for games like Tainted Grail and Nemesis, to name just a few. It was available on Gamefound platform for preorder, and the late pledge option for wave 2 is still available. The English language Wave 1 has already been sent (as of January 2023) so few retailers could have it available.

Wave 2 includes 2 more expansions of the game set after the main campaign, so you don’t lose any game content without it. Roughly 6 months after each wave, the game is also released in other languages different than English (Polish, French, German, Italian, Spanish).

ISS Vanguard has currently a rating of 9.0 on BoardGameGeek, that classifies it 62nd in the thematic category.

Follow us while we explore this game to understand if this is for you.

What is ISS Vanguard?

ISS Vanguard is set in the far corners of the universe, following a galactic map embedded in human’s DNA. The discovery of a wrecked alien spaceship in Siberia with its intact core allowed the humans to prepare for this intergalactic mission, build the ISS Vanguard using the alien core as the engine and send the best of the best (?) into the unknown space.

The story starts epic but fuzzy, and you will have to explore few planets before discovering your real purpose on this side of the universe. If you have played Mass Effect trilogy from videogame developers BioWare, it will give you a familiar feeling. While the two stories don’t have much in common, the feeling that something bigger is happening behind your back, the exploration of unknown planets and making contact with alien worlds for the first time will seem recognizable.

In game, you represent the leaders of 4 distinct sections: Science, Engineering, Security and Recon. While you don’t impersonate a single character (or hero), you will have the chance to recruit different team members and upgrade them in various way seeing them evolve, and potentially die. Recruiting is not a one and dusted operation, recruits are also used as a resource to perform more operations, more on this later when we explore the Ship Book phase.

The game is split into two phases: the Ship Book, where you prepare your ship, manage the various situations and progress scientific and technological advancement, and the Exploration phase where you land on a planet and explore the various locations to progress the different missions.

At all times you will need to carefully manage the limited resources you have available, so you will not be able to do everything at once. The most relevant resource is the dice you will use for each section. Those represent the type of activities you can perform, but also your health and how many actions and turns you have left.

The dice are divided in three colours, each with distinct symbols available but the symbol combination varies from dice to dice. So, if you need a physical symbol, you will need to check in your red dice, or you’ll need to use the Vanguard symbol that acts as a bonus and is available in all colours and most dice. To make things easier, most dice have a small symbol at the corners of the face most represented in that dice, called brackets, that can be used to identify them quicker. We are going to discuss how to use them in a later section.

Finally you have multiple type of cards available in game: from the cards representing the recruits, to those representing the various equipment you can take with you on the mission. Each section also has its own set of section cards they can take, to a minimum of 10. Those can help in manipulating dice rolls, like allowing re-rolls, swap dice, etc. They are ranked, so the more experienced is the recruit, the more powerful cards he will have access to.

There are other cards like points of interest, missions and global conditions, but we will look at them when we explore a planet later in this guide. One final component to mention is the Planetopedia. The entire exploration is played on a book with several locations represented on it. You will eventually explore them and put other cards on top of it to represent progression. At the end of the exploration, you will be saving the progress so that next time you return back you can continue from where you left off, except for a few random generated events that spice up every return.

The game can be played in sessions, a full cycle Ship Book – Planetary Exploration is advertised roughly at 90 minutes, but in our experience is much longer than that, so much that sometimes we focus only on the Ship Book part in a small 60 minutes session, and then move to a 2-3 hours session for the planet exploration. But the time really depends from how many players are there, and how many characters are used in total. More on this later on.

To complete the game, you will need to go through all missions in a campaign-based system, so that it is not possible to play single planet explorations outside of the campaign.

The final note goes to the miniatures. While the core game comes with only 8 miniatures (roughly representing each section and male/female version for each section), an expansion called Close Encounters, allows to replace all standees with Miniatures wonderfully sculpted. You can even purchase a version of them with Sundrop, a technique that applies some type of wash to the miniature to give it a bit more depth.

Are miniatures required to play ISS Vanguard? Absolutely not. Most of the time you will also struggle to keep everything on the same location on the book. The standees are all colourful and in a certain way already 3D. If you are someone who is bothered by unpainted miniatures but you know you’ll not have the time to paint all 30+ miniatures, then you can safely ignore them. Miniatures do add a nice touch, and if you love the game, then we would recommend to add them, but this is purely an aesthetical preference.

Close Encounter expansion, contains only miniatures

Ship Book phase in ISS Vanguard

But how do you actually play the game? Let’s start with the Ship Book.

This part of the game is played through a binder containing cardboard dividers and card storage pages. The divider explains what to do in that particular stage, and the other pages contain the cards that you discover in the course of the game. They represent all sort of things, from ship upgrades, to discoveries found exploring planets, injured or dead crew members, objectives, etc.

The book details what to do in that specific page before moving to the next section. No need to study big rulebooks, or remember by memory. Everything is detailed clearly in those pages. While you move from page to page, you will be making decisions as a team. Certain sections have the last words on certain activities in case the group does not reach an agreement, but normally the wellbeing of the ship is in everyone’s best interest.

You start on the bridge, and you need to assess where to go on the starmap. If you don’t land on a planet, you get a penalty that affects how many operations you can perform in the next steps. After deciding in which planet to land, you then have to perform various operations, including assessing the different situations (cards that present a problem that can give a bonus or malus if resolved or unattended), recruit (or train) crew members, progress research development, complete production projects or work in new facilities (without spoilers, one facility will be unlocked at a certain stage of the game).

After each Ship phase, is time to land on a planet and explore.

ISS Vanguard official artwork, Awaken Realms copyright

Exploration phase in ISS Vanguard

The exploration phase is played on a book called Planetopedia. This book presents the area to explore (usually a planet) on two pages with up to 8 locations to visit. Moving between locations is determined by paths that can be locked or unlocked by actions performed on the location itself.

To determine what to do on the location, you’ll have to resolve action. This can be printed on the book or you could be instructed to replace it with a card from the Points of Interest list. Performing actions brings rewards, sometimes resources, sometimes logs to read/listen. This is a good time to introduce the companion app.

The log book contains all information related to your mission but to avoid spoilers they are scattered across different pages. You are also instructed to check boxes so that the next time you read the same log, it may act differently. All of this can be done automatically by the app that will keep track of where you are and how many times you read the same log, plus it’s fully narrated. You can use either but not a combination of the two as the “flags” that you need to set need to be always checked on the same medium. The companion app can be downloaded on Apple and Google store for free.

To complete most activities in the locations, you will need to select which dice to roll and how many depending on the requirement of the specific action. Actions can be depicted on the location itself, or on different other cards that represent what can be done in that moment. They will also determine what represents a failure. In some cases, you just need to achieve the result in a single roll, in other cases you will progress on a track, meaning you need multiple combinations of those symbols to complete the action. Even failures can have tracks meaning one single error does not immediately mean the action failed.

Selecting the dice is the biggest part of the game. Not all characters will have the required symbols, so placing the right people in the right spot (and assisting them) will be extremely important. And then there’s always lady Luck involved. You may have the right symbols and combination but roll poorly and waste a bunch of dice.

Dice are resources, so once rolled, they go in the spent pool and cannot be re-used until they are refreshed. To refresh a dice you can rest (limited action in the game depending on how many supplies you are carrying around) or exert (sacrifice a dice, meaning permanently removing it from that session but you’ll get it back once you leave the planet). This means you are limited on how many actions you can perform each exploration. Luckily there are cards that allow you to re-roll dice or swap them, be it equipment or section cards unique to your characters, there are ways to influence the dice roll.

If you ran out of dice, you will exhaust and once you reach your 4th injury, you’ll evacuate the planet, potentially failing your main mission if it was not already completed, with a chance the character dies.

How combat works in ISS Vanguard

And so we move to the combat. In some explorations you will encounter obstacles called threats. You’ll be instructed when and where they appear and what’s their behaviour. On their card it will be detailed how they attack/damage the characters and how you can remove them. Most of the time they attack the characters in the same location they share and you will need to roll certain symbols multiple times to complete their track.

They act every time the general track advances, meaning you cannot completely predict when they will act but you can prepare for it. The tracker mostly advances based on the result of the event card that every character draws at the end of their turn: this either gives a bonus/malus to that character based on the location they are on, or it advances all trackers active in game (not only threats, but also other effects in game).

To resume, threats are not present in all explorations, are represented by standees (or miniatures if you have the Close Encounters expansion) and add a list of actions to perform to remove them, and conditions that force you to discard or sacrifice dice if you leave them unattended.

ISS Vanguard official artwork, Awaken Realms copyright

Campaign in ISS Vanguard

ISS Vanguard is a campaign based game, meaning you cannot play a single session outside of the narrative campaign. Each exploration brings you closer to resolve the mystery behind your summoning at this far away side of the universe.

The campaign develops with Ship Book and Exploration phase alternating. The first planets are mostly tutorials for what to expect at a later stage when the pace picks up unlocking more secrets and tools.

Wave 1 contains the entire first campaign of the game, intended as a stand-alone experience, but you should save the logs/flags you have set when completing the campaign as they will be referred in the future campaigns.

One interesting expansion we recommend if you enjoy this game is Personal Files. This adds mini-quests for your characters to complete to become veteran. Apart giving a bit more insight on your crew members, it provides also an extra not game-breaking ability.

ISS Vanguard official artwork, Awaken Realms copyright

Final thoughts on ISS Vanguard

ISS Vanguard is a massive game. There are many planets to explore, some require even multiple visits. The beginning of the campaign will keep you on the edge of your chair, but there are some things that we need to discuss.

The first important point is how many players are going to play the game with you. While it is recommended to have all 4 sections represented in the exploration phase (and they are mandatory in the Ship Book phase), you can decide to land with only 2 characters. That way you could play solo with 2 characters or you can have 4 players each with their own section or any other combination in between.

I tried playing solo with 4 characters and the memory bank required is daunting. It is hard to remember all things to do, which cards you have, whose turn it is, etc.

On the other side, playing with only 2 characters means that you will have mathematically less actions available in a single exploration. Most of the time, you will be able to complete enough in a single mission to not justify a second landing on the same planet. Unless it’s only 2 of you. In that case, you may have to perform the most tedious actions just to complete a part that you could have done easily with 4 characters.

Especially at the beginning, when your sections will be highly specialised and have only some symbols, missing a section or two may mean struggling to complete certain actions or even straight forward not be able to. As soon as you reach 10+ dice in your pool, exert will become your second skin, meaning that you are going to multiply considerably the number of actions available. Having more characters that can all perform this, means simply quicker planet explorations.

And while you will progress the time trackers faster with more characters, you will also cover more area and simply do more. In synthesis, 4 characters is the best way to enjoy this game, but you will need at least 2 skilled players (handling 2 characters each) or, even better, 4 players.

For what concerns the Ship Book phase, the process to flip pages is straightforward, but the fact that you are limited at the beginning seems an unnecessary restriction. While, from a game design perspective, the sequence makes sense (penalties affect subsequent phases), from a logical point of view, certain steps are not intuitive. You’ll reach a point in the game where you’ll be able to do everything all at once. But if you have constraints, you can also keep landing on the same empty planet and complete it quickly just to enable the next Ship phase.

Apart from this, the Ship Book phase provides interesting avenues for deciding what happens on board, how to advance technologically and scientifically and there’s almost always interesting decisions to be made.

While I will strongly recommend the companion app over the logs (too much flipping back and forward and there’s the issue of marking the pages to track progress) there are some caveats:

  • Double, triple check the log you are going to read. Misspelling a number may mean not only that you read a log that makes no sense, but also that you activate flags you shouldn’t. If that happens, you can go in the flag editor (top part of your screen) and reset the flags activated by mistake, but be careful as you can break the game if you change the wrong ones.
  • Ensure that you scrolled all the way to the bottom of the log that you are reading. While the narrated voice creates a nice immersion, don’t forget to then read any other instruction and scroll all the way down. Sometimes you may miss a sentence and everything will start to not make sense. That’s when I start using the log to retrace my steps and verify what I missed, while using the app for the narration and the flag editor. But being careful, everything works (the app is automatically updated with the errata).

The narrative campaign develops in a great way, unveiling new mysteries at every turn of the page. You will reach a point at mid-game where the dice rolling will be more of a hindrance rather than a puzzle. While rolling badly once is not the end of the world, consequences can be dire and cause unnecessary delays of things you will anyway achieve. More than a puzzle, it will become a matter of luck as even the best laid plans may end up heavily disrupted by a bad roll. If you are in for the narrative, from the mid part of the campaign it could start detracting from your enjoyment of the game. If you are in for the puzzles, the interesting ones may become more spread in time, with many smaller and simpler ones needed to get to the juicy ones.

Fighting is mostly a rare occurrence, so if you are trying to replicate Mass Effect on a board-game, looking forward to hunt down rogue aliens, then this is not your game.

As a summary, while it may seem a quite critical review of the game, we greatly enjoyed it and we are looking forward to Wave 2. You need to be aware of the limitations of the game to be sure you know what you are buying into as it will take several sessions to complete it without considering the side quests or missions. But, if what described until now is not deterring you from buying it, you will enjoy a great game.

ISS Vanguard All-in with Sundrop miniatures

Other resources and links

You can find more information about the game on their official website and the Gamefound campaign. In particular keep an eye on their FAQ as it contains important information.