Launching rockets into space must be, like, really complicated. Nearly every game we’ve ever played that focuses on it tends to make it clear that there’s just a ton of planning that has to go into it, and even the slightest miscalculation will result in disaster. Well, Lift Off isn’t that sort of game. You won’t be calculating exist trajectories or fuel burn ratios. But that doesn’t mean that this old-timey-looking game isn’t chock full of nail-biting decisions and tough choices…but also, you know, friendly-looking robots.
We received a review copy of Lift Off for our consideration & possible review
Lift Off is a game where players compete to be the most successful space agency, and each turn is this tight cost-benefit analysis, as players will circle-draft specialist cards, use those cards to take actions, and then do their darndest to get their rockets into space, scoring points and completing missions.
Specialists are the engines that make your space agency work. Each one has one or two actions, and you will draft for them every turn. Specialist actions will let you do things like gather money (which is critical, because basically everything in Lift Off costs money), upgrade your rocket (which is also critical), improve your lab (absolutely critical), invest in technologies (totes critical), and build up the international space station (not actually that critical).
Well, you certainly can’t do any of it with impunity. Lift Off is a tight game, and you will absolutely get punished for failing to plan a turn or so ahead. Drafting the wrong cards (or simply not seeing the cards you need because, hey, everyone is trying to do everything) can lead to an unproductive turn or two, and with only 8 total in the game, that can be downright punishing. To help you plan, you will start the game with three end-game scoring cards (which you will draft – this is a draft-happy game) that might help you form your strategy, but the vagaries of drafting specialists and randomly drawing missions will potentially limit that planning quite a bit.
After you draft and play your specialists (you draft 3 but only play 2, keeping one for the next turn to further facilitate that planning you’re hopefully doing), you’ll draw mission cards. Missions are point-scoring opportunities, as well as giving you bonuses upon completion, such as free technology cards, rocket improvements, or just straight-up piles of points.
Finally, it’s time to actually launch your rocket. Each rocket launched costs money (based on how complex a rocket you’ve built), and can carry a tonnage capacity that limits how many mission cards a given rocket can complete. In order to complete a mission, you will need to both have the correct combination of technology cards as well as a lab of the appropriate level. Upgrading your lab and getting tech cards are primarily accomplished through specialists, but as noted above, most low-level missions will reward you with these essential upgrades, while high level missions are almost always about those sweet, sweet points.
Since each rocket launched costs cash, making sure you have enough is really important. But the other obstacles to successful rocketeering, things like having an upgraded lab or the right combination of technology cards are also almost always expensive, you will really need to consider your cash flow for virtually every single action.
We’ve talked a lot about how tight a game Lift Off can be, and how it can sometimes be frustrating to plan around the semi-randomness of a card draft, but the reality is that there is more agency in Lift Off than you might first think. Once you are more familiar with the specialist cards, you can start planning around the likelihood of getting access to any given action, so you can begin to prioritize your drafts more effectively. And even if you get a specialist you can’t really use, every one gives some type of bonus that is useful, and any specialist you don’t use will give you a few bucks, which can actually often make the difference between a productive turn and a wasted one.
Simply put, Lift Off does basically nothing to hold your hand as you navigate its turn structure. The cards are covered in iconography but the game provides no player cheat-sheet, so you’ll be passing the instructions around the table a lot in your first few plays. The turn structure itself isn’t really listed anywhere either, which is salt in the wounds when one realizes that the entire bottom third of the board is just empty. That would have been the perfect place for a turn summary and some iconography spoilers. But the spacescape is nice, I guess.
Lift Off’s defining quality, though is how constant your need to assess cost and benefits at every stage of the game. So much has to line up just right to make the big turns happen, and every time you focus your draft or resources on one task, you are giving up ground on another. There’s never enough time or resources to do everything you want to do, and the difference between someone who manages to get what they need more consistently than a player who doesn’t is just staggering.
This not withstanding, Lift Off was actually an enjoyable puzzle of an experience. It’s an oddly stressful game, all about the pressure of coming up with the pieces you need to make your turns as effective as possible, and if you enjoy that sort of challenge, then Lift Off has a lot to recommend. While the turns were a little fussy and there was a lot of analysis that went into it, 2 experienced players will be able to mill through a game in under an hour, and it can be incredibly pleasing to draft just the right card at the right time, launching your rockets and scoring boatloads (spaceshiploads?) of points. Lift Off is a game that can make you feel incredibly clever when it all comes together, and while the opposite is entirely possible, those moments are incredibly satisfying to pull off.
Ultimately, we enjoyed Lift Off quite a bit. It may not be a game for everyone – and gosh do we ever wish it had a few little quality-of-life improvements – but if you like the idea of a drafting game that asks a bit more future planning from you than many, you should absolutely consider checking out Lift Off!