The Lift Off board game is a card drafting and engine building euro game for 2-4 players. It takes 1-2 hours to play and is recommended for ages 12+. But 10+ should be fine for gamer kids. Much of the game play follows a simple and familiar format, but there are quite a lot of interlocking parts to juggle in your mind.
The game is very much in the German euro tradition. As in the theme is totally pasted onto a very mechanical rules set relying on good choices rather than story or luck. But the 1950s/Fallout style artwork has been drawn to perfection. So you’ll be drafting cards to attain the equipment and skills you need to launch a series of rockets into space. And, of course, score victory points.
In the Carcassonne-sized box you’ll find a main board, four mini player boards, 100+ cards (both standard and mini), 45 wooden rocket pieces and a bunch of cardboard tokens. At the time of writing, you can pick the game up for around £40 from several retailers via comparison site Board Game Prices. Its actually cheaper in some cases to get it sent from mainland Europe, even with shipping at £10+. Well done to those who voted for brexit… But even at an inflated price, I think you get pretty good value here. Lift Off may be a little over-produced, but it looks great on the table.
Teaching the Lift Off board game
Anyone familiar with card drafting will be on familiar ground with Lift Off. And even if not, it is a very simple concept (choose one card, then pass the rest to the next player). Players start with a level 1 lab, some money, a basic cardboard rocket, 11 wooden rockets and a small player board board. Three wooden rockets mark your income, cost to launch a rocket, and how much weight your rockets can carry on your player board. You’ll also draft some end game scoring cards, leaving each player with three ways to score end game points.
Each of the game’s eight rounds is split into a card drafting round and a launch phase. The draft is for three ‘specialist’ cards, two of which you’ll play to variously gain points/cash/one-off launch benefits, resources, or improvements. Next players draw mission cards (in levels 1-4), before (usually) launching one or more of these missions into space.
As you’d probably guess, it’s the launch part that’s the tricky bit. You start the game ready to launch level 1 missions. But of course the higher level ones are more lucrative. Every mission needs a cash payment and sufficient weight capacity, with higher level missions needing more weight. And yes, increasing your rockets weight capacity also increases the cost of each launch. Plus, you need to invest in your lab to do higher level missions (not cheap). As well as needing increasingly high levels of resources.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: What makes the Lift Off board game sing is the puzzle. You need to match your capabilities with your end game scoring cards, balancing short term gains with longer term benefits. Despite a relatively small number of scoring options, it does feel that each player is moving in a different direction. Despite the fact you all end up in roughly the same place within the same confines. Which needs to be the case to make the drafting meaningful.
- The thinker: I’ve enjoyed my plays of Lift Off. The small card decks mean there’s less luck than you’d imagine. While the game ups the anti at half way, bringing in higher level missions and resetting the card decks. So you soon become familiar with what’s available. Play well, and you should be able to complete your goals. But the chances are a better player will complete them a little better than an average one.
- The trasher: I enjoyed this one, as I enjoy competitive card play. But don’t expect much hate drafting. There are a few cards you may want to keep from a particular player. But its not often that hobbling an opponent is better value than helping yourself – except with two players, of course. Then, some judicious card counting can go a long way to scuppering a risky plan. But even then, a good play will find a work around. Not an overly interactive game, then. But one I enjoyed none the less.
- The dabbler: My first play was a bit of a disaster. It’s the kind of game I need to play through once to really get it. Especially as it’s hard to remember all the things you need to launch a rocket. And no, there’s not a handy dandy player aid. Surprising, as there are quite a few superfluous bits in the box instead. But it looks lovely on the table. The artwork really makes it pop and the theme works well, despite it being a pretty abstract game. Since that first play I’m definitely enjoying it more. But I’m never going to ask for it as my choice on game night.
While Lift Off has largely garnered positive reviews, it certainly has its detractors. The game’s mechanisms are clean, but not everyone finds them elegant. While some also say the game plays too long or is over complex. I’ve found the game is very snappy and simple with anyone who has played before. But it does need a play to get used to. And some don’t seem to get past that first slow play. A help card, specifically for what you need to launch a mission, would’ve been super useful for this.
At the other end of the scale, some describe it as being on rails or having obvious choices. Or criticise the Lift Off board game for being repetitive. Sure, you do the same thing eight times in a row. But for me there is definitely a narrative arc as you move through the game. I’d guess that it feeling repetitive may actually be down to slow play. This can often give a game a feeling of repetitiveness, simply because it is dragging on. As for simple choices, I don’t agree at all. You can get to any game position in multiple ways. And multiple factors can feed into why you make a specific decision.
Luck, longevity and value
Its easy to argue £10 could’ve been taken off the price with some frugal component choices and a smaller box size. I won’t dispute this. And normally advocate for such choices myself. But in this case, when looking at the game on the table, I think it was worth it. But millage will vary. For example, there is a cardboard space station you can build as you play. Its purely arbitrary and, in another game, could really annoy me. But I dig it here.
Finally, there’s the question of luck. This being a card game, with eight rounds, I’d dismiss any criticism aimed at the specialist and mission cards. Plan well, do risky things early, and you’ll always reach your goals. But the end game cards you draft at the start of the game can be problematic. Some simply gel better together than others. But while this may give a player an advantage, I don’t see it as a big enough barrier to put me off playing the game.
I do worry about longevity. so far, after around five plays, I am still eager to play it more any time I get the opportunity. But the lack of variety – while important to the game’s mechanics – could be a problem down the line. will I still have this level of enthusiasm after 10 plays? 20? However, I’ve played many games with practically endless variety that have become boring during the first play. So Lift Off is doing OK so far!
Conclusion: Lift Off board game
Lift Off has been one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had gaming for quite some time. It passed me by at Essen on release and hadn’t raised its head since. But a chance invite to an online play later and I was hooked. For me, the game has interesting decisions and a lovely aesthetic. And once the first problematic play is behind you, it plays fast and smooth. So if you enjoy light card drafting in your euro games, it’s definitely worth a look.