Posted by: gschloesser | August 12, 2011

Venus Needs Men

Designer:  John Velonis
Publisher:  Synelix Games
2 – 6 Players, 1 ½ – 2 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

From the retro artwork on the box cover, to the sci-fi storyline and theme, Venus Needs Men! from designer John Velonis and Synelix Games evokes the feel and atmosphere of campy 1950s and 1960s science fiction movies.  A hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini Atoll has inadvertently destroyed an ancient force field that protected the earth.  Now, earth is under siege from a variety of alien races, each intent on subduing, enslaving or eliminating all human life.  Can Earth be saved?

Like many young boys and girls, I grew up watching those campy, yet entertaining movies on late-night television.  As such, the storyline of the game is certainly intriguing, as are the scantily clad, vivacious Venusian women depicted on the cover.  However, numerous games have used the retro or camp approach, with most of them ultimately found to be severely lacking in game play.  Would Venus Needs Men! be the exception?

The board depicts an aerial view of earth, with eight population territories, five ocean areas, and the Secret Underground Refuge, which is only used when playing with a full contingent of six players.  The orbit sphere surrounds Earth, and the edges of the universe … er, board … are the home-worlds of the five alien races.  An assortment of plastic space ships, small poker chips and cards complete the components, which are lost in the abundance of space inside the box.

Players each represent an alien race, while a sixth player, if available, represents earth.  Depending upon the number of players, each race begins with 2 – 5 spaceships, which are positioned on the race’s home world.  Three “zap” cards are dealt to each player, and the territories on earth are populated with population chips according to the value listed therein.

Game play is relatively quick, as each turn a player’s options are limited.  After filling his hand to three zap cards, a player may choose to either build one new spaceship in his home-world, move his spaceships, attack enemy spaceships, or collect population from Earth.  Movement is generally from area to area, but when occupying the orbit area surrounding Earth, a player’s ships may land on any of Earth’s regions.

Attacking is also a simple matter, with the attacker rolling two dice.  If the result on either dice is 8 or higher, the target is destroyed.  There are typical adjacency rules applicable to attacking, but ships in orbit can target any earth area, and vice versa.  Being in orbit is a good place, as one’s options are greater.

Collecting population is the ultimate goal of the game, with victory going to the player who collects a pre-determined number of chips.  Each spaceship can collect one population chip from the territory it occupies, and once collected, they cannot be lost.

Each race has its own insidious purposes for harvesting humans.  Martians are interested in human brains, as they are removed and used to operate cybernetic machines.  The nubile Venusians are more interested in human men, where they are impressed as slaves.  Exactly what kind of slaves is left to the imagination!  Other races utilize humans for food or parasitic reproduction, while the robotic Plutonians simply wish to destroy all human life.  While these nefarious purposes make for a good story, in game terms the difference is minimal, and really only surfaces in the advanced game.

Zap cards are akin to event cards, and have a wide variety of effects.  Some are give the player temporary benefits, or temporarily hinder an opponent.  Others are quite powerful, and can be frustrating when one is the target.  A player may only possess three zap cards, but unwanted cards can be played on a turn to give the player one additional action of the same type selected.  This can be quite useful when employed at critical moments.

Once one player harvests the required number of Earth’s population, victory is achieved and the game concludes.  Alternatively, when playing with six players, the Earth player can win by saving the required population amount by ferreting them to safety in the secret underground refuge.  A typical game lasts approximately 1 ½ hours, which frankly is a bit long for the enjoyment derived.

Advanced rules add more spice to the game, giving each race special powers, technologies, weaponry and defenses.  This makes attacking a bit more involved, as aggressors must take into account the target’s defense value, which can vary based on the location of the spaceship.  Special powers can make many games more interesting, and it does so here.  However, I have concerns about the relative balance of the powers.  Some races’ powers appear to be rather weak, including Venus’ Q-Ray, which amounts to little more than a random shot when employed.  Titan’s ability to infect population for easier harvest seems powerful, but can be easily counter-acted by other players, who will likely target infected population first, reducing or eliminating Titan’s extra harvest ability.

Pluto appears to be the most powerful race.  It has the ability to use wormholes when moving, which can greatly shorten the path from its home-world to Earth’s orbit.  Further, it can attack any earth territory while in orbit.  This is exceedingly powerful, and coupled with the fact that Pluto’s goal is the destruction of population, rather than their capture, it is quite formidable.  Added to this awesome ability is the virtual invulnerability of their ships, which take two hits to destroy.  Opponents must act in concert in order to keep Pluto in check.

The advanced game also gives players the option of researching technology advances.  Among other benefits, these advances can add to their ship’s capabilities, including speed, weaponry, etc.  Upgrades can be beneficial, but their acquisition is based on a die roll, and the odds usually are not favorable.  Further, a full turn is utilized in attempts to acquire an upgrade, which is costly in itself.  Failure is truly a set-back.  If the Earth player is involved, he has a significant advantage here, as he can make a free research attempt every time a ship is destroyed in combat.

Venus Needs Men! is amusing, especially when players slip into the character of the race they are leading.  The zap cards add needed flavor, and the advanced game helps add even more spice.  Sadly, however, this is not enough to overcome the game’s flaws.  Turns simply are not very exciting, and there truly are not many viable options open to a player each turn.  Each turn plods along, and feels much like the turn which preceded it.  For such a great theme, the game lacks excitement.  Unbalanced powers also skew the game, placing some players behind the proverbial 8-ball from the onset.  I do not like being forced to play catch-up, or waste turns attempting to reign in the leader to the benefit of my opponents.

The biggest drawback for me, however, is that the game suffers from an oh-so-typical problem present in many multi-player games of conquest; namely, the “gang up on the perceived leader” syndrome.  Whenever one player is perceived to be within striking distance of winning, all other players conspire to attack him and drive him back from potential victory.  As soon as another player climbs within victory range, he is also set upon in a similar fashion.  This continues over and over again until someone manages to sneak in and claim the victory.  The result is increasing frustration, and a game prolonged past its enjoyment point.

So, while I give the game high marks for a fun theme, I am disappointed in the game play and significant flaws.  Played in the proper arena – most likely teen-agers – these flaws may be overlooked, but for more mature gamers, I cannot recommend it.

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