Expedition Zetta is likely the most ambitiously designed boardgame I have ever experienced. Put simply, it is a strategy game which sees players take command of warp-capable spaceships in order to explore the galaxy and bring the most fame to the country they represent. Borrowing heavily from the Euro game tradition (think titles like Catan or anything with a victory point system) Zetta combines standard Euro mechanics with the hefty goal of emulating space exploration – a task it achieves via a system which allows for the generation of 6×10^23 different star systems – the same amount that is currently theorised to exist in our reality.
Set during the 1960s, Expedition Zetta takes place in an alternate reality in which warp drive technology was first invented during the Cold War. Players assume the role of countries who are all sending crew on a giant mothership, containing smaller exploratory vessels, to participate in earth’s first intergalactic exploration mission. The country who discovers the greatest quantity of new life and substances will be deemed the most famous and win the game. The aesthetic of Zetta communicates its setting and story well. The 1960s feel of the logo, character cards and various other elements of the game are a pleasure to play with.
Zetta fulfils its design goal of allowing for the creation of an insane number of unique star systems, but not without a few hiccups. The enormous amount of random generation that Zetta incorporates creates a design problem wherein the creators needed to anticipate and write rules which account for scenarios that might occur in all 6×10^23 different versions of the board set up. The enormous amount of time it would take to test that number of scenarios makes this an impossible task. So although the rules cover most scenarios, I found that some rounds required some guesswork for particular star systems to function.
What is interesting about Expedition Zetta is that setup was one of the most fun parts of play. The game’s complexity means it requires a large amount of set-up before play can commence. Once you have completed the once-only Preparation phase, in which you recruit crew and purchase equipment, most of gameplay consists of travelling to new star systems, taking a few turns to explore them and then moving on to the next. The ‘Star System Generation’ phases – which must occur before each Exploration phase – are really enjoyable; especially if you get into the spirit of things, with one player acting as captain and the other as ensigns. Eleven 12 sided dice are thrown and the results carefully interpreted using a plethora of pieces. There is something awesome about cooperatively creating a star system. If you’re a fan of the science fiction or space opera genres, this phase of the game will likely light your imagination on fire – trying to establish what kind of life might exist on the planets you are placing, and what it might look and feel like to explore them. Simply put, if you are a space nerd, you’ll likely love this part of the game.
The rest of gameplay does not live up to the robustly designed Zetta Star System Generation subsystem. While the mechanics surrounding exploring each star system made sense to me, and functioned largely without error, they just did not feel to harness the creativity sparked by creating a galaxy. The roleplayer, writer, and video gamer in me yearned to know what the aliens on the planets I was visiting were like – how their society functioned and how it would feel to meet them. I yearned for the zoomed in, interpersonal experiences that could be had by someone travelling the galaxy for the first time in human history. The swift way in which your crew move from one planet to the next and then quickly onto another star system felt anticlimactic after undertaking the lengthy task of constructing an interesting star system.
This isn’t to say that the strategic elements of Zetta do not work. The rules function well and for someone more interested in achieving the goal of winning than exploring the journey the game takes you on, Zetta would make a great addition to your collection.
A game of Expedition Zetta take a minimum of two hours to complete, making it a niche experience from the get-go. If you are a seasoned tabletop game enthusiast, already accustomed to dissecting large swathes of rules, you won’t find Zetta’s learning curve unmanageable; the less experienced or younger player may find it steep. Fans of the science fiction and space opera genres, as well as fans of intricate strategy games, will find joy in Zetta.