Skymines is designer Alexander Pfister’s reimagining of the controversial themes of the 2015 release Mombasa. Rather than being grounded in colonial exploitation, this release reaches for the nearness of space to exploit the resources of the moon and asteroids. All for that sweet, sweet space coin.
Pfister, best known for designing the modern classic Great Western Trail, joins forces with Viktor Kobilke to take the gameplay core of Mombasa and provide more incentive to those seeking out a refresh on theme and mechanisms. But does Skymines reach for the stars as its theme suggests, or does it continue to mine a system that is beginning to show its age?
In Skymines, players attempt to invest and expand the four companies that preside over the local mining operations. They also acquire cash (called CrypCoin) and increase both their mining research and helium reserves. Over seven rounds, players program which cards they will use, then utilize these cards to take actions, before preparing for the next round.
The main board features the four companies, complete with investment tracks that are randomized during setup. It features a map of the moon (or an asteroid belt on the reverse side) where companies can expand their influence. There is also a card market that is refilled each round, areas for bonus and majority actions, and a research plan display.
Individual player boards feature two tracks: one to increase helium levels and the other to increase research. Beyond those two tracks, there are also five action slots (two of which are unavailable at the start of a game) where cards are placed during programming. The bottom of the player board is the action area, whereas the top is the resting area.
Players begin with the same deck of cards but are given a choice of one of two starting research tokens that determines which cards are placed in the resting slots and thus become unavailable on the first turn. During the initial planning phase in round one, players choose up to three cards from their hand to add to their available action slots. Cards feature resources, energy, or scientists. Once all players have decided upon the cards, all reveal, and the action phase begins.
The action phase is where the majority of Skymines takes place. In turn order, players choose to take one action by utilizing their available cards or bonus markers. Cards can be used to expand company presence on the board, invest in companies, gain new cards from the market, and increase either helium or research tracks. Bonus markers are in limited supply and allow players to activate the majority of standard bonuses. They can also be used on certain investment tracks if a bonus space is unlocked by investing heavily in a company.
I glossed over the action phase, but I want to dig into a couple of actions that are essential to understanding the game. By using energy cards, players can expand companies of their choice by moving company outposts onto the map. Outposts added to the map provide bonuses based on where they are placed, and they also increase the value of the company by uncovering coin icons that represent share value. Resource cards are more flexible in that they allow you to purchase cards from the market and/or move up company investment tracks.
Scientist cards are split into either research or field specialties, both related to their specific tracks on the player board. The faster these tracks increase, the sooner you unlock new action slots to program more cards, as well as gain more rewards from the progressively increasing victory points being unlocked. Better scientists emerge in the market as the draw deck progresses.
Once all players have dropped out by either using all cards/markers or passing, they choose a column of cards in their resting area to add back into their hand. Then they move the cards used in the action area to the resting area above. Players can choose which column to place each action card into, and only one card can be added to each available column. These cards are unavailable until they are taken back into your deck of cards, one column per round.
Final scoring was mentioned early on, but it is important to note that players have the potential to score the most points in three areas: company investment, helium, and research. Companies are scored by taking the number of shares a player has in the company, multiplied by the number of coins visible on their respective station. A player with five shares in a company showing six coins scores thirty points for that specific company. All other players determine their investments in the company as well. It’s worth noting that some market cards may increase share values as well.
The gameplay in Skymines remains just as excellent as in its predecessor Mombasa. The core card programming system still feels as fresh as when it first appeared. The programming, combined with the majority bonus system that provides incentives to those who have the most of a certain resource type, keeps players engaged. You’ll be waiting for your neighbor to utilize their energy first while you save yours for the energy majority bonus for a chance at extra investment into a company.
Beyond the initial programming, the card mechanism also provides a puzzle by way of how you decide where to place cards in the resting area at the end of the round. Since you can only take one column back each round, this becomes a restrictive and strategic moment that can dictate a lot of future actions, most specifically resources available for maximum research opportunities. And as the game only lasts seven rounds, and there’s only so much time to unlock and utilize additional card slots, resting area placement can be just as important as start-of-round programming.
Card play drives everything in Skymines. It keeps you watching for majorities, it allows you to be flexible with company investments, and it even provides ways to improve your deck for future rounds. With a market that only refreshes once the round ends, even spending resources for new cards requires precise timing. The same can be said for the standard bonus actions. These provide incentives like an extra scientist or energy and can truly boost your ability to expand your potential.
Skymines plays better at higher player counts. Three and four are the best options mostly because at two players you must include an automa that does a great job of interacting with the board state but isn’t as compelling as a real person. The automa can be difficult, even during solo play, but isn’t so unwieldy that it feels unnecessary. At higher player counts, the area majority for companies, as well as investments, becomes a much more interesting battle. As companies expand into areas with rival company outposts, they can expend extra energy to return them to that company’s station.
I’m going to shift over to theme for just a moment. While Skymines improves upon its predecessor, it still doesn’t provide a level of excitement that a remake should possess. This card system deserves so much better than more resource exploitation with a pasted-on space setting. And who decided upon CrypCoin as a term for the currency? I can see that some work went into the transition to space in both illustration and design, but in the end, it almost feels like it’s more detached that the problematic original.
Design-wise, my biggest gripe with the game is the research track. It can be a fun puzzle to use research points on tokens that have overlapping requirements to provide the best possible forward movement, and they do fit into the theme nicely, but the work necessary to be efficient in this area requires a lot more focus than most of the rest of the design (save for the programming perhaps). Compared to the helium track, it’s quite a difference, and can be a little too punishing for those who don’t get the best research options.
Before final thoughts, I’d like to mention some other improvements for this design over Mombasa: mini-campaign, solo module, mission, and threat cards, and a second side to the main board that includes new ways to expand companies. Skymines also includes rules enhancements, such as a less restrictive end-of-round card resting placement.
Do you own and enjoy Mombasa? I recommend ditching that and moving on to Skymines. It’s not without its own set of issues (CrypCoin, come on!), but it provides plenty of incentives and improvements that make it a much richer experience. The system here is solid and fun, especially at three and four players. In fact, I’d say it’s one of the designer’s better games.
That said, it’s still a re-theme away from being a game I’d highly recommend, which is a big miss in my book. It remains worthwhile for fans of the designer or those seeking out quality mechanisms. For those new to Pfister games, I recommend either Great Western Trail or Maracaibo as better examples of his design strengths matching with an immersive theme (Maracaibo’s thematic issues have been given a proper revisit with the Uprising expansion).
Final Score: 3.5 stars – Skymines holds steadfast to quality mechanisms while missing the mark on establishing a worthwhile theme.
• Excellent programming and hand management system
• Shared company investments
• Majority bonus spaces
• New additions to the core gameplay
• Theme is uninspiring
• Overly complex research system
• Rulebook is comprehensive yet unnecessarily dense
• Main board illustration and iconography