Board Game Review: Unsettled

8/10 A unique coop puzzle with endless possibilities

You are the crew of the Scarab, lost in space and facing all manner of challenges from planetary life trying to kill you to being stranded among asteroids. Only by working together will you survive and make it home.

Despite how interested I was in Vindication (by the same company), I didn’t really have much interest in Unsettled. I had even less when I saw it played and learned that the hard sci-fi aesthetic is mixed with blasé and irreverent humor (not unlike a Guardians of the Galaxy movie). The mechanics didn’t seem all that interesting either. But! My friend bought it and several planets because he loves sci-fi themes of space exploration. So we gave it a try.

Photos will only be for the first planet (the one used in previews).

Overview

Unsettled is a cooperative puzzle game where you choose and play one planet and one scenario during a game, and each planet comes with multiple scenarios to choose from. Each player controls one explorer, and you’ll use a set of 3 dice to perform actions on your turn. Some actions cost you pips on your dice, while other actions can restore pips, usually at a cost. The main resource you spend each turn is time. There’s a time track, and when it has to reset (from reaching the end), everyone loses 1 Endurance. Hit 0 Endurance and it’s game over.

Most of your actions will be to explore square map cards laid out according to the scenario. One of the big features of each planet is the opportunities deck—a deck of cards (split into two) that features all kinds of strange wildlife and curiosities you can discover and poke. Completing these discoveries rewards you with one-time-use abilities, usually some insight (experience points needed to level up and learn an ability), and sometimes important keywords that interact with scenarios in unique ways.

Each scenario is broken down into a small deck with objectives, flipped through like a book. Each objective is essentially its own puzzle that often requires learning the planet’s unique rules to solve. As you progress through the scenario, objectives will also need you to utilize abilities you’ve gained from leveling up, all of which will be unique to the planet, allowing for specific interactions that wouldn’t work on other planets.

Theme

Unsettled is a sci-fi game through and through. Sci-fi can mean all kinds of things, but Unsettled is focused on planetary exploration and survival. The rulebook makes it clear, interacting with interstellar civilizations isn’t likely to come up (but anything is possible). Sci-fi is hit or miss with me, but I’m fine with this take on the genre.

However, while it might look and sound like a Mass Effect or Star Trek-style setting, the humor makes it feel more like Guardians of the Galaxy. Fun movies, but I have no interest in immersing myself in that kind of setting. The writing in Unsettled is humorous but rarely laugh-out-loud funny. And sometimes it just feels kind of dumb. It honestly starts to overshadow the creativity of the scenarios at times. We’ve started skipping most of the flavor text not directly tied to the scenario. But it bothers me. I like flavor text, but not this kind of flavor text.

Mechanisms

It’s difficult to talk about the game’s mechanisms since the core system is just an action selection mechanic with some resource management. That’s basically it. But it’s the puzzle that each planet brings that makes the system shine, but those puzzles are also spoilers to discuss. So…? It’s a puzzle game with a lot of resource management and cooperation.

The downside to its puzzly nature is that eventually, you’ll have solved all of the puzzles and need to buy new ones to keep playing. It’s not a normal coop where each game can play out wildly differently or where the difficulty can be adjusted to keep the challenge feeling fresh. There’s some variability, but the scenarios are otherwise very linear. And knowing how they play out will absolutely make them easier as you’ll be able to plan for endgame elements right from the beginning, and punishing surprises won’t be surprises.

But what really stands out to me are two things. One is the coop nature of it. It’s not like most coops where each turn, a figurative fire starts somewhere on the board, and you spend your time running around putting out “fires” in order to not lose. In Unsettled, rarely is anything happening in between turns. The game only does something when players make it do something. The challenge is solving the puzzle before time runs out, not putting out “fires” that distract you from what would otherwise be an easy goal to accomplish. Not that other coops are bad, but there have definitely been some lackluster coops that didn’t try to change up the formula.

The second is how flexible the game’s system is. It has a straightforward core ruleset augmented by the unique rules of the planet you play against. This system has the potential for all kinds of expansion, and they sell planets individually at a very reasonable price.

Components

Unlike Vindication (this company’s previous game), the components here are more reasonable and focused on usability rather than jacking up the price point. It comes with easy-to-use trays that hold all the necessary bits where they need to go, and it makes the setup and teardown a breeze. And the planets are mostly cards and a few tokens. Everything is decent quality (the minis aren’t the best, but are fine) without being over-produced. The boxes also fit everything neatly and compactly instead of being an awkwardly-sized slab of a box like Vindication.

Rules Clarity and Balance

The rules are solid, though they may have spent a little too much time trying to set your expectations. I’m not sure it was all necessary, but they really want you to know that this game is different and needs to be approached differently. But really, it’s just a board game. It’s not an experimental art piece that requires study to understand.

As for balance, the game has been a bit on the easy side so far. We haven’t lost (but have been close), even after tackling one of the tougher planets. Though the challenge rating isn’t the difficulty of winning, it only describes the overall complexity of the planet. The game seems to have a pretty even difficulty across the planets (so far). I think our first game was the closest we got to losing. This might bother some gamers who are looking for challenges that require multiple plays before they can overcome them.

Conclusion

It’s a really neat system with a lot of potential. But for me, the attempts at humor are the weak point. It’s sometimes funny, but when it isn’t, it’s kind of annoying. Unsettled would probably be a 9 with better writing, but it will have to settle for an 8. See, dumb humor is easy; anyone can do it.

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