02nd Feb2024

‘MLEM: Space Agency’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Imagine if cats ruled the world. What would it be like? Well, if Reiner Knizia’s MLEM: Space Agency is to be believed, it would be much the same – except where space travel is concerned. In MLEM the players control intrepid cat crews as they blast off for the Milky Way – but in classic cat fashion, whenever it suits them, a cat may simply disembark on a neighbouring planet or moon at any moment.

So how do these cats fly? Well, in MLEM, the players will simply choose a cat crew colour, a player board and then decide who will pilot the ship first. In the rulebook, this is suggested as whoever changed the litter tray most recently, but I guess you can use any random method you like. Whoever is chosen will take the rocket ship board and then place one of their eight cat tokens on it – selecting whichever one has the power that they wish to use on this journey (more on that later) and then inviting the others players (going clockwise around the table) to add a cat of their own.

With this done, the players will take the wooden rocket token and place it on the gorgeous neoprene mat. Most missions will begin at space number one, but if any player has used their “Satellite” cat, then the ship will be placed on space three instead. The objective for every mission is to make its way up the board, passing moons and planets along the way until (hopefully) reaching the final Milky Way space. To do this, the captain of the rocket will roll six dice, match them to pips and symbols on the board space where the ship is, and then deciding which ones to spend.

This is the key gameplay mechanic in MLEM, and turns are quick and engaging because at least at the start of the journey, everyone is invested in the mission. When the first set of dice are rolled, the likelihood of success is very high – this is because low spaces have multiple pips (perhaps ones, twos and threes) that count as success. Afterburner symbols also count on some spaces, and will move the ship based on the number of pips shown in the icon. What makes MLEM interesting is that when the dice are rolled, any that can’t be spent are set aside, but those that can are grouped into their numbers – and if used, all those except afterburners are gone for the rest of this mission.

As an example, if a player rolls a one, two two’s, an afterburner and two threes and the space shows that afterburners and threes can be used, then the player may choose to use the afterburner dice, both threes (and it has to be both, not just one) or both. If only the afterburner is used, then the ship will move upwards based on the number of pips shown on the afterburner on the board, but they’ll still have all six die for the next space. If they use the threes, then the rocket will move six spaces (two times three) which is pretty good, but those dice will be lost for the next roll. If there is ever a failure to match any symbols, the rocket will crash.

In this way, the rocket progresses up the board, but after dice have been rolled then any cat may choose to disembark (assuming there’s a planet or moon to jump to – which there almost always is.) Moons simply score immediate points based on the highest value space available, whilst planets use a majority scoring mechanism that doesn’t take effect until the end of the game. If the players choose to use one of the three optional modules (Exploration, Secret Missions, UFO’s) then there will be other ways to score points as well, but the main ones usually come from the board.

What’s interesting about MLEM is that the captain is fully responsible for the rocket on their turn, and can even use some of the abilities that other players cats have (again, I’ll cover those in a bit), but anyone can disembark their cat whenever they want. If you have the cat that scores double for planets, the rocket is halfway up the board and the captain has just one dice left – you probably should jump off. Alternatively, if you have the cat that scores double for the Milky Way and the rocket is doing well with a few dice left at three quarters of the way up, then may you should stay on. Another cool feature is that if the captain disembarks, the next player down moves up to take over the role.

Now I keep mentioning these different cats, so let’s cover that in brief. The three that we’ve already covered allow the rocket to start on space three and to score double for a planet or the Milky Way. There’s another one just like the latter two that scores double for a moon landing, but the rest are more interesting. One allows the player to disembark safely to the adjacent moon or planet if the rocket crashes, another allows the cat to disembark either one space higher or one space lower. Then there’s one which allows the captain (whoever that may be) to “use” that cat (once) as though it were a die showing one, and this often helps to avoid a crash.

When I first saw MLEM I honestly thought I would hate it. The theme is undoubtedly bananas, and the idea of a push-your-luck dice game comes with certain connotations that I admit made me turn my nose up at first. With that said, there are two things that keep bringing MLEM back to the table – firstly, it’s absolutely gorgeous production and secondly, the fast-paced, always engaging Reiner Knizia design. That neoprene mat is absolutely gorgeous and everything that goes with it is very high quality – including the satisfyingly heavy dice. The design, whilst simple, excels because of its pace but more importantly because everyone is invested in every single mission.

MLEM probably isn’t going to be invested into the modern board game hall of fame, but it is a fantastic family weight game that evokes a reaction with every single round of play. My kids absolutely love the jeapordy of deciding when to stay on the ship and when to jump off, and everyone gets around the table and encourages the captain to make one decision or another – trying to push them to make a decision that suits their immediate objective. The simplicity and interaction of MLEM are often exactly what we want from a games night, and for that reason alone, this is a fun little experience that has gone straight onto my keep pile.

**** 4/5

A copy of MLEM was provided for review by Asmodee

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