TTRPG Review: Unsettled
By: Chad Christian (TapRackBang)
I came across the Orange Nebula booth almost by accident at Gen Con this year. I usually take some time to find booths with a more unassuming presence, but when it comes to drawing people into your little area in an arena full of other vendors vying for attention, appearance is everything. Almost walking past their booth to leave it all behind without a second thought, I stopped to take a look - quite literally because, “ooh, shiny!”
Displayed on one of their tables were some main components of Unsettled, a cooperative sci-fi game for 2-4 players meant to test your survival skills in the uncharted regions of space. Not only were these components vibrant and colorful, but unique in design, high in quality (even the cardboard punches were clean cut), and presented in an organizational system completely unique to anything else I’ve ever seen. Upon further inspection, one thing that immediately stood out was the game’s personality. The wording on the opportunity cards, survival tasks, and even the rulebook is whimsically foreboding and full of amusing, cheesy puns in a Big Bang Theory sort of way. Personally, I enjoyed this aspect. It doesn’t take itself too seriously yet still conveys that sense of danger and urgency - much like I would expect a team of geeky scientists to act in these situations.
Before I get into gameplay, I have to talk about the packaging. I’ve mentioned in articles prior how something as simple as a game’s box can have an effect on the game as a whole - and I could almost give Unsettled a 10/10 just for the box alone. The “base framework,” as they call it, comes in a manageably-sized rectangular box complete with everything you need to play the game, including two initial planets to explore, each with its own set of scenarios for some added replayability. Upon opening the box, you have a series of four trays. These trays are essentially used to house the components during gameplay but aren’t just for organizational convenience. They also serve functional purposes - from tracking time in-game to offering possible actions to use and/or harvest resources. The best part is; once you’re finished playing, leave the tokens in their respective places on the trays, drop ‘em back into the box, and they’ll be right there in their places waiting for your next game. The planet boxes below are also neatly organized, utilizing GameTrayz™ storage systems that provide a spot for practically everything. The only downside I found here is you’ll have to forego the organizational trays if you’re big on sleeving your cards. To me, the alternative of having the added protection was worth having the few components and cards hang loose in the planets’ boxes, but seeing how well everything else fits together, I do find myself wishing I didn’t have to make that choice. Lastly, underneath it all is a final component tray for minis and other accessories.
Unsettled has several moving parts. At first, it can seem fairly overwhelming. The rulebook is also somewhat extensive, but the main reason for its length is the personality injected into the game’s explanation. For me, though, I love games that are complex - games that I know I’ll have to dig into and take time to learn its intricacies - and I found that this kept the ruleset from being a dry read. If this isn’t your cup o’ joe, though, it’s not difficult to skim the fluff and hone in on the mechanical instructions. Adding to the complexity, the play area (those four trays and the set of planetary cards that guide your expedition) has numerous indicators for tokens and your action dice, but the design doesn’t leave you out to dry; each and every slot, spot, area, card, die, etc...have matching symbols corresponding to what goes where and which actions to take. It does take a little getting used to which symbols mean what, but if you ever get lost, look to those symbols. Once you begin playing, you’ll notice that it can actually be difficult to misplace your actions or botch the process since everything has its place and order. In my opinion, if you’re going to make an intricate game, this is one great way to do it.
Let’s discuss the gameplay itself. The premise is that you're a team of scientists tasked with exploring new frontiers of space, but in this effort, your damaged ship inadvertently jumped past the known reaches of the cosmos. With most of the crew dead and no idea where you are, your only choice is to land on unknown planets and use what knowledge you have to find means of survival. Each player has their own player mat and color-coded miniature, with spaces for their skills, certain actions, insight track, and more. Each planet has its subset of rules and parameters based on its environment. Depending on which survival task you choose, you may be instructed to arrange the environment cards in a specific way or explore at random, depending on which side of the card you wish to move off of. On your turn, you may move, choose from a large number of actions and free actions, which I won’t detail here, move your little robot helper Luna, and have her scan for resources or analyze them. Actions are taken by using your three focus dice: blue for awareness, green for wonder, and orange for energy (the colorblind need not fret, everything has matching symbols). Each represents one of the three scientific disciplines: formal, natural, and applied sciences. These dice are placed on different action spaces around the play area, granting you bonuses if matching your focus type to the shown scientific discipline. You may also investigate each environment card once for “moments,” which carry opportunities to discover new things or carry out your tasks but beware of sponging up too much distress, as it can quickly become quite debilitating.
Two other driving mechanics are time and insight. Time is reiterated in Unsettled as a valuable resource - one that certainly should be used but never wasted. Each player’s turn will tick up time on the track at least once and possibly more, depending on where they move and what they encounter. The more time that passes, the more exhausted your little pioneers become. Reach the red on your exhaustion track, and your character faints. If everyone faints, you lose, and trust me; it is very easy to let time get away from you if you’re not careful. Insight is the other track on your character card. You start by choosing a scientific discipline to study from your surroundings. Gain enough insight through gameplay, and you achieve a “breakthrough.” Breakthroughs grant you valuable bonuses and/or abilities to ease your passage through the hostile, uncharted terrain and aid your fellow scientists in the same. Once you obtain a breakthrough in one discipline, go for another or double-down for added proficiency.
Unsettled is truly cooperative in nature. Where I’ve found myself in other games speculating, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could share X or collaborate on Y,” Unsettled replies with a, “Why not?” In many cases, if a space requires a certain scientific breakthrough to perform a task or avoid a penalty, as long as someone on that space has the requirement, you can complete that task penalty-free. Collaborative strategy is a must. There’s no room for selfish endeavors in Unsettled. Our first game came down to the last turn for survival, and if it weren’t for completely exercising the ruleset provided, we would not have made it - and that was on an easy planet. I usually do not excel at games that employ high levels of strategy, but the cooperative nature and unique gameplay punched right through that barrier. I’ve heard sparse complaints about some components being unnecessary, and from a strictly minimalist, utilitarian standpoint, that may be the case for some. However, I’m a sucker for visual representation, and Unsettled clearly was shown love in that respect. I certainly had fun with the game, and I look forward to trying out all six planets from the game and expansions. I give Unsettled 9 fungal spores out of 10.
You can find Unsettled on Orange Nebula’s website, listed for $104 for the base framework. It’s not available for purchase yet, but you can sign up to be notified when it goes live.