News

Review: Cowboy Bebop becomes a boardgame

Get ready to relive iconic moments from the series... by playing cards with icons on them.
Enlarge / Get ready to relive iconic moments from the series… by playing cards with icons on them.
Charlie Theel
Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

It’s been years since I watched Cowboy Bebop. I remember borrowing imported VHS tapes and flying through the series (“bingeing,” as the kids today call it). I still remember Faye’s tragic return home, the iconic confrontation at the cathedral, and the many scenes of violence backed by beautiful jazz. The show is electric, burned into my brain.

So Cowboy Bebop: Boardgame Boogie is immediately appealing. This is a 60-minute cooperative game where participants play Spike, Jet, Faye, and Edward, and it has a similar feel to titles like Star Wars: Outer Rim, Firefly, and even Tobago. You will spend most of the game on the repetitive grunt work of chasing bounties and earning Woolong to keep the Bebop’s lights on, creating enough food and cash so you can buy just enough time to deal with each character’s personal issues.

Gameplay is about a group of bounty hunters, but it’s not really about the bounty hunting. You’re really dealing with iconic moments from the show, such as Faye finding a tape of her past and Spike preparing for his meetup with Vicious. These are called “Sessions,” randomly selected for each character and forming the goals for each session.

So you soar about, pushing the Bebop from Mars to Venus and chasing quarries like Chessmaster Hex. The game uses an action point system where you visit abstracted locations to gather leads, hunt the wanted, and eventually resupply. The core loop of gaining information which leads to a pursuit and to subsequent reward is the heart of play.

Leads are vague indicators, such as “Mars” and “Bar.” They are earned by meeting up with contacts and are later assembled into groups of three, which point to a specific subset of locations on the board.

Say your current leads are “Earth,” “Spaceport,” and “Market.” You can head to that location and pursue the bounty for picking up Asimov Solensan—but the catch is that each wanted criminal requires one specific lead (such as Asimov last being seen at a spaceport) to make this a legal encounter. (If you had picked up “Venus” and “Desert” instead, you could have encountered Asimov at the Venus spaceport and turned the place over with a dizzying chase.)

This system is less about discovering the exact location of a bounty; it’s more about gaining enough clues to assemble a valid combination. It works as a light mechanism that manages to convey a feeling of hunting an evasive quarry with little overhead.

The chases at the climax of these jobs are the best moments in the game. Players spend cards from their hands to meet symbol requirements on their target, possibly collaborating with the rest of the crew. Each in-game character has an asymmetric deck as well as three special abilities to lean on. Hitting a thug that requires a lot of fight? Make sure Spike’s there to administer a beat down. Got a job that calls for hacking? Hopefully Ed’s on the ground.

A touch of drama arrives in the “jam” mechanism. This is a random pull off the deck which gives you an additional symbol which must be met. The toughest bounties require pulling several jams. This introduces an element of uncertainty into chases and adds tension to the game that goes beyond the continual threat of starvation.

But the chases and captures aren’t really what the game’s about. It’s mostly the busy work—albeit an enjoyable kind—where you turn rewards into fuel and food so you can keep on keeping on. The bigger goal is to deal with each character’s personal Session, a two-step process of hitting a certain location and discarding a cargo load of symbols. These are the “big deal” moments where Spike confronts Vicious or where Faye gets a glimpse of her past.

Unfortunately, they’re anything but a big deal.

“Before I knew it, the dream was over”

The characters are the heart of Cowboy Bebop and their past is the lifeblood pumping through the show. Boardgame Boogie understands this, just not completely.

Each Session functions as a story high point, a key episode from the series that we can identify with and immediately recall. But the execution of these capstone moments in the game feels mundane. This is mostly due to their simplicity.

Sessions function just like bounties, in that you’re tossing down plenty of symbols and working the hand management mechanic, but they have no runway or lead up. They simply trigger and resolve with a whimper. Each is essentially a blip over the course of play, one that eats up your resources and requires elements of strategy and cooperation, but which doesn’t form a meaningful narrative or even a stable arc for the game.

The designers clearly aimed for a simple and direct overall design, attempting to balance mainstream accessibility with a touch of flavor and strategic decision making. This is a worthy goal, but the game feels like it could have been much more. Higher-impact Sessions could have required more “heft” and thus functioned as special moments to anchor the narrative. This could have been accomplished while still appealing to a wider target market, much as we saw in the recent—and terrific—Jaws board game.

The Sessions should haunt you. They should add new mechanisms into play, like event cards to be encountered or special locations to visit. The character stories should gnaw at you until dealt with and then reward you appropriately. They should be more than a box to check before your payout can be given in the form of a win.

Instead, we’re left with a game that’s pleasant but not quite a hit.

If you re-watch Cowboy Bebop, you may be surprised. Across the 26 episodes are some absolutely stunning moments, but linking those triumphant scenes is a fair amount of filler. Boardgame Boogie feels like we’re playing the filler between the flashes of brilliance. It still offers a taste of what we love, but it’s not a full meal.

Surprisingly, the strongest aspects here are almost ancillary to the theme. The ability of this design to capture core elements of traversing space and finding adventure while only requiring a single hour of your time is actually quite cool. If the game never develops the rich texture of Firefly: the Board Game, it still captures fragments of that spacefaring feel with just a fraction of the commitment.

If you crave more of this world and are content to scoot around the blackness, enjoying a few quiet moments in the periphery of its larger story, then you will find some satisfaction in this cardboard distillation. But those hoping for the profundity of another “Ballad of Fallen Angels” had better not waste the fuel.

ARS T

Similar Posts: