Do I cut through Alliance space, or play it safe on the raggedy edge? Should I fight the Reavers, or burn additional fuel to get away from them, knowing that I might run out of gas before getting back to Persephone? Who among my crew can I afford to fire after this job is done so I don’t have to pay them their cut?

Joss Whedon’s Firefly was about a man who wanted the freedom to make his own way in the world. Ten years later, Firefly the Game offers that same freedom to be the captain of a Firefly class transport ship. After my first play through I can say it was worth the wait to put on a brown coat and make like Malcolm Reynolds.

Published by Gale Force 9, whose other big claim to fame is the tabletop adaptation of Starz’ Spartacus, Firefly is a middle-weight adventure/RPG. Up to four players, with a five player expansion slated for December, take command of competing Firefly-class cargo transports. Would-be captains have to find a crew, get work, establish a reputation for themselves, and make enough money to keep their ship flying while meeting the objectives of a given game scenario. Depending on a group’s rate of play, each scenario should take about two hours to get through. For the purposes of this piece, I played the Awful Lonely in the Big Black solo story.

A few technical notes before I delve into the game itself.

Firefly is a fully licensed game based on the Firefly TV series. So yes, you can play as Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity. My first crew was Mal, Inara, Crow, and a couple nobodies to keep the ship running.

Firefly’s manual is poorly structured. On a first read through, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into. I spent a lot of time flipping between pages for rule clarifications. Part of that is due to the sexy, but pointless, screen captures from the series which punctuate the rule book. Fortunately, Gale Force 9 has been very good with their post-release support. A FAQ on the game’s website clarifies a few of Firefly’s finer mechanics. As an additional mea culpa, GF9 produced an extra downloadable scenario card for first time captains.

On another fussy note, GF9 uses some very high quality card stock for Firefly. There are hundreds of cards in Firefly, not including the money, and all of them are both heavy and glossy enough to give them a nice look and texture. I know, it’s not a big deal, but these things are important to me.

Now let’s talk about my first game. Awful Lonely in the Black gave me twenty turns to complete one of three objectives aptly named, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

The Good required getting a “solid” reputation with each of the game’s five employers. The Bad opened the door to a get rich or die trying quest to rack up $15,000. The Ugly was about shooting up the ‘verse. I chose The Bad.

Even though the cumbersome rulebook slowed down my first few turns, the game’s mechanics became largely self-explanatory after muddling through the core concepts for half an hour. In short, everything revolves around getting a job. Movement and trading easily come together as aspects of working a mission.

When visiting an employer, players get a choice of three jobs to accept or reject. Each job has an objective, pickup/drop-off locations, equipment and/or crew required to work the job, and most importantly, how much it pays. Some of the more interesting missions require drawing a series of “Aim to Misbehave” cards.  The trick to completing misbehave cards, and all of the game’s other skill checks, rests in building a balanced crew. Fill a ship with soldiers, and you will always win a gun fight, but you’ll fail even the most casual diplomacy tests. Similarly, a ship filled with companions and hucksters won’t be much good when the drive core explodes.

Were I playing against people, I may have taken a few less risks with my life of crime. Pitted against the solo game’s 20 turn limit, I had do foolish things like load up my ship with stolen goods and make a full burn through Alliance space, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t run afoul of a patrol. You wouldn’t expect that drawing against an encounter deck would be so stressful. However, the knowledge that each turn of a card on a full burn can lead to any number of natural or man-made disasters produces some genuine tension even when playing alone.

In the end, I won my test play by a hair’s breadth. If I botched the final job, a casino robbery, I was too far away from civilization to pick up another job before game’s end. Not to mention the fact that I would have earned a warrant against my ship and that’s never a good thing in Alliance space. To that end, working on the margins of the Firefly universe perfectly captures the mood of the series. Between finding work, buying supplies, and paying the crew (which is totally optional), I always felt like my back was always against the wall. Throw in random encounters with Reavers, the Alliance, and mutinous crew members and it’s no wonder that Malcolm Reynolds felt like the universe was out to get him. True to the Reynolds philosophy, a good captain can’t leave things to luck. One must plan a course in advance, try to line up multiple jobs, and hope that everything goes to plan. And when all else fails, make sure you have a big gun.

Though I’ve yet to play against other people, Firefly certainly offers enough complexity to appeal to the RPG/Deck building game crowd. At the same, time it channels the essential subtext of freedom on the frontier found in the source material. At a $45 price point, Firefly should prove a solid long-term investment.