Bargain Basement Bathysphere review: "You will immediately be sucked in"
Print and play, where a (usually amateur) designer makes printable files that allow players to create their own copies of a game, is a popular side-hobby for many gamers. Most provide some amusement and are then forgotten, but a select few reach a wider audience, and the cream of those get picked up by a publisher. Such is the fortunate fate of the excellently-named Bargain Basement Bathysphere, a roll-and-write game that sees you exploring the dangerous depths of Beachside Bay in your makeshift machine across a twenty-scenario campaign.
Bargain Basement Bathysphere - features
Bargain Basement Bathysphere is a roll-and-write board game for adults, which, at its core, means you'll be rolling dice to figure out whether you succeed or not before recording the results on a sheet. However, this one stands apart because it features 'legacy' elements. In other words, the decisions you make will carry over from game to game. It's also played solo, so don't expect any backup from friends or family.
The theme of this one is pretty simple; you'll be exploring the ocean depths in your cobbled-together bathysphere on a quest to find marine life and salvage gear.
Bargain Basement Bathysphere - how does it work?
You roll a pool of dice and use each value to move on a map of the ocean depths
Passing penalty spaces erodes one of three tracks which count down to game over
Landing on reward spaces nets you points and chances to win at mini-games
Bargain Basement Bathysphere doesn’t have the clearest rules, but a careful read reveals a core gameplay loop of ingenious simplicity. Each scenario in the campaign gives you a goal (generally to reach certain map spaces or score a certain number of points), a dry-wipe map to play on, and a pool of dice to roll. You can spend each value to move up or down the spaces of the map. If you move over a penalty space you must cross it off and mark down one of three tracks: oxygen, damage, or stress.
Landing on a penalty space is fine - you mark it off but don’t take the loss. Reward spaces, similarly, give you points if you can land on them. In the initial scenario, these come in two flavours. Ocean floor spaces give you a flat value printed on the board whereas salvage spaces let you spend your remaining dice to get that many points. So, why wouldn’t you spend them all? Because when you run out of dice and have to reroll, it costs you a point on the oxygen track.
As you delve deeper into Beachside Bay, the scenarios become more complex and introduce additional rules
On the way back up, landing on a space you’ve already crossed off costs you a point on the stress track. This is the most forgiving of the tracks but accumulating stress eventually also costs you damage, and damage is nasty because it reduces your dice pool. Should any of the tracks reach zero, you’ve failed and must try again. In many scenarios, a replay changes the parameters of the attempt, often to make it more forgiving but sometimes there’s a permanent loss too.
As you delve deeper into Beachside Bay, the scenarios become more complex and introduce additional rules such as rescuing divers with random amounts of remaining oxygen. Most notable are the three mini-games included. The first rewards you for collecting sets of sea life on your travels, the second lets you spend salvage to upgrade your bathysphere, and the final one is a mapping exercise where you optimize paths to win extra oxygen.
Bargain Basement Bathysphere - gameplay
Trying to make the best use of your dice rolls is a fun, dynamic puzzle
As scenarios advance there are lots of maze-like maps to navigate
Campaign combines the excitement of discovery with careful resource management
Bargain Basement Bathysphere lowers you into the waters gently, with the first couple of scenarios being so super easy you might start to wonder where the challenge is. But you will immediately be sucked in by the dice system. You won’t be able to reach all the rewards or miss all the penalties so it’s a matter of plotting your way down the map spaces, trying to figure out the best balance for your current dive based on the rolls you’ve got. Sure, it’s very random, but that keeps the puzzle varied and adds anticipation to each roll.
Most maps give you a few rerolls to play with, and you’ll soon learn to treat them like gems in the deep. There are often times when you only want one or two dice from your current roll and you’re forced to consider using another oxygen to reroll the lot. That’s fine at first, but once divers - who will expire on a random point of your oxygen meter - enter the picture this becomes a much tougher trade-off. These kinds of compromises are at the heart of what makes the game fun.
If you want to try other roll-and-write board games, it's worth taking a look at the Twilight Imperium-themed version. As I said in my Twilight Inscription review, "every game is a new, dynamic puzzle to solve."
Presuming you don’t cheat yourself, they tie you into the longer-term campaign: a campaign which, at 10-15 minutes per scenario, you can realistically complete. You might win some oxygen in one only to feel you have no choice but to use it in the next. It won’t be long before you’re bemoaning every missed fish, salvage attempt, and ocean floor space because they’ll leave you short of bonuses for the next game. But working out what you can gain and what you can leave behind is all part of the fun. Plus there’s a real sense of discovery as each scenario reveals new rules and risks to play with. There’s a lot of creativity on display with the minimal components in the box.
While this piecemeal approach to rules keeps the game very easy to learn, there is a downside; it makes the rules hard to reference. As the complexity increases you’ll often find yourself flicking back to find the relevant rules for a hazard. Some of the rules aren’t actually very clear and, worse, a couple of the map routes are essentially impossible as printed. Since this is a solo game you’re free to decide how to fix them, and the designer has clarified online, so it’s less of an issue than it might be, but it’s still frustrating.
It might even inspire you to try your hand at your own print-and-play design
When they’re correct, navigating these maps is a particular pleasure as the game advances. Early maps are just straight up and down, but it isn’t long before branch points and one-way routes such as depth gauge dives start to boggle the mind. This is the point where you have to start making much more careful calculations over how you allocate your resources unless you want to end up trapped at the bottom of the ocean, adding spatial strategy and yet another risk-reward element to the unfolding gameplay.
Should you buy Bargain Basement Bathysphere?
If it wasn’t for those careless map misprints, Bargain Basement Bathysphere would be close to the ideal solo game. It’s fast, fun, and full of variety. It takes a while for any real sense of challenge to kick in, but that doesn’t matter so much when diving down the maps and shepherding your resources is so satisfying. The bigger question is whether you want to devote alone-time to what’s usually a social activity, but if anything is going to convince you then, with its bright maps, unspooling exploration, and dynamic gameplay, it’ll be this. It might even inspire you to try your hand at your own print-and-play design.
Buy it if...
Don't buy it if...
How we tested Bargain Basement Bathysphere
I played Bargain Basement Bathysphere over the course of a number of days to get a good feel for its mechanics, and how they compared to rival roll-and-writes. For more information on our process, see how we test products.
This copy of the game was provided by Asmodee.
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