Review: Teens in Space
Depending on how you say it, the word “lightweight” can have a handful of meanings – some good, some bad. Every single one of them applies to Teens in Space.
On the positive side of things, we have the fact that the rules are gossamer-light and easy to follow. You could easily pull the rulebook out of your pocket at a convention or RPG night, pitch the basic idea and get the entire table onboard within a matter of minutes.
However, this all comes at the cost of a game that feels strangely insubstantial. It works – have no doubt about that – but if you were to ask me what was special about it, I’d struggle to produce anything but a stumbling paragraph about how easy it is to play.
Perhaps that’s enough, though.
Puberty & Pulsars
A sequel to the small-town mystery game Kids on Bikes, the concept and core of Teens in Space is neatly summed up within its title – it’s a game about playing as a rag-tag bunch of teenagers roaming their way through the galaxy, getting into scraps and having adventures along the way.
Naturally, this leaves us with a few questions. Why are the heroes blasting their way through their void without adult supervision, what are they trying to achieve and how the hell did they get their hands on a spaceship?
All of these are things that the players need to fill in for themselves, and the first few minutes of any game are likely to be a big ol’ discussion over just that. Perhaps you’re on the run from the law or escapees from an unethical government lab, or maybe you’re just travelling around as part of a grand galactic tour. The possibilities are quite literally endless, and the rules are flexible enough that you’re only really limited by your creativity.
But as anyone who’s stood paralysed before an overstocked ice-cream counter knows, there can sometimes be too much choice.
Ironically, part of the problem with might be that the concept is a little too original. If you took the same open-ended approach with generic sci-fi, rather than the teen-flavoured option on show, I could probably reel off a dozen or more tropes to play around with before taking a breath, all plucked from a web of pop culture that spans from Star Wars to The Expanse. When I reach for similar touchstones for teen sci-fi adventures I falter.
In contrast to this rather nebulous approach to the world, the rules for creating characters are delightfully snappy. The most important aspects of a teen are their species – of which there’s a huge list that takes up almost as many pages as the core rules – and their trope.
This trope lays out the character’s stats, each of which are represented by a different size of dice and asks a few questions to get the player thinking about who they’re controlling. A ‘Captain’ has high scores in grit and brains, for example, and gets questions about responsibility and doubt, while an ‘Exiled Royalty’ excels at running away from danger and needs to work out what they’d do to go home.
It’s a lightning-fast way to grab hold of a character, and a handful of options for buying gear or special talents before the game starts helps to keep every teen feeling utterly distinct from another. There can be few other games out there where you could be playing as a hot-shot space-slug pilot with a laser sword.
Of course, this quick-fire creation is only possible because the rules of the game itself aren’t too complicated. You don’t need to calculate some value for your teen’s HP because there isn’t a stat for that, and you don’t need to work out what kind of weapon you want to pick up because everything is treated exactly the same.
When a character wants to do something risky, from bargaining for an antimatter reactor to duelling an alien warlord, they roll the dice associated with the relevant stat – say, charm for sweet-talking and fight for, well, fighting – and try to beat some number decided by the GM. Every teen has a range of stats running from a mere d4 through to the wonderfully chunky d20, and while this can make things incredibly swingy it also makes it incredibly clear which characters excel at what.
If I was playing a game over the space of weeks or months, I might look for something with a little more depth and a little less narrative handwaving, but for a quick snappy little session things work out just fine.
“Just fine” sums up my feelings about Teens in Space pretty neatly. I love its light, snappy rules and the ease with which you can make distinct characters, but beyond that everything is… just fine.
It works, but for whatever reason it doesn’t hook me with either clever mechanics or a cool setting.
To be entirely honest, the question I keep returning to the most why is the game about teenagers in the first place?
It made sense that Kids on Bikes was about a band of rascally pre-teens fumbling their way through dangerous mysteries, because that’s a well-known trope that players and GMs alike can bounce off. From Stranger Things to The Goonies we’re used to these stories and have a well of half-remembered TV shows to pull from when we improvise settings and characters at the table.
This may sound very pedantic, but when you’re dealing with a lightweight game with no fixed setting, no definite premise and no assumed tone you’re relying heavily on a group’s ability to quickly cobble things together, and relying on a bank of clichés and tropes can seriously help out with that.
Is Teens in Space about teenagers just because the designers thought it was a cute title for a sequel? If so, that’s just a little disappointing.
The game is ideal to break out if you want to whip up something quick and easy at a con or if you’re looking for an uncomplicated sci-fi system to homebrew with. Beyond that, though, it just doesn’t do anything to inspire me.
Functional and easy to play, but as memorable and inspiring as a Starbucks coffee.