People often ask me what hidden gem board games I’ve discovered. In this review, I’m going to tell you about the most recent one I’ve found, Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade from Japanime Games.
This Cowboy Bebop themed deck building game features new twists on classic deck-building mechanics. It also features an awesome forced cooperation system that really helps bring in the Space Cowboy theme.
Disclosure: Thank you Japanime Games for sending this one over for us to check out! Links in this post may be affiliate links. Using these costs you nothing but gives us a small kickback for any sales made through them. As an Amazon associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
What’s the deal with Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade?
Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade was designed by Johan Benvenuto and Florian Sirieix. It features licenced artwork from the Cowboy Bebop anime. It was published in 2019 as a joint effort between Don’t Panic Games and Japanime Games.
This deck-building card game with board game elements plays one to four players with games lasting up to ninety minutes. It features a low MSRP of only $59.95 which is a steal for what you get in the box.
Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade is a competitive deck building game where players take on the roles of bounty hunters Spike, Edward, Jet and/or Faye. These space cowboys travel between their ship, The Bebop, and three planets while trying to earn bounties by capturing criminals.
This is done through a deck-building system with four resources, one of which carries over round to round. There are two different ways to take your targets down, either fighting them head on and risking filling your deck with wound cards, or investigating them which is harder but less risky. There’s also a variable card market and a thematic semi-coop system where you can use the special abilities of other characters, whether they like it or not, when they are at the same location as you. The theme of reluctant allies is reinforced through a character based card combo system and the climax of the game has the players trying to capture the most famous criminal of all, Vicious.
One of the things that really stood out about this game, before we even played it, is the component quality which you can check out in our Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade Unboxing Video on YouTube.
This game looks like a deluxe Kickstarter edition, with awesome upgrades like miniatures to replace the standees, a custom box insert, dual-layer planet and character boards, and a stand to hold the Big Shot bounty cards.
Along with these shiny bits you also get counters, cubes and of course cards, lots of cards. Everything you need to know about a card is included right there on it. The cards are of excellent quality, featuring clear layout and iconography as well as plenty of text when needed.
The Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade rulebook is fantastic. It includes one of the best overviews of deck-building I’ve ever seen. It’s a page that I would like to see put into every deck-builder out there and any new ones to come.
Physically, I have no complaints about this anime based card game. This is one of the best looking games in my collection, one I love showing off on the table.
How do you play Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade?
A game of Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade starts with each player picking a character to play and grabbing the starting deck for that character. These decks contain four unique cards and six standard “For a few Woolongs” cards.
Players place a cube on the 1 spot on their fuel tracker, shuffle their deck and draw five cards. The mini for their character is placed on the Bebop which is put in the centre of the table along with the three planets, each with a cube at the 1 spot on its movement gauges.
Miniatures for any characters not being played are also placed on the Bebop. These are non-player characters that can be moved around during the game by certain cards. Additionally, players can use non-player characters’ abilities when at the same location as them.
The market cards are shuffled and placed on their cardboard holder and an initial market of five cards is revealed. The wound deck is also shuffled and placed on its cardboard holder.
Next, the Big Shot Bounty Deck is created. This is the most complicated part of setup. You start by finding all of the zero point bounties and randomly placing one onto each planet. You then combine the remaining zero point cards with the rest of the cards for that planet and shuffle those. Next, a number of cards are removed from each shuffled planet deck based on the number of players.
Each of the three planet decks is now combined and shuffled together. Finally, the Vicious card is shuffled into the bottom three cards of that deck. The now complete bounty deck is placed on the bounty board and will act as a timer for the game.
There are counters for each planet which get placed onto the bounty cards. One stack represents resistance tokens and the other represents investigation tokens. The number of tokens in each stack is indicated on the bounty card. Players will claim these tokens when confronting criminals, as explained later.
Play begins with the Jazziest Player. Each turn players take any of five actions, any number of times, in any order they wish.
You can play a card from your hand, resolving all of its effects in the order you chose before moving on to another action. Note you cannot play a card, resolve some of its effects, then take another action like moving, and then resolve the rest of the card.
Most cards provide one or more of the four in-game resources with many cards also having special abilities. Some cards also have a Team Effect combo ability that goes off when the card is played after a previously played card that matches the colour of the combo section. Each colour in this game represents a different Bebop Crew Member and these combos represent the crew reluctantly working together.
The four resources in Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade are:
Fuel, which is tracked on your player board and carries over from turn to turn. Fuel is mainly spent to move between planets, use character abilities and to heal some wounds.
Woolongs, which are used to purchase new cards from the market. Newly purchased cards are placed into your discard pile and any unspent woolongs are lost at the end of the turn.
Strength, which is used to confront criminals in physical combat, and Clues, which are used to investigate criminals. Both the combat and investigate actions will earn you tokens that can convert to points when a criminal is finally captured.
Moving your character around the various boards is another action. You can spend fuel to move between the Bebop and the three planets. The cost to move to the Bebop is always one fuel but the cost to travel to a planet can change based on card play and other in game events. This cost is indicated by the position of the cube on the planet’s movement track. In addition, there are many cards in the deck that will let you move your character, non-player characters and even other player characters around the boards.
Purchasing cards can be done at any time during your turn (but not in the middle of another action) using any woolongs you have earned on the cards you have already played this turn. You can also purchase more than one card at once, as well as purchase a card, take other actions, and then purchase one or more cards. Immediately after purchasing a card it is replaced by a new one from the market.
Each player has two unique abilities, one primary and one secondary, which take fuel to trigger. On your turn, you can use your own abilities or the primary abilities of any character you are in the same location with. This could be another player or a non-player character. Each of the four characters features totally unique abilities.
Spike’s ability lets you draw a card from your deck and put it into your hand, with the option to discard it instead and draw another card which you are then stuck with. His secondary ability lets him and him alone buy a card from the market with a two woolong discount and put it on the top of his deck.
Edward’s ability allows you to buy clues for fuel. Their secondary ability lets Ed draw a card from their discard pile and put it into their hand.
When you are with Faye you can convert fuel to woolongs at a two to one ration, and she alone can purchase cards from the market using fuel instead of woolongs.
Finally, Jet offers a way for players to remove two wound cards from their hand or discard pile, and he also has a special ability where he can engage in physical combat without taking wounds.
The last action you can take is confronting a criminal. To do this players have to be on the planet with the criminal they want to confront and then spend Strength to engage in the criminal in physical combat or Clues to investigate the criminal. The cost to do each is listed on the criminal’s card.
Each time you engage a criminal in physical combat you remove and keep one Resistance token. Engaging in physical combat is risky though, you also draw one Wound card and resolve its effect. Each time you investigate a criminal you remove and keep one Capture token. You can collect more than one token in one turn and these could come from different sources.
A criminal is captured the instant either of their two token piles is emptied. The player who took that last token claims the criminal’s bounty card which may be worth points at the end of the game. Every player that has any counters matching the planet the criminal is on turns them in, scoring one point per counter.
After everyone gets their points, anyone on that planet moves back to the Bebop, the movement gauge for that planet is reset to one and new bounty cards are drawn from the Big Shot stand. Two cards are drawn, with one card being revealed at a time, and fully resolved, before drawing the next one.
If the planet showing on the new bounty is open, the card is placed on that planet and two new stacks of resistance and capture tokens are set up on top of it. If the card drawn shows a planet that already has an active bounty on it, the card is instead discarded and the movement gauge on that planet is increased by one. If a movement gauge ever gets past three the criminal on that planet escapes. Their bounty card is discarded and any tokens for that planet are returned to the pool with no points gained for the players who earned them.
The game continues like this, going around the table with players buying cards, moving between planets, investigating and battling criminals and claiming bounties until the Vicious card is drawn from the bounty deck.
At that point, everyone enters the end game.
All existing criminals stay on the planets they are on. The Vicious bounty card is placed in the centre of the table and two stacks of Resistance and Capture tokens are set up, just like they are with any other bounty. However, the size of these stacks is based on the player count and will be much larger than any other criminal’s. You then gather all of the discarded bounty cards, shuffle them and make a new bounty deck, which becomes the Vicious Movement Deck.
This deck will determine where Vicious moves and if he eventually escapes. You turn over the top card from this deck and place the Vicious mini on the planet shown. The rest of the information on the bounty card is ignored, all that matters here is what planet is shown.
The game then continues as before. Players continue to take the same actions and can even continue to confront any remaining criminals in play. The only change to gameplay is that any player on the same planet as Vicious can confront him.
If you confront Vicious physically you will take two wound cards for every Resistance token you claim. In addition, any turn that Vicious loses a Resistance token he may move to a new planet at the end of that turn. To see if this happens a card is drawn from the Vicious Movement Deck (the former Bounty Deck) and Vicious moves to the planet shown. If he happens to already be on the planet show the movement gauge for that planet goes up. Note this could cause an existing bounty on that planet to escape, but moving past three will never cause Vicious to escape, it just makes it harder to move to the planet he is on.
Using Clues to take investigation tokens also works with Vicious. Unlike taking a Resistance token, when you successfully investigate Vicious he does not move at the end of the turn.
If you end up drawing the last Vicious Movement Card, each player gets one more turn and then at the end of that round, if not captured, Vicious escapes. If he escapes everyone returns all of their Vicious tokens as well as any outstanding bounty tokens without scoring any points for them.
The game continues until a player captures Vicious (and everyone scores points for the tokens they collected from him with the player that landed the final blow getting his bounty card) or he escapes.
Players then total up their points, which include points gained for collecting bounty tokens throughout the game plus any points shown on the bounty cards they have collected. The player with the most points wins. Ties go to the player who collected the most bounty cards.
Note: Even if Vicious escapes a winner is still declared. The rules call this “a pretty lame victory” and encourage you to immediately play again to redeem yourselves.
These are the rules for playing Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade with two or more players. The game also includes a solo mode.
When playing solo, you create the bounty deck as if you are playing a three player game. Play continues as normal with one additional rule: Any time you need to shuffle your deck you reveal a new criminal card and activate it as you would after capturing a criminal.
Once you reveal Vicious he gets the number of capture tokens you would use for a four player game, you build his movement deck out of any remaining cards on the Big Shot Stand plus all of the discarded bounty cards.
When playing solo, Vicious moves at the end of every turn, not just when you take a Resistance token from him. You also stop revealing cards whenever you shuffle your deck once you get to this final confrontation.
Unlike the multiplayer game, you lose the game if Vicious escapes. If you are able to capture him, calculate your final score as normal. The rulebook provides a place to record your final solo game scores.
Disappointingly there aren’t any real goals listed or additional challenges when playing solo. You just play to beat your old high score or compare your score to other players.
Is Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade Worth Picking Up?
Let me start by saying that I am a big fan of deck building card games, enjoying a variety of different styles and types from the static markets of Dominion to modern games that barely qualify as deck-builders like The Lost Ruins of Arnak. I am also a fan of Cowboy Bebop, both the original Anime and the newer Netflix live action show.
Both of these things had me jumping at the chance to review Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade from Japanime Games. What followed from there was a number of pleasant surprises once the game showed up in the mail.
The first came when I was unboxing the game live on Twitch and was blown away by the quality of what you get in this box. Dual layer player boards, awesome looking minis, a great box insert and more. If you watch the video I make the assumption that this must have been a Kickstarter due to the fact that these are the kinds of component upgrades you usually see as stretch goals during a crowdfunding campaign.
To reinforce this hunch, the game box includes cardboard standees for the characters in addition to the miniatures, which seems like a really odd choice to me. Why would you include both? Are there people out there that would actually rather use cardboard standees when you have the option of miniatures with no additional cost?
I honestly think there must have been plans to crowdfund this game, featuring a campaign where these upgrades would have been some form of unlockable, but then somewhere along the line, someone decided to scrap that idea and just publish the game with all of the planned polish.
My copy of Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade feels like a fully blinged out deluxe game, but all that pizazz comes in every copy. Plus those copies come at a very reasonable price point.
The next surprise to me was the number of new elements and tweaked mechanics the designers have included in this deck-building game.
One of these is the wound deck. While I’ve played many deck building games with punitive cards that can clog up your deck, I haven’t played one where these cards aren’t all the same. In Cowboy Bebop, you get a deck which contain a number of different wound cards.
In this deck, you are going to find wound cards that go on top of your deck, ones that go into your discard pile, ones that you can remove with woolongs and others that take fuel to get rid of. Some of these cards have immediate effects, while others don’t do anything until you draw them. You can even get lucky and draw a Near Miss card that just gets discarded with no penalty at all.
Another welcome addition to traditional deck-building is the ability to spend resources to clear the marketplace. Any player can spend two fuel on their turn to wipe the market.
In addition to this, there are a number of bounty cards that cause you to wipe the market as soon as they enter play. This is fantastic for eliminating the common deck-building problem of the market filling with expensive cards no one can afford or cards no one wants to buy.
While combo systems aren’t a new thing in deck-building games I really like the way they are implemented here, especially due to how well Team Effect rules tie into the theme of the game. All of the combos here require you to have cards from two different characters who thematically are working together to produce the added effect. The effects even match the style of the different characters, with Spike combos often generating Strength, while Faye combos give you resources, etc.
This thematic element of cooperation between competing bounty hunters leads me to my favourite part of this game. That is the way you can move characters around between the planets and use other player’s special abilities when you are at the same location, whether they want you to or not.
This, combined with the Team Combo system, really makes this card game feel like the Cowboy Bebop Anime and Netflix series. While playing you feel like you are part of a crew that is forced to work together to bring in bounties but it’s still everyone for themselves, where cooperation is required but reluctant.
Another thematic element I liked was the “twist” at the end of the game where everything switches to focusing on capturing Vicious. The entire tone of the game shifts at this point and things start to feel more desperate. The game becomes a race to the finish and it always feels like Vicious is only a turn or two away from escaping.
There are other really cool things this game does differently that I don’t feel the need to deep dive into here. Things like having a resource you can save up turn after turn, the way you have two ways to confront each criminal, and the fuel system for moving around the board. All of these make Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade stand out when compared to other deck-building games on the market.
My biggest surprise with this game isn’t about mechanics or theme, it’s the fact that no one seems to be talking about it at all. This game seems to have somehow slipped under almost everyone’s radar.
I do realize this game came out in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdowns and then somewhat got overshadowed by two other new deck builders that messed around with what people expect from a deck-building game, Lost Ruins of Arnak and Dune Imperium. I admit that compared to those two games Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade does feel a lot more like older, more traditional deck builders.
More importantly, I think it’s the fact that this game looks like a traditional deck builder on the surface, that has caused people to skip right past it. I don’t think many people realize how much innovation is in this box. Which is a shame because Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade is one of the best deck building games I’ve ever played.
Another thing that may be scaring people away is the fact that it’s a licenced game. The thing is you don’t need to be a Bebop fan to enjoy this game. We’ve played many times with our friends Kat and Tori who know nothing about the license.
If I had to find some faults with Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade I would start with having to build the bounty deck during set up. I explain the process above so I won’t repeat it here but it’s tedious. It’s also not at all intuitive and every time I play this game I find I need to open up the rulebook to the appropriate section and work through it step by step.
The only other thing I would have liked to see is some asymmetry in the initial player decks. While each player’s deck features four cards in their character’s colour (which will then combo with different cards in the market), mechanically what those four cards do is identical between all four players.
I realize that it’s traditional that every player starts with the same deck in a deck-building game. That seems to be a staple, but with all the other innovations in this particular game, I would have liked to see some more variation here. Even if it was just one unique card per character.
Overall, Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade is a fantastic deck-building game. It’s one of the best games in this genre we’ve ever played and that’s coming from a group that loves deck-building mechanics and the games that use them. I don’t understand why more people aren’t talking about this game.
If you enjoy Cowboy Bebop and play hobby board games you need to pick this game up. If you play and enjoy deck-building games but have no clue what Cowboy Bebop is, I still think you need to give this game a shot.
Unless you and/or your game group totally hates Cowboy Bebop, or absolutely can’t stand deck-building games, you really should find a way to try out Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade. I can’t think of many hobby board game groups that aren’t going to find something to like here.
This is a true hidden gem that I feel hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves and I hope this review helps more people discover this great game.
Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade is a game that surprised me in many ways and overall was significantly better than I had ever hoped. What’s a game you picked up or played that shocked you by just how good it was? Tell us about it in the comments below!
Until next time, see you space cowboy…