Review of MLEM Space Agency, A push your luck dice game about Cats In Space!

MLEM is a really beautiful, and somewhat thematic push your luck dice game from Reiner Knizia featuring a fun theme of cats in space. This is a game that my kids were super excited to check out.

The base game is simple to learn and teach, and very family friendly. You also get some rule variants that add more decision points and player agency, which makes the game even more appealing to hobby gamers.

Disclosure: Thanks to Rebel Studio for sending us a review copy of MLEM. Links in this post may be affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from eligible purchases.

What is MLEM Space Agency?

The MLEM Space Agency Box

MLEM: Space Agency was designed by Reiner Knizia, a name most board game fans are going to know very well. It features some rather striking artwork from Joanna Rzepecka and was just released earlier this month by Rebel Studio.

This competitive, push-your-luck, dice game plays two to five players and is better the more people playing. Games take about an hour at the highest player count, getting shorter with fewer players. As a family weight game, this one is good for gamers of all ages, though younger kids may need a bit of help with some of the strategy involved. 

In MLEM Space Agency players will be sending their team of catstronauts into space! Each round starts by loading your rocket with cats, starting with the commander and then rotating around the table. Each catstronaut has a different special ability that will come into play that mission.

The commander then leads the mission using a push-your-luck style dice system. As your rocket travels, you will encounter various moons, planets, and if you go far enough, deep space. At each leg of the journey, players will have the option to disembark their cats and earn points, in the form of cat toys, for where they land.

Due to the randomness of the dice, progress is never guaranteed. At any point, the commander’s luck could fail and the ship crash. Don’t worry though, everyone still on the ship gets their cats back, nine lives and all that.

MLEM Space Agency has some really striking artwork and fantastic components, including one of the best neoprene mat-style boards I’ve ever seen. You can see all this and more in my MLEM Unboxing Video on YouTube

A product show showing what you get with MLEM

One thing you will see there is a potential problem with the play mat. It’s great looking and high quality and I love it, but it is very long, which can make table size a concern.

The mat isn’t the only great thing in the MLEM box though, the rest of the components stick out as well. The dice, while they look like they are just standard six-sided dice are actually custom dice, the player boards are nice thick cardboard instead of card, the scoring tokens have great cat toy artwork on them, and the bonus medals look like actual medals that my kids wish they could earn in real life. 

The rulebook is solid, with lots of white space, tons of examples, and a great summary on the back of the book. It’s also short enough that you could probably get away with reading it while the other players punch the cardboard so you can get the game to the table right away. 

How to play MLEM, including rule variants

About to start a game of MLEM Space Agency

You start a game of MLEM Space Agency by rolling out the playmat, giving each player a player board, and eight cat tokens in their preferred colour. The starting player (the last to clean a litter box) gets the rocketship board and the six custom dice.

Place the rocket meeple at the start of the track on the mat and the cosmic failure token at the start of the cosmic failure track, and that’s it. There’s really not a lot of setup here, which is great for playing with kids and impatient gamers.

Each round starts with The Takeoff Phase. This starts with the player with the ship board picking one of their catstronauts to go on the next voyage. The appropriate cat token goes in the top spot on the rocket board which helps remind players who the commander currently is. Then each other player, going around the table clockwise, will contribute one of their cats to the voyage.

When choosing which cat to send players need to be aware of each catstronauts special abilities.

The yellow players board from a game of MLEM

Three of the cats score double points if they land on a matching feature, there’s a 2x point cat for plants, one for moons, and one for deep space.

Then there’s the parachute cat. If the voyage fails and the ship crashes any parachute cats can choose to land at the spot the ship crashed, if there’s room. 

The satellite cat lets your voyage start further up the track on the board, but having multiple satellite cats on the same voyage does nothing, you either have one on board or you don’t.

There’s a plus or minus one cat that can choose to disembark from the ship at the spot the ship is on or at either of the spaces just before or just after that spot.  The 1 pip cat can be used once, as a die with one pip showing. Unlike satellite cats having more than one 1 pip cat on a trip can be useful as each can be used once.

Finally, there’s the nasty lose a die cat. When this cat disembarks, the current captain loses one die for the rest of the voyage, unless they were already on their last die. 

Once all of the cats have boarded you start the Travel Phase. The commander rolls the dice and sorts the results by matching sides. The dice in MLEM are custom dice that include two sides showing two pips, and one side each showing one pip, three pips, four pips, and an afterburner symbol.

The start of a voyage in MLEM

Once the commander has grouped their dice they will compare them to the spot the rocket meeple is currently at on the playmat.

Only dice sets that match what is shown at that space on the mat can be used. Any dice that don’t match should be set aside for the next role. The commander then picks which remaining dice to use. They can use any number of sets from one roll but must use a full set. For example, if you have three twos and you want to use them you have to move six you can’t move only two or four.

Any dice used for movement are then lost, and passed to the next captain to use on their turn. That is except for any afterburners you rolled, you get to use those dice again. The value of each afterburner symbol is based on the spot your ship is at on the cosmic mat.

If none of the dice rolled, including any bonuses, match any of the symbols on the mat at your location, the voyage was a disaster. The cosmic failure marker is moved by one on the track at the bottom of the mat and everyone still on the ship gets their cats back (except those with parachute cats who have the option of landing instead of getting their cat back). 

After each successful roll of the dice, there is a Landing Phase. Here everyone, starting with the captain, gets a chance to disembark their cats.

Deciding where to disembark in MLEM is a big part of the game. Do you get off the shift now or push your luck hoping it will go farther.

Each space on the MLEM board, starting with spot six, connects to either a number of moons or a planet. Each moon shows a number which represents the points a player earns for landing a cat there. Each moon can only hold one cat. Planets on the other hand can hold any number of cats and don’t score until the end of the game where they award points in a majority fashion. 

In addition to moons and planets, the very end of the cosmic mat features two spots representing deep space. If your rocket makes it to deep space the first cat to disembark gets a special reward of seven points and everyone else earns five. Whenever you are collecting points, remember to take into account if a 2x point cat was used, this applies to moons, planets and deep space.

If the current commander disembarks their cat before any of the other players, the next cat in line becomes the new commander. The dice should be passed to the player that owns that cat, who now makes all further dice decisions for that voyage. You don’t pass the ship board when this happens. This is because turn order isn’t affected by the order the catstronauts disembark.

While disembarking their cats, players are also competing to earn medals. There are four of these and they are awarded to the player to first accomplish a specific goal. There’s a medal for having cats on four moons, having cats on four different planets, having three cats on the same planet, and having two cats in deep space. 

The ship is loaded and ready for another voyage in this round of MLEM a push your luck dice game from Reiner Knizia

After each landing phase, the round continues by going back to the Travel Phase with the commander rolling any remaining dice, moving the rocket and moving into a new Landing Phase. This continues until either the ship crashes or the last cat disembarks from the rocket.

After each voyage, successful or not, the ship board is passed clockwise and that player becomes the new commander. This starts a new Takeoff Phase with players picking which cats to load, etc.

The game continues until either a player has played all of their cats, or the cosmic failure token has reached the end of its track, which is eleven spaces long (cats in the future have evolved to have eleven lives instead of nine). Planet points are then awarded and then players total their scores. The player with the most points wins. 

In addition to these basic rules, Rebel Studio has also included three variants for advanced play in the MLEM rulebook. Each of these optional sets of rules adds a bit more strategy and player agency to the game. 

A game of MELM using the UFO variant.

The UFO Variant involves placing a UFO meeple out in deep space, creating a stack of UFO scoring tokens counting down by five, and including a shuffled set of expedition tokens when setting up. At the start of each takeoff phase, the commander will draw the top token off the stack.

Each token will list how far the UFO meeple should be moved towards the bottom of the cosmic mat track, as well as how many dice the commander will get to use this launch and any bonus they receive.

While playing with the UFO Variant you may not always start with six dice, but the bonuses make up for this. They are quite powerful and include things like being able to keep a set of dice after spending them, a free reroll of any number of dice, or sets of virtual dice that can be spent as if you rolled those numbers during a voyage. 

The only other change to the basic MLEM gameplay is that if a commander manages to move the rocket so that it lands in the exact same spot as the UFO, they get to take the top token from the UFO scoring stack.

The next variant, called Explorations, adds a randomized stack of exploration tokens to MLEM. There is one token for almost every spot on the cosmic mat. At the start of the game, you shuffle these, draw five, and place them on the appropriate spots on the board.

A game of MLEM using both the UFO and Explorations variant rules.

During the Travel Phase, if the current commander stops on a spot with an exploration token they get a bonus. The bonuses include gaining one to three points, regaining a die, or warping ahead on the rocket track to a higher spot (where they could claim another token).

After any exploration tokens are claimed they are immediately replaced so that there are always exactly five out on the cosmic mat. That is unless the pile of tokens runs out (which we’ve never had happen).

The final optional rule set in MLEM is called Secret Missions. At the start of the game, each player gets a set of four, random, secret mission tiles. Each of these tiles shows a single moon or planet. To complete a secret mission players need to land one of their cats on the celestial body shown on the tile.

Each player chooses three of the four tiles they were dealt to keep and discards the last one without anyone seeing it. At the end of the game, players are awarded bonus points based on how many of their three secret missions they completed, getting two, five or ten points for one, two, or three completed missions.

MLEM is going to appeal to a broad range of gamers, especially if they dig cats.

My daughter Gwen is the Commander for this round of MLEM

MLEM Space Agency is exactly the kind of game you expect from Reiner Knizia except that it looks as great as it plays. Reiner is known for thinky, math-based games that usually don’t have much of a theme.

The mechanics in MLEM fit his style perfectly. The game is all about rolling dice, figuring out your odds at each step and then deciding if you want to push your luck or not. But remember, this is a family weight game that is good for kids. Those odds aren’t hard to figure out, and you don’t really need to figure them out at all if you want to just chuck some dice and have fun. 

The dice system here is solid and very interesting. By not using standard six-sided dice the odds aren’t what you would expect. The reusable afterburner symbols really mess things up statistically, especially since you can’t use them on every spot on the board. I don’t know how much playtesting Reiner did, but it feels like a lot of thought and time went into deciding what dice sides you can use where.

This leads to a wide variety in how each voyage actually plays out. Some runs you don’t even get far enough to score points, and then, on the next run, you find yourself in deep space even though you totally planned on getting off on the first planet. 

No cats have made it to Deep Space in this game of MLEM Space Agency

The entire system for disembarking and choosing which cats to send each mission is interesting and fun. It leads to an odd mix of semi-cooperative and take that play which I find fascinating. In some turns everyone is all on board with trying to go as far as you can, with everyone rooting for afterburners and encouraging the active player to keep pushing. Other turns have people hoping the ship crashes as soon as possible with players groaning as some lucky rolls mean the voyage lasts longer than they expected. 

The entire system in MLEM gets much more interesting once you start tossing in the optional rules. Each one adds interesting decision points, ways to mitigate bad dice rolls and overall give the players more agency, which is something I greatly appreciate.

I think the average hobby gamer is going to want to toss in all three of the variants to their games of MLEM right away, potentially even in their first game. We all found the game more interesting when it’s not just about trying to go as far as you can. With the variants, the game is more about stopping on specific spots and makes picking which dice set to use a much more difficult decision.

My final score and collection of cat toys at the end of a game of MLEM, a board game about cats in space!

Games using the variants tend to have longer voyages and higher scores and I think that’s a good thing. That said, I do like the fact that the base game is so simple and easy to play and teach, so I’m glad it’s an option as well. 

As for the theme, I couldn’t care less about cats in space and I fully admit I had to look up what MLEM even means. My kids on the other hand were super excited by this game. The only thing they are disappointed by is the fact that Rebel Studio didn’t also send us the BLEP mini-expansion (yes, I had to look that one up too).

As for tying the theme to the mechanics, that’s mainly all done through the art, which is great. I love that the point tokens are all cat toys and that there’s a yarn ball planet and a scratching post planet. Mechanically, this is very much a Knizia game and there isn’t a lot of thematic crossover. Trying to push your luck for rocket launches makes sense, but they could have at least given you nine different cat token types.

Overall I had more fun with MLEM than I expected, especially once tossing in the variant rules. I agreed to review this one for the kids and in that regard I was bang on, they both love it. Both of my kids loved the theme, and they were both easily able to pick up on the mechanics and the probabilities involved. They both enjoy pushing their luck and eagerly awaiting the results of a tense die roll.

My family enjoying MLEM from Rebel Studios

It wasn’t just the kids that took to MLEM. My mother-in-law was particularly smitten with this game, she mentioned it having just the right amount of thinking required. She noted that in MLEM you have to think about what you are doing to play well, but you never have to think too hard. 

Sean, my podcast co-host found MLEM was something he could very much see playing over drinks with friends, especially just the base game, rolling some dice, moving along a track and laughing at what did or didn’t happen.

Something I don’t often talk about during my reviews is the price point on games, but I feel it needs to be called out here. MLEM is ridiculously cheap for what you get. I’ve seen neoprene mats the size of the one in MLEM going for more than the cost of this entire game. Plus, along with that mat you are also getting wooden counters, custom dice, thick cardboard tokens and more. There’s even UV spot coating on the box for those who dig that. 

If you dig push your luck games, especially dice driven ones, you are going to love MLEM. It has that well designed, well developed and well playtested feel of a Knizia game without any real brain burn. You can play it quick and furious or take your time figuring out the odds, and both ways are just as fun. 

The pile of cat toy scoring tokens from the cat themed board game MLEM

MLEM was published with families in mind, and it fits that family game night genre perfectly. It’s very quick to set up and get playing and simple enough to teach and play that even younger kids should get it but it’s also engaging enough with enough hard decisions that even the most experienced hobby gamers can have some fun with it,

If high randomness, push your luck, style games aren’t your jam, you can probably avoid MLEM with a clean consciousness. These style of dice games aren’t for everyone, and even if you play the odds perfectly that doesn’t mean you will come out on top. 

Of course, there are also those people out there that just love cats and will want anything cat themed. For them, all I have to say is that we probably had you at “Cats In Space,” but sleep well knowing that you are getting a solid game as well and not just a cute theme. 

While push your luck style games aren’t among my favourites I have found a few over the years that I do really enjoy. Dead Man’s Draw is one of my favourites and the Bellhop team enjoys the occasional game of Can’t Stop. Now I’ve got MLEM Space Agency to add to that list.

What’s your favourite push your luck style game? Let me know about it in the comments below!

MLEM: Space Agency
  • PUSH YOUR LUCK ADVENTURES: Dive into a light-weight filler game designed by Reiner Knizia, driven by thrilling push your luck mechanics and dice rolling.
  • CATSTRONAUT ROCKET RIDES: Send your catstronauts into space and make crucial decisions about special abilities for each round.
  • RISK OR RETREAT: Choose to aim for outer space or play it safe with the hope that the mission might fail, fueling tension and excitement.
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