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Subject: A Galaxy Conquering Game Without the Conquering rss

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Alex Martinez
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Yes, it's another FFG game. And I do love these folks. Almost every game they've published since the late, great Discwars has been fantastic. Although I'm not a fan of Cosmic Encounters, a game I find thoroughly unremarkable. But even that is technically a classic and most every other game player seems to really love it, so I'll try not to hold it against FFG.

The theme of Ad Astra is that far in the future, humanity has evolved into 5 different species. These species, with their common background, are still basically in harmony. This is not a game of cosmic war, and that's one of the things I find refreshing. Your goal is to spread throughout the universe and create the most vibrant, successful civilization. But you can do this best by cooperating with your fellow players. And, while it's true your competing for resources and status, aggressive action like attacking your opponents just isn't possible. (I really love the idea that in the future, humanity will be civilized enough that blowing each other up isn't our first response to problem solving.)

Ad Astra has some truly unique ideas. For one thing, the game doesn't take place on a traditional board. Instead, the universe is spread out as groups of larger discs (the systems) surrounded by smaller discs (representing the planets in that system). This not only allows the universe to be different every game, but allows a nifty cusomizability for how the universe is laid out.

Another nifty aspect is that players don't take turns like in a traditional board game. Instead, they start by taking turns playing down cards on a track. When the track is filled, the action round begins. The cards are resolved in order, from first to last. It's entirely possible for one player to take several turns in a row, although with every card revealed, everyone gets to do something.

Sound complicated? Trust me, it's much simpler than it sounds. And here's an example:

Production Cards produce resources. Every Production Card lists two resources on it. When the card is revealed, whoever played the Production Card picks one of those resources. All players who can gain that resource do so. So while the player who owns the card determines what is produced, other players can benefit from it. In fact, if there's a shortage of a certain resource, it's not impractical to use one of your own Production choices to produce a resource you don't even have, just to get more of it in the game.

Trade is another interesting action. A player who has played a Trade Card can trade with any other player or the bank. The bank is sort of a default trader, able to transform two of any of the same resource into a single resource of any type. But it's often more cost effective to trade with your opponents, giving them something you have too much of for something you really need.

Your Build Card allows you to build as many colonies / spaceships / terraforming stations as you can afford on your turn. Your opponents can build too, but only one thing, regardless of their resources.

This dynamic means that an effective player who guesses what his opponents plan on doing can really make the most of his turn. However, there's also a gamble there because if you assume that your opponents have laid a build order somewhere down the line, so you've used your actions to place Production Cards only to discover no Build is coming can lead to a delay in what you're planning to do. (Although you still get the resources, so it's not like you're completely screwed.)

And this is what makes Ad Astra such a fascinating game experience. There's no "bad" moves, no "game over" decisions. Every decisions comes with its own risks and rewards, and even if you aren't playing as effectively as you can, you aren't going to sink like a stone while your opponents' soar into universal glory.

This is, however, one of Ad Astra's weaknesses if you're playing with the wrong group. Since every decision, every action, has negative and positive consequences, players who want clear and obvious decisions might have a hard time deciding what to do sometimes. You might try to monopolize the food supply in the galaxy, but it will be at the cost of resource variety. You might decide to explore the remnants of a long lost alien civilization, gaining powerful artifacts but relying much more on other players for your resources. You might decide to build the biggest fleet in the universe in order to get your feet wet in every system on the board, but it'll be at the cost of establishing a strong colonial presence elsewhere. Simply put, each of these strategies (and more) are possible winning strategies. And for many players who are used to straightforward victory conditions (kill all your opponents, get the most cash, stomp your opponent's monster into dust), this could be a bit overwhelming.

Nevertheless, Ad Astra is a unique and interesting game, thoroughly engaging, and fast-paced. If you're reluctant to buy a civilization building game as too cerebral or dull, you might find Ad Astra changing your mind. But at an asking price of $60, it might be a bit too big an investment for a non-gamer looking for an entryway game. Or maybe not.

For this game at least, it's a great addition to my library. And seeing how I own too many games already, that's saying something.

FOOTNOTE: The game is listed as a 3-5 player game. When I first played, I played with only 2, and it didn't seem imbalanced. However, a 3rd player joined us after only a few rounds, so I can't tell for sure. However, I do think some simple house rules would allow for a successful 2 player game. The only change I made for my 2 player version was to keep the total actions in a round down to 8 instead of 12, and it seemed to work.
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mojo shivers
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The only other possible drawback for 2 players would be the fact 2 systems might be missing from the game due to the player decks.
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Alex Martinez
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Good catch on that system thing. An easy fix would be simply to remove any systems beyond the players' reach and just redistibute the planets that might go there.
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Don Alexander
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You say that you don't lie Cosmic Encounter, and your very next paragraph starts with:
Quote:
Ad Astra has some truly unique ideas. For one thing, the game doesn't take place on a traditional board.


Just an observation. I know this doesn't mean you should like CE, but it does not make Ad Astra unique.


For the record, I love Cosmic Encounter, and I love Ad Astra.
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Gordon Adams
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I am that it is not for two players.

Well, maybe, just maybe, there might be a chance for a variant.

Regards.
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Alex Martinez
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MainManDetroit wrote:
You say that you don't lie Cosmic Encounter, and your very next paragraph starts with:
Quote:
Ad Astra has some truly unique ideas. For one thing, the game doesn't take place on a traditional board.


Just an observation. I know this doesn't mean you should like CE, but it does not make Ad Astra unique.


For the record, I love Cosmic Encounter, and I love Ad Astra.


Good point. It's true that, in this respect, Cosmic Encounter and Ad Astra have something in common. When I said unique, I really meant "rare and unsual". There's nothing truly unique under the sun, I think we can all agree.

And while I don't "get" Cosmic Encounter, I didn't mean to imply that Ad Astra is the anti-Cosmic Encounter. Sorry if I gave that impression. There's no reason someone can't like both games.
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Ed Browne
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Good review. I like this game too. It is a unique euro-style game with one of my favorite themes--space exploration.

The rules are a little intimidating, but if you get past that, it is easy to play and plays fairly quickly. I haven't wrapped my mind around the strategy of where to place orders, rather than placing them one at a time, in a line, but that hasn't kept me from enjoying the game a lot.

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Wade Broadhead
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Never paid much attention to this until just now: this sounds pretty cool! Thanks.
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Jason Pott
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Good review. My wife is a fan of Euro-games (Catan, Shogun, Domain)--& I love sci-fi themed board games (T.I., RftG, StarCraft, Android), along with Euro--so I believe she'll be into Ad Astra. It could be the first sci-fi themed game she'll like. Thanks for convincing me. I think I'll pick up a copy.
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Jason Kossowan
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KingCroc wrote:
Good catch on that system thing. An easy fix would be simply to remove any systems beyond the players' reach and just redistibute the planets that might go there.


This would likely cause too many planets to orbit a single star and throw game balance off.
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Alex Martinez
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It didn't seem to disrupt game balance when I did it recently. I always try to distribute the planets as evenly as possible. If one or two systems end up with an extra planet, it doesn't seem like a gamebreaker. The balance of this game isn't so delicate that something like this will destroy it.
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Adam Hoffman
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Oh, what sad times are these when passing ruffians can say Ni at will to old ladies. There is a pestilence upon this land; nothing is sacred. Even those who arrange & design shrubberies are under considerable economic stress in this period in history
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Good review, I just played this tonight and you captured the essence of the game very well. However, I'm not sure how you avoided making the comparison to Settlers of Catan. Yes, it's much more than Settlers, especially with the very dynamic action selection, but the comparison seems inescapable.
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Alex Martinez
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I avoided the comparison because I've never played Settlers of Cataan.
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Dan Drontle
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A better approach for a two player game might be to simply remove 1-2 planets of every time in addition to the two suns the players can't reach. How many planets do two players need to explore, anyway?
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