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Subject: Starfall - A good, classic 4X game rss

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Steve Bernhardt
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STARFALL

Designer: J. Stephen Peek
Publisher: Yaquinto Publications, Inc.
Year: 1979
# Players: 1-4

Components:

1 - Mapboard with 36 quadrants
2 - 120 counters for each of 4 players.
3 - 80 counters representing neutral systems and starfall points.
4 - 4 Operations Sheets
5 - Game tables card
6 - Log sheet pad
7 - 2 dice (one red, one white)
8 - Rulebook
9 - Large, flat game box with a countertray inside.
10 - 4 player screens

The components are nice for the time. The counters are the standard Yaquinto thick counters, which make them easy to handle. The gameboard quite good, as it is made out of heavy cardstock and lays flat. The operations sheets and screens are plain, but functional. The artwork in this game is minimal, but it has very evocative cover art. I like the counter art, but could easily see how people would think it is rather bland. The rulebook is set up in an unconventional way and is initially confusing. Once you realize that half the rulebook is examples of play and get used to utilizing the excellent table of contents, it becomes easy to navigate.

Gameplay:

Each player is the leader of a starfaring race tasked with expanding their empire. There are several scenarios included in the game, with multiple set-ups and victory conditions. These include starting with a single star system and some ships or starting with several systems. Victory conditions typically involve colonizing and developing 10 systems or being the player with the most resource points at the end of the game.

The board is big, with 36 quadrants. Each quadrant has 6 sub-sectors with 6 hexes in each sub-sector. Because of the size of the board, and the relative slowness of the starships, Starfall points must be discovered to rapidly move around the universe. These are black holes that that have a "focus" point in another random sector on the board.

There are five types of ships in the game; Military Infinity, Development Infinity, Explorer Infinity, Development Pi and Military Pi ships. The Infinity ships are very expensive and take several turns to build, but they are necessary because they are the only ships that can jump through Starfall points. The Pi ships are slower and are not allowed to leave the quadrant that they were built in. The one exception to this is Military Pi ships can be carried by the Military Infinity ships through Starfall points. The Pi ships are generally used to develop worlds in partially colonized quadrants while the Infinity ships jump ahead to the next quadrant. The Military Pi ships lack the combat power of the Military Infinity ships, but act as a deterrent and sector defense. They are also useful to take losses in campaigns against other players.

Exploration is fairly simple; the Exploration ships range about, searching hexes for either Starfall points or systems. This is done by consulting a chart and counting how many systems or starfall points there in the area. A single die roll tells you if you found anything. Once a system is found, the die rolling begins! Rolls are done with 2 six sided dice. The red die is the first digit, the white die is the second. Here is an example:

Roll on discovery table..... 53, a standard system!
Roll on system type/compatability table.....43, Arid 6. Not bad, close to my race's habitability.
Roll on resource points table....23, 2 resource points. Yuk. (a homeworld usually has 12)
Roll on lifeform type ARID.....52, Avians! If there was no life, you stop all this die rolling.
Roll on lifeform hostility table....34, +1. They are a bit hostile to me.
Roll on lifeform aggression table...14, +2. Hmm, they are a bit warlike.
Roll on tech level/system defense....65, +1/3. Lower tech than me (players are +5), about 19th century man. They have some defenses.

What does this discovery mean? I found a fairly habitable world with low resource potential. It is inhabited by avians who dont like me and have some technology and a standing military. To colonize this place I will need to send military ships to reduce their defenses and then send development ships to make it "just like home." Their defenses will probably cost me some Pi ships and maybe an Infinity ship if I am unlucky....

Discovering systems and deciding if what it will take and if this expenditure of resources is worth it is the heart of the game. This seems like a lot of die rolling, and some think it is tedious, but I never found that to be the case. Most planets don't have life, and when they do, rolling the bones is quite fun as you figure out their capabilities.

Because combat is deadly, and ships are expensive, bluffing about your intentions is very important. There are fleet counters in play so that you can hide the strength and composition of your fleets. The individual ships are placed on the operations sheets and hidden behind a screen. Dummy fleets are a good way to keep your opponent guessing.

The game flows like most other 4X games; you start with little, you explore, colonize and defeat neutral races. Once you get near, or come into contact with player races, you feint and possibly attack if given the opportunity. It is a balance of maximizing your economic efforts while using your military wisely to hinder your opponents.

Conclusion:

I still really like this game, and plan to pull it out a few times this summer. I am not a game collector, but find myself holding on to space empire type games more than others. I consider Starfall to be one of the best, and even look forward to playing it more than much more modern, chrome-laden sci-fi games. This game is also one of the rare games that is fun solo. There is a scenario in which enemy fleets are rampaging around the galaxy which can be easily modified to be a good solitare experience. Because the logsheets allow easy record-keeping, this is also a game well-suited for email.





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Darrell Hanning
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Re: Starfall
Steve, nice review. I always had a fondness for this game, too (which is why I won't let go of it) - particularly in comparison to newer efforts. In contrast, it seems to just get better.

TI3, for instance, might have eye candy, and some interesting subsystems lodged into it sideways, but for me Starfall satisfies more of my interests in this kind of game than TI3 does.
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Brad Miller
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Yep, totally agree. I haven't been able to part with mine either. Sooo much bookeeping, and slow, but a cool game.
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Brendan Casey
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Steve
Very good review, also it's good to hear there are other afficionados out there. I'm guessing some of your readers have probably come across my computer based version of this game. I started writing it back around 1986 mainly as a record keeping program for playing the game, but it evolved from there, alas not fast enough to keep up with computer evolution. The program can still be downladed the interface is of my own design and so may take a bit to get used to, but it is logically designed just expect a learning curve for new users. The main drawback to it is it's a Dos based program. I've stopped updating it for the most part. Good ideas still sometimes do get incorporated. It supports direct cable play between two computers,Modem play, it has a computer opponent, And also has automated routines that the human players can use if desired.
I realize this is no longer a board game I'm talking about, but I've found the computerized version takes the game to heights barely glimpsed
in the board game version. With the computer to crunch the die rolls and data entry the players are freed to experiment with maximizing techniques as their empires develop. The other nice aspect is that the game scales up well, the battles and strategic demands are equally fascinating when your military strength is around 100 combat points as when it is at one hundred thousand combat points.
The last year I've started learning MS Windows Visual Basic, and have begun to rewrite the program in order to bring it into this millenium. I've only just begun and am learning the language still as I write, so it's a slow process, but I feel what I learned the first time around can be helpful in creating a good realistic computer based version of this game to inspire a new generation of space interested strategists.
Comments welcome!

http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bcasey/starfall.html

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Was George Orwell an Optimist?
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Well done, Steve. I always enjoy seeing reviews that show appreciation for the older titles that have fallen off the radar.
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Tony Watson
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Nice review. Thanks.

I was big into empire-building SF games in the '70s and '80s, so I got an early copy of this one. I liked it well enough, but it was a tad slow and a bit clunky. In many ways though, its state of the art for this type of game at that time.

The multiple tables for rolling up worlds added detail as well as playing time. And, as I recall, the game could develop rather slowly, depending on how the map and starfall points fell out.It proved much easier to get three other guys to game away a Sunday afternoon on Stellar Conquest than Starfall.
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Dave Rolfson
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Nice review. Makes me wish I'd bought the copy I found while thrifting. But I may still get to play it as my brother thrifted it a couple days later (without knowing I'd seen it).
 
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Craig Davidson
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I recently found a copy of this game from a local op-shop. It was in good condition, with the majority of the counters still unpressed and accounted for. I only had to pay $1.50AU (Just over $1US) for the game, and given all this praise I saw in this forum for the game, and the fact that one eBay seller is selling it for over sixty dollars American, it's money well spent!
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