I don’t think I’ve published an actual board game review so far in all of 2009. Hopefully, this one will be worth your time to read. There have been many excellent games introduced in the past year. I selected this one for review right now because we’ve been playing it at home recently and I really enjoy exploring and playing this game. It deserves more attention.
This is a review of the board game Ad Astra. It is published in the US by Fantasy Flight Games. Here is the introductory flavor text about the game from the publisher:
In Ad Astra (“To the Stars”), you will guide one of the five factions of future humanity in its exploration of the galaxy. Wield powerful technology; reshape newly discovered planets to give a new home to man; and explore the mysterious relics of a long-lost alien civilization…
Who will be able to create the greatest star-spanning civilization?
The game is designed by Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget. It’s rated for players aged 10 and up, supports 3 to 5 players and takes about 90 minutes. The game retails for around $60 and is available on-line for about $45. As of late November 2009, many on-line stores were out of stock but expecting new game inventory soon. I purchased my copy at a Friendly Local Game Store for full retail. I have also successfully played an unofficial 2-person variant for this game that worked quite well.
Before I discuss how the game plays, let’s begin by looking at what comes in the box.
What’s in the box?
The first thing that will surprise you is that there really is no game board. Well, there is a Scoring / Planning board, we’ll get to that in a bit. Instead, the board is randomly created at the start of the game by placing stars and planets on the table. It will look something like this when it is setup.
Actually, a few turns have already taken place in the picture above, but you can see how the game “board” is intended to work. The stars are placed on the table, and the planets are distributed around them. The number of planets will be between 3 and 7 per star. There are always 9 stars, one of which is “Sol”, or “The Sun”. Here are the different star types.
The players begin at “The Sun” and then explore out to the other stars. At the beginning of the game all the planet tiles are placed face down, except for the planets around the home star system. There are 7 planet types.
There are several stacks of cards with the game, including resource cards, player action cards, and alien artifact cards. The resource cards match the planet types.
The three Ore types have official names in the game, “Xanthium”, “Yoyodium”, and “Zozodium”. We often get the names confused and have resorted to calling them “Graynium”, “Rednium” and “Gold” in the order shown above. The game does a wonderful job of using icons for everything so the actual names have no bearing on game play.
There are 5 sets of Player Action Cards, each with a unique race drawing and color scheme.
There is the Score / Planning board. More about how this works, later.
Each player gets a set of these cool looking plastic components.
The plastic components come in 5 colors: Red, Yellow, Blue, Green, and Gray. These are very “stiff” plastic pieces and feel a bit brittle, especially the starships. We were worried we might break one easily. However twice we have had a piece bumped off the kitchen table and hit the linoleum floor without any damage. Fortunately, the game manufacturer included an extra piece of each type in each color with the game. I’m not sure if they did this in case the owner loses a piece or breaks a piece, but that’s comforting to know.
That’s most the contents. There’s a First Player marker and the Alien Artifacts cards. More on those later.
What’s the game about?
Ad Astra is a game of space exploration and light civilization building. There is no direct conflict, this is not a wargame. As each player advances their race by building Starships, Colonies, Factories and Terraformers on planets they can score points. Since the undiscovered planets are face down, their resource output is unknown until a starship arrives in that planet’s system. Ultimately as each player accumulates victory points, as in many games, it’s really a race to score the most points before the game ends. The game ends when the first player reaches 50 points.
What is interesting about the game is how you have to remain flexible about your winning strategy. Your starting world’s resources are determined randomly and you don’t know where the resources you will need are located amongst the stars. And even though there is no direct conflict between players, what another player does can impact you. Sometimes you even count on it.
With each turn there are varied and sometimes agonizing decisions to make. Makes for a fun game.
Each player chooses one of the 5 colors and collects all their plastic pieces, race Action Cards, and corresponding scoring token. All scoring tokens are placed on the 0 position. There’s also a color coded player aid available for each player. It’s 2 sided. On on side there are useful diagrams explaining the resources needed to build everything and on the other side are detailed texts explaining each of the possible Alien Artifact Cards that a player may discover.
Next the nine stars are placed around the table. It doesn’t matter how they are distributed. The planets need to be distributed after the stars are placed. For the home system, “Sol”, there needs to be one planet for each player. Each player randomly selects a resource planet and places it face up around “Sol”. They place one of their Factories on it. If an Alien Planet is pulled as a starting planet it is discarded back to the random stack and the player chooses again. It is possible for more than one player to have the same starting planet type.
Now the rest of the planets are distributed amongst the other stars. They are placed face down and are placed with 3 to 7 planets to each star. Every planet must be placed.
The game comes with 2 “optional” Alien Artifact cards: “Omnibus Rebus Responsum” (The Answer to Everything – a salute to “The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) and “Magnum et Antiquum Arcanum” (Great Old Secret). These 2 cards can sometimes change the game ending conditions a little wildly, so the developers included a note that they were optional. I have yet to include them in a game so I cannot speak about their impact or value. The Alien Artifact cards are shuffled. The Resource Cards are organized into stacks and one of each kind is given to every player. Every player begins the game with 1 each of all 6 resource types.
Finally, each player places one of their starships out in deep space (anywhere on the table that’s not a planet or star). The players choose a starting player and give that person the First Player token.
Since this is a review, I want to point out that the First Player token is a cardboard chit about the size of a penny. In the picture of the box contents shown earlier, it’s that tiny little red chit sitting by itself in one of the box insert compartments. It looks so out of place compared to the rest of the components. Needing to rectify this situation, I purchased a small plastic space ship figure that could be used as a First Player token instead. Here’s a picture.
It’s a piece from a Star Wars miniatures game. This particular one is Palpatine’s Shuttle. I purchased it from a Friendly Local Game Shop and selected it because of the sharp angles on the piece – they look consistent with the rest of the designs in Ad Astra. I believe I paid around $3 for this piece, so you may not choose to do something similar.
Anyway, it’s just “feels right” to pass this token to a player when they are going to be First Player next round.
While I’m commenting on game components, I need to say that I think the artwork and pieces are great. Even the rule book is first rate – quite typical for Fantasy Flight Games. It’s full of examples and diagrams and it continues with the space exploration, galactic civilization theme with it’s artwork. I do believe the player aid could be improved upon. There’s not quite enough information on each once to make playing quick for beginners. Fortunately there are several fan-made player aids available on the Board Game Geek web site. My current favorite player aid to use is by Sterling Babcock (nick: Solamar) and can be found here.
There is one other very interesting quality about the rule book that deserves attention. Included along the left side column of pages in the rule book are a series of notes about the game designers. They are calling this the “Nexus Design Series”. Within these notes, the game’s designers are introduced, including a game ludography for each one. If you’re a fan of these designers, or maybe new to them, it’s wonderful to read something about the designers who created the game you are playing. It’s also amazing to me that the notes includes descriptions of other games by the same designers. What’s amazing about that to me was that several of the referenced game titles are produced by competing game publishers. For example, Mystery of the Abbey, a wonderful game also designed by Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget , is published by Days of Wonder. As a fan of these “Euro” board games, I was happy to have this additional background information about these designers. Well done.
Playing the Game
Okay, we’re all setup. How does the game play?
Ad Astra is played in rounds, with each round divided into 2 phases: Planning and Action. At the end of the round a check is made to see if someone has won, and if not another round resumes. Players also need to ensure they do not have an excess of 10 Resource Cards at the end of the round. The player having the First Player token is always the start player in each round. That token can change hands between the players multiple times within a round.
Each player will secretly review his own Action Cards and decide which ones he will use this round. The cards are placed face down, by player turn order, on the Score / Planning board. If there are 3 or 4 players, the slots numbered 1 through 12 are used. With 5 players, all 15 slots are used. Here’s an interesting game mechanic, the players can place their card on any open slot on the Score / Planning board. This does not have to be the earlier slots. In fact, as we will see soon, sometimes it’s advantageous that your Action Card goes on the last or later open slots. Once all the players have placed their Action Cards the planning phase ends and the action phase begins.
When the Action Phase commences, each card on the Planning Board is revealed and resolved one at a time. Everyone in the game gets to participate in the action the card defines. Also, the player who played the card, identified by the race color of the card, gets a special “benefit” from the card.
To understand what’s going on here we obviously need to review the Action Cards. Here’s a typical set.
Note, every player has the same kinds of Action Cards, but the details on some of the cards are different by design. Let’s look over a few cards carefully first.
This is a Production Card. During the Action Phase this card will cause resources to be produced. There are 2 resources identified on this card: “Water” and “Yoyodium” (aka “Rednium”). The person who owns the card can choose which one of these two will actually be produced. There’s a faint grey line between the two resources, indicating the player must choose one. Players having production units on planets producing the selected resource type will receive resources.
You can see one strategy here is to ensure the resource you choose benefits you the most. The other resource types are found on the remaining Production Cards the player has. Here’s the interesting twist. While everyone will have a Production Card that has Water and Yoyodium, they will not likely appear together on anyone else’s card.
This is a Movement Card. It specifies which star systems are available for entry. Note that there are icons for 2 star systems on the card. In this case there is no grey line. Both system are active. However, as with the Production Card, the mix of which two star systems is not the same for all players’ Movement Cards. In fact the interesting twist here is that for any given player they will have movement cards for only 6 of the 8 other star systems in the game. That is, they can only choose 6 systems with their card. They are dependent on another player choosing the “missing” systems for them to have access.
We’ll go over other details about these Action Cards when we review the Action Phase. The important concept here is that everyone has the same set of Action Cards for planning, but the mix between them is different.
One by one each Action Card is revealed and resolved with the person owning the card gaining an added benefit. Let’s briefly review each Action Card.
We’ve touched on this one already. For the card shown, the player can decide between Water or Xanthium. If a player has a unit that produces on a planet of this type, that resource is added to the player’s hand.
If a Starship or Colony is present, 1 resource is produced (for each). If a Factory is present, 2 resources are produced. Because of building rules it is not possible to have both a Factory and Colony on the same planet. However it is possible for a planet to contain both a Starship and a Factory. In this case, 3 resources of the selected kind are produced.
This card was also described previously. For the card shown, both the small red star and yellow spiral star are activated and can be visited by the players. The player that owns the card moves 1 Starship to either star system first. Note, a player can choose to simply move out to deep space instead with any Movement Card action. After the owning player moves their Starship, the other players in clockwise order around the table may also move 1 Starship to either star system.
The benefit the owner of the card gets comes in last. The owner may then move all other Starships they may have on the board to these selected systems.
There is one aspect to movement that’s a little tricky to get right for new players. Movement costs Energy Resources. It breaks down line this. When moving a Starship from deep space to any star system, there is no Energy cost. To move from a planet out to deep space costs 1 Energy. If your starship is already on a planet and wants to move to another planet within the same star system, it costs 1 Energy. However, if you want to leave the planet you are on to go to a planet on another star system, it costs 2 energy.
If the player does not have sufficient Energy Resources they may not be able to move.
No two players can ever be on the same planet. When a Starship first enters a given star system, the player secretly examines each face down planet to decide where they may want to land. Once chosen, that planet is flipped face up so everyone can see it.
If it is an Alien Planet, the player immediately receives an Alien Artifact Card. The planet is turned face up. If the player visits an already face-up Alien Planet they do not receive an Alien Artifact Card. A player can build a colony or factory on an Alien Planet but it does not produce resources. There are some scoring benefits for building there however. Alien Artifacts Cards details follow below.
This is how a player adds items to planets and creates new Starships. When this card comes up, the owning player begins by building oneitem. It can be anything that can be paid for. Each of the different items have a schedule describing the resources required on the player aid.
After the owning player builds one unit, each other player in clockwise order around the table may build one item. After the other players complete their portion of the Build Action, the owning player is permitted to build any additional units desired, provided enough resources exist.
The Starships, when built are placed in deep space. This has the benefit of being able to land on a planet in a later Movement Action without spending any Energy Resources.
A Colony can only be built where you have a Starship. Colonies produce goods on the planet.
A Factory can only be built where a Colony already exists. Once built, the Colony is returned to the player’s supplies and can be used again.
Terraformers have restrictions on where they can be built. They can only be built on either a water or food planet. When Terraformers are built they score immediate points as a bonus.
Resources are kept secret in a player’s hand unless this card is played. The owner of the card is the only one permitted to perform a trade action. However, the first step is that all players must reveal their resource cards on the table face-up. The owner of the trade card can then negotiate a deal with any of the other players. The other players are not required to agree to the trade. The owning player can also trade with the bank at a 2 to 1 ratio. That is, for example, the player can trade 2 Water Resources for 1 Energy Resource. Trading between the other players is not permitted.
Scoring Action Cards
Each player has 3 different Scoring Action Cards.
When these are played, the owner of the card gets to decide what gets scored.
The first card shows having a Terraformer icon on one side and a stars icon on the other. If the player chooses Terraformer, then all Terraformers are scored for all players, giving 3 points for each one in the game. The player having the most Terraformers gets an added 3 point bonus. If the player chooses Star Systems (the other icon), the players score 1 point for each system they have a presence in. The player having the most systems also gets a 3 point bonus.
The second card shows a choice between Colonies / Factories, and Starships. If the Colonies / Factories is selected, players score 1 point for each Colony and 2 points for each Factory. The player scoring the most gets a 3 point bonus. If the Starships are scored, players get 2 points for each Starship in play. The player scoring the most for Starships also scores a 3 point bonus.
The third card shows two choices again. The first choice has an X / X, and the second choice shows an X / Y. The scoring proceeds a little different for this Score Action Card. Ordinarily, when a Scoring Action Card is played, the owning player scores first, then in turn going around the table, the other players score. For this card, the player to the left of the owner scores first, rotating around the table with the owner scoring last. The reason this is done is do that the owner has an opportunity to score an advantage. Here’s how the X / X and X / Y scores are calculated. If X / X is chosen by the owning player, the first player to the left looks at the resource cards they are holding and decides how many identical resource cards they are willing to discard. 1 point is awarded for each resource discarded. This continues to the next player who then decides which identical resources they would like to discard, 1 point per card. Eventually it comes back around to the owning player and that player makes the same decision. And just like for the other Scoring Action Cards, whichever player scored the most points gets a 3 point bonus. Now it becomes clear why going last is an advantage. When it comes back around to the owning player to discard they can evaluate the highest count of identical resources witnessed discarded by the other players. If they are able to they can discard just 1 more to get the 3 point bonus.
The X / Y Scoring Action Card gives points for each different resource that a player discards. Again, the owning player goes last and whomever scored the most gets a 3 point bonus.
When a Scoring Action Card is played, the owner of the card immediately gets the First Player token. They will be the first person to place an Action Card on the Planning Board in the next round. It is possible for another player to also play a Scoring Action Card later in the round. In this way the First Player token can move between players within a round. This is one of the reasons a player may choose to place a face down Action Card on the last available planning slot during the Planning Phase.
One other rule about Scoring Action Cards. At the end of a round, the players gets back all the cards they placed. The exception is Scoring Cards. A player’s Scoring Action Cards are set aside until all three of that players’ cards have been played. Only then will the player get the Scoring Action Cards back into their hand.
There are a few things we do when we play that may fall under house rules. One of the rules we use, and it’s not stated explicitly in the official rules, is that a player is permitted to peek at the face-down planets in any system where they already have a presence. I don’t prefer to make this a game about memorization. Since the player has presumably already examined all the planets in a star system when they first arrived there, and if they placed a Colony, Factory, or Terraformer on a planet there, or if they still have a Starship parked on a planet, we allow the player to peek again to help remember what other planet types are present.
Related to the assistance with memory, we’ve even taken to allowing a player to peek at his face down Action Cards on the Planning Board after they are placed. Sometimes you just forget. The only thing your not permitted to do is change a card once placed.
The last variant to discuss here is how we accomplish a 2-player game. It’s surprisingly fun. We reduce the number of places on the Planning Board to 8, giving each player 4 cards to place. The next tweak is to allow better trading options when there are only 2 players. We build a small deck of resource cards, seeding with 4 of each resource, shuffled. This small Trade deck is placed face down and the player may do a 1 for 1 trade against this blind deck as an additional option. Lastly, there is a special consideration when working with only 2 players that impacts setup. Since not all player colors can “reach” all 8 external star systems, we need to be sure that the 2 races used cover all 8 between them. I found that using the Red and Yellow races covers this nicely.
Obviously, I quite enjoy this game. It’s a nice blend of several modern Euros. The game reminds me of Starfarers of Catan, Race for the Galaxy, and a bit of Warrior Knights. It’s not difficult to learn, but I would rate this in difficulty as being a little steeper than a gateway game like Ticket To Ride. It usually takes a full round for things to sink in. And I also believe that the game offers a lot of potential for trying out different strategies. In fact, I think that new players will not often discover what it takes to play with whatever you were given at the start of the game. Experience helps enjoying the game.
I recently once played a game, for example, without ever having a single planet that produces Energy. Yet it’s easy to believe that unless you find Energy Resources early in the game you will lose. Not true.
Another strategy that is often not obvious upon initial plays, is how to anticipate what the other players are doing and playing successful Scoring Action Cards early and often.
Although the game is rated to play in around 90 minutes, it’s been my experience that you should plan on 2 hours per game until enough experience develops with the gaming group.
High points for me are theme, replay ability and the wonderful opportunities for indirect player interaction that is quite subtle and sometimes abrupt. The components are first rate. The rule book is well written and, considering the higher prices of many newer board games nowadays, I think it’s another good value.
For me the downsides are that there can be some analysis paralysis. When players are in the planning phase this can sometimes happen. I’ve also seen AP during the Trade Action, while a player evaluates exactly what best to do.
Another downside for me is kinda silly, but I think that First Player Token is out of whack. Obviously, I resolved my frustration by purchasing a fancy miniature to use instead.
And lastly, out of the box, the game is designed for only 3 to 5 players. I would like to have seen rules making it possible to play with only 2 persons without any special variants.
I also think it would be possible to have expansions for this game in the future. Here’s hoping that happens.
Ultimately, “Ad Astra” gets a nice thumbs up from me.