I’ve had the pleasure of sitting with my friend, co-worker and business associate Alain and his brother for a night of StartCraft : The Board Game.
Lets skip analyzing the packaging (pretty & impractical) or the material (very nice – lots of figures, good quality).
We jumped right ahead at going through the rules book – it took us roughly 30-40 minutes for us to be able to start wrapping our heads around the concept.
Its not that the rules are overly complex, but there are many of them and the rules are not organized in a way that seemed to work the same way our brains does – and we’re used to sifting through technical data.
In fact, I couldn’t help referring to the rules book as the « specs book », as I felt like I was sitting in front of a client who was trying his best to tell me what he wanted his software to do!
When we got the gist of the basics, we dug in head first: we each chose a faction out of the six available factions, drew planets, prepared our starting units, built the space map and were on our way.
Playing the game itself is nice – you get an elegant RTS feel: every turn your workers gather resources from the territory you control (either crystals, gas or victory points). With the resources, you can upgrade your buildings, build new units or purchase technology to upgrade your existing units.
Giving commands to your units is done using a game mechanic that holds some pretty sweet strategic action:
Each player can issue one hidden command (either build, move or research) on a planet. Players can issue commands on the same planet – in which case the commands « stack ». When every one issued 4 commands, we start resolving them.
Here’s the cute catch : stacked commands are issued in reverse order than they were placed. In other words : last in, first out. (Lets call it a « LIFO Command Stack » and keep the tech-head in me happy)
It gets better : commands are resolved one by one, player by player – meaning that it is possible you don’t have a playable command (an opponent’s command stacked on yours blocking you) – while the fluff doesn’t make any sense, the strategies you can use to delay opponents were quite entertaining and satisfying.
Combat was interesting – its a mellow deck-building concept. You have a « combat deck » from which you draw cards to build you hand. These cards give stats to your units (simple attack vs defense) and can also contains technologies to boost your units.
I say « mellow », because you can’t really choose the cards you use other than by adding technologies. The rules variation are not many and there is no way to thin the deck. Basically, you won’t play with deck statistics as you would in Magic The Gathering or Dominion.
I probably should call it « hand building » – you can manage to draw a lot of cards during your turn – always having to drop down to 6 cards at the end of the round. This is how you can plan your attack slowly and build your hand – and not your deck.
While the system is fairly simple and enjoyable, it seems to be biased in favor of the attacker. Since the attacker decide which creatures attack which creatures, he’s the only one that has a chance of grouping his units together against his enemy. Combined wit the fact that equals attack and defense scores means the attacker wins – so it ends up being much easier to attack than defend… good for the Zerg’s natural strategy and less so for the Protoss…
Passage of time
The game time is limited by a « timer » and lasts only up to three « eras ». The eras are made out of a stack of cards, all containing joyous events that happen at the end of a round.
During the game, if you cannot do one of your commands because you are blocked, or if you choose to cancel a command, you can draw an « event card » – but you can’t look at it! You also get event cards when you do research.
Event cards trigger the change of eras – once you’ve used all of the first era’s cards, you move on to the second era, then third, in which the end of the game can be triggered – one of the ends, that is, as there are multiple victory conditions through which the game can be ended.
The basic winning condition is the first player that achieves 15 victory points (which you get at the end of a round, depending on the victory point zones you control).
Every faction (2 per race) also has its own « special victory condition » – which is where the whole thing started falling apart for us.
They all seemed benign at first: you win if, at any time during era 3 you have 3 bases. Another wins if he controls 6 resource zones during era 3. Another one, if he controls more zones than any enemy during era 3, etc. etc.
Every faction as a condition to meet during era 3 (except mine – I’ll get to that later).
Problem is : all players but one easily realizes his victory conditions within 3-4 turns… way before we get to era 3. So as soon as we turn era 3, we’ve got a tie.
My winning conditions
I like to play play the underdog. I always build a bard or something similar. If someone says a class is unplayable, I’ll play it (Bothan Noble? Really?). So, I jumped at the only race that didn’t have an « era 3 » condition.
My victory condition: every opponents need 20 victory points instead of 15 to win. you win when two « the end is near » cards are played… which, I didn’t know at the time, is the condition for the end game.
You see, « End is near » cards are only found during era 3 – at which point all of my opponents have already completed their victory conditions.
And I don’t think we ever passed the 10 points mark before 2 players meeting their conditions.
Game time : We played only 2 games so far and the second one took nearly 2 hours.
Learning curve : Steep. The 1st game took roughly 5 hours. If we had a learned player teaching us (or better rules), it could have taken us half that time.
Balancing : Either we missed something important, or the « special victory conditions » should be completely dropped. They killed the game for me.
Enjoyment: The game itself (sans the victory conditions) is very enjoyable.
We’ll have to play it a few more times to see if I’d bother shelling the money for it (it nears 100$ around here!).
We’ll consider letting the victory conditions go and just use the points system the next time and enjoy the true RTSiness of the game.