Ad Astra (a game review)

I like games.  It should be readily apparent to everyone who knows me.  And I figure that one of the best ways to distinguish this blog from most every other novel writer’s blog is to exploit that.  And if I should happen to enlighten the general public on this terrifically underrated and oft misunderstood hobby, so much the better.

So today, I’m going to review Ad Astra (“To the Stars” in Latin) from Fantasy Flight Games.  ( http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/edge_minisite.asp?eidm=81&enmi=Ad%20Astra )  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.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good Write,

Lee

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