Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The 8'th Wonder: "Among The Stars"

The cream of the crop at last Wednesday's game night was, without a doubt, Among the Stars.

Here's the game's elevator pitch right from the creators:

"After a devastating war, peace is declared among all the major races of the galaxy and an Alliance is created. One of the first decisions of the newly formed Alliance, is to build massive space stations all along the galaxy in order to promote trade among the races, strengthen diplomatic relations and help protect the newly established peace.

"Each player takes the role of one of those races, trying to build the best space station. The game is played over 4 rounds, each comprising 6 turns. At the end of the game the player who has built the most efficient Station and has scored the most points, is the winner." 

Looking to avoid Ikea-like levels of assembly frustration?  Nip on over to the Artipia Games website and have a boo at their instruction manual.

Even after playing two games each of Tsuro of the Seas and Star Fluxx we still had plenty of time left over to tackle this card-draftin', tile-placin',  7 Wonders-evokin', space-station-buildin' toolkit.  

(FULL DISCLOSURE ALERT: we played game minus the twelve "Conflict Cards")

THE ROLES

Andrew...Minireen (Red)
Chad...Zehuti (Green)
Me...Qualeen (Blue)

Given the Qualeen's Racial Ability to draw an additional secret Objective, I decided to opt for a Military Objective since (A) it seemed to match one of the three face-up Objectives and (B) that particular development track looked fairly straightforward.

I quickly branched out from my Main Power Reactor with a cumulative Turret and an Alliance Fleet Base, giving me a quick points surge for having more Military then Diplomatic Locations.  Since these two acquisitions drained my initial allotment of Energy Cubes, I quickly began construction on a new Power Reactor as well as a Backup to re-juice my primary generator.  

After tacking on a Fighter Landing Bay for seven big Victory Points I was forced to shoe-horn an unwanted Holographic Display Area into my base after a disappointing Location Draft.  That's when I realized, to my horror, that the face-up Red Objective that my endgame depended on was actually a Purple Recreation Objective!  As it turns out, Andrew was laboring under the very same misunderstanding.  For a little while both of us just kinda sat there, trying to remember the last time we'd updated our prescriptions.  

At the mid-game mark I was still out ahead in Victory Points with Andrew a close second and Chad a distant third.  Instead of panicking I took some definitive steps to try and secure the Blue Administrative Objective.  Using fuel from a brand new Power Reactor, I quickly built a symbiotic Medical Facility, a stackable Crew's Quarters and Pilot Training Area which was nicely buffed by the adjacent Landing Bay.

Paranoid that Chad and Andrew were constructing more "interconnected facilities", I made a conscious effort to follow suit.  After doubling down on a second Alliance Fleet Base, I tapped my third Power Reactor to play another boosted Medical Facility and a bonus Fighter Launch Bay for another seven Victory Points.  Despite these hefty mid-match V.P. drops, Andrew was now threatening to surpass me and Chad was slowly starting to close the gap.

My next few builds were partly inspired by a half-assed desire to diversify and partly because I got saddled with crap after some disappointing drafts.  I built a lone Crew Quarters and a Docking Bay in my elongated east wing, mainly to keep pace with chad in our heated Administrative Location Objective Race.  I capped this off with a Communication Beacon, which I managed to place no less eight sites away from my Main Reactor.  My shout of triumph was cut short when Andrew and Chad pointed out the site's four-Victory Point maximum.  Curses!  

By now Andrew's design was firing on all cylinders and he started to nudge past me.  Even more troublesome was Chad's late-game surge which saw his complex networks of inter-spliced Locations suddenly "switch on".  I tried to replicate this strategy in the west wing with limited success.  An additional Turret stacked moderately with my existing one while a hastily- assembled Cargo Hold only scored two bonus points from the adjacent Backup Reactor.  

Again, thanks to a sub-optimal draft, I ended up with a weak-sauce Embassy Office.  Since Chad was still running a distant third, I thought nothing of giving him that Location's two-point run-off.  I finished the game with a reasonably good flourish, building a credit-soaking Marketplace and then exploiting a four-point adjacency with the Security Station.  


If I had only one word to describe Space Casa de Chad it would be diversification.  Except for his two Transportation Platforms (which fed nicely off of one another) and his three Power Reactors (natch), Chad seemed intent on becoming the first kid on the block to "collect 'em all".

He literally constructed one of each location.  Springing off of his Main Reactor he started with a Shield Generator (giving him a V.P. boost for the additional Energy Cubes he sunk into its construction), a School of Alien Cultures (which forced Andrew and I to spend Credits or lose V.P.'s) and the aforementioned Transportation Platforms.

Keeping his structure decidedly Borg-like in shape, Chad fueled another round of construction with two new Power Reactors.  This included a Council Room which promised a slew of end-game Victory Points for every competing space station without a similar location.  Attached to this was an Alien Bazaar which gave Chad some decent perks thanks to two adjacent Diplomatic Locations.  Finally he added an adjoining Galactic Research Facility which gave Andrew and I an opportunity to earn Points for Credits while granting Chad a sweet little windfall of cheddah in the process.

Even after all of this progress, Chad was still lagging pretty far behind.  Nevertheless, he kept calm and carried on building, adding a third Power Reactor, a Life Support System (promising three V.P.'s for every three locations in his base at game's end) and a Docking Bay (which scored him four points for being three sectors away from the Main Reactor).  He continued to augment this slow-burn strategy by adding two Locations directly linked to his Power Reactors.  His Solar Panels helped to refuel an adjacent generator and an Energy Market gave him some additional Credits for each Reactor on the station.

Chad started to close the Victory Point gap around mid-game.  Since he was already heavily committed to procuring Blue Locations thanks to tug-of-war with me over Administrative Locations, a timely Command Center play resulted in a pretty hefty point reward.  Although his follow up build, Crew Quarters, lacked similar company, it did allow him to construct the Taste The Rainbow Restaurant, rewarding him with five Victory Points for having every color-code represented on his space station.    

This led to the creation of a Garden next to the Crew's Quarters, netting him five Victory Points since there were no Red Locations nor Power Generators close by.  Next came a Holographic Display Area which gave him three bonus points for having three adjacent sites.  He polished off the western sector of his base in style with a Communication Beacon.  This triggered yet another bonus since it was light years away from the Main Reactor.

By game's end, Chad had mastered the art of urban space planning.  He squeezed a prefab Security Station into place, scoring two extra Victory Points for the four adjacent sites and putting him in the lead for Administrative tiles.  Just as timely was the last-minute introduction of a Galactic Resort, which gave him additional points for his three other Recreational sites.  Although he hadn't scored a lot of in-game Victory Points, both Andrew and I knew that he had no less then eight different Locations which would end up boosting his end-game score.


As I've already mentioned, both Andrew and I somehow managed to start the game in competition over the same fictional Military Objective.  Mercifully we both picked up on this oversight pretty quickly and had plenty of time to adjust our approach.  Where I concentrated on nailing my secret mission and the Blue Objective, Andrew doubled-up on some highly-effective structures and then made a last-minute stab at both the Business and Recreational goals.

Andrew was quick to augment his Main Reactor with a Power Reactor.  With this respectable surplus of fuel, Andrew built a Heavy Ion Cannon and a Shield Generator.  In an effort to keep his momentum going, he quickly added a second Power Reactor and a Docking Bay, netting him a total of three points for being two Locations away from the Main Reactor.

After realizing that the face-up Objective was Recreation not Military Andrew quickly switched gears, adding an Alien Bazaar in an effort to come hard about towards the Business goal.  This led to the construction of yet another Power Reactor to sponsor development in the north sector of his station.  Like me, Andrew was admiring Chad's cubically-contained arrangement and probably thought that he was missing out on some unseen strategy.

With no less then three Power Reactors on the board, Andrew installed a timely Medical Facility which scored him a whopping six Victory Points.  The timely placement of an Energy Market also earned him two points and a respectable three free Credits.  This in turn helped cover the cost of two back-to-back Customs offices.  This racked up some exponential Credits for Andrew thanks to the synergy produced by all of the surrounding Yellow Locations.

Although I'd come out the gate super-strong, plays like this allowed Andrew to eclipse me on the scoreboard.  He kept making some major plays, notching seven big Victory Points for a far-enough-away Fighter Launch Bay and another lucrative payday courtesy of a second Energy Market.  He then began to chart out a stellar end game strategy that would see his score blast into hyperspace.

He started by adding a Council Room to compete with Chad's equivalent.  Next to this he dropped in a Garden.  Since this was placed light years away from any Reactor, he earned the maximum five Victory Points.  Now with every color in the rainbow represented in his space station, he constructed two Restaurants in quick succession, wringing an impressive ten Victory Points in total out of them.

His last few plays could easily be characterized as "Objective insurance".  The addition of a Galactic Bank earned him a few badly-needed late-game Credits.  Another Garden was placed in the south-eastern hinterlands of the station and earned him the maximum reward.  And although the last-second addition of a Holographic Display Area and a second Alien Bazaar did little for in-game pointage, it certainly revealed Andrew's propensity for forward thinking.


IN-GAME SCORING 

Andrew...72
Me...60
Chad...47

FINAL SCORING

OBJECTIVES

Andrew...10 (5 points each for the Business and Recreation Objectives)
Chad...5 points for securing the Administrative Objective
Me...3 points for meeting my secret Military Objective 

LOCATION-BASED VICTORY POINTS

Chad...27 (!!!)
Me...12
Andrew...4

FUEL-DEPLETED POWER CENTERS

Me...4
Andrew...2
Chad...2

LEFTOVER CREDITS

Andrew...0
Chad...0
Me...0


So, once again, I was forced to witness defeat snatched from the jaws of victory!  But unlike Age of Conan in which four hours of solid effort still resulted in a dead-last finish, I know exactly where I went wrong in this game.  In fact, I can summarize my Among the Stars failings thusly:
  1. Mistaking the "Grand Attractions" for a Red Military Objective and hoping that my 3-point secret Objective would suffice.  
  2. Letting Chad outpace me in the Administrative Objective race.
  3. Not diversifying enough.     
***

About six or seven months prior to starting up this here blog, I had a chance to play 7 Wonders and really dug it.  Between its card *slash* tile drafting mechanic and the wealth generation / Victory Point synergy that can occur in an effective tableau, Among the Stars does harbor more then a few similarities to that earlier title.

Although I'm tempted to rate this one higher due to the appealing space theme and superior components, one thing is holding me back and that one thing is balance.

Although I respect any game that gives players a chance to come back from a deficit, I fear that Among the Stars may have gone to hell with the joke.  Although I know it was Chad's plan to make some big moves during Final Scoring, I don't think any of us could have anticipated that his post-game bonus Victory Points would end up doubling both mine and Andrew's.  

Hopefully this isn't indicative of a balance issue which would inspire players to eschew in-game Victory Points for those yellow-boxed Locations that Chad managed to exploit so effectively.  Only after a few additional plays of the game will I be able to say for sure.  And frankly, I can think of much worse fates. 

I really enjoyed my turn at Among the Stars and I can't wait to apply my experience to the next game, perhaps with the inclusion of "Aggressive Mode".  

PROS:  
  • Easy to learn.
  • Great components.
  • Clever gameplay.
  • Appealing theme.
  • With two game modes (Standard and "Aggressive") you can tailor your game to different player temperaments.  
CONS:
  • Shamelessly cribs certain mechanics from 7 Wonders.
JURY'S OUT:
  • Possible in-game vs. post-game Victory point balance issues?  


***

Wanna build a space station named "Risa" consisting of nothing but Gardens, Galactic Resorts, Holographic Display Areas, Market Places, Restaurants and Whorehouses?  Well, you might be outta luck for now.

As a highly-successful Indiegogo project the game is still in the process of wider distribution.  Watch this space for a future link and keep your eyes peeled at your Friendly Neighborhood Game Store!   




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