StarCraft the Board Game: Under the Havok Staff

StarCraft the Board Game: Under the Havok Staff Hot

Mr Skeletor     
 
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Disclaimer: I received a copy of this game for free (though not necessarily for review purposes.)


Fantasy Flight Games love affair with Blizzard continues with its fifth coffin boxed game, StarCraft. For those who never encountered the hugely successful game (and I have found there are a surprising number of you), it was released around a decade ago as a spin off to the WarCraft series. The real time strategy game was set in space and featured 3 very different races – a bunch of redneck humans called the Terran, a swarming alien race who use living technology called the Zerg, and the powerful but expensive religious race called the Protos.


You can read the rules on FFG’s website here: http://www.fantasyflightgames.com/starcraft_support.html. I’m assuming you have at least skimmed through them in this review.

Not much room left on that bottom shelf


Comparisons to the Video Game

It was always going to be interesting to see how Fantasy Flight Games tackled this property, as they already had designed a game for the very similar WarCraft franchise, which was not their most successful design. Indeed it appeared that this game went through some growing pains, with the title being delayed over a year from its projected release and apparently changed designer at least once (interestingly Kevin Wilson who supposedly worked on the game originally isn’t mentioned in the design credits at all.) The final result is a board game that doesn’t slavishly recreate the video game as War Craft the Board game did, but instead is its own beast.

While it has the basic flavour of the computer game, and certainly apes it’s theme well, it feels less like its computer game parent then World of WarCraft does. This may disappoint some, but the game is all the stronger for it as it doesn’t inherit any of the weaknesses that would have gone hand in hand with a direct translation. In fact I would say any thoughts or feelings you have for the computer game will not affect your opinion of the board game at all, and people who don’t have any experience with the computer version will probably enjoy this game as much as the fanboys do (if not moreso since they don’t have any pre-release hangups!). Where experience with the computer game does come in handy is in the learning curve for the different elements. For example those who are already familiar with the StarCraft universe will know that Terran spaceships can turn invisible, whereas players new to the setting will only discover this when they are attempting to blast those ships out of the air.


Components

Whereas I was a little disappointed with the amount of content within the previous big boxed game, Tide of Iron, I am back to being very impressed here. There is certainly a lot of bang for your buck.

The miniatures are fantastic, the best FFG have created yet. It may be because I grew up with Games Workshop games (who still hold the award for gold standard in board game miniatures in my opinion) who love their exaggerated biology, but I often find FFG miniatures to be a little skinny and meek. That is certainly not the case here with the sole exception of the Ghosts, who look like catwalk models in desperate need of a sandwich. All the spaceships and other units are nice and chunky. Another nice feature is that the spaceships come on clear stands, which looks great and really helps them to stand out. Unfortunately the stands come glued to the miniatures, which is a problem for 2 reasons. Firstly they are made of hard plastic, which means there is a good chance you will find a few snapped upon opening the box – I found 5 broken ones. I reglued them using plastic cement which worked a treat. The second problem is that if you want to paint the miniatures you will have to mask the stands, especially if you undercoat with spray paint as I do, which will be a pain in the ass. Hopefully in future if they use the clear stands again they will come separate from the miniatures to avoid these issues.

The cardboard is the typical nice thick stuff that comes in all FFG games. There are a lot of tokens and map pieces, but not an excessive amount as found in Descent or World of WarCraft.

Many people will be happy to know that all the cards are of the standard size. Personally I wouldn’t have minded if some of them were half size in order to save table real estate, especially the planet cards which contain no text, but this is a minor nitpick.

There are no dice in the game so there is not much to say about them.

Overall it is a very impressive package, not quite as impressive as World of Warcraft but certainly on par with Descent.

 


The Boastings on the Box

The board is modular and its size scales depending on how many players you have. Each individual’s play area does take up a fair chunk of real estate as well, so while you can get away with using a small table for a 2-player game, you’ll need a good sized table for 6.

The game scales wonderfully amongst the full range of player numbers. The 2 player game does feel different; it’s more aggressive and nasty, and requiring a different tactical approach that 3+ player games which have a little more breathing room. Games from 3 – 6 players have a similar feel so player numbers won’t be an issue.

I’d estimate an experienced group should be able to knock a game out in around two to two and a half hours. The game moves at a quick pace with little downtime, but it does suffer from what I call “World of WarCraft” syndrome – that is new plays really drag the play time out as they sit there reading all of the card in their technology deck while it is there turn, scratch their heads in dumbfounded confusion while deciding what to buy, and generally don’t think ahead until it’s actually their go. For this reason it takes a few plays before you start to get a proper feel of the game unless your group are AT veterans.

Now you really know what was in Marsellus Wallace's case

Game Play

There are two things one will notice about the board very quickly into their first game if they want to survive. Firstly, the board scales so that there are 2 planets per player, which isn’t much at all, so if you want territory you are going to have to fight for it even in the very early game. The second is that due to the Z-axis navigations, ‘corners’ don’t tend to exist – wherever you are on the board, you will be next to several opponents and you will be fighting on multiple fronts. Don’t expect to be able to pull a “take Australia and move out” RISK maneuver here!

This is a capture territory game, and all of the options and mechanics help you toward that end. There are no politics or trade or anything like that here; everything boils down to attempting to get advantages over your opponents in combat. This is a very bloody game, and unlike games like Nexus Ops or Twilight Imperium 3 where the first 3rd of the game is simply scripted exploration and preparation, the bloodshed and heavy action starts from turn one. The game encourages aggression like you won’t believe.

You have a total of 3 orders to choose from each time it is your turn – build, research technology and move and fight. You have to preplan your entire round in advance similar to A Game of Thrones, but with some big differences. With only 3 very flexible options to choose from you will be able to do everything you want in a turn, so it doesn’t have the agonizing choice of orders AGOT has. Instead planning orders is all about spoiling your opponent’s plans as much as possible, while avoiding them spoiling yours. One of the most interesting things about this game is that everyone really does fight everyone – the normal pairing off of enemies you see in most Ameritrash just doesn’t happen here. It’s pointless to hold a grudge against someone for hitting you, because everyone will be hitting everyone by turn two. In fact I have seen games where two players are fighting each other over one planet on one side of the board while the same two players have a temporary alliance on the other in an attempt to pincher a third player. The wheeling and dealing I have seen with this game is odd to say the least, and it all stems from the fact everyone is in each others faces from the very start.


Building

Building costs resources, and the whole building mechanic is handled in a very clever and, dare I say it, ‘elegant’ way (don’t shoot me Barnes!) Because you don’t ‘get’ the resources in the form of goods, you can’t save resources up between turns, meaning you may as well spend everything you can each turn. On the other hand like all good games involving resources you never have enough each turn to do everything you want, so a lot of tough choices lie ahead. Workers tend to be the limiting factor at the start of the game, since you can’t spend more resources then you have workers. You want to amass more workers as quickly, but the game never gives you the breathing room to do this – spend your first turn building up workers and you won’t have a second to use them in. Instead you just have to squeeze extra ones in whenever you can, ditto with transports.

Buildings are essential as they give you access to new units, and believe me, you want new units! It takes a lot of discipline to be able to get to the stronger units in a timely manner, but if you can get access to them before your opponents have done the same, you will find yourself at a big advantage. While it is possible to ‘build up’ to any unit you like, what you wont be able to do is build enough buildings to have access to every unit for your faction, so you are going to have to decide early on what types of troops you are aiming for. I really like this aspect as not only does it add real decisions to the game (unlike games where you’ll have access to everything by the end) it also means you see different forces on the table each game. The balance seems pretty spot on – swarming with cheap units can work, but so to can concentrating on building fewer high powered units.

Modules are the only area of the game that I am a bit disappointed in. Most races have 3 (Zerg 2) different types of modules to choose from, and they do the same thing for each race. While the three you get to choose from are very good, I would have liked more to choose from, with different races having access to different modules. This is the only area of the game which kind of screams ‘wait for the expansion’ to me, which is a bit disappointing. Well nothing is perfect I guess.


Research

Research helps stuff your hand with combat cards, as well as allowing you to customize your combat deck. This aspect feels similar to building a deck for a CCG, as you select technologies that will form the basis of your combat strategies; the main differences being you build this deck throughout the game instead of prior to it and these cards cost you resources instead of your lunch money.

Most of the combat cards you start with are very straightforward, so you are going to have to research to get the cards with the ‘wrinkles’ that will help you pull of surprise moves and combinations against your opponents. Research is also important as it adds combat cards to your hand, so you are going to want to research before going into battle. The downside is research is tied up with the event deck, meaning if everyone starts going crazy with research the games clock is going to run out very fast. Of course if you are set to win, going mad on research is a winning strategy – not only are you bringing forth your victory sooner, but you are also gaining cards that will help you fend off your opponents who are no doubt ganging up on you!

Tide of StarCraft

Combat

Fighting is the raw heart of the game, and while it can be a pain in the ass to teach, I’m happy to say the combat system works a lot better in person that it reads in the rulebook. In fact I’d go so far as to say this is one of the best combat systems I have encountered, it grants the participants a lot more control then the typical dice fest while still remaining tense and exciting to watch unlike other more dry combat systems such as that found in Dungeon Twister. It also plays out pretty quickly, so those who were scared it sounded a lot like Age of Mythology’s ‘stop the game’ system need not fear.

The issues relating to combat are actually the inverse of what one would initially expect. I remember reading a lot of comments to the effect that it was in your interest to build up a diverse portfolio of troops so that combat card management became easier – after all the more different troop types you have the higher the chance that the cards in your hand will be of use to you. In fact the opposite is true; because you draw a lot of combat cards in the game (I have yet to see a players hand run dry), organizing you hand so that you have a fist full of marines and firebats is easy. Hand management actually becomes more of an issue as the game wears on, as suddenly you have five different types of units on the board but have to discard down to a hand size of six cards which isn’t enough to cover them all, so you have to decide what units are in important enough areas to keep cards for, and which units you will leave defenseless.

It’s almost enough to stop you from diversifying your troop types, but sticking to only a few unit types has its own problems. Much like the computer game, matching opposing units with the correct counter units is the key to victory. All the Zerglings in the world won’t help you if your opponent is building up an air fleet. When reading the rules for combat I was afraid that all of the units would feel the same, but I’m happy to report this is not the case. Between the different matrixes of what can hit what and the different technologies that each unit can buy, the units all have their own unique flavors and nuances.

Broadly speaking you can group the different units in two types – what I like to call the direct hitters and the spoilers. Combat, especially at the start of the game, is very calculable. With basic units 4 times out of 5 you can correctly guess the outcome of the battle, meaning attackers who know what they are doing will win more often than not. Direct hitters are units that rely on combat card numbers, and winning combats with them involves simply overpowering your opponents either with bigger forces or more powerful units. These types of units keep combat predictable which is advantageous because you’ll know what fights to start, but disadvantageous because your opponents will know the same! At the opposite end of the spectrum are the ‘spoiler units’, who tend to be the units with lots of technology upgrades and are often assist units. These units add a controlled chaos to the combats, bringing in different combinations of effects to mess up the best-laid plans of your opponents. Card management is more difficult with these units, but often simply the presence of these units is enough to give your opponents pause. After all, your opponents have no idea what cards lie in your hand, so he’ll be hesitant to risk his expensive units when a queen is floating around “just in case” you have that Broodling card in your hand.

All in all I love the way combat works; it provides lots of strategic flexibility, many different viable approaches, enough control to feel fulfilling while maintaining enough chaos to ratch up the tension. It really is the crown jewel of the game.


The End Game

Each player has his or her own unique victory condition, which isn’t anything new amongst the world of AT. What is unique is the designer’s approach to these victory conditions, which are written in such a way that every player will end up being a knife’s edge away from victory. This really causes the endgame to be an incredibly tense and exciting affair, with the ‘lead player’ changing hands several times a turn causing all the players to pull out all stops. In fact rare is the game in which a player is in a position where he feels he can not win, as players who fall too far behind tend to be eliminated. Make no mistake, this game does have player elimination and unlike most modern games you will see it happen.

Fight, fight for Blizzards love!

Comparisons to Other Games

I have heard several comparisons made between this game and others currently on the market, here are my thoughts on them:

Twilight Imperium 3: TI3 is much more epic in scope, with politics, trade and diplomacy featuring heavily. StarCraft is much narrower in its focus; it’s all about victory through force. The two games are very different.

Nexus Ops: Both games share theme and scope, but from there the similarities end. Nexus is a much lighter ‘beer and pretzels’ affair, with a much higher dosage of luck. StarCraft is a lot meatier, with many more choices in strategic options, much more variety, and a lot more planning and thought required. Basically it’s more of a ‘gamer’s game’.

A Game of Thrones: AgoT is more concerned about diplomacy, positioning, and out planning your opponents. StarCraft concerns itself more with managing resources and getting the job done. Whereas in AgoT you often hold back waiting for the right time while attempting to set into place the events that will set your victory into motion, in StarCraft you’ll be on the attack from the get go.


Overall

StarCraft is a very refined, clean and thrilling game that offers its players a challenging and fun experience. There is a hell of a lot to like here, and very little to be critical of. This is one of FFG’s best designs to date, and easily justifies its hefty price tag. I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t end up being one of the best received games this year. The ameritrash hall of fame better start making some room.

Recommended for those who:

  • Want to experience how far AT design has come since the 80s.
  • Want a clean, smooth moving game with a host of options and a lot to think about that still boils down to beating the living shit out of your opponents.
  • Want to give their life for Aiur.

Not Recommended for those who:

  • Start crying when their mates attack them.
  • Still think trading cubes for VP is cool.
  • Only buy games to play 3 to 4 times before moving onto the next purchase.

A big thanks to Mike Z, Thaadd, Jeremy and the rest of the FFG crew for the early copy of the game.

This is a copy of an article originally published on the old F:AT blog. Read original comments. 

StarCraft the Board Game: Under the Havok Staff There Will Be Games
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