Carpe Astra: Carpe Ludus! Hot

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Barf: The minute we move in they're gonna spot us on their radar.

Lone Starr: Uh, uh.
Barf: Uh, huh.
Lone Starr: Uh, uh.
Barf: Uh, huh.
Lone Starr: Uh, uh. Not if we jam it.
Barf: A, ha! You're right.
Lone Starr: Down scope.
Barf: Down scope.
[puts down a periscope and targets the Spaceball 1's radar dish]
Barf: Radar about to be "jammed."
(then, a huge jar of "jam" smashes into the dish)
-Space Balls, (1987).

Disclaimer:  Review of EURO ahead.


Introduction


About six months ago, I was looking at my game collection and realized I needed some shorter, deep games with plenty of interaction, that scale well for 2, 3, 4 players.  I posted a couple of recommendation threads and found some interesting games but overall wasn't really satisfied.  Around that same time, a local designer, Ted Cheatham, had a prototype he wanted people to try out.  His prototype was a game called Carpe Astra, and after playing it, I realized it fit the bill- the game was short, had lots of interaction, and scaled well. 

When I finally got a copy of the finished game, it looked fantastic!  Carpe Astra is a versatile design that fills a rare niche in a gamer's collection - its short, meaty, and scales well. 

So what type of game is Carpe Astra?  Well, its a very original design that is difficult to categorize.  If I had to describe CA in one sentence, I would say that CA is a shorter, simpler, more dynamic version of Tigris and Euphrates. 

CA is a game of political influence between different factions in space.  It combines a modular board, event cards, majority scoring, and a nifty system of interaction/influence to make for a unique, entertaining, and highly replayable game.  The primary mechanism in the game is moving your agents around space to whisper in the ears of the political factions and either gain influence with them or slander your opponents.  You also have to manage your income and spend it wisely, all while adjusting to the events that are happening and paying attention to your opponents' malicious machinations.

Components

[Princess Vespa has been given a gun]
Princess Vespa: I ain't shooting this thing, I hate guns.
[her hair gets singed by a laser]
Princess Vespa: My hair, he shot my hair. Son of a bitch!
[begins blasting]
-Space Balls, (1987).

The components for this game are high quality.  The graphic design is superb, especially considering it was done by a smaller publisher.  CA uses a lot of different stuff.  You have three different decks of high quality easy to shuffle cards, a bunch of thick four inch long double hex tiles which form the board, triangular influence tokens, round money tokens, wooden octagonal agent markers (think power grid garbage tokens in 4 different colors), etc. etc.  Its not a huge game with tons of stuff, but it has a lot of different components.


carpeastra























-image courtesy Piscatella

The quality of the what you get in the box is excellent.  The tiles are thick and the cards are of nice stock.  You don't have to shuffle often so sleeves probably aren't necessary.  Punching the many tiles and chits out, none of them were separating from their cardboard insides, which was nice to see.  There is a turn summary card which assists in learning the game.  The rulebook is full color, well written, with lots of pictures and examples

The art is really great and helps integrate the theme into the game.  R.H. Aidley (www.rhaidley.com) did the graphic design.  His style reminds me of the cartoon Aeon Flux that was on MTV in the early 90's.  The art is sci-fi with a post-apocalyptic conspiracy feel- a great match for the theme.  The symbols used are color coded so you don't have to know what they stand for.  All the tokens are both functional and artsy.  The game information is integrated well into the graphic design.  The flavor text really evokes the theme, but if you just want to play the game it's easy to ignore.

Theme

[playing with his dolls]
Dark Helmet: [in Dark Helmet voice] And now Princess Vespa, I have you in my clutches, to have my wicked way with you, the way I want to.
[In Vespa voice]
Dark Helmet: No, no, go away, I hate you! And yet... I find you strangely attractive.
[in D.H. voice]
Dark Helmet: Of course you do! Druish princesses are often attracted to money and power, and I have both, and you *know* it!
[in V. voice]
Dark Helmet: No, no, leave me alone!
[in D.H. voice]
Dark Helmet: No, kiss me!
[V]
Dark Helmet: No! Stop!
[D.H]
Dark Helmet: Yes, yes!
[V]
Dark Helmet: Oh, oh, oh! Ohhhh, your helmet is so big!
-Space Balls, (1987).

The game has better than average theme integration for a eurogame.   Yeah, the sci-fi thing is overdone lately and it feels like half the games that came out in the last year are sci-fi themed.  But sci-fi is really the background for this game, not the main attraction.  Its a game of political intrigue with a sci-fi setting, not a sci-fi themed game. 


The art and flavor text is great and the gameplay matches the theme just fine.  You play the senator, the admiral, the high priest, or the CEO of the galactic megacorp, all of which are trying to take control of a crumbling galactic federation ruled by a dying emperor.  Your agents are moving around the galaxy, to systems controlled by different guilds, in an attempt to gain the guild's support or slander your opponents.  

This is definitely not your typical paste-on theme.  The political intrigue theme is executed pretty seamlessly and the sci-fi background makes it all pretty and gives it a more epic feel.  The theme really shines if you read the flavor text.  It can seem a little abstract when you draw the priest-engineers slander card and use it to steal a priest support token from your opponent.  Read the card, and realize that you've used your agents to convince the church inquisition to excommunicate heretic scientists and the theme begins to shine.  

Rules

For a pretty deep game, the rules are fairly simple.  The rulebook is well written and pleasing to the eye.  There aren't any ambiguities in the rules I am aware of.  On top of that, the publisher, Jackson Pope, has been very active on BGG answering rules questions.  There isn't any bookkeeping to speak of, with the exception of moving the events track along.  There is a player aid card with the turn order.  It also reminds you which actions cost money and has a scoring summary on the back.  The simplicity of the rules are definitely a strength here.

The rules are also posted online.  http://www.reivergames.co.uk/CarpeAstra/CarpeAstraRulesEN.pdf I recommend you take a look, especially at the setup and components in the rulebook.  You'll have a better idea what the heck I'm talking about when I explain how to play.
 

How to Play

Dark Helmet: [appearing in the room, lifting up his visor] I can't breathe in this thing.
Colonel Sandurz: We're approaching Planet Druidia, sir.
Dark Helmet: Good. I'll call Spaceball city and notify President Skroob immediately.
Radio Operator: [seeing Helmet picking up the phone] Uh, I already called him sir. He knows everything.
Dark Helmet: What? You went over my helmet?
Radio Operator: It's not exactly over sir. It's more to the side, but I'll always call you first, it will never happen again, never, ever.
[Helmet gets out his Scwartz ring]
Radio Operator: Oh shit. No, no, no. No, please, please, no.
[covering his neck]
Radio Operator: Not that, not that.
Dark Helmet: [lowers his visor] Yes, that.
[aims the beam at the operator's crotch, as the operator agonizes in pain]
-Space Balls, (1987).

I'm not going to explain setup, but taking a look at the game set up in the rulebook might help you understand the explanation of play.  This picture of a finished two player game is also great.

There are a lot of things to think about in Carpe Astra.  You have your agents' position on the board.  You need to think about how you are going to expand/change the board by placing the tiles.  You have cards in your hand you are trying to achieve the requirements on so you can gain support tokens.  You have money you need to manage and decide what to do with, and you need to keep an eye on the event cards so you can earn more money. 

Keeping all of this straight would be tough if I just jumped into the review, so I am going to explain the gameplay by describing a turn.   I think thats the best way to get familiar with all the moving parts in this game.  After that, I'll talk about how it all comes together.  Each of the bold headings is one of the phases of your turn.

Phase 1:  Changing Tack

The first option you have at the beginning of your turn is to change tack.  You can pay one money to draw two cards then discard two cards.  This is useful if you see something different to exploit on the board, or you have a hand full of crap.  This action isn't always taken, so many turns begin with phase two or three.

But what the heck are on the cards?  

Network cards allow you to draw a support token from the supply if you connect your character tile (or the senate tile) to all of the guilds on the network card using your agents.  You take a support token from the supply corresponding to one of the guilds shown on the network card.

Slander cards allow you to remove a corresponding support token from another player if you connect the appropriate guilds to their character with your agents.  For an extra buck, you can take the support token for yourself. 

The network and slander cards exist in two different decks and you can always choose which deck you want to draw from.  For people that don't like the randomness of the card draw, there is a variant in the rules that allows you to mitigate the randomness by setting a couple cards off the top of the deck and allowing you to draw from those if you wish.  

Phase 2:  Add a tile

In this phase, you can pay one money to play one of the three guild tiles that are face up OR you can pay one to replace the face up tiles and have a new market to look at.  This is how the board is built.  A few tiles are placed during setup, but for the first few turns, the players are building the board more or less.  

Early in the game, people will be buying tiles to build their network of contacts around their Character tile.  Occasionally you will see players place a tile to block their opponents, or help them slander opponents.  This is an important phase of the game that a lot of newer players overlook, as is defensively building your network to prevent slanders.  If your only consideration is "Do I need priests?  Yeah, I do, i'll place a blue tile near me" then you aren't getting it.  Someone will happily whisper in those blue priests ears about your heretical ways and you will soon fall out of favor with the church.  You need to build the board around your character both offensively to score early network cards but also defensively so that you can deal with the slandering later in the game.  

Phase 3:  Infiltrate guilds

This is the money shot of the game, the make or break where all eyes will be on the active player.  You get to place two of your agents for free on any tile.  You displace an opponent's agent if he was there, unless it's a character tile or the senate.  This is where you try to get your agents onto spaces that correspond to the cards in your hand so that   

There are a few rules to keep in mind here.You can't place an agent on both ends of a tile.  Your agents must form a connected network.  You may pay to place additional agents.  You can also pay in this phase to rotate a tile, thus changing which end of it your agent is sitting on.  This is the phase where you set yourself up to gain influence or slander somebody.  The MEAT of the tactical game, and the payoff for your overall plan.  There is nothing like watching someone uproot their network to begin a new slander campaign on the other side of the board, or cleverly spinning a tile to play both cards from their hand.  

Phase 4:  Gain Support

Here, you play the cards from your hand that you meet the requirements for and take the support tokens you earn from them.  If you slandered someone, you remove their support tokens.  For one money, you can steal their support tokens instead of just removing them.  You also gain coins from events in this phase.  If you didn't score any cards, take two bucks.


Phase 5:  Draw

Draw back up to 2 cards if you have less than 2.  You draw cards from events in this phase.  Next!

The Rounds

You go around the table, each taking this five phase turn.  After everyone has went, its the next round and you discard the current event card and reveal a new one.  The game goes ten rounds, although you can easily shorten it by shortening the number of event cards used.

Scoring

You get 6 points if you control all of a guild's support tokens, 4 for the most, and 2 for second most.  Ties for first get 3 each, ties for second get one each.  Third place is worth nothing.   Most points wins.  The scoring is simple and pretty easy, but still allows for major swings during the game, as a couple of support tokens can be huge. 

And thats how you play...  its pretty easy really.  My summary here might have confused you, but play a couple turns and you will have it down pat.


What's to like?

Lone Starr: Who hasn't heard of Yogurt!
Princess Vespa: Yogurt the Wise!
Dot Matrix: Yogurt the All-Powerful!
Barf: Yogurt the Magnificent!
Yogurt: Please, please, don't make a fuss. I'm just plain Yogurt.
-Space Balls, (1987).

There are several things I really like about Carpe Astra.  I think the game fills a great niche in a game collection.  It has a unique combination of speed, depth, scalability, interactivity and replayability.  There are also some specific design choices I really liked.

Speed

Its fast, around 45-60 minutes, and can easily be shortened by using fewer event cards.  Two player games are shorter and four player games can go closer to 90 minutes.  For a shorter game, just set out 6, 7 or 8 event cards in the row instead of 10.   By itself, I don't think speed is always a good thing, BUT, speed to depth ratio is a big deal to me.  This game is meaty for a 45 minute game!  

Depth

CA offers a lot of depth and choices for such a short and easy game.  There are definite long term planning aspects in how you design the board around your character tile.  Are you setting yourself up well for future events?  Can you get enough support through networking without making yourself a juicy slander target later?  You also get lots of good tactical decisions each turn.  The how-to of placing agents, placing tiles, pulling off cards, and working your money engine are interesting.  The decision on when to switch your agents from networking to slandering is a great timing decision that is always very tough.  Some people switch back after slandering, but it depends on your financial situation. Who to slander is interesting too- do you go for the easy target, or gun for the player that you think is in the lead?  Can you build a decent network that lets you alternatively slander two other players?  Hand management is also key, as is money management.  Its no Age of Steam, but for a 45 minute game there is a LOT going on in Carpe Astra.

Scalability

The modular board setup and the variable number of support tokens, both of which change based on the number of players, makes for a fantastically scalable game.  I've played with three, four, and several games with two players.  The game works surpisingly well with any number.  Those who are interested in a shorter game with less downtime will enjoy the two player version.  Those interested in the alliances, backstabbing, and heavy interaction will prefer the four player game.

Replayability

The board is modular, the events are different every game, the card draw can change things, and there is a lot of depth.  Add to that a high level of interaction, especially late in the game, and you have a recipe for a game with a lot of replayability.  No two games are alike.  It isn't a lifestyle game like ASL or Chess, but its something you can bust out once or twice a month and never get tired of it.

Interactivity

This isn't another "I bought it before you, so we just interacted" type of Eurogame.  Slander cards really encourage interaction, since with the addition of a dollar, its a swing of two support tokens, which is huge!  You are playing against each other, not just screwing off then comparing scores.  The dynamics of attacking your opponent with your agent network and slander cards, then watching them either defending themselves or possibly attacking your character tile is pretty exciting and gives Carpe Astra a definite edge for folks that enjoy games with direct interaction.  

So what?

So what, lots of games are deep or replayable, or scale well.  Tons of 45 minute games out there, same for interactive games.  What is the big deal?  Well, the big deal with Carpe Astra is that it has all these characteristics and crams them into one game.  Although any one of these little factors are pretty common, its a rare and wonderful game that combines all of them the way this one does.  It fills a unique niche in my game collection- short, scalable, interactive, deep, and replayable.  There aren't many games out there that can match CA on all those factors.

Design Choices

The game has a couple of internal balance mechanisms that work very well.  The first one is obvious, but its a favorite of mine.  

Beat up on that guy over there

Gang up on the leader is difficult, but not impossible.  It also fits the theme of galactic intrigue and political networking very well.  CA also has a built in mechanism to help the leader defend himself if he is really getting attacked by slander cards.  You can remove an opponent's agent by placing your agent where he is.  So, if you start really getting beat up on, you can move your agents back to the area around yourcharacter tile to remove your opponent's agents.  If your oppnent's agents don't form a chain, they are removed.  This has the added benefit of allowing you to play networking cards and get the support tokens you lost back. 

Additionally, after a slander, you must remove your agent from your opponent's character tile, making slander a little tougher.

The politics of who to slander generates a lot of table talk and negotiation on who should be slandering whom.  Here, the game shines as you actually feel like you are negotiating with your opponents on whats happening- which really feels like galactic politics.  It also balances the game a little, not that it needs it as the system is very balanced as is.

Guild Networks

The game's other interesting balancing mechanism arises from the way the support tokens are obtained.  There are several strategies to how you arrange the tiles around your character tile.  The more basic strategy used by most beginner players is to go for diversity around your character tile so you can take advantage of any networking card you draw.  More advanced players can successfully pull off a non-diverse strategy and collect just two or three types of support tokens.  Although this is tougher because you have to fish for cards, it also makes it more difficult to slander you later in the game.

This internal sort of balancing mechanism works very well.  One player might have gotten lucky with some great tile placement early, allowing efficient networking, but that also means he is more vulnerable to slanders later on.  

To slander, or not to slander, that is the question.

Possibly the niftiest mechanic in the game is the ability to draw from either the network deck or the slander deck at any point.  This allows you to stop networking and begin slandering whenever you want, or to do both at once, or swap back and forth whenever you want.  This player-choice-driven phase of the game reminds me of Tigris & Euphrates.  In T&E, you begin the game by building your empire, but as you begin to butt heads with your neighbors, a lot of conflict starts occurring.  That sort of organic beginning to interaction is the exact same feel you get from Carpe Astra.  The players reach a point where they look around and say to themselves, its time to make someone else's life a living hell- and you set out to do it with the slander cards.  Its exciting and it feels very natural, unlike the rigid and forced combat or interaction you see in some games.
 

Criticism

Dark Helmet: Careful you idiot! I said across her nose, not up it!
Laser Gunner: Sorry sir! I'm doing my best!
Dark Helmet: Who made that man a gunner?
Major Asshole: I did sir. He's my cousin.
Dark Helmet: Who is he?
Colonel Sandurz: He's an asshole sir.
Dark Helmet: I know that! What's his name?
Colonel Sandurz: That is his name sir. Asshole, Major Asshole!
Dark Helmet: And his cousin?
Colonel Sandurz: He's an asshole too sir. Gunner's mate First Class Philip Asshole!
Dark Helmet: How many asholes do we have on this ship, anyway?
[Entire bridge crew stands up and raises a hand]
Entire Bridge Crew: Yo!
Dark Helmet: I knew it. I'm surrounded by assholes!
[Dark Helmet pulls his face shield down]
Dark Helmet: Keep firing, assholes!
-Space Balls, (1987).

Although I really like this game, it is not totally without its faults.  I expect it to be a hit if it gets some visibility, but there will be some detractors, as there always are.  Here are some criticisms that I predict we will see.  I do not agree with all of them.  

Price listed incorrectly several places online

According to Thoughthammer, the game retails for $50, and thoughthammer sells it for $37.50.  If you pay $50 for this game, you will be disappointed with the amount of stuff you get.  Heck, at $37, the components don't measure up.  However, I think that price is wrong.  Reiver Games says they will send me the game WITH SHIPPING for around $40 U.S.  That is shipping it across the ocean from merry ole England.  Obviously, thoughthammer has the wrong price.  Several other online retailers have the game overpriced too.  On the other hand, Boards and Bits has the game for $25.00, and at that price point, it is an absolute steal.  

Interaction

Inevitably, any game where you spend the early parts of the game building a lead (networking cards) only to spend the later part of the game having people steal your stuff will turn off people who dislike high conflict games.  I think that CA will suffer from this more acutely than other games because the first 4 turns or so there is very little interaction and the game feels like a solitaire euro game.  A few turns later, someone's agents are all over your ass and it can be surprising, disconcerting, and decidedly interactive.  People who have a problem with interaction won't care for this game, especially since the early turns will lull them to sleep.
 

Depth isn't immediately visible after the first play

During my first play of Carpe Astra, I spent so much of my time during the game looking at the tactical decisions that I wasn't seeing the big picture.  Like many games, you don't start to see the strategic possibilities until you've played a few times.  In this way, Carpe Astra reminds me a lot of Tigris and Euphrates, another game I really like.  Some people don't "get" T&E, and they think its just a tile laying game with some crazy conflict and an oddball scoring mechanism.  Carpe Astra is subject to a similar phenomenon.  You get caught up in trying to play the cards in your hand and not really thinking about the long term board consequences of what you are doing.  Some people are going to play it once and decide they don't like it, when a couple more playings would open their eyes to the depth of strategy in this great game.  To me, the depth that comes along with a game you need to play a few times is a PLUS, but for others it will be a MINUS.

Theme

In another apt comparison to Tigris and Euphrates, if you don't read the cards and look at the art, the space/scifi theme doesn't really come through.  The flavor text is wonderful, but if you don't read it you get nothing out of it.  The political networking/intrigue theme comes is strong, but the game is still pretty abstract if you compare it to a game like Arkham Horror or Battlestar Galactica.  This will get the game some criticism, but I believe that criticism is undeserved.  If you compare CA to its euro cousins, it is pretty heavily themed and the theme is a step above the typical pastejobs of the genre.  Still, cries of abstract will undoubtedly come from certain corners of the boardgaming community, and depending on what they are comparing CA to, it may be hard to argue with them.
 

My only criticism or beef with the theme is that the different characters and the different guilds aren't differentiated.  What's the difference between the engineers guild and the settlers guild?  Nothing.  The different starting characters (colors) do get a couple of beginning support tokens based on their role.  For example, the admiral starts out with a couple of military tokens, the high priest with a couple of priest guild tokens, etc.  It seems like the game really missed a chance to put some variable powers in the game.  I know its tough to balance that sort of thing, but even one shot powers would have been neat and would have added a lot to the game.  It would have been a good thing to add as a variant in the back of the rulebook or something.  I may work on a simple variant and post it.

Conclusion

Overall, Carpe Astra is a great game I would recommend to any gamer.  I think it appeals across genres, to both fans of euro-style and ameritrash games.  You have some elements of building and resource management that are traditional euro memes along with a "take that" interaction and theme integration thats well beyond your typical euro.  I think the mantle "Tigris & Euphrates light in space" is pretty appropriate, and I hope gamers see that as a big compliment of this fantastic game.  

May the Schwartz be with you.
- Space Balls, (1987).
Carpe Astra: Carpe Ludus! There Will Be Games
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