Ad Astra (Game Review)

As Astra box

Ad Astra

In Ad Astra, players choose action cards that everyone at the table will use, but that give a bonus to the one who selected it. On the board, they colonize resource-producing areas in order to harvest those resources and build structures that will produce even m ore. Yes, it sounds like a cross between Settlers of Catan and Race for the Galaxy, but it actually plays very differently from either.

The most obvious immediate difference is that the players go around the table a few times laying out action cards upside-down, so that a sequence of twelve to fifteen events (depending on the player count) is determined beforehand. When they unfold, the actions you picked may work out better or worse for you than expected, depending on what you gained from the actions the other players chose.

While that is important, the key aspect that makes this game work differently is the scoring: Points are earned by certain action cards, with a bonus for whoever is leading the category being scored. That turns Ad Astra into a game of careful simultaneous choices. Does it look like another player is preparing to score spaceships? Well, maybe you can choose some actions that will let you build another one of your own first. Or maybe you can let some other players struggle over the spaceship war, and take advantage of the resource-generating actions they’ll need to play. If you time it right, you could score your resource cards after those other players have discarded theirs to build the ships!

The action board, with the first eight revealed so far.

The four-player game has twelve actions per round. The first eight have been revealed so far.

It’s a clever system, but it must have been very difficult to balance right. Fortunately, the two veteran designers behind this (Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget) found the perfect mix of elements to make this work. In most resource-building games like this, everyone needs to build up infrastructure at the beginning so that they can churn out the most resources and points at the end. Here, playing actions to score actually slows down your empire-building, but because of the bonus points for leading during a scoring round, it’s possible to earn significant points right away. If you’re the only player positioned to build, say, a terraformer in the first round, it might make sense to do that right away and claim points for it. Others will pull ahead of you in resources, but that doesn’t matter if you win the game. The ending condition (scoring fifty points) hits the sweet spot at which either short-sighted scoring or focused engine-building could win the day. The key is really to use whatever strategies your opponents are not, and there are enough choices (increasing fleets, seeking out specific resources, or building structures that give points but no in-game benefit) that there is always something unique you could be doing.

A section of the "board", which is actually disconnected systems of stars and planets, with ships sitting in "hyperspace" between them.

A section of the “board”, which is actually disconnected systems of stars and planets, with ships sitting in “hyperspace” between them.

The apparent similarities to Settlers and Race are interesting, because, unlike most of the gaming community, I’m not a big fan of either. This game doesn’t have the flaws I see in those, though. My problem with Race for the Galaxy is that your opponents quickly build up complex systems picked from a set of hundreds of different cards, and they’ll interact with yours in almost no meaningful ways. Yes, it’s important to understand their strengths and weaknesses to properly predict the actions that will help you best, but I have no motivation to pay attention. In Ad Astra, the system is much simpler and the interaction is frequent, thanks to the constant threat of scoring rounds. With that set-up, it’s fun to watch everyone and try to out-guess their action choices.

The usual complaint about Settlers is the randomness inherent in its resource-production. If you dislike that, you’ll be glad to know that Ad Astra has no dice. Instead, players must select action cards to generate resources. In fact, Ad Astra minimizes most random factors. Planets are hidden until someone lands on them, but you can look at all of them in a given “star system” at once when traveling, so you have a good deal of choice in the matter.

My main issue with Settlers is not the randomness, though. Or rather, I find it dry and too long for a game that has that much chance. There’s a high likelihood that some player will find themselves stuck without any good paths forward. In Ad Astra, on the other hand, there are no roads to block you in and so many resource types that no one will keep up production in all of them. Instead, the bank offers generous trades at a one-for-two rate, so whatever resources you do produce can get you the rest without too much efficiency loss. The best player still wins in the end, but there are options to keep everyone involved until the end.

This game is a few years old now, and it never got the attention it deserved. If you get a chance, though, try it out. It finds the perfect balance of elements to make a medium-length game of simultaneous choices interesting until the end.

Grade: B+

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