Posts Tagged ‘ Serge Laget ’

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+


Cargo Noir (Game Review)

Cargo Noir boxWhile bidding games are incredibly common in the current board gaming scene, Cargo Noir manages to find a new twist on the mechanic. Each turn, a player has a few ships that they can send out to offer money for a set of tiles. Those tiles won’t actually be purchased until the player’s next turn, which gives every other player a chance to make a higher offer on those same tiles. If the initial offer is outbid, the player who made it will need to either withdraw or raise their bid on their next turn. Because this is a new offer, it will be yet another time around the table before the tiles are actually won.

The result is a game in which many potential auctions are taking place at once, but most of them only receive a single bid. When someone is outbid, it’s a big deal: At a minimum, that person has just wasted one of their limited actions from the prior turn, and if they still want those tiles, they will need to wait at least another round to get them. The game lasts a mere 10 or 11 turns (depending on the number of players), so a one-round delay can be pretty significant.

Most people find this system a little unintuitive at first – they expect this to be a standard auction game, in which players get a chance to bid back and forth on a contested item within one turn. But once everyone understands the concept, it’s simple and elegant. The goal is to bid high enough to discourage other players from getting involved in the auction at all, but not so high that money is wasted: Earning more money requires a ship action. Wasting money effectively means that later actions will be lost to pay for it.

The red player outbids the blue player for the tiles in Bombay

The red player outbids the blue player for the tiles in Bombay

The flow of the game is very natural. Start your turn by seeing which of your bids from the last turn have survived uncontested, collect those tiles, and then send your ships out for new bids. Additionally, decide whether to cash those tiles in for points, or keep them for a later turn. (Yes, this is a classic “earn one resource, and then use it to buy points” Euro-game.) Turns move fast, and the fact that each action takes a round to resolve means that there is a feeling of continuity from round to round.

This system has a few flaws, too. Most notably, outbidding someone sometimes feels like too powerful an attack. Even if the other player is willing to bid higher for the tiles, they are still forced to lose an action and wait longer for the goods. Attacks in bidding games don’t usually feel so direct. Worse, they can sometimes feel arbitrary. You may find yourself willing to spend three coins to buy three tiles, and see that two other players have each made a bid of two coins for three tiles. With the way tiles are valued, it often makes no practical difference to you which auction you bid on, but the choice will have huge repercussions for the player who gets blocked! Expect accusations of “king-making” to come up a time or two each game.

The way the tiles are valued is interesting, but probably a little too simple. There are nine types of goods, and the most points can be earned by cashing in a set of matching ones. Sets of all-different ones can be cashed in as well. In either case, sets become much more valuable as they get larger, but only a limited number of tiles can be saved from turn to turn. Players will usually do best with the simple task of collecting different tiles, but matching sets are necessary to reach the highest-point cards. This choice creates a nice tension, but I do wish there was a little more to it. Too often, the different sets of tiles available feel more or less the same as each other, which leads back to the problem in which deciding where to bid has less to do with its value to you and more to do with which other player you want to hurt. Cargo Noir is a good game, but if it could have found a scoring system with the variety of Ra’s, the bidding choices would be much more interesting.

The game is published by Days of Wonder, which means that despite the pasted-on theme, it comes with high-quality bits and detailed artwork. This is nice, even if it is a little more extravagant than needed. For all the attention to the game’s appearance, though, it seems that someone could have put some effort into making  sure that all the pieces fit back in the box easily. There are ways to squeeze everything in there, but none of them are as simple as they should be.

All that said, Cargo Noir is a better game than many of Days of Wonder’s recent offerings. I don’t find the auctions themselves compelling enough to return to this one regularly, but the auction system is original and elegant enough to ensure that it won’t be forgotten.

Grade: B