Ad Astra

What do Homo Sapiens do as planetary resources rapidly dwindle,  and the light in the sky governing life threatens to burn out? They take to the stars in search of sanctuary offering new sources of food, water, and energy.

What if in the far future, when humanity has evolved into 5 distinct races on 5 dying planets, this scenario of succession unfolds? What if an alien galaxy - previously unexplored - opens up to them all? Which faction will colonize, industrialize, and terraform their way to longevity? Which Empire will uncover the Omnibus Rebus Responsum?

When Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget join forces to design games, the result is typically revolutionary: As veterans of board game design, having brought us famous titles such as Citadels and Shadows Over Camelot (both brilliant spins on the classic whodunnit scenario), it isn't surprising that Ad Astra is one of the duo's best.

Ad Astra is a simple game of space conquest elegantly layered with tactical depth. It is a fitting candidate for the Nexus Series - a fellowship of creations from renowned designers from all over the world - and is sure to impress you with its clever and new age mechanics.

The game begins with 3-5 players, each inhabiting one planet orbiting Sol-the system's dying star. Players each flip one face down planet tile prior to the start of the game, and place a starting factory on their choice once it's been revealed.

These newly declared home planets each contain a single resource (food, water, ore, or energy), all of which can be harvested during the Action Phase of the round. Players begin with one resource card of each type, which are useful in formulating an overall victory strategy based on the resource their home planet produces (more on that later on).

 Surrounding the system of Sol are the rest of the systems available for exploration - all with face down tiles. It is of course the randomness of each turn  which makes the game fun, and for the first round, the starting player is also determined at random.

Now it's right off the bat that Ad Astra gets interesting. Each player has available to them 11 unique Action Cards. Three Action Cards can be played face down on the board during the Planning Phase in a 4-5 player match, with 4 Action Cards rendered  playable in a 3 player match.

It these Action Cards which drive the game- fuelled by a unique planning mechanic (the likes of which JADE has never before encountered in this genre of board game). The Action Cards allow players to:

  • Move their starships throughout the galaxy by spending energy (whether from system to system, planet to planet, or into deep space).
  • Build by spending different resource combinations (starships, factories, colonies, or terraformers).
  • Produce Resource Cards from planets supporting their factories (food, water, energy, ore).
  • Trade resources between themselves for leverage
  • Or score victory points based on the conditions of the Action Card they play.

The strategy involved in the planning phase is exciting. Of the 5 types of Action Cards, there are multiple incarnations - each with a different set of available options. For example, the movement Action Card has a specified system type which players can move to when they use that card - while the scoring cards grant victory points for the total factories, terraformers, etc owned by a player.

The catch 22 is that all players can perform the action from another player's card when it comes time for that card to be resolved during the turn order. Paying close attention to the order of cards on the planning board (which can in fact be placed anywhere on the track during the Planning Phase as turn order circulates), as well as anticipating the cards your opponents will play based the resources they control (so you can also capitalize),  is vital for victory. Is the opponent before your turn with plenty of food and water cookin up a terraformer? This game keeps you on your toes.

The fact that the Resource Cards are the currency of Ad Astra - allowing for building and movement to take place - makes for a fun guessing game when players move their starships into unexplored systems as they can look at the Planet Tiles there in secret before choosing where to land.

So do you follow them to that system thinking there will be a food planet there to aid in your construction of a terraformer - and a possible 4 victory points? Or do you play it coy and travel to an unexplored system of your own, where you might uncover an alien planet to colonize.

If the latter is true, players can draw from a deck of Alien Artifact cards - essentially the wildcards of the game - which grant abilities to be played that shake everything right up (They're even labelled with super cultured latin titles).

While resource cards are important early on to help build up scoring elements, a secret stash of alien artifacts could be crucial when making a run for victory towards the end of the match.

The best part of Ad Astra is the sheer amount of choice available to players in terms of strategies to pursue. JADE almost broke the game by discovering that pursuing the construction of terraformers - at 4 victory points each - from the get go is a quick way to win. And yet, the ability to do so relies on luck of the draw to a degree, in terms of having starting planets which produce the food and water necessary to build them.

But alas, vigilance and the ability to adapt to the gameplay of your opponents will always be rewarded with victory points. As soon as you have the materials, play scoring cards and establish a lead because the tables can quickly turn when a galactic monopoly is at stake. There is much entertainment to be had in Ad-Astra, watching players attempt to negotiate trade deals for resources they desperately need. Buckle in and enjoy the ride.

What is perhaps most interesting about this next-gen board game is the fact that there is no combat involved whatsoever. JADE briefly mused about how potentially adding in attack and defensive Action Cards might affect the game dynamic, and came to the conclusion that it's all a matter of personal taste.  If you're a fan of having the ability to directly engage your opponents to have more control over their fates, then perhaps the addition of a combat mechanic would be favourable in order to draw out - and make more intense - an already very fast paced game.

What we liked most about this strategic tabletop is the requirement for quick thinking/ingenuity vs brute force in a game with so many noteworthy variables. The gothic design of the game art corresponds very well with the fluid and sleek gameplay in order to engineer a stylishly immersive experience. This is what we like to see most in board games: simple yet sophisticated class.

Though the instruction manual is a bit difficult to read for novice strategy gamer - due to a less than optimal layout and exposition style - the original and intuitive turn mechanics fuelling Ad Astra almost begin to explain themselves as the game progresses.

All of the elements from exploration, to production, to scoring, weave together crisply to keep players very engaged throughout. As humanity takes to the stars for one last shot at new life, knowing where they've been - and where they're going - is the Magnum et Antiquum Arcanum yielding the salvation they so desperately seek.

Ad Astra Ad Astra Reviewed by JADE Gaming on 9/03/2014 11:28:00 am Rating: 5

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