Ad Astra

What do Homo Sapiens do when planetary resources have dwindled and the light in the sky governing life threatens to burn out? They take to the stars in search of sanctuary delivering 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, and 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: Their both Veterans of board game design, having brought us famous titles such as Citadels and Shadows Over Camelot, which are both brilliant spins on the classic whodunnit scenario. so it isn't surprising that Ad Astra is one of the Duo's best. It is a simple game of Space Conquest elegantly layered with tactical depth. This game 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.

Ad Astra 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 revealed. These new Home planets each contain a single resource (Food, Water, Ore, or Energy), all of which can be harvested during the Action phase. Players begin with one resource card of each type, 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 game which makes it 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, 3 of which can be played face down on the planning board during the planning phase in a 4-5 player match; 4 in a 3 player match. It is these action cards which drive the game, fuelled by a unique planning mechanic, the likes of which JADE has never before encountered-but has been captivated by. The action cards allow players to move their starships throughout the galaxy, (whether it be from system to system, planet to planet, or into deep space at the cost of energy) build (starships, factories, colonies, or terraformers all at the cost of different resource combinations)  produce resource cards from planets supporting their factories  (food, water, energy, ore),  trade resources between themselves for leverage, and 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 cards have a specified system type players can move to when they use that card, and the scoring cards grant victory points for  total factories, terraformers, etc owned by players. The catch 22 is that all players can perform the action from another's card when it comes time sequentially for that card to be resolved during the action phase, so paying close attention to the order of cards on the planning board (able to be placed anywhere 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 (Opponent before you with plenty of food and water cards = terraformer?) This game keeps you on your toes.

The fact that the resource cards are the currency of Ad Astra-allowing building and movement to take place-makes for a fun guessing game when players move their starships into unexplored systems and are able to look at the planet tiles there in secret before choosing one on which to land. 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 was the case, players could draw from a deck of alien artifacts, essentially the wildcards of the game, granting abilities to be played to alter the flow, and labelled with cooly-cultured latin titles. (Winning the game at exactly 42 out 50 victory points anyone? Boo-yah) 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 terraformers at 4 victory points each from the get go is a quick way to win, yet the ability to do so relies on luck of the draw to a degree in terms of having starting planets which produce the ooh and water required 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 turn quickly when a galactic monopoly is at stake. There is much entertainment to be had as well, 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. We discussed how potentially adding in attack and defines 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 a very fast paced game. What we liked most about this strategic tabletop is the requirement for quick thinking and 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 difficult read for a first-timer (we missed a couple of more vague rules on the first play through) due to a less than optimal layout and exposition style, the original and intuitive turn mechanic fuelling Ad Astra almost begins to explain itself 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 salvation.

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

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