Ad Astra

What does a civilization do when resources on the ground run dry? They take to the stars in search of sanctuary: A home offering new sources of food, water, and energy.

In the far future, when humanity has evolved into 5 distinct colonies on 5 dying planets, an alien galaxy - previously unexplored - opens up to them all.  Each faction will colonize, industrialize, and terraform their way to longevity - but which Empire will uncover the answers to it all?

Definitely laser-hands.
When Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget join forces to design games the result is typically revolutionary: As veterans of board game design having produced such titles as Citadels and Shadows Over Camelot, it isn't surprising that Ad Astra is one of the duo's best.

They present here a simple game of space exploration that is elegantly layered with tactical depth. It's a fitting candidate for the Nexus Designer's Series (a fellowship of creations from renowned designers across the globe) and is sure to impress you with its clever mechanics.

The game begins with 3-5 players, each inhabiting one planet orbiting Sol (the system's dying star). These newly declared home planets each contain a single resource (food, water, ore, or energy), all of which can be harvested during the round's action phase through players' factories. Everyone begins with one resource card of each type, which are useful in formulating an overall victory strategy based on the resource your home planet produces.

Time to eat.
Now it's right off the bat that Ad Astra gets interesting: Surrounding the system of Sol are the rest of the systems available for exploration - all with face down tiles. For the first round, the starting player is also determined at random.

Each player has 11 unique action cards available in their hand. Three action cards each can be played face down on the board during the Planning Phase in a 4-5 player match, and 4 action cards each in a 3 player match.

The action cards drive the game and are fuelled by a unique planning mechanic - the likes of which JADE had never before encountered in this genre. They 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 starships, factories, colonies, or terraformers by spending different resource combinations
  • Produce resource cards from planets supporting their factories (food, water, energy, ore).
  • Trade resources between themselves for leverage
  • Score victory points based on the conditions of the action card they play

Time to build.
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. The action card for movement has a specified system type that 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 its that card's turn to be resolved. Paying close attention to the order of cards being thrown down on the planning board is key, as they can be placed anywhere by anyone during the planning phase. Try to anticipate the cards your opponents will play based the resources they control. Capitalizing is vital for victory here. Could the player before you with plenty of food and water be cookin up a terraformer don't ya know? This game keeps you sharp.

Choose wisely. 
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 - and look at the planet tiles there in secret before choosing where to land.

Time to fly.
Do you follow your rival to a 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 a lucrative alien planet to colonize.

The discovery of an alien planet allows players to draw from a deck of alien artifact cards - essentially the wildcards of the game - which grant access to game-changing abilities. (They're even labelled with elegant 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 wield. We almost broke the game by discovering that pursuing the construction of terraformers (and their 4 victory points) from the get go is a quick way to win. This winning edge does rely on luck to a certain degree though, as having starting planets which produce the food and water necessary to build them is going to get ya terraformin a lot faster.

It's vigilance and the ability to adapt to the gameplay of your opponents that will always be rewarded with the victory points needed to win. 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 served up in Ad-Astra when watching players attempt to negotiate trade deals for resources they so desperately need. Settle in and enjoy the ride.

We briefly mused about how adding combat action cards might affect the game dynamic, and came to the conclusion that it's a matter of personal taste.  If you're a fan of having the ability to attack your opponents to have more control over their fates, then perhaps the addition of a combat mechanic would be favourable. It would certainly prolong and intensify an already very fast paced game.

It's the demand for creative thinking/ingenuity vs brute force that we enjoyed the most in this strategic tabletop with a variety of variables. The techno-gothic game art creates a cadence that harmonizes 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 the novice strategy gamer - due to a less than optimal layout and exposition style - the original and intuitive turn mechanics fuelling Ad Astra make this an engaging and noteworthy collectible. Salvation's in the stars.

Written by Jeff Clive

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

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