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I was exceptionally eager to get Galactic Expanse: Starship Battles (Lost Battalion Games, 2006 – Jeff Billings), mostly because any game that simulates spaceship combat is one that draws me in. In fact, my geekiness came out during the game, as I was explaining the rules to another player. I mentioned that “these rules make sense when you compare them to real life”, and then we all burst into laughter at my version of “real life.” Still, I had no problem getting this game to the table with science fiction fans.
Galactic Expanse has one gigantic negative problem – the rules are almost incomprehensible. Fortunately, after struggling through them and using an example of combat on the web, we found a pretty nifty tactical space combat game. The game sticks with its theme of starships attacking one another – doing an extraordinary job of it. There are four races of aliens, and each feels fairly different, while well balanced. If you can make it through the muddle of rules and enjoy combat games with a bit of luck, Galactic Expanse is going to delight your inner child.
Each player controls a deck of sixteen spaceships, each a different species (Nizk, Gar, Brean, and Sarn). Spaceships have three offensive weapons (strike craft, hyper speed torpedoes, and beam weapons), a defensive weapon (railgun), shields, troop capacity, and thrust. Each weapon shows one to three dice (white six-sided, green eight-sided, and blue ten-sided), although it’s possible that a ship does not have one or more of the weapons. Shields also have one or more dice and may also have a “veil”, a “-2” modifier. Each player shuffles their cards, drawing six of them and placing them face up in two “lines” in front of themselves. Another deck of action cards is shuffled, with each player drawing six of them to form their hands. Each player is given a disc matching their color and one orange cube – and red and black damage tokens are placed in a pile. The game owner (hah!) takes the first turn, and the game commences.
Basically, on a player’s turn, they may play one action card from their hand, and then draw a card. Players often will forgo playing and simply draw a card. Each action card is actually two cards, and a player can play either action. Most actions affect battles, although a few allow a player to bring reinforcements in, make a sneak attack, etc. One of the major types of cards that can be played is a battle location (star system or nebula). When this occurs, a battle round occurs. Each battle has one or two rounds (raid and/or combat); and action cards delineate during which round they can be played.
When a battleground is played, it is worth a certain amount of victory points. Players place their disc on the card if they want to participate. If only one player places a disc, they win the battle without firing a shot and take the battleground card as spoils. Otherwise, the battle round begins, starting with the player who placed the card. That player rearranges the ships in their lines (as do all players at this point), and then places action cards on each of their ships (this is optional, but only one card maximum per ship). Action cards allow a ship to fire one or more of their offensive weapons.
Here’s where the rules got dense, but it seems fairly simple. When using strike craft to attack an enemy ship, that ship (or any friendly ship) has the option of launching their own strike craft (using an “intercept” card) that attack the incoming strike craft. If they fail, the defending ship fires its railgun at the approaching craft. If that fails, then the strike craft fire against the shields of the defending ship. When using torpedoes to fire, the defending ship fires at the torpedoes with the railgun; and if that fails, the torpedoes fire against the shields of the defending ship. Beam weapons go straight up against the shields. Ships can only attack or be attacked when in the front line.
In all rolls, a player rolls the dice indicated on their ship card. Defending strike craft and torpedoes always roll one blue die. When rolling more than one die, a player takes the highest result. The two rolls are compared; and if the attacking roll is higher than the defending roll, the ship (or strike craft) take one damage cube. If the attacking roll is more than double the defending roll, the ship (or strike craft) is destroyed. Veils will subtract two from the attacker’s roll (although some planets cancel out certain veils), and other modifiers may apply (such as the most important one – a damaged ship is “-2” to all their rolls).
The battle goes through two rounds, or until one player destroys two ships of the other side – at which point they win. If neither player does this, the contested battleground is simply discarded, although players still get to keep the ships they’ve destroyed as victory points. The game continues until the action deck is depleted. At this point, the player with the most victory points wins the “operation”. Everything basically resets (some changes), and play starts again with the winner of two operations winning the game.
There are some other rules, such as overhauling a ship, attacking with shadowcraft, etc.; as well as some “optional rules”, which I seem to feel should always be played with.
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: The game isn’t going to wow people with its components, but the cubes, discs, and dice are all perfectly functional. The ship cards are really nice – laminated cards with some really good-looking ships on them – each race having a very distinctive look. The different weapons are easy to distinguish, and it really adds to the theme of the game. The action cards are also good quality, although they can be a bit jarring to look at, since they are two cards slammed together (one horizontal, the other vertical). The icons are very well done, however; and once we got over the rules, we were playing the game lickety-split.
2.) Rules: Well, there are sixteen pages of rules; and after reading them, I was completely lost. We read them again, together as we tried to play the game, and slowly, as if trudging through mud, we managed to piece together how the game works. What boggles my mind is that the game isn’t really that hard to play! Once you figure out the basic battle sequence, everything flows smoothly. The website (http://www.lostbattalion.com/) has a detailed explanation that really helps -- why wasn’t it included in the rulebook? The rulebook looks good with color illustrations, but it was a royal pain to digest. When playing the game, learn from someone who knows how to play already, if possible.
3.) Optional Rules: There are three optional rules that should be mandatory, if possible. One is a special ability for each race – something that helps distinguish them and make them more balanced. Another is needing to use troops to take a battle location. This is a nifty idea, as it forces a player to use ships in battle that aren’t combat heavy but make it easier to take the system. The third allows players to use their thrust to maneuver between the first and second lines during battles – adding more tactics, hooray!
4.) Players: The game seems as if it would be best with two players, or four players in teams, but the three player game really does work well – surprising me. Two players are opposed to one, but the game rules even the odds well, giving the odd player out extra cards and ships – just enough to make it a fair, balanced game. The only way I don’t enjoy the game is with four players – each as individuals rather than teams – the game is too chaotic at that point.
5.) Theme: I really enjoy how the game really has a theme of giant space ships attacking one another with small fighters, torpedoes, and laser guns. Sending in the small ships is a much more difficult way to attack an enemy ship, as they have to get past three lines of defense but are the easiest way to attack, and most battles and raids will be full of this type of combat. Taking a ship down isn’t easy, and it’s quite satisfying to see it happen – and taking down two ships to win a battleground can be very impressive.
6.) Luck and Strategy: There is a good amount of luck in the game, when it comes to rolling dice and drawing cards. The card drawing I didn’t mind, since all the cards are useful (although some are certainly better than others); and a player will most likely draw all the cards they need over the course of a game. The dice mechanic is neat, because having three dice on a gun certainly doesn’t guarantee victory, but it still gives the guy with one die a fighting chance. There are lots of attacks made in the game with most of them failing; but the few times they work, it’s a memorable moment.
7.) Races and cards: The four races seem to be equally balanced. The Sarn have higher shield ratings than the other three but lack beam weapons (the most powerful weapons in the game). I’m not sure which I like best, but I think it’s almost essential to use the special abilities for each race – the Gar’s Queenships are especially interesting. I enjoy how the races certainly feel different when playing them, and the rules even provide an interesting back story if you need more theme.
8.) Fun Factor: Once I figured out how to play the game, I really enjoyed it, although some of the players I taught it to were even more enamored with it than I. I like the tactical battles, and the duel usages of the action cards. Battles feel “realistic”, and game play is fairly simple and smooth. There is a lot of firing of weapons, and the game should scratch the itch of someone wanting a tactical battle.
Hey, the components are mediocre; the rulebook is atrocious, yet I still found myself enjoying this science fiction game. It’s one in which the theme comes to life, offers a player a lot of tactical options during battle, and the type of game which encourages stories long after the box has been put back on the shelf. Those who seek spaceship combat and want the theme to be immersive should certainly give this game a look!
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