I have this theory, supported by some evidence, that game designers have to harbor a bit of cruelty for the participants in their games in order to make great games. We see this with Uwe Rosenberg, who built a punishing but brilliant experience with Agricola. It was hard, with hard decisions and meager rewards, but that made even modest success all that much sweeter. Later he adapted the concept into Caverna, with its end-game scoring bonuses displayed to help guide strategy and its relative bounty of available resources. The result is a more friendly game, yes, but I’d argue a worse one.
We also see this with my favorite designer Vlaada Chvatil, who makes scoring positive points a win condition in Galaxy Trucker and Dungeon Lords, regardless of everyone else’s score. This creates a two step learning process, as you first try to beat the game, and then you try to beat your opponents. It’s satisfying, and helps you understand how much you’ve progressed in your mastery of the game.
That’s not to say that a game can’t be too difficult or too sparse. But, yeah, I think some cruelty is required. To paraphrase Joss Whedon, designers shouldn’t give the players what they want, but what they need.
All of that to say that I think Stellar Leap, the new sci-fi 4x-ish game from Weird Giraffe Games currently on Kickstarter is too friendly and too giving to players. The concept is intriguing: a quick space exploration game that has elements of its larger 4x siblings with more streamlined play and some dice manipulation. It’s like Eclipse by way of Machi Koro.
Each player begins with one population on their homeworld, which are placed underneath cards showing dice faces 1-6. All of the planets will go into these columns, and each row of planets is a solar system. At the beginning each turn, the player will roll two dice and then get the opportunity to manipulate them using either their private dice power or the common one. After that each planet that corresponds with the two individual dice values and their sum produce resources. The dice manipulation is generally very well done and probably the most enjoyable aspect of the game. The powers given are significant enough to not make the proceedings feel too random while also providing for some uncertainty. Plus in some situations you can utilize the powers to corner off a particular segment of the universe for your own. My opponent did this in one two player game when he realized that I had no ability to make dice values smaller, while he was able to do so quite well. Most of the time, though, the decisions made here are simple and straightforward.
After collecting resources, the active player will get two actions from the four available–increasing population by one, discovering a new planet, taxing for two resources, or attacking another player. Then they’ll get to perform each of the “divisions” available once: intelligence to complete a mission, mining to extract resources from an asteroid, and labor to squeeze more resources out of a planet. Movement is unlimited (as long as you can pay the costs in resources). This is a tidy system for distributing actions, and it puts two pressures on the player: to use a limited number of actions as efficiently as possible and to use the divisions (particularly intel, as it gives you victory points) as much as possible.
The actions themselves are fairly benign, however. Increasing population and discovering planets is what you want to do most of the time, because that’s how you expand your empire and get in a position to acquire more resources. Taxation can help you in a pinch, but isn’t particularly efficient, and I honestly don’t understand the benefit to attacking.
Attacking other players is deterministic. If you have more people on a planet than the rest of the players together, you can attack and force the rest of them to scatter–move to other planets in the same solar system. The problem is that sometimes that’s exactly what your opponents want. Distributing your population among the planets usually costs fuel and oxygen, but if you’re forced to retreat it’s free. The winner does get recognition for the attack, and there are some points given for successful attacks at the end of the game, but there aren’t that many points up for grabs and attacking is action and resource intensive. It costs an action to attack when you could be expanding your empire, and it costs resources to move your population around for the purposes of attacking.
The divisions are similarly interesting, but frustrating. Intelligence allows you to complete a “mission”, though that’s not as exciting as it sounds. Each mission is just a card that specifies which resources you spend, what resources you get back, and how many points the mission is worth. As the game progresses more powerful missions are unlocked, but there’s still not really anything to it–just statistics. Usually there’s not much trouble getting a mission accomplished each round, partially due to how many resources are available through asteroids.
The mining division lets you mine these asteroids, which are mixed into the planet deck and are like a steroid boost of resources that completely changes the game. Each asteroid will give you either three or five of a resource, plus the highest value die on a roll you perform. The first roll on any given asteroid will have three dice, then it ticks down to two, then one. So while it does deplete as a resource, only in a four player game can someone ever get blocked from it. Bottom line is that you want to mine asteroids. One decent roll with an oxygen asteroid and you probably won’t need any more oxygen for the entire rest of the game.
Labor division, just like taxation, can help out in a pinch, but doesn’t provide that many resources for a once per turn ability. Its usefulness also scales down as you increase the player count. Labor division will exhaust the worker used, which makes them ineligible to receive resources if their number is rolled. But in a two player game there’s only one chance to miss out before they inexhaust.
Bounty of Resources
Alright, I’m droning on about the rules here. The review is feeling flat. But I can’t be blamed too much because Stellar Leap plays a bit flat. There are safe and dangerous planets you can explore, but there’s only one resource difference between them; safe planets will give you three resources and dangerous planets four. Missions scale up fairly well, but there’s no excitement to accomplishing them. They feel like a necessary chore. There’s not enough difference between the planets to really care which ones you’re on, which means that there’s not really any reason to fight over them. Manipulating which asteroids come out on the field can keep certain resources low among your opponents, but it’s not that hard for them to blast through the planet deck to find the asteroid they need, particularly since there’s no resource cost to discovering planets.
Resources are just so plentiful that acquiring them doesn’t feel like an accomplishment. There’s some management, but by the latter part of the game that becomes a matter of hoarding them to try to squeeze out points. See, there are some points gained through missions, and some through discovery and attacks, but the bulk of the points are given out through secret “trait” cards that distribute points for various accomplishments. The problem is that these are secret traits, so while after a while you can start to guess which one a particular opponent might have, there’s still not usually a way to stop it in any way.
The more significant problem is that certain traits seem so much more powerful than others. The one that provides points for each planet discovered is crazy powerful, since that player can just pump out two discoveries a turn for most of the game. Others are somewhat baffling: one provides 3 points for each population you have, and another provides 3 points for each population you have on a different planet. The former is simply strictly better than the latter.
But these kinds of balancing issues can be fixed before the proper release. The larger issue is that nothing in particular stands out here. I do enjoy the dice manipulation, and I enjoy the concept of the game. But as a game of resource economizing I don’t find any tension here. Compare this to Eclipse, where you feel the pressure of your investment and feel how your empire expands. Or compare to Scythe, where you must tightly plan ahead to squeeze out as much efficiency as possible out of your actions. In Stellar Leap you start with few resources and end up with many, yes, but there’s very little tension. There’s not very many tough decisions to be made. You explore, you expand, and you get resources. Then the game ends.
To be fair, the players do collectively determine when the game ends through triggering event cards. These will naturally trigger as the game progresses, but players will have a bit of control over the last one or two. The events themselves are all beneficial, which is generosity heaped on generosity. And delaying the game’s conclusion never seems particularly helpful, because everyone’s already strapped into their resource gathering machines, and most of the result is going to be determined by secret traits.
I love the concept here. I love the idea of a quick 4x game with dice manipulation. But in execution, with the prototype I was provided with, it’s not quite there. Accomplishing missions doesn’t feel like an accomplishment. Rarely will you feel like you’ve outmaneuvered people into a better resource engine. Aggression seems very weak. And at the end of the day everyone’s going to be sitting on a pile of resources anyway. There’s no undercurrent of cruelty here; no tension. It’s one of those situations where, when everyone wins, no one does.
Prototype provided by the publisher.
+Dice manipulation is done well
-Resources too plentiful
-Few moments of excitement or accomplishment
-Attacking never seems worthwhile
Learning Curve: 2/5
Brain Burn: 2/5