When Forbidden Stars was announced it immediately hit grail game status. Space combat game with hidden orders, unique card combat and amazing art and components. Yes, yes, and yes! I preordered it, received it, and have been waiting to play it – until now. It finally hit the table last night.
Forbidden Stars is a space war game where players are trying to achieve victory by capturing a certain number of objectives that are scattered across different planets. During the game, players will be managing their resources, building and deploying their forces, upgrading their (combat and order) abilities, and, of course, going into battle. This sounds pretty similar to other space war games, right? The game differentiates itself in the way orders are given and resolved and in combat.
At the beginning of a round, players will place order tokens face down in the different systems on the board. These orders can stack on each other and are then resolved in a top-down fashion. Multiple players can have orders in a stack which creates some really interesting bluffing and stalling opportunities. It also means that your plans are intertwined with your opponents which adds some great tension as you wonder if your orders will come up in the way you planned.
Forbidden Stars differentiates itself from other space war games in its order and combat systems.
Usually, combat in a big war game like this is driven mainly by dice. I have no problem with dice-driven systems. They have the benefit of being quick and decisive. Forbidden Stars uses dice as the foundation of a given battle but not the ultimate result. After rolling dice for your units in battle players will draw some combat cards. These are played in up to three successive rounds to add to your die results and give you other benefits in combat. After three combat cards are played by each opponent the combat is over even if there is no clear winner. The player with the highest morale at this point is declared the winner of the battle. This system allows a player who may be an underdog to play the long game and outlast their opponent.
I wouldn’t call Forbidden Stars a 4X game. The Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate are all there. I think you could argue a half-Explore X based on the way you build the board at the beginning of the game. So 3 and 1/2 Xes. Not 4X but close. Who really cares anyway how many Xes there are. Is it fun?
WHAT I LIKED
Top notch. Period.
I loved the interaction and planning available in this system. It took me a bit to get into the first-in-last-out thinking but once I did it was great. You can bluff. You can block. You can stall. There can be so much tension as the orders are being resolved, waiting to see if the timing will come out just right for you. So good!
You can bluff. You can block. You can stall. There is so much tension in order resolution.
The concept of dice being the foundation on which you strategically play your combat cards is wonderful. This makes each battle different and players really have to decide which cards to play and in which order based on the dice. The morale system is brilliant. I was able to pull off a morale victory as a big underdog that felt great.
The objectives you are trying to capture are not simply a planet you need to take and hold. This means that you can take the planet with your objective on it, gain the objective token, and then retreat from that planet, consolidating your forces to go after another objective. Objective-gathering is based only on temporary territory control, which frees you up to focus your forces in specific areas. This moves the game along at a good pace and you don’t end up spending tons of resources just to hold a planet. It also means that once you have taken a step toward victory, that step cannot be taken away potentially prolonging the game.
Each faction in the game looks and plays completely different. Even the things that start the same (your orders) can be changed to add your faction’s twist to them.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
All of the things I didn’t like really are just nit-picks or conditional.
- The game went about 3 1/2 hours. Admittedly, this was our first game, but even then I didn’t feel like it overstayed its welcome. But if you don’t have a good amount of time to play, this one probably won’t hit the table.
If you don’t have a good amount of time this game probably won’t hit the table.
- Combat can be a bit slow because of the tactical choices being considered. Combat is also a 2 person show so if a you are playing a three or four player game, the other players are twiddling their fingers. Or they are looking at their combat upgrades to figure out what they want next – not a bad option.
- The way Warp Storms moved was interesting but really hurt some players in the game. I am sure there are ways to mitigate or prepare for this as you become more familiar with the game.
I am going to say up front that this game is amazing. As I was going to sleep after playing, my brain was continuing to chew on the experience with a very satisfied feeling. Forbidden Stars hits all of the things that tickle my brain in all the right ways. Even the longer parts of the game were welcome as they were chock full of tactical and strategic decisions.
The game does a pretty good job of alleviating analysis paralysis by limiting the number of choices you have. Orders – you can only place in or adjacent to systems you control. Combat – you only have 5 cards in your hand to choose from and some can be duplicates.
It is inevitable that some games will be highly anticipated but fail to meet expectations when they are finally played. Forbidden Stars does not fall into that category. I would say that it met or exceeded my already high expectations. If you like what you heard above, I would most definitely recommend you pick this game up. I even have some instructions you can use to build a custom insert for the game to make setup, play, and tear down quicker.
THOUGHTS FROM THE PUB
My favorite thing about Forbidden Stars is the action system via the Orders. There is a good balance of tension as to which to place first and where to place them. Also, blocking someone else’s action is very satisfying. The combat, though, gives me a little too much choice anxiety. When I have to spend a fair amount of time looking through cards to plan the best attack I prefer it not be so chaotic once I actually go into battle. I like games that are a little more strategic in that I have a better grasp on the outcome. It’s definitely got a “the more you know about the game the more you win” feel to it too. I’d play it again if someone asked, but I think I prefer the shortness of Neuroshima Hex which gives me the same asymmetric feel.
I think about this game a lot. I don’t mean I want to play it all the time, in fact, I usually reserve this game for very special occasions with opponents that can appreciate the struggle on the same level. Okay, now I’m sounding overly dramatic. Let me just get to it, then. Forbidden Stars has really done well in bringing something like an RTS (real time strategy) computer game translated to a turn-based board game.
Most of what I have to say has already been said. Above all, I really enjoy combat in this game. It’s a refreshing system that provides a sort of mini-theater to each encounter. As each round of combat builds on the last, players can immediately see the payoff for previous upgrades or builds. And that’s where we really find the tension of the game. Do I buy more plastic with my resources, or do I upgrade all my current plastic for the remainder of the game? This is a great design and allows players some flexibility to valid strategies.
Leading me to my next observation: I think it’s great that success in Forbidden Stars doesn’t depend on overrunning your opponent with units and, in fact, rewards tactical strategies as opposed to overwhelming ones. It’s true that stronger units are better for combat, but the limits set by invading forces and reinforcements keeps the swarm tactics to a minimum.
While it’s a very tight system, it’s also a very convoluted one. Forbidden Stars is probably the crunchiest game I own (I don’t own TI3). I’m not prone to lots of rule exceptions and caveats of play so the fact that I love Forbidden Stars is a testament to how much I enjoy it in spite of the fact that it’s got a bunch of rule specifics for various things that might come up. The player reference book is amazing for this and the only way I’ve been able to process everything in-game.
For a game to give me the tactical feel of a space campaign, the thrill of small scale miniature combat, and streamlined resource building akin to a computer game, I feel very satisfied at the conclusion of each game and think about it for days to follow. In fact, I think I’m going to get try and get a game going tonight.