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A HANDFUL OF STARS

Reviewed by Pevans

A HANDFUL OF STARS (Treefrog Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 120 minutes; about $80)

 

As you can may suspect from the title, A Handful of Stars has a science fiction theme. In this Martin Wallace design, players are trying to rebuild their empires after a cataclysm has redistributed solar systems across the galaxy. In game terms, this means players start with scattered holdings, providing a different challenge each game.

The solar systems are square tiles and distributed at random into the marked positions on the board. The board shows connections between positions but some of these will be closed off, depending on just which system tile goes where. This is a neat mechanism that enhances replay value and means the geography of the board needs to be studied before the game starts. Expect a few systems to be all but isolated with restricted access. Very useful defensively, not so good if you’re trying to expand out of them.

There is a card for each system as well and players are dealt a number of these to provide their holdings at the start of the game. These will be an equal number of inhabitable (where colonies can be built and which provide population) and uninhabitable (providing resources, but limited to outposts) systems. Once all players have marked the systems they hold, they decide which should be their ‘Homeworld’ (placing a wooden cylinder in their colour) and which their first colony (a wooden disc); the others remain outposts (wooden cubes).

Several things follow from this. First off, the luck of the draw will give some players better starting positions than others. Having a few systems close together is good, provided they’re connected. And a corner position – or one of those dead ends – is more defensible, though this does depend on which connections are open.

Secondly, players score points for their outposts (3 points each), colonies (5) and Homeworld (7). This means it’s useful to have neutral inhabitable systems close to your starting position; they provide opportunities to expand into and build more colonies and outposts. However, while a better starting position is good, it should make you a target for the other players.

As each player has the same wooden pieces on the board, they start with the same score (shown on a track on the board). Players’ scores will go up as they build new outposts and colonies and will go down as other players conquer them. Yes, this is a wargame. Most of players’ points come from their holdings on the board but there are a couple of other sources.

As well as the main board, each player has their own board (well, sheet of card). The top row of this is where they place their “undeployed” colony discs. As each colony is placed, its space is filled with a “Development” tile, drafted from those available. Generally, these tiles provide resources, but they can also give players points or increase the capacity of their ‘Reserves’ (more of this later). The first two spaces are emptied by placing their Homeworld and initial colony, so players start with a couple of Developments each.

As well as Developments, players can acquire “Technologies” from the substantial deck of Technology cards. A number of these are available to purchase – using “Research” resources. They provide all sorts of useful things such as combat bonuses, faster movement and even victory points. There is one special Technology: wormholes. If this comes out (and it has in every game I’ve played), it can be bought by every player (they take a tile rather than the card). Being able to use wormholes allows players to move their fleets directly from one system tile with a wormhole icon to another. This can radically alter the geography of the board but I have to say that it’s had minimal effect in the games I’ve played.

Gameplay is driven by cards, with each player having their own deck. They draw a hand, play from there and then refill their hand, shuffling their discard pile when their deck runs out. In a neat mechanism, this is what determines the end of the game. Each time any player reshuffles, a counter is moved along a track. When this reaches a specific point, depending on the number playing, the final round is triggered. Then the player with the most points wins (though it’s worth checking that players’ points have been recorded correctly; tot up their wooden pieces on the board plus any Developments and played Technologies with points).

Cards will have one or more resource icons (population, matter, energy, research) in the top left corner and/or some text in the body of the card. When a card is played, it is either for ONE of the resources shown OR to do what the text says. Some cards, marked “Reserve”, have a permanent effect once placed in a player’s Reserve. Some, marked “Combat”, can be played during a battle. Some are marked “Free action” and can be played in addition to everything else players do in their turn. And some are “one use only” and go out of the game once used.

Players’ starting decks consist of a standard set of four cards in their colour plus their starting systems and two random Technologies (all Technologies are useful – in the right circumstances – but some are more useful than others, especially when you get them free at the start of the game). In addition, each player draws a “race” card and takes the three special Technologies associated with that particular alien race. Thus the Aggroloids have some big guns while the Technoids acquire new Technologies more easily.

Players shuffle their deck and draw a starting hand of six cards. In good Martin Wallace style, each turn consists of the current player taking two actions, powered by the cards (and Developments) he/she has available. This goes round until the end of the game is triggered, when players complete the round and play one more full round.

This being a wargame, an obvious action is building military units: fleets and starbases. These are cardboard pieces in the player’s colours and can only be built at the player’s colonies (and Homeworlds). Fleets have a strength of 3, while starbases are worth five but can’t move. However, they cost the same: one population resource and one matter. The build action lets a player construct up to two units, playing cards and/or flipping over Development tiles to provide the required resources.

Having got some units (and players start with a fleet in each of their systems and starbases with their Homeworld and colony), it must be time to attack. By taking the move action, players can move their fleets and start one fight by invading a neutral system or one belonging to another player. It costs one energy resource to move one fleet from one system to an adjacent one. Thus, launching a decent invasion requires plenty of energy.

Combat is an interesting, incremental process. When a battle starts, the strengths of the two sides are checked and a marker placed to show the difference. So, if I attack with two fleets (strength of 6) against a defending starbase (strength 5), the marker is +1 in my favour. It is then up to the player on the losing side to shift the marker to their side. They can do this by moving in fleets (if they have the energy resources to do so), playing Combat cards and/or using Matter resources (“throw rocks at ’em!”) from cards or Development tiles.

This continues until one player gives up. The loser loses half their units, rounded up, and must retreat the rest; they are lost if they can’t retreat. The winner loses half their units, rounded down. If the defender loses, they lose any wooden piece in the system and their score goes down by the appropriate amount. They also lose the card for the system which goes back onto the neutral systems pile. Importantly: win or lose, the defender refills their hand after the fight, hopefully ensuring they’re not an easy mark for the next player.

Inhabitable system tiles have a strength printed on them, which is used if they are neutral and are attacked. What’s more, at the start of the game, a random alien fleet counter is placed on each neutral system and its strength isn’t revealed until the system is attacked. This means the neutral systems can be a tough nut to crack. Or a pushover. There’s one wrinkle to Combat: once the initial relative strengths have been revealed, if the losing side can’t move the marker to their side of the track, the winner does not lose any pieces. Hence, attacking neutral systems with overwhelming force is a good idea!

Having conquered a system, the next thing to do is make it yours. The Colonise action lets a player build one colony (only on habitable systems) or outpost on a vacant system. This costs one population resource (from cards and/or Development tiles) for an outpost (and scores them three points) and three for a colony (for five points). The player also takes the card for that system and places it on their discard pile. Remember that military units can only be built on colonies, so taking habitable systems and building colonies lets you expand your military might further.

The Reserve action allows a player to put cards from their hand into the two reserve slots shown on the player board. Each slot can have a maximum of two cards (unless expanded by a ‘+1’ Development tile) and slot 2 can only hold “Reserve” (i.e. permanent effect) cards. Think of the reserves as a way of extending your hand: you can play a card from reserve in just the same way as playing a card from hand. The point to remember is that you can’t put a reserve card back into your hand.

To take one of the available Technology cards, players use the Draft action and pay the Research resources shown on the card (by playing cards and/or flipping Development tiles). The card goes onto their discard pile and a new card is drawn to replace it. Playing an “Action” card takes up one of a player’s actions. Finally, players have the option to discard cards, remove a card from the game or even pass – though I wouldn’t recommend it – as their action.

A few things fall out of all this. First, regardless of what you want to do, your actions in any turn are constrained by the resources available to you. Development tiles and cards in reserve provide flexibility here, so that you’re not limited to the cards in hand. It can be well worth stocking up your reserves, both for offence and defence, which makes the “+1” Development tiles useful.

Second, taking new systems and buying technologies both add to your capabilities, but they also make your deck bigger. Thus it takes longer to get the cards you want into your hand. What’s more, the resources available to you will depend on which systems you conquer. Taking habitable systems, as I suggested above, may let you expand your military, but it fills your deck with Population resources.

What does this give us? Well, A Handful of Stars is a moderately complex game, though it’s pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it. It is, as I keep saying, a wargame, so attacking other players is central to the game particularly as taking a solar system from another player and then colonising it both increases your score and reduces theirs. While being able to defend your patch is useful, you need to conquer territory as this is where the majority of the victory points comes from.

Tactically, there is a lot to think about, starting with the geography of the board – something that the availability of wormhole technology changes radically – and your position: what forces are available to you where, which technologies can be bought and, of course, the cards in your hand. An obvious gambit is to take technologies early. This lets you get the most benefit from them (once they’ve cycled into your hand) but you have limited research points initially.

Conquering and colonising other systems is the way to score points. However, doing so means building enough military forces first, something that is obvious to your opponents. Of course, as soon as you take a lead, you become a target for the other players. This is the usual problem with a three-cornered wargame: if two players fight each other, the third wins, making everybody very wary.  This makes a four player game the game of choice. There is a lot to think about and players have a lot of decisions to make. There is also a substantial luck element. Not in combat but in what Technology cards are available and, particularly, players’ starting positions.

As mentioned by Wallace himself, this is the final game in an “unintended trilogy”, using a space theme that builds on the concepts and mechanisms first seen in A Few Acres of Snow  and then developed in Mythotopia. Only 2500 of these games have been printed by Treefrog. This is the last title from Treefrog as Martin Wallace is concentrating on designing games for other publishers. Rights to the game have already been sold to Fantasy Flight Games who intend to use the core mechanisms in other games. Whether this means that another printing of this title may appear some time down the road under the Fantasy Flight imprint is unclear.

A new game from Martin Wallace demands to be played, as far as I’m concerned. All in all, A Handful of Stars is interesting and provides players with challenges and plenty of variety. However, I had a bit of trouble persuading other people to join me as this one is essentially a wargame – and a multi-player wargame too, which is hard to pull off.  A Handful of Stars gets 6/10 on my highly subjective scale. – – – – – – Pevans


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