Reviewed by Herb Levy
SUBASTRAL (Renegade Games Studio, 2 to 5 players ages 10 and up, 15-30 minutes; $21.99)
The planet we share is a beautiful thing. If you take the time to look, you would appreciate the different biomes that comprise it. From that perspective, designers Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle have devised a card game to capture that beauty: Subastral.
Subastral is a card game and the relatively small box holds a card tray, rule book, score pad, “cloud” cards along with a deck of 103 cards representing the 8 biomes in the game: Subtropical Desert, Savannah, Tropical Rainforest, Chaparral, Temperate Grassland, Temperate Forest, Taiga and Arctic Tundra. The number of cards in each of these 8 “suits” differ and some cards will be removed from the deck depending on player count. The six large “cloud” cards are spread out, from 1 to 6 in number order, to form the play area.
Cards are shuffled and each player dealt a hand of three. A certain number of cards (based on player count) is peeled off from the deck and the “End of Game” card is placed on top. The rest of the deck is placed on top of that. Now six cards are revealed and, in revealed order, one card is placed on each of the six clouds. Finally, two more cards are drawn and, depending on the number on the card, placed on the matching numbered cloud. The Starting Player is randomly determined and the game can begin.
All cards show a biome (a suit) and a number (from 1 to 6). On a turn, a player MUST play a card to one of the clouds that matches the number on the card. Then, the player must either collect ALL of the cards on a cloud to the left of the played card (and draw another one from the top of the deck) into their hand OR collect ALL the cards on a cloud to the right and add them to his/her own display. (Exception: Playing on a 1 or a 6 gives you an option; you may play OR collect cards from the opposite end [i.e. the 6 or the 1.]) A card is now drawn from the top of the deck to refill the empty cloud. (If there are less than 2 clouds with at least 2 cards on them, cards are drawn until this condition is met.)
When placing cards into a display, each biome forms a separate column. Cards belonging to a biome already played are added to that column; cards from a “new” biome begin their own new separate column. Once cards are placed, they stay in that order. (You cannot insert a different biome between columns already played.) If you end up having no cards in your hand to play, you simply draw one from the deck – but that’s your entire turn! Play continues until the End of Game card is drawn. At that point, the round is completed and all players get one final turn. Then we score.
Points are earned in two different ways, via “mixed sets” and “matching sets”. (This is similar to the scoring found in Nidevellir featured this issue!)
A mixed set is having cards from different biomes, going across the rows. A full set of 8 biomes will score 36 points. But you also score for partial sets, provided that the “chain” is unbroken. (Sets are counted from the first column and go across. If there is a break in the chain – missing a card or two in the line – you only score as far as the break. You will always score something for a mixed set but if you are missing a card from the first column to start a subsequent mixed set, there is no mixed set to score!).
Matching sets are biome columns. The value of these matching sets is based on the POSITION of the biome in your display. So, for example, if you have the most cards in the first and second positions, those cards will score 1 and 2 points each, respectively. But if your two longest sets are in the seventh and eighth spots, each card there will score 7 and 8 points each! But it’s not that easy! You only score two of these sets and, in case of a tie, it is the LOWER valued position that gets scored! Highest combined score wins!
The theme of biomes is certainly an unusual one and the attractive artwork (credited to Beth Sobel) certainly adds to the pleasure of play. Although the colors used for several biomes are a little close in hue, the presence of icons to help differentiate them is very welcome. But don’t fixate on “biomes”; the theme is completely incidental. This game could have been about collecting anything! Fortunately, the theme or lack of it has no bearing on the enjoyability and quality of the game play aided by a clear and concise rule book.
Set collection and hand management is the essence of Subastral. You need to carefully calculate when to collect cards and when (and where) to play them for an optimum return. Cards display dots so you have an idea which biomes are more common and which less so so you can better assess card placement and the viability of completing chains (an excellent design decision). Do you scoop up cards to add different biomes to your mixed set (certainly worthwhile) even if those cards will come with cards that will add to your lesser valued columns? That can cost you at end of game scoring. Or do you concentrate on building up stocks of cards in the 6th, 7th and/or 8th positions of your display to score big that way? Or is a balanced approach the way to go? These can all be winning strategies if your shrewd card play is rewarded with a bit of luck to make your choices work. And I, for one, find the building of your display to be curiously addicting (in a very good way) too. Little facts on the cards help you learn a bit about biomes as you play. That the game plays quickly is an added bonus.
Sometimes, some of us tend to judge games in a smallish box to be lacking in some way. Not here! The game is not deep but it still manages to hold your attention. Players looking for a fast paced quality card game where decisions abound with every turn of the card, will find Subastral surprisingly satisfying. Recommended! – – – Herb Levy
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