(2011 Stronghold Games)
Theme and storytelling in games is easier said than done. While most games provide some type of theme, the success of how well it bleeds through to the people playing it, is a different thing altogether. The incorporation of theme inside of the gameplay can be even more difficult, as it is taking a gameplay element and producing a theme from it. Deckbuilding took the board gaming community by storm in 2008, but while Dominion, Thunderstone, and Ascension are great, popular deck-builders, they’ve all lacked a varying degree of theme and storytelling. Designer Andrew Parks, (who is previously known for his work on Camelot Legends and Ideology: The War of Ideas) released Core Worlds in 2011, and with it has created a unique balance of storytelling within a mix of game mechanics (including deck-building) that have not only been used to enhance the theme itself, but woven together to make a stellar game that flew under the radar for a lot of people before its release.
In Core Worlds, an ancient Galactic Empire has started to crumble, and each player takes on the role of a barbaric civilization that are striving to take over the open seat. Since each of these quaint civilizations are quite weak to begin the game, players must amass new technology and advanced units into their developing Empire in order to build toward conquering the Core Worlds; the 6 main Worlds at the center of the Galaxy. Players will play the game through 5 Sectors of the Galaxy (2 Rounds per Sector, 10 Rounds total), and each Sector will provide better Technology, more advanced Units, and more powerful Worlds. Each Sector has its own Deck in which cards will be drawn from each Round and placed in the Central Area.
Sector 1 (Rounds 1 & 2): The Barbarian Worlds
Sector 2 (Rounds 3 & 4): The Frontier Worlds
Sector 3 (Rounds 5 & 6): The Industrial Worlds
Sector 4 (Rounds 7 & 8): The Luxury Worlds
Sector 5 (Rounds 9 & 10): The Core Words
In the various Sector Decks, there are 4 different types of Cards. World Cards (green), Unit Cards (yellow), Tactic Cards (blue), and Prestige Cards (red). Before we discuss how to play Core Worlds, let’s take a look at each type of card and how they work within the game.
Every player will begin with a starting World face up in their Warzone (the Warzone is simply the player‘s area in front on him). Worlds are used in the game in order to obtain Energy from round to round. Some Worlds even provide additional bonuses that are included in the text on the card. Although players begin the game from their Home World, additional planets can be conquered throughout the game and added to the player’s Empire. Once these Worlds have been added to a player’s Empire (placed into their Warzone), the Energy it provides will be available to the player from round to round. The amount of Energy that a particular planet produces for its Empire is located in the top left corner of the card. The top right corner will display any Victory Points that the World provides its Empire at the end of the game.
Other Worlds besides a player’s starting Home World will need to be conquered. A World can be conquered by Fleet and or Ground Units. The bottom left and right corners of the World card indicate the strength amount of each Unit that will need to be used during a player’s Invasion of that World to successfully conquer it.
For instance, Player A decides to invade Balthazar on his turn in order to add this World to his Empire. In order to do so, he would need to have Fleet strength of 2 and a Ground strength of 2 (I’ll explain how these are obtained in a bit). Once added to his Empire, Balthazar will produce 1 Energy for Player A at the beginning of each Round. Additionally, it has a special bonus in that it will give +1 Energy for each Hero Unit in his Warzone. Balthazar also provides 1 Victory Point to Player A at the end of the game.
Since players begin their conquering from the outer rim of the galaxy, the types of Worlds will increase in value, energy, and bonuses the closer players get to the center of the fallen Galactic Empire. At the center of the galaxy (played during the last two rounds of the game), players will reach the Core Worlds. These 6 Worlds are difficult to conquer and players will have to plan for them well in advance. However, they provide a large amount of bonus Victory Points at the end of the game, depending on the types of cards you have included in your Empire. Let’s take a look at what each provides:
As discussed above, in order to invade a World a player must have Fleet and Ground Units. Unit Cards are played into a player’s Warzone in order to provides these types of strength. There 7 types of Units in Core Worlds: Infantry, Starfighters, Cruisers, Capital Ships, Robots, Vehicles, and Heroes. A Unit must first be drafted from the Central Area in order to be added to a player’s Empire, but will be placed directly into the player’s discard pile when obtained. Energy must be used to draft these cards, and the amount of Energy needed to draft each Unit is displayed in the center of the card, to the right of the Unit type.
The top left corner indicates the amount of Energy that must be used to play that Unit into your Warzone. So as you can see, you’ll need Energy to obtain the Unit Card as well as Energy to add it into your Warzone. Think of it as obtaining the type of unit or technology during the growth of your Empire, and then actually deploying it into battle. The amount of Fleet and Ground strength that a particular Unit provides (once it is in a player’s Warzone) is at the bottom corners of the card. As with the World Cards, the top right corner indicates the amount of Victory Points that Unit provides at the end of the game, and text in the middle of the card will reference particular bonuses it provides.
Now that there’s more familiarity with the different types of cards in Core Worlds, let’s take a look at how the different phases and overall gameplay works. There are 6 different Phases during each Round of play, though most of the gameplay will take place during the 4th Phase (Action Phase). Before we discuss the different phases however, let’s look at the setup of the game.
Players will randomly select a Home World and take the corresponding deck (barbarian faction) that goes with it. Each Home World has a number beside it, and the player that controls the World with the lowest number gets the starting marker. Each starting deck is the same between factions except for a different Hero card in each. I’d also recommend using the drafting rule at the beginning of the game.
Core Worlds comes with a set of starting cards that can be placed in the Central Area and drafted into players faction decks before the game begins. To do this, players will remove 1 Galactic Grunt and 1 Snub Fighter from their faction deck and discard it from the game. Then the starting draft cards will be placed in the Central Area and the person with the starting marker will draft 1 card. This continues until it gets to the last player, in which this player will draft 2 cards in a row, then will continue back counter clockwise until it gets back to the player with the starting marker. This mixes up the starting decks for each player and provides a larger sense of planning and control in building your starting Empire.
Players will receive a player mat that keeps track of Actions and Energy amount, as well as contains references for Phase Order, Turn Options, and Core World bonuses & Invasion strengths. The 5 Sector Cards are placed to the side of the Central Area, with each Sector Deck placed behind it. The Sector Deck makes up all of the cards that will be drawn to the Central Area during the Rounds which are listed on the Sector Card. To begin the game, the Round Maker is placed on the Round 1 spot of the 1st Sector Card.
1.) Draw Phase – Each player will draw for their Draw Deck until they have a total of 6 cards in their hand (During the final 2 Rounds, each player will draw up to 7 cards). As with any deck-building mechanic, if the Draw Pile runs out before a player draws up to 6 total cards, the remaining Discard Pile is reshuffled, and then the number of cards needed to draw up to 6 are then drawn from the new Draw Pile. This is how cards that are drafted from the Central Area will end up in a player’s hand.
2.) Energy Phase – During this Phase, player’s will accumulate the Energy provided to them by the Worlds in their Empire, in order to use this Energy during the Action Phase. Energy resets to 0 at the end of each Round whether all of it was used or not during the previous Round. Players will add up the amount of Energy noted on their Worlds and move the Energy Marker to the corresponding Energy spot on their player mat. Some Cards, such as the Energy Surge Tactic Card will allow players additional Energy during this Phase.
2 Players = 6 total cards in the Central Area
3 Players = 8 total cards in the Central Area
4 Players = 10 total cards in the Central Area
5 Players = 12 total cards in the Central Area
For instance, in a 3-player game there were 5 cards left over from the previous Round, 2 of which already had Energy tokens on them. Therefore, those 2 cards are discarded and new Energy tokens are placed on the remaining 3 cards. Then, because there are 3 cards in the Central Area, 5 new cards are drawn from the current Sector Deck to make up a total of 8 cards for this Round.
4.) Action Phase – This is where the meat of the game takes place. The number of Actions a player can take each Round is determined by which Sector (Round) the players are currently in. Sectors 1 & 2 provide 4 Actions, Sectors 3-8 provide 5 Actions, and Sectors 9 & 10 provide 6 Actions. At the end of each Round (during the End Phase), players will mark the provided number of Actions on their player mat. On a player’s turn, they have the option of taking 5 different types of Actions, as explained below. A player can only choose to take 1 option each turn, then it goes to the next player. This continues clockwise, over and over. The Action Phase ends when all player’s have passed and/or can no longer spend any more Actions/Energy.
Option 1 – Draft 1 Card: A player spends 1 Action point by moving its marker on the Action section of the player mat down 1 space and may Draft a Card by spending the corresponding amount of Energy to do so (by moving the Energy marker on the player mat).
Option 2 – Deploy X amount of Units: A player can deploy as many units on his turn as he wishes, but must spend 1 Action point for each Unit and spend the accumulated amount of Energy.
So for instance, if Player A took this Option on his turn, he could spend 2 Action points to deploy a Galactic Grunt and a Promethean Cyborg to his Warzone, which would cost him a total of 5 Energy.
There is no maximum to the amount of Units that can be deployed during this Option, as long as the player has both the Action points and Energy amount to do so.
Option 3 – Invade 1 World: A player spends 1 Action point and 1 Energy to Invade 1 World. In order to Invade the World, the player must have the Fleet and Ground strength available in their Warzone that meets or exceeds the amount printed on the World. This World is then added into the Warzone and the cards used for the Invasion are placed into the player’s discard pile.
Galactic Grunts and Snub Fighters have a special ability in which they can inhabit a newly conquered World as long as they were part of its Invasion. One of these cards can be placed underneath each newly conquered World. This does not provide any bonuses other than simply being able to trash some of the regular units in your starting hand from the beginning of the game. The more Galactic Grunt and Snub Fighters you can get out of your Deck, the more often you’ll get the better, more advanced cards into your hand. These inhabited cards do still count as being in your Empire for endgame purposes, however.
On his next turn, Player A decides to take the Invade option and Invade Sahara I from the Central Area. Since Sahara I requires a Ground strength of 4 and a Fleet strength of 0 to conquer, Player A chooses to Invade with the Promethean Cybrog (+3 Ground) and a Galactic Grunt (+1 Ground) from his Warzone. He will then place Saraha I into his Warzone, which now provides him +2 Energy during each of the following Energy Phases for the rest of the game. Since the Promethean Cyborg and Galactic Grunt cards were used during the Invasion, they must be placed into Player A’s Discard Pile. However, Player A can choose to place his Galactic Grunt card underneath Sahara I, if he wishes.
Option 4 – Use 1 “As an Action” Ability: Some Tactic Cards have a printed text which reads, “As an Action….”. A player can spend 1 Action point to play one of these Cards, along with spending its required Energy.
For instance, Player C chooses to use his Grand Strategy Tactic Card on his turn. He would spend 1 Action point and 1 Energy to do so. This card gives him the ability to search his Draw Deck for any card, and place it into his hand. He then shuffles the remaining Draw Deck and it is the next player’s turn.
Option 5 – Pass: A player can choose to pass even if they haven’t used all their Actions and/or Energy. Even though Actions and Energy do not accumulate from Round to Round, there are certain times you may need to pass. Once a player has passed, his Action points automatically moved to 0. Once a player passes, they can no longer take any more turns during that Round.
5.) Discard Phase – Once all players have passed, each player must discard the remaining cards from their hand, face up to their Discard Pile. However, players can choose to keep 1 card from their hand for the next Round. In this case, only 5 cards will be drawn during the Draw Phase instead of 6. All cards that are still in the player’s Warzone at the end of the Round will stay there. You can accumulate cards in your Warzone until you decide to use them for Invasions or other abilities.
6.) End Phase – The End Phase is basically used as a Cleanup Phase to prepare for the next Round. The Round Marker will be moved to the next Sector, and that Sector will show players how many Actions will be available to them, which they will go ahead and mark on their player mat. The first player marker is then passed to the next player to begin a new Round.
After the 10th and final Round is complete, the game is over. Each player will total the number of Victory Points printed on all the cards in their Empire, as well as any bonus Victory Points (such as those produced by conquered Core Worlds). The player with the most Victory Points at the end of the game is the winner.
Core Worlds strives to add theme and storytelling to the deck building genre, and succeeds for many reasons, but mainly because it only uses “deck-building” as A mechanic, and not THE mechanic. Gameplay is based more around an engine-building Warzone, a unique action/energy allowance system, optional turn actions, and the usage of pre-planning strategy for future rounds. All revolving around a theme that makes sense and quite intuitive because of the combination of mechanics used.
Because the drafted cards increase in advancement, cost, and abilities as the game progresses, you’ll find that you’ll need to advance your civilization accordingly to keep up. Players that have weaker civilizations will find it harder to afford new cards, as it should be with weaker civilizations trying to advance themselves. The more powerful Worlds you conquer, the more Energy/Victory Points are provided. Also, certain Unit abilities will combo well with others, and you’ll find functional synergy in building a particular civilization a certain way, depending on the cards available in the Central Area.
The artwork on the cards are stunning, and resemble hand painted art pieces. There are very few copies of each card, so there is a wide-variety of artwork and card types to see in the game. Also, its important to note that the cards are pretty high-quality, having a 3-layer finish and white borders to keep from noticeable wear. The player mats are a bit thin, but functional since they are really only used for referencing Action and Energy points, as well as Turn Options. The flimsy box insert is really the only disappointment component-wise (if you want to count it as a component).
Core Worlds is not rule-heavy and simple to learn, but provides a lot of depth and planning. Anyone that enjoys engine-building or civilization expansion, will find a heap of replayability with this one (the unique use of different card decks for different rounds is something I’d like to see more in games). There’s not a whole lot of player interaction, other than swiping a card from the Central Area that someone else wants, but I find that I’m too busy worrying about building my own Empire than focusing on what others are planning around. It’s important to keep an eye out on opposing player’s Warzones, just in case you can tell if they are going after the same Core World as you, but not in any way that it will make or break the game for you as a overall strategy tactic.
Core Worlds works because of its unique mix of individual parts. The combination of a great theme, gorgeous artwork, various turn options, action allowance, a drafting/invasion mechanic, civilization building, along with a deck-building mechanic incorporated correctly, are what brings the game together and delivers quite a punch. If you’re new to both deck builders and/or a drafting mechanic in games, or you enjoy these types of games and are looking for something with a bit more theme, Core Worlds blends it all together quite nicely and provides a story that players can really get behind.