Radio Review #66 – Among the Stars

 

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(2012 – Stronghold Games, Artipa Games)

 

“Don’t you think they’d love to start all over….and fly like eagles out among the stars….”

 

For many within our community, Spiel des Jahres winner 7 Wonders was our first base introduction to a game that could solely function around a rotating drafting mechanic. The strategy of choosing a card for yourself whilst essentially choosing your opponent’s next hand simultaneously makes form some intriguing decisions and when done correctly, can help add to a game’s longevity. It’s hard to think that Antoine Bauza’s design was only published four years ago, yet since its release, while the drafting mechanic seems to be used more frequently within the confines of more recent releases (Seasons, Ginkgopolis, and Eminent Domain just to name a few), there aren’t many that have used it in the same sense that 7 Wonders was able to capture it. An Indiegogo crowd funding project for Artipa Games’ Among the Stars successfully completed in late 2012, immediately drawing comparisons to the previous Spiel des Jahres classic. Not simply because of its similar drafting mechanics, but because Greek game designer Vangelis Bagiartakis was able to establish a title that could interject elements that made 7 Wonders an amazing game, while also integrating enough unique pieces that helps to set Among the Stars apart as a soon-to-be classic in its own right. While extremely hard to find over the last two years, U.S. publisher Stronghold Games has signed on the release Among the Stars here in 2014.

In Among the Stars, players take on the roles of various alien races of the established galaxy Alliance, leading the construction of their race’s space station in order to help in their interaction with other races of the Alliance. ATS is essentially a draft-oriented game in which players will simultaneously choose to construct different locations by paying a certain number of credits, playing the location’s card from their hand and onto their space station. Players will then pass their hand of cards to the next player (much like the drafting/rotating mechanic found in 7 Wonders) and new locations are again chosen and constructed. This continues until all cards have been played and a new Round begins. Locations can be of various types, consisting of military (red), administrative (blue), businesses (yellow), diplomatic (green), and recreation (purple). Once part of a space station, these locations can provide the alien race immediate, ongoing, and/or end-game Victory Points. Specific placement of locations within the space station are important in how many Victory Point are earned, as many locations give bonuses according to what other locations are adjacent, or included in the station. The player with the most Victory Points by the end of the game is considered to have built the superior space station among the stars.

 

 

 

Components:

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– Among the Stars Score Track

 

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– Special Race tiles

 

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– Location cards (basic & special)

 

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– Main Reactor & Power Reactor cards

 

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– Objective cards

 

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– Conflict cards

 

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– Player markers & Year marker

 

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– Credit tokens

 

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– Energy tokens

 

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– Summary cards

 

 

 

Setup:

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As players work towards constructing the various areas and sectors of their space station, they will gain Victory Points for their efforts, based on where these locations are placed, what other locations they are placed next to, amongst many other variables. At the beginning of the game, the Victory Point track is placed in the central play area and each player places their player marker on the beginning of the track. Each Round in the game is considered a year, and players will play through 4 years in the game. The year marker is placed on the 1st year space on the Victory Point track as well.

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In Among the Stars, each player will control a particular alien race, consisting of eight different races of the galaxy’s Alliance. Each race has a unique special ability that will be active for the player during the game. Each player chooses a Special Race tile at the beginning of the game. This can be random or pre-selected, though the way I’ve enjoyed the most is to randomly deal two tiles to each player and let the player choose amongst the two.

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Each player will receive a Main Reactor card matching their player color of which they will place in front of them. This will be the beginning point of their space station where they will build around during the game. Two Energy tokens are placed on this card to begin the game. Each player also receives 10 credits and a Summary card referencing Round actions and end-game scoring.

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There are two main decks of Location cards; a basic deck and a special deck. Special location cards have a small “S” icon on the bottom right portion of the card. Players will randomly select a number of Special Location cards based on the number of players in the game (18 in a 3-player game and 24 in a 4-player game). These are then shuffled with the basic location cards to make up a complete Locations deck, which are placed in the central play area.

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Objective cards consists of various goals that players can attempt to complete before the end of the game. The player that completes a goal will gain the objective card and will be awarded end-game Victory Points, as listed on the card. At the beginning of the game, an Objective card is drawn face up, equal to the number of players in the game.

 

All remaining credit tokens and energy tokens are placed in the play area, along with a deck of Power Reactor cards. Once setup is complete, the play area should look something like this:

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Gameplay:

A game of Among the Stars is made up of four complete Rounds (or years) in which players will construct the layout of their alien race’s space station. Each Round consists of six turns. During each turn, players will be able to play a location card to either add as a location in their station, switch it out for a Power Reactor to help fuel their station, or trade it in for monetary Credits in order to purchase future locations. At the beginning of each Round (including the 1st Round of the game), each player will receive six Location cards drawn from the Location deck, along with ten Credits.

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During each turn, players will choose a Location card from their hand and will reveal it simultaneously as the opposing players and take an action with the card. The remaining hand is then passed to the next player and players will again choose a card and perform an action. This continues until all cards have been used (six turns) and a new Round begins. While all six cards will be used during the Round, a player’s credits are cumulative and remaining credits may be rolled over to the next Round, merging them with a new set of ten credits. Let’s take a look at the three actions player’s can choose from on a turn when playing a Location card from their hand:

 

 

1.) Build the Location

Each Location card has a cost for constructing the location in the top right corner of the card. This represents the number of credits/energy that needs to be spent in order for the player to add it to their space station. Once paid for, the player is allowed to place this newly constructed location into his station as long as it is directly adjacent (can not be placed diagonally) to another Location card or Power Reactor card. Players will score a number of Victory Points when adding the card to their station. The amount of Victory Points is listed on the bottom left corner of the card.

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The text on the card itself will list any bonus Victory Points that can be earned depending on various factors such as where the card is placed, how many other cards of its type are in the station, etc. Some of these Victory Points are awarded immediately when the location is added (as represented by a gray background behind the text), and some of these are instead awarded at the end of the game (as represented by a gold background behind the text).

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For instance, taking a look at Galactic Bank (yellow – business location), this location will cost 3 Credits and 1 Energy token to construct. This means that it must be placed within two spaces of a Reactor card with at least 1 Energy token on it. When placed, it will score the player 4 Victory Points, but also has an immediate effect in which the player will gain 1 extra Credit at the beginning of every remaining Round.

 

So where a player would normally gain 10 new Credits at the beginning of a Round, the player with a Galactic Bank in his station will receive 11. Of course, if the player is able to build another Galactic Bank in his station during the game, he would receive 12 Credits at the beginning of every future Round.

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The Alliance Headquarters is a Diplomatic location (green), and costs 4 Credits to build. It initially scores 4 Victory Points, but at the end of the game (gold background text) it could score an additional +1 Victory Point for each opposing player that has more Military (red) locations in their space station than this player. As listed on the card, there can only be a single Alliance Headquarters location in any one space station. A player is not allowed to build multiple Alliance Headquarters.

 

 

2.) Build a Power Reactor

Some Locations require energy along with the spent credits to complete their construction (as seen with the Galactic Bank location, above). A location requiring energy must be placed within two adjacent spaces of a Main Reactor or Power Reactor card that contains enough energy tokens to pay for its listed cost on the card. The needed Energy tokens are then removed from the Reactor space.

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Since a player’s Main Reactor at the beginning of the game only contains two energy tokens, players may need to add more Power Reactors to their station as they being to expand further and further away from the Main Reactor. When playing a selected location card from his hand, the player can choose to pay 1 Credit and discard this card, replacing it with a new Power Reactor card which they can now place into their station. Two energy tokens are placed on top of this new Power Reactor and can be used to construct new Locations requiring energy in the same way as the Main Reactor.

 

 

3.) Gain Credits

As players spend Credits on locations and power reactors, they may need to acquire additional credits in order to pay for future cards. When a player reveals the location card he wishes to use for the turn, he can discard this card and add 3 Credits to his play area. This is especially a good idea when attempting to keep particular cards from an opponent. There are times in the game when a card may not necessarily help you, but it could potentially be great for the neighbor that you’ll have to pass your remaining hand to next. By choosing this card to discard for 3 Credits (or when building a Power Reactor), it can mitigate some of the options that the opposing player has in improving his station.

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Earlier in the game, Player A built a Galactic Resort (purple – recreational location) in his station. This location has an ability that will award his +1 Victory Point for every recreational (purple) location in his space station at the end of the game. Therefore when discard cards for Credits and Power Reactors, it would be in his neighbors interest to try and select purple location cards to get rid of, therefore not allowing Player A with a lot of these locations types.

 

 

 

Alien Races

As discussed during the setup process, at the beginning of the game each player takes on the role of a specific alien race as listed on their Special Race tile. Each tile has a special bonus ability that the player will be able to use throughout the game. Let’s take a look at a few of these to see how they work:

 

 

The Zehuti

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– At the beginning of each Round (year), the Zehuti player receives 13 Credits instead of the normal 10. However, while other players are able to roll over their remaining Credits from Round to Round, the Zehuti player cannot. He must discard any remaining Credits when a new Round starts.

 

 

The Sheptas

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– The Sheptas actually provide their player two separate abilities. During the game, when taking the Gain Credits action, the player will add 4 Credits to his play area instead of the normal 3. Also at the end of the game (which I’ll cover next), each player will normally receive 1 Victory Point for every 3 remaining Credits in their play area, however the Sheptas player will receive 1 Victory Point for every 2 Credits.

 

 

The Humareen

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– The Humareens enjoy a well-balanced space station. At the end of the game, the Humareen player is awarded a number of Victory Points equal to the number of locations of his least abundant type, plus 1. The maximum awarded Victory Points for this bonus is 5. So for instance, if the Humareen player’s least abundant location type was administrative locations (blue), and he had 3 of them in his space station, he would score a total of 4 bonus Victory Points.

 

 

 

Objectives

Along with the potential endgame bonuses on their individual Location cards, players can also earn additional Victory Points by completing the Objectives that were set up at the beginning of the game. Let’s take a look at a few of these Objectives and how they work:

 

 

First Line of Defense

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– At the end of the game, the player who has built the most Military (red) locations will receive an additional 5 Victory Points.

 

 

Accelerated Construction

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– The first player to reach 50 Victory Points in the game will complete the Accelerated Construction objective and receives 4 additional Victory Points.

 

 

On Budget

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– At the end of the game, the player who has the most remaining Credits will receive an additional 3 Victory Points.

 

 

 

End-Game Scoring:

After the 4th Round has been completed, the game ends and players will score additional Victory Points in the following ways:

 

– Victory Points from any acquired Objective cards
– Victory Points awarded from endgame bonuses as listed on Location cards in a player’s space station.
– Player’s will acquire 1 Victory Points for every 3 remaining Credits in their play area.
– Player’s will acquire 1 Victory Point for every Power Reactor card in their space station that does not contain any Energy tokens.

 

After final bonuses have been calculated, the player with the most Victory Points is crown the winner, and the alien race that has constructed the top rated space station in the galaxy.

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Thoughts:

Being a card drafting game that contains area-building elements mixed with simultaneously revealed choices, Among the Stars’ mechanics has been popularly noted as the next 7 Wonders, and deservedly so. There are however, enough noticeable differences to where both games can comfortably stand apart from one another. In 7 Wonders, Victory Points are gained largely based on how well you’ve constructed your civilization in the various areas of advancement, whether it be in the sciences, completion of a Wonder, military strengths or weaknesses, etc. These elements are always scored the same, and are scored based on how well you can builds towards those pre-determined goals.

Among the Stars, while containing the same rooted idea of building towards a particular goal, explores a much wider range of goals, as individually listed on each location card. These goals will change as locations are added to a player’s space station, whether it be to build more of a particular location, construct adjacent locations in a specific way, or even setting up a location that may limits uses of an opposing player’s station. Among the Stars is more focused on the order and structure of how one’s space station is built and laid out, as opposed to 7 Wonders’ focus on being able to pay for the best card available to you every turn.

The included Objective cards and Race specialties also add to the ever-changing strategies that can present themselves from game to game. It quickly becomes apparent which locations will be of increasing advantage to which players, and it’s up to the opposing players to grasp what their opponents are attempting to do, in order to keep from passing advantageous locations to them. Of course, all while trying to make better their own space station.

After multiple plays, I’ve found Among the Stars to play a bit quicker than 7 Wonders. Trying to decide how to pay for a location simply comes down to a player’s fund of Credits and if it needs to be placed within two spaces of a Reactor, as opposed to calculating resources and figuring out which players you’ll need to pay, and then resolving those actions. A session can last between 30-45 minutes depending on how quickly players can make decision on which card they want to use each turn. For the many of us who have loved 7 Wonders over the last few years, Among the Stars is a great addition that provides similar gameplay with some variations in implementation and the strategies found within its mechanics. And with the announced upcoming expansions from U.S. publisher Stronghold Games, the longevity and depth found in Among the Stars should grow even more going forward.

 

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