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Review: Stellar Conflict

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Stellar Conflict - Box

I loved Among the Stars, so when I heard that there was a new kid in the Among The Stars universe, I knew I had to check it out. This one promised space combat in a quick-playing card game. Since I like to blow things up (in game form only, please do not call Homeland Security), I was onboard to head into space and duke it out. The question is: Does it deserve the same love as Among the Stars and a place on my shelf, or should I stick to the original?

How It Plays

Stellar Conflict is a space combat card game which takes place in the Among the Stars universe. Players are fighting to control a sector of the galaxy by destroying their opponent’s ships and stealing their cargo. 

At the beginning of the game, each player chooses one of four alien races to play and takes the cards and damage tokens in his color. Each race offers a unique special ability which allows you to break the rules of the game in your favor

Next, players agree upon the scale of the battle that’s about to take place. You can play a Dispute, which lasts 30 seconds and cannot cost more than 10 credits; a Conflict, which lasts 60 seconds and cannot cost more than 15 credits; or a War, which lasts 120 seconds and cannot cost more than 30 credits.

Once the battle is chosen, players secretly choose which ships in their fleet will take part. The total credit value of the chosen ships must be equal to or less than the cost of the chosen battle. After choosing their cards, each player shuffles their deck and places it face down on the table. The Cargo ship is now placed on top of the pile and the Flagship is placed on the bottom making a “sandwich” of the rest of the chosen ship cards. Set a timer to the required length and then let ‘er rip.

Stellar Conflict - Cards 2
Some of the ship cards from the game.

During the game, all players play simultaneously. Draw the top card from your deck and place it face up on the table, pointing in any direction. You can move or turn the card in any direction as long as you keep your finger on the card. Once you lift that finger, the card is frozen in place. Then you draw the next card from your deck and repeat this process, continuing until all of your cards have been played or the timer goes off. This ends the deployment phase.

Eight cargo tokens are placed on each Cargo ship on the table. Now the battle begins. Basically, you blow up everything you just played. Ships fire their lasers based on initiative, with the lower initiative ships going first. When a laser hits a ship, it damages or destroys it. When it hits a cargo ship, cargo is stolen from the ship.

When you fire a laser, extend the range of that weapon using the included rubber bands until the laser either hits something or goes off the table. The varying colors of lasers do different amounts of damage. When a ship is hit, damage tokens equal to the laser’s strength are placed on the ship. This applies even if you hit your own ship. There’s no safety from your own mistakes, Captain. If the hit ship is a cargo ship, cargo cubes equal to the laser’s strength are removed from the ship and placed on the ship that made the shot. (Unless you shot your own ship, in which case the cargo is vaporized.)

Stellar Conflict - Asteroids
Asteroid cards and damage tokens.

Each ship has a hull point value on its card. When this value is met or exceeded by damage tokens, the ship is destroyed. However, you do get to fire your last laser, if allowed, before the destroyed ship is removed from the game. At least you might take someone with you! Cargo ships are removed from the game once their last cargo cube is gone.

After all ships have fired, it’s time to tally the damage. Destroyed ships go into the opponent’s kill pile, no matter who destroyed them. Each ship is worth the number of points displayed in the top right corner of the card. Ships that stole cargo cubes and have not been destroyed are worth one point for each cargo cube on the ship, and each cargo cube remaining on a cargo ship is worth one point to the owner of that ship. The player with the most points is the winner.

This is the flow of the basic two player game. There are a couple of rule variations for playing with three and four, as well as some variants involving asteroids and stolen goods to spice up play. 

Kaboom, KaPow, and Kablooey. The Sounds of a Good Game, or Just Noise?

Stellar Conflict is a very quick game. Even factoring in the meat of the game, which is assembling your deck, you’re looking at 10-15 minutes, tops, unless someone is just ridiculously slow. It’s a great game when you don’t have a lot of time or when you’re warming up for Among the Stars or some other space game. It’s nice that you can choose the length of the game to match your mood, although even the longest game, at two minutes, isn’t exactly going to take forever.

It’s also not a brain burner. Much of the strategy comes during the deck assembly phase. The limiting factor is that your deck cannot exceed the cost of the battle you’ve chosen. So do you choose to build a large fleet of inexpensive ships and hope to win by simply causing the most mayhem, or do you go with a smaller, but stronger fleet and take great care in your card placements to make certain you deal maximum damage? Or do you opt for something in between? The choices aren’t huge, but at least you get to exert a little in control during this phase. 

Once the card placement begins, things get chaotic. Everyone is putting down cards simultaneously. You want to get a lot of cards down, but you also want to make sure they’re in position to do some damage. You can’t just slap them down willy-nilly, but you can’t sit there and wait for your opponents to place everything, either, because that timer is ticking. You need to be fast and accurate, and that’s not easy to do. When you make a mistake (and you will), you may blow up your own ship. Oops. Fortunately, the game is so fast that you don’t dwell on your errors. You just scoop up the carnage and play again.

Stellar Conflict Battle
Scenes from a battle.

The game gets more chaotic the more players you have. With just two, you can apply a little strategy, watching what your opponent is doing and playing accordingly. With more, it’s almost impossible to keep track of what’s going on around the table and it devolves into something almost like the card game, “War” where players are just flipping over cards as fast as possible. The longer/more expensive games avoid this somewhat, as the longer playtime allows for a little more deliberate play. Still, though, I would stick with two players unless you really love chaos and having almost no time to think or strategize. At higher player counts, Stellar Conflict is really a party game of silly, card slapping, explosion noise-making fun. 

And speaking of the table… Prepare to need a big one. For such a small box game, this one eats table space. The more players you have, the worse it gets. Granted, whatever table you’re playing on tends to act as a fence, penning the battle inside it, so the game will expand to whatever size you give it. However, playing on a small table isn’t any fun because cards are not allowed to touch or overlap in any way, so you end up with cards just crammed together and lasers going everywhere. Admittedly, this does lead to a bigger “boom” at the end because you’re almost assured that everything will be blown up. On a bigger table, some ships may actually avoid getting nailed.

Whatever you play on, take the recommendation in the rulebook to get a grippy playing surface seriously. You need something like a tablecloth or a felt table cover for this game to work well. Or play on a carpeted floor. Without it, cards slide and rotate and it’s  hard to aim those rubber band lasers without things going everywhere. A slick surface will turn this game into a fiddly nightmare and arguments will ensue. “You bumped that card so now it’s shooting at me!” “Did not!” “Did too. Turn it back!” And so on. Spare yourself and play on something grippy.

One disappointment with the game is that it doesn’t include the timers. You’ll need to provide your own. However, there are alternative rules if you don’t want to use a timer at all. Players simply place cards until a player plays his last card and calls, “Stop.” Everyone else must stop and no more cards can be played. Any cards that were in the midst of being played can be left where they are (no further adjustments allowed) or taken back and removed from the game. This variant is fine, but the lack of time pressure takes away some of the excitement of the game. 

Stellar Conflict - Cards
Cargo cubes, delay tokens, and some more cards.

The other disappointment is that I didn’t really feel the connection to the Among the Stars universe. The art, while lovely, isn’t in the same class as the original game. And the gameplay itself has nothing to do with Among the Stars. Yes, the races come from the other games in the series, but they’re just names on cards. The ships and races could have come from any other space universe and the game would have been the same. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad game, just that if you’re looking for something that strongly captures the flavor of the other games in the Among the Stars universe, this isn’t going to scratch that itch.

Stellar Conflict does score well on the replayability meter. The different races/powers, the variable length/cost of the game, the frenetic card placement, and the included rule variants give you plenty of ways to play. No two games are likely to play out the same and you’ll play quite a few games before you’ve played all the options. Plus, it’s over so fast that you’ll want to shuffle up and try again. 

Stellar Conflict isn’t a heavy strategy game, but it doesn’t pretend to be. If you’re looking for something meaty, I’d stick with the original Among the Stars. Stellar Conflict is simply a fun, chaotic game of who can do the most damage (hopefully not to yourself) in a limited period of time. It’s a decent filler for gamers, or a light family game. I suspect the mayhem would also appeal to kids who like to yell “Kaboom” a lot. It’s a fun time, as long as you go into it knowing that it’s closer to a party game than a strategy game and that it’s tie to Among the Stars is in name only. 

iSlaytheDragon.com thanks Stronghold Games for giving us a copy of Stellar Conflict to review.

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Summary

Pros

Very quick-playing filler game.
Attractive artwork.
You can choose the length of game you want to play.
Different races/powers and variable game length lead to good replayability.

Cons

For a little game, it takes a lot of table space and can get fiddly.
Chaotic and, with more players, strategic play is almost impossible.
Ties to Among the Stars are in name only.
You'll need to provide your own timer.

7.0 Good

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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