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Review: Titanium Wars

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The titanium rush is on!  No, not for that high strength, low density metal we lovingly know as old Ti with an atomic number 22.  This titanium is a new form of energy recently discovered by humans in the far future.  Now all of mankind’s descendant robber tribes are scouring that sector of the galaxy to find, discover, and claim any planet with the valuable deposits.  Can you develop your homeworld to build and support a strong enough fleet for conquest and beat your rivals?  Or will you be left out in the cold, lonely desolation of space? 

How it Plays

In Titanium Wars, players lead one of several disparate, fashion-minded factions who are fighting over planets that contain the rare and valuable new energy source.  Geology not being equal and all, planets have varying amounts of titanium.  The first faction to conquer enough planets to earn an aggregated target goal of deposits wins.  Of course, space-walking takes forever; so you’ll need a massive fleet to achieve this objective and the planetary infrastructure to support it.

The entire design is card-based via a tableau-building mechanic.  You begin the game as one of eight factions and take that group’s homeworld card.  It lists your leader’s name with his/her groovy image and nifty ability.  You will soon need to expand, though.  One, it’s the point of the conflict, since you have no titanium deposits.  Two, your home planet can only hold up to four buildings, which is some of the strictest zoning laws I’ve ever seen.  Also, your homeland can support up to three ships and provides 1,000 credits per round.  This isn’t Star Trek, so pay those taxes.  Your science level starts at a whopping 0 and your maximum hand size for Tactic cards is three (see later).  All five of those stats can be increased through buildings and/or planets which you will buy and conquer, respectively, adding them to and around your start card in your personal tableau.

Captain Jim’s homeworld with building improvements and conquests.

Game play is divided into four very structured phases.  The first two are quick and painless.  During Exploration, you simply flip over the top card from the Planet/Event deck.  This reveals the planet up for grabs that round – with the name, some cool artwork, plus the number of titanium deposits and other bonuses it bestows upon its future owner.  Meanwhile, the backs of the planet cards have events.  So the new card on top of the draw pile will provide a special event that affects all players for that turn, as well.  The second phase is Production.  Players simply collect the amount of credits produced by their homeworld, conquered planets, and buildings.  In paper money.  Apparently electronic banking didn’t survive the 21st century.

Outfitting is phase three in which you get to spend all your cash.  You can buy Units (as in ships), Upgrades for those ships, or Buildings.  There are six types in each of those three categories, all represented by cards of widely varying number.  These are all piled by type in the center of the table, called the Arsenal.  Players buy cards simultaneously in what is best described as a frenzied day at the intergalactic market.  Everyone is grabbing cards and checking their money and figuring out the best additions to their tableaus.  When all are satisfied, they reveal their purchases, and double-check that no one has gone over budget.  Then you place those cards wherever possible, keeping in mind that units have limits on upgrades as do planets on buildings.  However, you better bank some of that dough – the special leader abilities require a little fee to activate.

The common market – aka, the Arsenal.

The final phase, Combat, is more time consuming, but at least involves everyone in chorus.  Or at least all of those declaring for battle over the current planet.  Those engaging in the fight choose a Tactic card from their hand.  These cards have two very important elements.  First is a number between 0 and 7, which determines turn order – lower numbers get to shoot first, but are typically less powerful.  Second, the card states which types of units you can attack with from your fleet and which of your opponents’ units you can hit.  So when choosing a Tactic card, you better double check your fleet and what you’re up against, or you may be shooting blanks.

In turn order, players resolve their assaults.  First, add up the offensive strength from all of your units and their upgrades that match your Tactic card.  This is the number of hits you score.  Next, allocate that damage to any opponent or opponents engaged in the current battle in any manner that you like, provided that you can legally hit those targeted units per your Tactic card.  When a ship sustains damage equal to or greater than its rated defensive strength, plus upgrades, it is destroyed.  In this way, you can attempt to eliminate enemy units before they even have a chance to fight back!

At the end of one offensive round, players discard their used Tactic card, plus any unwanted cards from their hands at the cost of 100 credits per card.  Then everyone draws back to their hand limit.  If only one faction survived the battle, that side takes control of the planet, adding it to their tableau.  If more than one combatant is still in the fray, then a new round of hostilities commences.  Any player who sat out earlier barrages cannot rejoin.  However, previous participants may now withdraw from further fighting, if they wish.

If at any time after a successful battle a player has acquired the target number of titanium deposits, he/she immediately wins.  Of course, the victor is bound to have a legal battle on his/her hands with the descendants of Rev. William Gregor over the substance’s rightful name and place in the pantheon of elements.

Like space, this games expands across the table rapidly!
Like space, this games expands across the table rapidly!

Is This Rush Boom or Bust?

You know when you think about it, the struggle between America and Canada over Justin Bieber is actually quite refreshing.  Finally, two powers are fighting to give something away, rather than taking!  But no, it seems imperialism never dies.  Always fight over resources, we must.  Yet again, humanity vies for a powerful source of energy.  History is indeed cyclical.  Titanium Wars is an attractively thematic mélange with some intriguing mechanical twists.  It is an accessible design, but it will not appeal to a wide audience.

The game is beautiful.  Illustrations are fantastically drawn and colorful, expressive but not cartoonish.  Clearly, the theme is futuristic sci-fi, but there is also some Steampunk influence in the artwork.  It’s very imaginative.  The cards are also of a heavy stock and durable, while the damage and first player tokens are standard fare.  Both cards and cardboard will survive lots of plays.  It also has a functional box insert.  The only components failure is the tiny, paper money.  I’m really not sure who thought miniature bills were a good idea?  They are extremely frustrating and hard to manage.  Some other form of currency had to have been used during play-testing and so it never came up before final production.  That’s my only guess.

The mechanic used to resolve combat in Titanium Wars is not brand new, but it is an under-used one.  Rather than implementing dice or pure math, players must decide between turn order and firepower.  This involves more than a little bluffing and deduction.  Preparing for a massive barrage isn’t always necessarily the best strategy.  Settling for smaller scale attacks in order to strike first with a lower-numbered Tactic card may prove more fruitful.

Choose your weapon...and turn order!
Choose your weapon…and turn order!

There is randomness in the Tactic cards you receive, but you do know what’s in your hand before the commencement of each new round.  Therefore, you can prepare accordingly during the Outfitting phase, spending money to take advantage of your available Tactic cards before going into battle.  Granted, in subsequent draws during consecutive rounds of offensives within the same turn, you are more at the mercy of the draw.  However, you can pay to discard unwanted or useless cards in hopes of pulling better ones.

Allocating damage also requires some careful calculation.  Your Tactic card may limit which units you can hit, but you can “spread the love” amongst those however you see fit.  In a sense, it’s sort of a disguised auction mechanic: you have so many hit points to bid against an enemy ship.  Of course, other players may add to your “bid” during their turn – the combined total of which could lead to that unit’s destruction.  In any event, you still need to decide which approach is best at the moment.  Concentrating fire on one unit is generally more advantageous, but sometimes a shotgun pattern can be helpful.  Spend those hit points wisely, though.  After a battle, all damage tokens are removed from surviving ships, essentially wasting those shots – unless they were the tipping point in coercing an enemy withdrawal, I suppose.

A pile of damage tokens...and the tiny bills.
A pile of damage tokens…and the tiny bills.

So Titanium Wars is sharply interactive.  That may not be a clever revelation for a game with the word “war” in its title.  But the interaction is more than just of a standard combative nature.  It requires negotiation, concessions, and frequent and shifting alliances.  For players that enjoy games with this element, say like that of Cosmic Encounter or Diplomacy, this one will be right in their wheelhouse.  Although it’s not as spiteful and back-stabbing.

Player collusion is necessary because combat is winner-take-all.  The victor is victorious precisely because his/her enemies are destroyed or too weak.  What’s left of the conqueror’s fleet remains in-tact and in good position to grow stronger for the next combat phase.  The losers must rebuild their fleets from scratch.  The other players are forced to gang up against that individual lest he/she proceed unabated to a run of successful conquests.  This is exactly why the game won’t accommodate two players – the first victor to annihilate his/her opponent would pretty much sustain that success unchallenged.

As a result, the design is very much a game of extreme ebbs and flows. While not symmetrically tit-for-tat, game play boils down to building a fleet, cooperating with others to prevent the leader from winning the next planet, waiting your turn to win a battle, and thus then becoming the next bully on the block to be dethroned and left without an armada.  Then you start over with building your fleet.

Each planet has unique stats, while its back has an event...plus gives you a hint of what you'll be fighting for next.
Each planet has unique stats, while its back has an event…plus gives you a hint of what you’ll be fighting for next.

Now, to be fair, there are ways to circumvent some of this cycle. Obviously, as the leader, you don’t have to engage in battle.  You can always sit out a scrum even if you have the strongest fleet.  Indeed, sometimes you will just so that you can avoid the target on your back.  However, if the next planet up for grabs is a ripe, juicy peach with lots of titanium, then that stinks for you.  You can also spend a round conserving your strength, regardless of your position, hoping to gain an edge for the next.  That will require some patience, because it’s not as fun to sit on the sidelines.

You can also gain advantages with upgrades to your units and/or buildings on your planets.  There is a fun little mix to experiment with and the bonuses can create some nifty combinations.  However, there is not a tremendous enough amount of variety to add all that much spice.  With some minor variations or slightly different emphases, most all players nonetheless progress along similar paths.  You need laboratories to increase your tech level, spaceports to support a larger fleet, adequate laser and armor upgrades, and a bulwark of stout destroyers to deliver maximum firepower and withstand withering barrages.  A few of the units, upgrades, and buildings are more hard-pressed to prove their worth.

What a “stellar” fleet you have there…

One positive aspect to the game’s interaction is that your planetary infrastructure is never lost or destroyed.  So while you will be rebuilding your fleet often, your opponents can never touch the economic part of your tableau.  That’s a positive thing because the economy is already a tight one…unless, of course, you’re maxed out on units, upgrades, and planetary structures.  That happens from time to time, but will not be the norm.  As mentioned, you’ll be rebuilding your fleet often – both units and upgrades – and so need cash for your military.  Beyond the outfitting stage, you’ll also want to save some credits for discarding unwanted Tactic cards and for using you leader’s powers.

Leader traits inject some variety and a hint of replayability.  They’re generally helpful, but not terribly powerful – so it’s a good balance.  For varying costs, you can get cheaper Tactic cards, deal a little extra damage in battle, retain cards instead of discarding them, or earn money for discarding your own buildings.  Those are half the examples.  The rate and combination in which you receive Tactic cards, and the random events, also help introduce variety.  There is still a fair amount of repetition, but those elements help to mix things up slightly.

A little closer look at your plant tableau
A little closer look at your plant tableau

They “story” of Titanium Wars takes place in “Limbo,” a range of space on the edge of the galaxy.  Ironically, that’s were game play rests for me, as well.  We did have fun playing it.  The variable leader abilities, the game’s simple structure, the open options, and use of Tactic cards in combat resolution are interesting and work well.  The design is accessible to most anyone, although the theme isn’t a universal draw.  However, the game just lacks a certain “attitude,” something really distinctive to take it from a solid design to one that stands out from the crowd.  Still, as a 4-player game, it’s a nice introduction to tableau-building mixed with a unique combat system.  For fans of interactive space games who are looking for some lighter fare in the genre, Titanium Wars may by worth taking to the stars.

 

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Iello for providing a review copy of Titanium Wars.

Summary

  • Rating 6.5
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Summary

Pros

  • Straight-forward, but with lots of options
  • Tactic cards provide tough choices and tension
  • Tight economy
  • Flexible combat resolution
  • Fantastic artwork

Cons:

  • 3-player game goes in circles of 2-vs-1
  • Tends toward obvious strategy
  • Can be repetitious
  • Tiny, paper bills are frustrating
  • Lacks a real punch
6.5 Average

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity…relatively speaking.

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