It’s a bit depressing, but apparently we can’t get along even in the future. Thousands of years from now, our descendants will venture into deep space searching for new lives and resources. And despite banding together temporarily to fend off not one, but two, nasty alien invasions, they’ll divide yet again. As the two factions come to blows, you will lead one of their destructive star fleets in search of new habitable worlds. Because no matter what astronomers might tell you, space isn’t big enough!
How it Plays
Imperial Stars II is not technically a sequel. Sure, there is an Imperial Stars I, but it’s a vastly different print-and-play only card game. Rather, this title is a spiritual successor to the designer’s previous space games in the same universe, Astra Titanus and Forlorn: Hope, in which the same protagonists band together against successive alien menaces. Alas, in Imperial Stars II that spirit of cooperation erodes and you instead command one of two factions racing to colonize planetary systems. Of course you’ll need a powerful fleet to protect your interests. And project your influence into enemy territory.
The game includes four maps depicting sectors of varying planetary systems and terrain features; and by terrain features I mean things like asteroid fields, nebulas and singularities. After selecting one, each side begins with a handful of ships surrounding their home world. Play is divided into five galactic cycles which consist of a decreasing number of turns where you’ll spend a varying degree of operations points to move ships, deploy reinforcements, repair damage and colonize other systems.
In order to dominate the sector and proclaim victory, you either need to capture the enemy home world or control and colonize the most planetary systems after the fifth and final galactic cycle. For that, you’ll need ships. Lots of them.
Chit pulling drives game play. What does “chit pulling” entail, besides making you giggle? Essentially you draw an operations token each turn which determines how much you can do. You start the game with five of these, valued 4 through 8/3, and discard the lowest token to begin a new galactic cycle – so turns diminish by one each round. On your turn, you randomly draw an operations token, add the number of colonies you control, and that is the number of ops points you can expend. You may use the 8/3 chit as either 8 ops points, or 3 points and build a base. It is also the only chit that you may place back to redraw one, if able.
The majority of actions require ops points. You need them to activate ships, deploy new ones, establish colonies, and repair damaged capital ships. Movement is fairly straight-forward, with of course some modifiers and restrictions based on terrain. Repairs are similarly simple as long as your vessel is in your home world or at a base and no enemy is present.
Building colonies depends upon the distance from the nearest friendly system. You must expend a number of ops points equal to the number of hexes from your home world or closest colony. Then simply turn a ship token at that system over to its colony side. If one is present, you also receive a planet marker which grants some special ability or power. Finally, you can deploy reinforcements from 1 of 2 zones. Ships in the Alpha zone require 3 ops points per ship, while those in the Beta Zone cost 5 points for a pair. New ships are always assigned to bases or your home world.
Then there is the recycle action. As casualties mount, they go to your scrapyard. Here you can recycle them for a few things. If you have two identical vessels, you may place one in your deployment zone and discard the other. This helps to replenish some losses. Or you may discard 5 strength points worth of ships to draw a planet marker. Alternatively, you may discard any number of strength points to earn half that many in ops points.
All of these actions eventually – sooner, rather than later – bring you into contact with the enemy fleet. Individual battles consist of three steps and the devastation wrought is usually in direct proportion to the size of the fleets engaged. Every ship has a combat rating and a few carry fighters. In the first step, ships launch any fighters by totaling up those icons and rolling that many dice. Hit results are determined by terrain. In the second step, the big boys join the fray with massive beam broadsides. Each player rolls two dice and cross-references the result with their fleet’s total combat strength on a combat results table to determine the number of hits inflicted. This can be the equivalent of denting the armor to complete annihilation. Finally, there is one more fighter attack step – if any survived the previous round of fire.
Hopefully in these fracases you emerge less scathed than your foe more often than not in order to establish dominance, claim the most planetary systems and wrest victory.
Humanity has always looked to the stars. We see wonder and amazement and are humbled. We seek answers to unknowable questions. It promises new opportunities and a chance for progress. It also allows us to imagine really cool space battles with massive fleets of gracefully powerful ships spewing white hot energy beams of death and destruction! But, yeah, hope and betterment for our species, too.
Imperial Stars II bills itself as a 4X space game experience. While that’s pretty close to the mark, it’s really only like 2.5X. It focuses more on war than development. You will definitely eXpand and eXterminate. However, there is no eXploration, and the eXploitation is extremely abstracted. That’s fine. In fact, it’s an asset as therein lay the bulk of the design’s beauty – it is neatly streamlined.
When first looking at the foreign map, pile of counters and a rule book with subdivided paragraphs, you might think you’re in for a complex and fiddly afternoon of calculating things like morale, zone of control, field of fire, effective range, fuel consumption and which way the captain parts his hair. Once you’ve digested the rules, however, it plays smoothly – and in about an hour. Sure, it’s not a gateway game to break out at the next family gathering. Nonetheless, its mechanics and rules create a solid medium weight design that manages to distill the staples of a 4X into an action-packed episode. Let’s look at each of those staples.
First is exploration. This is the element that I just noted is omitted. You don’t seek out and discover anything. Now, you do uncover planetary markers when first building a colony in a previously uninhabited system, but I lump that in with abstracted resources in the third element, exploitation. Whichever sector you choose to play is already mapped out for you. I will say that the four different boards each provide fun challenges and scenarios, as well as account for the majority of the game’s replay value. However, the only exploration you will be doing is discovering best how not to have your melting, crumpled stern handed to you in a firefight.
Next is expansion. Imperial Stars certainly incorporates this in spades. Indeed, it is here where victory most likely lies, as it’s a Herculean task to completely exterminate your enemy. The colony component is brilliantly handled in both ease and effect. Simply convert any ship to construct a colony. This is significant because it reduces components and stresses planning. Whatever vessel you expend for settlement will no longer contribute its attributes to the fleet. And while you may convert the colony back into a ship if the system is attacked, it’s offensively neutralized otherwise. So choose which ones to use wisely, because you must have colonies. They earn extra ops points, simulating expanded resource accumulation. They make newer colonies cheaper, representing the advance of civilization. And they are worth victory points, signifying political influence.
In addition to your empire, you will also expand your fleet. This goes hand-in-hand with colonies, as you only benefit from the extra ops points as long as your colony is controlled. When enemy ships are present, the system is contested, so you need a strong and capable fleet to keep them clear. In fact, systems and colonies will quickly become focal points. The reliance upon them as sole victory objectives can prove stagnating for strategic creativity. Which means the game is more about tactical edges at critical points. While that limits experimenting with long term play, it’s central to keeping the design streamlined, action-packed and quick overall.
There are a couple of strategic restrictions with respect to fleet expansion. One, it uses up ops points which limits your capacity to build colonies and maneuver existing squadrons. Second, you can only deploy them to your home world or bases which may effectually curb their tactical reach. Unless the front is uncomfortably close to home. In that case, you have other problems. You can only build one base per galactic cycle, so don’t expect anything like a Deep Space 9 until at least mid-game. At that point, any station penetrating enemy space will likely serve as a magnet, so obviously immediate deployment will prove helpful.
Bases are a third means of expansion. Besides serving as deployment points, they also offer a means of repair. Damaged capital ships may find succor for a cost – and if the base is in a controlled system. Stations are also powerful and stalwart defensive structures important in protecting vital colonies. And since you can only construct one when drawing the 8/3 operations chit, it comes with a decision. Do you pass up five ops points for an opportunity in what may prove the difference in a key system? Likely the answer will be, yes.
The third ‘X’ is exploitation. Typically that means extracting resources from developments to build and grow your empire. In Imperial Stars you’re not actually collecting and spending resources. Rather it’s all abstracted in the form of ops points, recycling and planetary markers. In a way, the entire mechanic of operations points represents general resource spending. The extra points earned from establishing colonies reflect the greater resources and materials benefited from expansion. Similarly, the recycling aspect abstracts an economy tooled to military production. And the planetary markers embody unique contributions of different regions absorbed by the empire. Incidentally, their special powers are also a decent attempt at replacing event cards, for which the game is otherwise sorely lacking. With all of those, exploitation is conceptually present, hence the half ‘X’ for its implementation.
Finally we come to exterminate. Again, it’s here in spades. You can attempt to capture your opponent’s home world for an immediate extermination and victory. However, you must hold it through his subsequent turn. Since you’ll likely be weakened after the grand assault with an extended line of supply and enemy reinforcements deploying immediately to their home system, this tactic is a bit unrealistic against even a moderate foe. Certainly within the first few galactic cycles.
Instead, you’ll need to degrade and destroy the enemy fleet in what amounts to a war of attrition. Perhaps in the late game – and with a little luck – you can position yourself to strike at your enemy’s heart. Just keep in mind while you weaken them, your own forces are dwindling, too. In any event, a balanced fleet is critical. There are massive capital ships with devastating batteries; carriers to deploy fighters in the first and third combat steps; interceptors to interdict enemy fleets; and fast vessels to reach critical systems quickly. Capital ships – so denoted by a diamond icon – may sustain one point of damage and hope for repair. Meanwhile, other vessels are destroyed with one hit.
Acquiring this balanced fleet may take some time as reinforcements are drawn randomly. At least they’re all the same cost. The trick is to group them effectively. There is a 6-unit limit per hex, so finding the right mix in a particular squadron is important, though not the challenge. The challenge is doing so while units constantly enter the war in a staggered and unpredictable manner. Expediency will constantly vie for your attention, often at the expense of efficiency.
In the end, Imperial Stars is very much a war game which focuses on maneuvering units to attain and control strategic terrain objectives. Thankfully the combat system shines. It is streamlined, unique and flexible. The fighter steps allow for some fleet variability while the bulk of combat results are determined by aggregating your squadron’s strength. It is simple, yet still interesting. The defender may also attempt to disengage, which might prove an attractive, although risky, option – in hopes of surviving to fight another day. Most intriguing of all, there is an ominous reality hanging over the outcome of every engagement. Your fleet is finite. Despite the one recycling action, eventually you’ll come to wonder if you can replace your loses. Shortly after that, you realize you can’t.
Chalk up another sneaky good, underrated VPG title that will fly under the radar. Imperial Stars II is a nice quick-hitting, medium-weight design that offers surprise, tension, variability and some fun maps. A sweeping galactic experience manageably packaged, it will appeal to sci-fi fans and war gamers of many stripes. Most of all, it delivers what we’ve come to expect in space games – sprawling fleets of interstellar dreadnaughts trading broadside after broadside of scorching laser fire.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Victory Point Games for providing a review copy of Imperial Stars II.