Lumia IV sounds full of light. But sitting on the frontier of human deep space exploration, it can be a pretty dark place. Let’s just say that central government isn’t so centralized at the remote planet on the fringe of civilization. The loosely-administered environment is one that Lumia’s ruling families seek to exploit before the empire’s civic reach extends to the border and brings boring things like peace and prosperity. Before law and order arrives, do you have what it takes to marshal your forces, expand your family’s influence and carve out a dynasty in the stars? Starflare Gaming’s freshman offering puts you in command!
[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final, prototype of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it. The final product will feature variation in game play, art, and/or components.]
How it Plays
In Sky Dynasty players amass powerful fleets of starships to control Lumia’s key sectors that bestow varying benefits in an ultimate goal to garner influence throughout the system. It is a deck-building, area control card game with a unique simultaneous turn structure, often ensnaring the entire table in high-stakes, winner-take-all battles leading to glorious victory…or ignominious defeat.
Like all designs employing the mechanism players begin with a weak starting deck which they will use to acquire more powerful cards. One immediate difference from other deck-builders is that your hand in each turn starts with ten cards – more than most titles provide. Cards can either be ships or locations. Both types denote a cost to acquire them and then may provide a force number – its strength in combat.
Most ships have a special ability or two. Some take effect automatically. Others provide a bonus or power under certain conditions. Some abilities trigger whenever you deploy the ship as part of a fleet. Still other benefits may only apply if that ship survives a battle. Location cards are used to send your fleets to the various stations orbiting Lumia IV. There are seven locations all with different benefits and, logically, the location cards correspond to these places.
Turns in Sky Dynasty are simultaneous and follow a structured routine. In the draw phase all players draw ten cards for their hand. Then during the dispatch phase everyone chooses a number of cards from their hand to create a fleet – if they wish. You can opt to pass and dispatch again later in the round. You do not have to reveal how many cards comprise your fleet. Simply stack them face down in front of you. When everyone has created their squadron, they are revealed and sent to a location and marked with your ship token to identify ownership. However, to deploy to a location the fleet must possess the card corresponding to that area. Otherwise it simply puts out to open space (technically the seventh location).
Players continue dispatching fleets in rounds until everyone passes or can no longer deploy to any areas. You can commit to open space only twice during this phase. Everyone resolves any ships that have an ability or bonus that triggers when being dispatched. Any cards remaining in your hand after the dispatch phase are discarded in the third, and aptly named, discard phase.
The final phase is resolution. If an area contains opposing fleets, they now battle for control. Many ship cards, and some of the location cards, have a force number. Additionally, many ships modify that strength depending on certain conditions. Whichever fleet has the highest cumulative strength wins and claims the location for that turn. All other fleets are discarded. Finally, players with any uncontested or victorious fleets in control of a location resolve that area’s actions and benefits.
Other than open space, there are six of these stations, always resolved in the same order. First is the Junkyard. Actions here depend on a die roll, but all of them involve trashing cards. Afterward thinning your deck, you can also reap other benefits like drawing cards or earning coins. At the Dealer, you can purchase from among a selection of three ships, with an opportunity to also gain influence or money. You can amass influence at the Palace. The Shipyard has a drafting row of six ship cards from which you can purchase to strengthen your deck. The Market has one ship and one location card available for purchase, after which you earn five coins. Lastly, the Gateway allows you to purchase a location card – again from among a small selection.
When each location has been resolved, all cards are discarded and a new round begins. Play continues until one player amasses ten influence points – enough to create a powerful Sky Dynasty.
Hatfields and McCoys, but with Spaceships?
When you hear the words Sky Dynasty and that it’s all about starship battles, you might likely imagine a sprawling, epic American-style game with minis, dice and stellar chrome. This Sky Dynasty is more intimate, though – its setting in one system, one planet. It think it’s better off for it. By stripping away all of the space debris, the tightened focus is about giving you what anyone in command must master: synergizing and deploying your forces to achieve victory at key points and crucial moments.
That decision comes down to how best to split up your fleet. Now, you may have heard it said, “Never divide your forces.” That’s not precisely how it goes. Military masters have cautioned against dividing your numbers without a plan. Or against greater numbers. Or against a superior commander. The wily and cunning have made legends from masterful strokes of division, even in the face of the enemy. Will you be another?
With that core tenet and those kinds of decisions, you won’t find it surprising that it involves lots of bluffing, mind reading and out-maneuvering. You’ll need to be just as wily and cunning as any commander who has successfully employed the tactic throughout history. Even then, most battles always incorporate a bit of the unknown. Sky Dynasty has its own uncertain moments, thanks to the lay of the cards. Depending on how those location cards play out, some areas may go uncontested, while others witness a massive free-for-all. It’s not just about what guessing what you think your opponents want to do, but also what you think they can do with the resources in hand. In that vein, Sky Dynasty is a strong showdown game that can provide tense, nerve-wracking moments of second-guessing and even regret.
The option to pass a particular round of dispatch further enhances the vying aspect. You can sit back and see where your foes commit…or how much they commit to certain locations. Then decide if you want to contest anything and move in with greater force. Bluffing and reading your opponents’ faces abound. Of course, there’s always a risk, too. Maybe after a round, the location you want to dedicate your efforts is empty. So you jump in only to find another player is doing the same thing as you, was just holding back and now throws in. Then again, maybe you or someone else has two location cards to the same station. You can deploy a small force there in one round, drawing your opponents in, only to reinforce them with more numbers a second time and leaving them wishing they had escape pods! With more players, the odds of successfully manipulating the waiting game decrease – maybe even getting effectively locked out of desired spots.
Your starting deck has only a few location cards so early on players will be contesting the same couple of areas. Again, luck of the draw plays its role, as you’d expect from a card game, as to when those scarce location bids are available. But as you improve your deck more options come into play. As is standard in games of this nature, randomness will always wield an influence to some degree. As you fine tune your deck, however, you will reduce its impact and assert more control over your circumstances.
There are a number of deck builders on the market, of course, so bringing one to the crowd that offers something new is challenging. Sky Dynasty manages to throw a twist into the genre – simultaneous play. This aspect gives the design a bit of a poker-style feel (again, showdown game). It serves a much higher purpose, though. The simultaneous turn structure, along with its accompanying contained resolution phases, minimizes downtime and tends to nix the problem that many deck-builders have: the +1 action ad nasueum. I’ll save my usual rant about how the granddaddy of them all excels at this nuisance. Of course, since everyone conducts turns concurrently, that’s just really not a thing in Sky Dynasty.
Still, the design shares some similarities that fans of deck-builders will find comfort in. For example, there are plenty of opportunities for savvy card play, chains and combos. With a good variety of cards, there are copious ways to build synergy and a lot to experiment with. The design includes a nice mixture of cards with special abilities, extra swag and additional draws to please the strategic mind, without disrupting the game’s ebb and flow.
Another characteristic it borrows from other designs is its surprising accessibility. It’s not necessarily a gateway game, because there’s more to it than just “action, buy, cleanup.” But its strict, straight-forward structure is still easy to follow and intuitive. As everything is conducted simultaneously, it’s easy to help newcomers along as you play. No one has to wait for others to draw, discard, draw, resolve, etc.
Of course, with any deck-builder the mechanism drives game play to such a degree that often players get wrapped up in creating combos, streamlining decks and/or powering up by grabbing the big-hitting cards. Meanwhile, the whole point and goal of victory sort of hums along in the background. In Sky Dynasty that objective is influence. And just like in other examples of this style, that takes money. The most immediate and usual way to garner such prestige is through dispatching to, and winning, the Palace. So when those location cards show up in the Market or Gateway, you need to be poised to get there and nab them. Of course, to succeed even there you’ll have to develop your battle fleet so you can snatch opportunity. Again, it’s all about knowing when and how to divide your strength – plus a little guile, a little luck, and a whole lot of preparation.
Sky Dynasty is fast moving and streamlined. It’s all about decisions and it starts right at lift off. How do you deploy your forces? How do you use your fleet’s unique strengths to take advantage of tactical situations and overwhelm your foe? How can you use success to ensure even more of it in later turns? Fans of deck building games should see value in this unique entry. It shares a couple similarities, namely the simple structure with weighty card play. But with its simultaneous, all-in hand management element combined with effective player interaction through area control, Sky Dynasty manages to brings something new to the genre.
Sky Dynasty is currently seeking support on Kickstarter. For a pledge of $40 (including worldwide shipping) you can support this project and receive a copy of the game, tabbed to be shipped in January 2017. If you’d like to track it down, head over now to the campaign page. Get in on it today before it blasts off without you!