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Preview: Galactic Era

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This is a paid preview of Galactic Era by Seajay Games, now on Kickstarter.

Here we are again: a universe to explore. Civilizations to vanquish, or to ally with. Resources to exploit. Technology to discover. You know the drill.

In Galactic Era, empires built on war – and those built on peace – compete to explore the stars and make their mark on the universe.

How it Plays

In Galactic Era, players take on the role of different civilizations hoping to make their mark on the universe. It’s a big, fairly complex game, so I’ll try and give a brief rundown and touch on some of the more unique aspects of the game.

Many things are as you’d expect; there’s a hexagon grid featuring planets, nebulae, asteroid fields, and empty space. You start on a home planet with a few ships, and must send your ships out to explore other planets. You’ll have to claim planets for your own to expand your population, build new ships, and research technology.

A 3-player setup

In this game, players must choose an alignment – Light or Dark. Light-aligned players cannot declare war, invade primitive planets, or actively engage in conflict in any way unless defending another or “liberating” a planet from a Dark player they are already at war with. Light players will find it easier to form alliances with advanced civilizations.

Dark-aligned players can declare war at will, can conquer primitive planets or advanced ones, but cannot make alliances.

Each game features a “galactic story” and “galactic goal” – the story providing ways to score points depending on the round, and the goal providing one overall way to score additional points. Each story suggests the primary method of obtaining points, such as exploration/travel, or conflict. You can also earn points by growing your population and raising your technology level, as well as accomplishing tasks on your own Domination cards along the way.

Each round, players will first taking turns moving any and all of their fleets. Then, players will select their actions for the round, which include claiming planets, researching technology, building more ships, or switching alignment. Players select all actions simultaneously, then reveal, and resolve in player order.

Afterward, players have the option of trading technology if they are in contact with another race. Then everyone has a chance to score some points for the galactic story.

The game ends after 8 rounds; after a final tally of points, whoever has the most is declared the winner!

That covers the gameplay on a basic level, but we’ll get into it more below.

Stars and Scars

I have to admit, despite being a lover of 4x or civ-building games of galactic proportions, I’ve seen plenty of entries in the genre and many of them disappoint. It’s difficult to balance the many mechanisms these games often entail, and create a unique system that is engaging, balanced, and worth the time it takes to play. Sometimes certain actions, mechanisms, or strategies reveal themselves as dominant after only a few plays, or the gameplay simply feels lackluster compared to stalwarts like Twilight Imperium or Eclipse. I expected more of the same.

But Galactica Era surprised me in many ways. There are a lot of clever mechanisms in here, the game seems to last a reasonable length of time, and so far I haven’t run into anything that is broken or exploitable.

Let me first talk about the alignment system. As I mentioned above, Galactic Era offers two different philosophical classes with direct mechanical results, and any empire can choose which alignment to follow: Light, or STO (Service To Others), and Dark, or STS (Service To Self). Okay, maybe the names of the alignments could use a little work.

Anyway, since Dark players can declare war at will, they would seem to have an obvious advantage. After all, if you can just take what you want, why wouldn’t go that route in a board game?

Fortunately, a few elements actually balance it out. For starters, it’s not necessarily an advantage to conquer every planet around you. The closer player-controlled planets are, the more their natural population growth is limited. Population is a major way to score points and improve your ship construction, so having spread-out planets that can handle more population cubes is a good thing, and STO players won’t be left behind.

Still, you might think, fewer discs per planet but more planets – still good. Except that STS players use violence to conquer planets, leaving them with fewer population discs to start with. Light aligned players forming alliances will find it much easier to establish defensible bases out in the wild. The more population cubes, the more ships required to conquer the planet – and you can also place newly-constructed ships on planets with 4 discs (and with a bit of tech, only 3 discs, meaning an alliance gives you an immediate construction point).

Light players can’t declare war easily, but they can prepare for defense; and as soon as a Dark player engages and declares war, they make themselves vulnerable. A Dark player conquering a Light world reduces the population to 1, while a Light player liberating a Dark world gets to replace all population cubes there with their own.

I should mention that it is possible to switch alignments during the game; however, it requires an action, and given the limited number of actions available you have to be strongly motivated to make the switch rather than, say, build more ships or research a technology

Fleet combat is resolved in a unique way that is relatively speedy and avoids back-and-forth rounds of rolling dice. It’s hard to judge how mechanically sound it actually is, but first impressions seem to show it works.

Where there are stars, there will be fighting over those stars.

Basically, while you can have individual ships floating around out there, you’re more likely to stick them into fleets, represented by stacks of face-down tokens. Each fleet has a unique ability; one gets a boost to fleet combat, another is fast, another is defensive, another boosts its planetary invasion, and the last is good at avoiding combat altogether. Each token may have a value between 0 and 10, simply representing the number of ships, but you decide which denominations to use and how many chips to include. Yes, there is a 0, to help bluff your fleet size. You can also easily rearrange your fleets when they pass by each other during the movement phase.

When combat happens, each side tallies up their total ships and multiplies it by their combat value. Whoever has the highest total wins the battle. The hook: the winner decides exactly how many ships the defending side must destroy. The twist: the winner must lose half the number of ships (rounded up) of their own. The defender then retreats their remaining ships.

This method definitely speeds up combat, and at the very least gives the winner a tough choice. Do you wipe out your opponent but leave your own fleet vulnerable? Do you whittle a few down as a warning to stay away, or to prevent a few reinforcements from turning the tide? Do you leave their fleet intact, knowing they won’t come after you again any time soon?

It does limit potential outcomes, though; no chance of a smaller force winning a surprise upset victory, and while it can be hard to keep track of a fleet as players are building them and moving them around, once they engage they become a known quantity. At least for a round or two, which is a significant chunk of the game. I haven’t yet explored the game enough to know if an aggressive player could cause a huge ruckus with an overlarge fleet tromping around the galaxy, especially one with a high Military tech.

Technology lives on a board that is identical for all players. It features 5 categories, each of which can be advanced linearly, starting at level 1 and reaching level 6. Even at level 6, you can research that technology again, but it gives you a one-time boost versus another upgrade.

Ooh, I love technology

Each technology functions in a fairly straightforward manner, without complex abilities to remember. It comes in 5 flavors; Military, which increases the CV of your ships and allows you to apply upgrade tokens to your fleets. Spirituality, which grants you the ability to look at face-down tokens, including opponent fleets or undiscovered planets, as well as making it easier to escape combat and trade with other players. Propulsion increases the movement range of your ships, eventually allowing you to use “stargates” to travel vast distances. Robotics increases your construction capacity, letting you build more ships and lowering the population requirement to place ships on a planet. And finally, Genetics gives you bonus population when you use the Grow Population action, which can be used to exceed the normal population limit.

What makes technology exciting is that power really ramps up by the time you reach the maximum level. Level 6 Military empowers your ships with 10 CV each, while level 6 Propulsion lets you move anywhere on the board with your ships and fleets. Level 6 Spirituality (which requires you to be light-aligned) allows your population to “ascend” when your planets are conquered instead of going back to your population board.

These levels seem vastly overpowered in many ways, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it will require more exploration of the game to see if any in particular stand out as broken, or overpowered, or outweighing the others. What’s immediately apparent, though, is that it takes a great amount of effort to achieve the highest level. There are only 8 rounds per game, meaning by the standard methods of research you could only potentially hit one level 6 if you went for it exclusively; but it seems that ignoring all the techs in favor of one is not a great idea. There are other ways to get technology boosts; exploring the planets at the center of the galaxy and uncovering their artifact tokens can find you a boost here and there; there’s also trading with other players.

Reminiscent of Eclipse, the more population discs on the board, the more points and ship production you have

However, trading has its limits. You have to be in contact with another player, you each have to have a technology you can offer to the other player (i.e. a tech that is a higher level than theirs), and you both have to be willing. Even when I played as a race that got boosts to tech research, I didn’t exceed level 4 on any given technology. The point being, despite the massive power of the higher levels of technology, you still have to choose if you’re going to generalize and be flexible, or focus on one technology to have a significant advantage in one area while being weaker in the others.

The game provides enough ways to score points that, so far, it seems everyone can play to their strengths as a race, or just approach the game from a different angle and still be competitive. The Galactic Story and Galactic Goal provide some direction, and there are the Domination cards, but there’s also controlling planets, which you score for the majority in each sector, and population. My technology race had a huge advantage in the galactic story when points were being score for certain technological upgrades, but the game still ended very close, and I didn’t even win, because another player controlled more planets and had more population cubes out on the board.

Interestingly, as your empire grows, you have the possibility of performing more actions in a round – but only by spending points to do so. That adds another layer of strategic decision making. That extra action might be a nice boost to your plan, but is it worth the cost? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

The game is projected to take about 3 hours. This may be true once your group is experienced, but it took us about that long with only 3 players. That did include rules explanation, and we were checking the rules a lot, admittedly, but I would not expect to finish a 6-player game under 4 hours, at least not until your group has mastered the game.

Especially with a game like this, it’s hard to determine right off if alien races are balanced, if a particular strategy will emerge as stronger than others, or if some mechanic is easily exploitable. But my first impressions are that Galactic Era has a lot to explore. It’s a complex game that allows many strategic and tactical choices, with some interesting takes on the genre. I was able to pursue various technologies or strategies that I wanted to pursue; not without challenges, but indeed without pointless “gotchas.” It left me feeling like there was a lot more to explore, plenty of strategic options to try out, and a whole galaxy of gaming to discover.

Sound like something you’d enjoy? Check out Galactic Era on Kickstarter now.

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

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