Starcraft: The Board Game

(image courtesy Aarontu @ BGG)
There’s this little game for the PC called Starcraft. Maybe you’ve heard of it? I’m actually going to lose a little bit of geek cred when I say I’ve never actually played Starcraft on the PC before. It came out early in college for me and my only computer was an older Mac so I missed out on lots of great PC games during that time. This means I won’t really be able to compare the board game to the computer game, but you can find lots of discussions about that elsewhere.

When I first saw what the Starcraft board game looked like, I pretty much decided to boycott it. The computer game is a real-time strategy game and I wanted the board game to basically be Tide of Iron in space. Turns out Fantasy Flight put together a galactic conquest style game and I really had no interest in it. Fast forward a few months to a friend of mine picking up the game. I’ve now played it four times.

First, let me say that Fantasy Flight really nailed the components. There’s a ton of cards, cardboard and plastic in the game and it’s all quite well designed. I have a few minor complaints on the player aide sheets as I don’t think they give you quite all the information you really need but overall things are very clean, clear and easy to identify at a glance.

(image courtesy Neurocide @ BGG)

There are three main races in Starcraft with two factions each, allowing for a total of six players. One of the key concepts in the computer game was that the races were extremely different from each other and that has carried over very well into the board game. Each race has a very unique set of units and technologies and you’ll need to develop strategies on how to best play your race against the others at the table. To start the game, players build the map of planets, take turns placing orders on planets and finally resolve the orders. There are two different victory conditions. First, players collect victory points from certain areas on the map and the first player to 15 VPs wins. Second, each faction has a victory condition that is unique to them. If anyone qualifies for their specific victory condition at the end of a round they win.

The order placement is really quite clever. Each player has a set of tokens that show one of three orders: move/attack, research, and build. In turn order you place one of your order tokens face down on a planet. If someone else places on the same planet, their token goes on top of yours. This means that orders on a planet are resolved top-down on the stack meaning tokens are resolved in the reverse order they were placed. It’s a really cool system with some interesting subtleties. Being first, for example, is very challenging as everyone else will be able to stack on top of your orders. The order system requires you to think in a whole new way. Unfortunately this leads to people making many mistakes while placing orders when they are first learning.

Probably the most interesting part of the game is researching new technologies. Players have two decks of cards: combat cards and technologies. Combat cards are drawn throughout the course of each round and are played on units during combat to set their combat strength and health along with any supporting abilities. Most technology cards are actually combat cards but you have to spend resources to research that technology to get it added into your deck. It’s cool because researching a technology doesn’t generally give you the benefit instantly but increases the chance that you’ll draw a good card for a given unit type. Figuring out which technologies you need to do well against your neighbors is very important and a lot of fun. Outside of the technology deck you may also build new production buildings and module upgrades that allow you to create new unit types and give you extra bonuses throughout the game. Planning your technology choices and timing your upgrades all while balancing the resources available to you is really important and quite a bit of fun.

(image courtesy model359 @ BGG)
I’m still not sure what to make of Starcraft’s combat system. When you move into enemy territory the attacker lines up their units against the defenders into a bunch of skirmishes. Each player then plays combat cards face down on each skirmish and then the skirmishes are resolved. If the defender has any units left the attacker retreat, otherwise the attacker gets to move in. Given the asymmetrical nature of the races you really need to have a solid understanding of what each unit’s strengths and weaknesses are in order to line them up most efficiently. Also, battles are never very epic in scale. Areas on the map are limited to two to four units and an attack may only bring in two more units than the area can hold. This means the largest battle you’ll see in the game is six attacking units against four defending units. Anything larger would take a long time to resolve, so I can understand the limitation, but battles generally don’t seem very exciting or epic in scope.

My biggest issue with Starcraft is that it just doesn’t feel like all that much happens throughout the course of the game. Players rarely seem to expand much more than a planet or two beyond their starting spot and the face of the map doesn’t change much. There’s quite a bit of contention over the planets between players but I prefer games where the face of the map changes quite a bit over the course of the game; it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something even if I lose. Also, the end of the game really comes out of nowhere. You can track the VP win easily as you see people earning points each round but the special victory conditions can really come out of the blue. All of the special victory conditions are quite easy to accomplish. The really important (and difficult) part of the game is pushing to prevent your opponent from getting their special victory as getting your own isn’t that hard. All four games I’ve played have felt like they ended just as things were getting interesting.

I’m willing to chalk that up to player inexperience though. Each game I’ve played has involved one or more new players and this is not an easy game to learn. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes – some very critical ones – during your first couple games and you probably won’t do well. I think that a game of experienced players could be more interesting but I still get the feeling that the end won’t be all that satisfying.

(image courtesy -=Dani=- @ BGG)

I’ve still had fun playing Starcraft, though. The asymmetrical nature of the races really gives the game a unique feel and there’s a lot to learn about which units and technologies work best against each other. Placing orders is fun and challenging and you have plenty to think about during the other players turns so it never feels too slow. I just wish that combat was more streamlined and larger in scale and that the end game was more satisfying.

I don’t think Starcraft is a bad game at all. It has some great stuff going on and it plays relatively quickly (2-4 hours) for a game of its scope. At the end of the game I had fun but I don’t really feel like I’ve accomplished much. I’m not sure I would ever request to play Starcraft but I certainly won’t turn down a game if it’s been offered.