Battlecruisers: a Review

 

Let me start by saying that Eminent Domain (a deckbuilding game from Tasty Minstrel Games (website here  TMG ) is one of my favorite games.  I have a preference for science fiction themed games (such as Among the Stars, Ascending Empires) so I am usually willing to take a chance on expansions to sci fi games that I like.  About six months ago I picked up a Game Trade Magazine (Game Trade Magazine) at the Toledo Game Room (Toledogameroom).  I read in it that an expansion for Eminent Domain would be released in 2016 (it’s called Exotica, and a review of it will be coming in the next month or so).  Right next to that listing was a standalone game in the Eminent Domain Universe: Battlecruisers, which was also available for purchase in 2016.  I promptly pre-ordered both from CoolStuffInc. (CoolStuffInc) and waited for them to arrive once they were released.

After waiting about four months, a couple weeks ago they showed up at my door!  At first, I was a bit underwhelmed by Battlecruisers.  The box was very small, maybe 5 1/2″ by 4″ by 2 1/2′ deep, so I wondered what exactly had I purchased. I grew skeptical about my judgment but please faithful readers, continue reading and you will see that I would soon be pleasantly surprised for sometimes big things come in small packages.

Battlecruisers01

The Contents and Rules

From the box cover you can see that the game is for 3 to 5 players and has a duration of roughly 20 minutes.  The short play time scared me even more than the size of the box.  I can count on a single hand the number of games that last from about 15-20 minutes that I would consider worth the time playing them (as an exception to this conclusion, Lost Cities by Rio Grande Games is an example of an excellent short game).  Fearing the worst, I opened the box and poured out the contents.  165 cards, 5 player boards, and 39 tokens (mainly cardboard victory points with a few counters to indicate shields and disabled ships).  Moreover, the 165 cards are really 5 decks of similar 33 cards.  Now I was double-worried!

The rulebook is a simple 4-page fold-out just smaller than the standard 8×11 piece of paper.  The entire back page has suggested scenarios and the first page is mainly chrome and set-up.  I was getting triple-worried!

Okay, I calmed down and read the rules, which took me maybe 3 to 4 minutes to complete.  The game is quite simple and can be broken down into just a dozen or so simple rules:

  1. Each player has the exact same set of cards (6 for 3 players, 7 for 4 players, and 8 for 5 players).
  2. Each player randomly puts a facedown card in their Discard pile and randomly puts a faceup card in their Recovery Zone.  The remaining cards are their hand.
  3. Each turn every player selects and places a card from their hand facedown in the In Play area.
  4. All cards are revealed.  Cards are played in order from lowest numbered to highest numbered.
  5. If 2 or more players play the same card (in other words, two or more play Laser Cannons), each player suffers the Clash effect on the card.  If a player plays an unmatched card, they resolve the main effect. All of this, of course, in the order mentioned in #4.
  6. After finishing #5, any player with only 1 card left flips their playboard to the Red Alert side.
  7. Any player with no cards left is eliminated.
  8. All remaining players take the card (or cards) in the Recovery Zone into their hand.  Any card In Play moves to the Recovery Zone.
  9. If any player has 15 Victory Points they win.  If there is only one player left, he/she wins.
  10. If more than one player remains, return to step #2.

The playboards help keep all of this card rotation organized.  You can see in the photo below that the areas are clearly labelled, with Recovery Zone to the right, Discards on the left, and In Play on top.

Battlecruisers02

If a player has only 1 card left, he/she flips his/her board to the Red Alert side.  Their sole card gets played into the In Play zone (like normal) but now it also counts as being in the Recovery Zone.  The consequence of this is that In Play cards normally cannot be sent to the discard pile by any player’s effects, but Recovery Zone cards can be.  Thus, once in Red Alert a player can be eliminated by having to discard their sole remaining card.

Analysis

After reading the rules, I thought that the game was a bit too simple.  Across two weeks I played about 10 games with half of them being a 3-player game and the other half 4-player.  Boy was I wrong, wrong and triple-wrong!  This game is great!

Okay, let me back up and explain why.  The bulk of the game is determined by each player’s choice of which card to play each turn. Here are what the cards look like:

Battlecruisers03

The large number in the upper right is the timing element: lower numbered cards play before higher numbered cards.  The upper left are icons that represent an attribute of a card, such as people, supplies, etc.  These icons combo from the Recovery Zone with the main effects of other cards.  The box of text is the main effect, while the Clash effect is listed in the bottom right of the card.

Each player is missing at least one card from their deck, as it was discarded before the game began, so each player’s set of cards is slightly different.  Moreover, all players can see what is in the Recovery zones, giving some insight on what cannot be played by a certain player.  The goal each turn is to either get victory points, force one or more opponents to discard card(s), or play an advantageous effect such as returning cards from your discard pile to your hand, while also avoiding clashing with any other player.

As an example, here is the Card #31 Laser Cannons:

Battlecruisers04

When played, this card is going to make at least one player discard a card.  If only one player has it in play, all other players (who are not shielded) must discard.  If two or more are played, a clash occurs, and all players with Laser Cannons in play have to discard a card.  Importantly, they cannot discard the Laser Cannons, unless they are in Red Alert in which case they must discard Laser Cannons and they will be eliminated later in the turn.

Basically, the game is about managing your hand and getting a good rotation of cards moving from In Play to Recovery to your hand and back into play.  At the same time, you need to figure out what other players are likely to play and avoid clashing with them.  This makes for some tense games of chicken as two or more players try to bluff playing a certain card hoping to get another player to play a different card in response.  The most hilarious moments in the game occur when players bluff and double-bluff and then still play clashing cards!

Across the ten or so games that I participated in, I think only 2 or 3 were won by eliminating all but one player through discards.  Most of the wins were via getting to 15 victory points.  The games were faster than the advertised 20 minute playtime.  We averaged anywhere between 10 to 15 minutes.  I think veteran gamers are all going to be able to play a game in under 20 minutes almost every time.  We found this enjoyable as we were able to play multiple games, giving everyone a chance to claim at least one victory.

The Good and the Better

The game is truly fun to play!  The fear of clashing drives the tactical element, as each player has to plan ahead and manage his/her hand and anticipate the actions of the other players.  The joy of sneaking in a Captain (gets massive victory points), Attack Bots (take a card from an opponent’s Recovery Zone and add it to your hand), or the devastating Laser Cannons brings absolute joy to the player who accomplished the feat.  Moreover, there is a subtlety to purposely clashing in order to force a Red Alert player to discard their last card.

Thematically, the game holds together very well.  The art is borrowed from the Eminent Domain deckbuilding game, so the space theme is evident.  Moreover, as a player loses cards they get a sense that their battlecruiser is getting blown apart by the other players, both in the physical sense of having fewer cards, and in the functional sense of having fewer tactical options (i.e. lose your Shields card and now you cannot activate any more defensive Shields as long as the card stays in your Discards).

And now for the better!  Battlecruisers has an assigned set of cards for a “first” game.  Unlike (Shadows over Normandie) which makes its initial scenario too complicated, the cards used in the first game are quite straight-forward, with none of them having any combination effects via the icons in the top left corner.  This allow players to understand the basic flow of the game and ascend the learning curve at a nice pace.

The back page of the rulebook gives 21 separate scenarios for players who are ready to jump into more advanced play.  Each scenario, with names like “Clash of Captains,” “Tech Warfare,” “Scorched Space,” and “The Nushura Contingency,” list a set of cards to be used for that particular scenario.  We played through 4 or 5 of these different scenarios–and I can confidently say, each played differently than the other.  “Scorched Space” was a discard-fest as we blasted each other’s battlecruiser apart; “The Bad, the Worse, and the Ugly” was a grinder where it was really, really, tough to get either victory points or force discards.  The rules also encourage players to assign their own set of cards if they choose.  Therefore, replayablity seems quite high, at least after 10 or so games.

Final Words

The numbered sequence of cards is not complete, indicating that one or more expansions are probably on the horizon should sales of Battlecruisers be robust.  Given that TMG has released expansions for the base game Eminent Domain, I fully expect them to do so for Battlecruisers.

So if your gaming group is looking for a game to play in between longer duration games, or if your group likes to play a single game 4 or 5 times in a row, I recommend that you run, don’t walk, to your local game store (or hit up one of the online retailers) and get yourself a copy of Battlecruisers!

 

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