Up In The Sky – Forbidden Stars review by Chris O’Regan

 

We’re back! We’re settling in to our new place in the US (in sunny New Hampshire) and as such, it’s time to start spinning things up again on littlemetaldog.com – so here’s Chris with a look at Fantasy Flight’s recent big box launch, Forbidden Stars!

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“Oh look, it appears the Chaos Marines are about to get wiped out”, said an observer of my most recent play session of Forbidden Stars muttered. “Actually, they’re about to win”, I replied. This exchange encapsulated my experience with Fantasy Flight’s latest foray into the realms of the Warhammer 40,000 universe rather well. For Forbidden Stars is not a simple area conquest game as the casual observer would assume, but it is in fact a collect token at any cost game instead. As soon as the players around the table understand this, strategies that seem rash and outright ridiculous suddenly start to make sense.

Forbidden Stars is a long form tactical board game that is a rehash of the now out of print Starcraft game that Fantasy Flight made some years ago. The board is made up of double sided square panels that are in turn sub-divided further into 4 quarters. The size of the board varies depending on the number of players, with the maximum being a 5×4 grid for four players. There are four factions that are represented in Forbidden Stars: The Ultra Marines of the Human Imperium, the Eldar race of nomads, the Orks who only live to fight and the Chaos Marines who serve the dark lord of Khorn. Sadly no Tau, Terranids or certainly no Squats are present, but we can but hope for an expansion or two can’t we? Each of the factions plays slightly differently, but all of them are restricted to the rules that run through Forbidden Stars.

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Rounds are split into three phases: Planning, Operations and Refresh. Forbidden Stars plays for 8 rounds or until one player holds a number of objective tokens equal to the number of players. The means by which players gain these tokens is entirely up to them, but it normally requires the a fair few military clashes with the other factions in order to acquire the tokens. The Planning phase concerns the placement of orders that come in four varieties: Build, Strategize, Dominate and Advance. Build allows players to construct units and builds, but only in that order as the buildings have an impact on a player’s ability to build units. This rule is one of the many tiered and multi-layered rule set that Forbidden Stars is saddled with that sadly can stifle the play experience, especially for those who are unfamiliar with this type of game. The word ‘no’ is uttered more often than not when players ask a question as to whether they can do something during the game, simply because they fail to meet a seemingly arbitrary rule. But these rules exist to create a balanced environment else Forbidden Stars becomes broken. Thankfully the design of Forbidden Stars is of familiar Fantasy Flight quality with iconography that can be easily read and thus reduces the need to constantly audit your own actions as well as everyone else’s. It does not negate this, however, forcing all participants to be extra observant when others are executing their actions.

Strategize is a rather interesting order in that it doesn’t impact on other players immediately, but does enhance a player’s abilities to execute actions on the board and deal with combat engagements. The player can buy enhanced units for use in their combat and can also buy abilities that have a lasting effect as soon as they are bought, making their purchase early on in the game somewhat advisable. Once completing this order it is possible to place an order token on the event deck of cards that results in the player carrying out additional action(s) during the event section of the Refresh phase mentioned previously. This can bring about significantly game changing actions that can turn the tide of the game very quickly when used judiciously.

Dominate is what can be referred to as gathering of resources and pulling off unique moves to a player’s faction. Once triggered it allows players to reap assets from the systems that exist within quadrant the Dominate order has been triggered in. Assets come in three flavours: Reinforcements, Supplies and Forge. Reinforcements are used in combat, Supplies are used to reduce the cost of buying units and structures and Forge are special tokens that are required to built certain stronger units and also temporarily increase the technological level to allow for the building of stronger units one level higher than would normally be legally built.

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Finally, Advance is the order around which Forbidden Stars orbits as it concerns the movement of units and conflict it usually leads to. The timing of deployment has a huge impact on the likelihood of a satisfactory outcome. Movement follows a very strict set of rules, which are often misinterpreted at the frustration of the player trying to execute the order. Ships can only move between friendly quadrants within a system and they cannot cross a warp-storm rift, an obstacle that moves between sectors that is impassable to all except the Chaos Marines once they acquire an upgrade. Units can only be moved from one sector, preventing a massing of units from across the board to a single rally point. This rule confounds many and puts paid to attempts at shoring up forces from spread out installations throughout the board.

As a legacy from the Star Craft game that Forbidden Stars is based on, the placement of these orders can be on top of other players, resulting in some blockage of play and careful manipulation of order execution at the expense of the players orders. This can force players to miss their turn as they wait for other players to execute their orders, requiring them to react to what their opponents have done in their wake. This placement of orders and their location is pivotal in successful play of Forbidden Stars and it is often that players can mess this vital stage up by placing something in the wrong place or worse, in the wrong order. Many is the time during play sessions that a player will berate themselves for mistiming an Advance order.

Now for what can be described as the ‘elephant in the room’, the combat. I’ve deliberately been putting this off describing it in this review as it is a somewhat convoluted affair that has the first few skirmishes becoming little more than a lot of scratching of heads and wondering ‘is that it?’ by those involved. Combat is initiated by the rolling of 6 sided custom dice, the number of which is determined by the units taking part in the engagement. These dice remain in place and can be added to or removed during the combat, which is split into three execution rounds.

See, I told you it was convoluted!

Once the dice are rolled the results are noted, bolters or guns are attacks, shields are defence against attacks and eagles are morale that come into use at the end of the combat. The next action is for players to elect to use Reinforcement assets. They can only place as many reinforcements as they have units taking part in the combat and they only act as a damage sponges during the fight. Once reinforcements are placed the first execution round begins by playing one of the five cards the combating players have drawn from their combat deck.

Are you keeping up with this? I wouldn’t blame you if you’re not.

These cards are played simultaneously, but resolved by the attacker first. Most cards have bolters, shields and eagles attributed to them that add to the dice results described earlier. Additionally there are actions that are executed by both attacker and defender as they play the cards. These come in two forms, green and brown. The green action is always applied, regardless of the battle conditions while the brown action is only triggered if a certain set of units are present during the combat. No I’m not making this up, this is genuinely how the combat works.

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Once all of the actions are resolved, the attacker determines if they have successfully landed any hits against the defender. If they have the amount of damage is compared against the hit points of the units that are participating in the combat. If it is only partially hurt then units are considered to be routed. They are not dead, but they no longer contribute to the morale of the forces taking part in the battle. This has a significant impact on the end phase of the engagement as it is morale that governs the victor, assuming there are units still alive after three execution rounds are over. Yes, that’s right, combat cards are placed two more times to resolve the battle, with the attacker dealing damage and the defender retaliating. This can and often brings the whole proceedings of play within Forbidden Stars to an almost shuddering halt as the combating players try to execute combat cards in a desperate attempt to thwart their opponent while the other players look on and can but stare at pictures of cats on Facebook via their smart phones in order to pass the inordinate amount of time passing. Nothing can be done to speed this process up. Even after multiple plays of Forbidden Stars the combat always slams on the brakes to the point of despair to those not involved with the fight. I’ve even had people leave the table to make a cup of tea while the combat occurs, it’s that lengthy.

The last phase, Refresh, is an administrative one more than being impactful to play, with the exception of gathering objective tokens. This has players taking tokens they earned from gaining control of systems with the tokens of their faction on them, knowing that they cannot by stolen from them in any way. This is a very important point to note as everything is geared towards the acquisition of these tokens in Forbidden Stars and players who recognise this do far better than those who seek to gain territory from others.

Event cards are also played in this phase that sees the impassable warp storms moving across game board and the triggering of actions within them. These can be very powerful, with some being able to be stored for later play in the form of ‘Schemes’ that can earn players an additional action during the Operations phase. This often throws other players off kilter as they see their carefully laid plans obliterated by a well timed play of a Scheme event card. Trust me on this, I have personally benefited and punished by such an action on far too many occasions.

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Forbidden Stars is a good game, but I say that cautiously as it has a lot of problems that would be churlish of me to ignore. The pace of play for the combat is a blight on what otherwise would be a very slick game to play. The complex and cumbersome rules of movement are also maddening at times that, while needed, are only present because of the base design of the game demands their presence. It’s akin to a self fulfilling prophecy, which is never a good thing. It is because of these aspects that gives me pause to recommend it unreservedly as the both conspire to increase the length of play time. This reduces the likelihood of it hitting many tables as 5 hours is a minimum for a four player game session, and that’s with experienced players around the table.

In summary then, the movement and combat rules bring Forbidden Stars to its proverbial knees. Every action has to be carefully measured, calculated and audited to ensure they are done fairly for all involved as the rules are very finely balanced that one miscalculation can result much gnashing of teeth.

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