The Final Forbidden Frontier
I’ve seen a lot of people yammering on about the pedigree behind Forbidden Stars. Personally, I think that’s boring, so I’ve put together an easy-to-follow explanation of what’s going on with Fantasy Flight’s newest release. Here goes:
The third in an increasingly inaccurately described series of cooperative games, Forbidden Stars focuses on the same plucky adventurers who first survived the collapse of Forbidden Island and then reassembled their fantasy airship doohickey to escape the Forbidden Desert. Now, rather than working together to escape rising waters or rising sands, they’ve taken to the final frontier, where they must brave warp storms and endless war, fighting to be the sole survivor of rising hate and blood.
Or maybe Forbidden Stars is largely based on the out-of-print StarCraft: The Board Game. I can’t remember. Because I’ve been playing too much Forbidden Stars to care.
Okay, so Forbidden Stars does indeed trace its heritage back to the analog version of StarCraft, but that’s only part of the story. If StarCraft: The Board Game is Forbidden Stars’s grandma, then it’s also got a grandpa and some weird aunts and uncles swinging from the old family tree too. Just a few years ago this would have been another of Fantasy Flight’s “coffin box” games, so named because they took so long to play that you were expected to use the box as your final resting place when your heart gave out mid-move. And yes, they were sizable enough so you could stretch out. No folding of your corpse necessary.
In a day and age when board games have followed the trend set by computing by going as micro as possible, with every game getting its dice-version touch-up or only-18-cards downgrade, Forbidden Stars represents a bold move on the part of Fantasy Flight. While its box would make a poor sarcophagus, it’s still plenty roomy. More importantly, the game inside represents a hybrid design that takes design principles old and new and bakes them into a hot blueberry-and-gore pie. It’s unapologetic about taking two to five hours to play, hands you four decks to manage and just flashes a jackass grin about it, piles a bunch of minis on your table — and then still reads off a list of surprisingly streamlined rules.
So enough about this pedigree crap. Let’s talk about Forbidden Stars.
Taking place in the grim dark of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the motto of which is something like, “We’re very grimly serious about every little thing so you don’t have to be,” Forbidden Stars pits four of the setting’s classic races against each other in an effort to control a virgin tract of space. Until recently, the Something-Something Sector was inaccessible thanks to a bunch of warp storms, ominous fractures in the fabric of reality where the realm of immaterial chaos bleeds through with devastating consequences. Now they’ve blown away on a serendipitous solar wind, taking their pesky pizza storms (or whatever) to bug some other crappy place.
Cue four invasion fleets, each of them determined to plant their flag right in the heart of Something-Something.
Before we even get into those four factions, however, let’s talk about the map.
Every game opens as everyone is given a handful of map tiles. Each shows spaces for your units — voids for ships and planets for ground troops and structures — and has a spot where players will be laying their order tokens each round. There are a few things of value in each sector, stuff like material (space-cash), forge tokens for building more powerful units, reinforcements that can be sent to their death in battle, planets with extra space for stationing troops. And so on.
Most importantly, in two places in each sector, there are spots for objective tokens. As players build the map, laying sectors and their starting troops at the same time, they also seed the Something-Something Sector with these objectives, carefully rotating each tile to put them out of reach, stationing troops and ships to blockade easy acquisitions while also occupying resources. Everyone’s goal is to seize some of these (not all), so before the first shot is even fired, everyone is already engaged in a tense contest where they must leverage their position, protect other positions, and hope that the next tile won’t be placed in a way that screws up their plans too much.
A couple of really smart things happen here. First of all, it’s pretty rare that anyone will end up with a united front. More often, their soldiery is spread out over multiple theaters. Here’s the spot where you placed your starting factory, here’s the place where you put your best starting troop to try and conquer that one objective early on, here’s where you’re hoping to block an opponent’s expansion with your fleet. Spread out like this, every move is a sacrifice somewhere else, and every loss just means it’s time to shift your attention elsewhere.
And then there are the warp storms.
These are brilliant. The final act of setup is that everyone gets a storm and plops it down between two sector tiles, totally blocking movement between those two spots. As the game progresses, these will shift. Areas that were previously secure will suddenly become the chink in your armor, the soft underbelly that you hadn’t bothered defending. Meanwhile, contested areas where both players were building enormous armies will suddenly become as inaccessible as mountain passes choked with snow. Or space-lanes choked with pizza as far as the eye can see. In either case, this means that it’s almost impossible to wage a single coherent crusade against another player. One minute you’ll be fighting Chaos, only for the warp storms to shift and sandwich you between the Orks and Space Marines for a round. Your short-term goals must adjust as the battlefield does.
There’s a lot going on in Forbidden Stars, but the gears that keep everything churning are delightfully straightforward. Players take turns laying out their orders, assigning them face-down to the map’s sectors, then take turns flipping those orders face-up to resolve them. Since it’s possible to place an order atop someone else’s order, you can effectively block them, at least for a while. For example, if you want to move into a sector and you think that the order Chaos has just played there means they’re planning to reinforce their troops, go ahead and play an Advance order over the top of theirs. Then again, maybe they were bluffing with something nonessential, and they’re instead going to play their Deploy order over your Advance, letting them pack the sector with fresh soldiers before you can make landfall.
It’s a system that provides plenty of nuance, giving everyone ample opportunity to bluff, outsmart, or just bully their opponents. There are only four orders to learn — Advance to move, Deploy to build troops and buildings, Strategize to purchase upgrade cards, and Dominate to claim special resources and use your faction’s unique ability — though there are some subtleties to each. For instance, when using Deploy, you can choose from three structures to build. Factories and Bastions are the flashy options, letting you buy troops and better defend your worlds, but the understated City is the one that bumps up your tech level, giving you access to better troops and upgrades.
And the upgrades! Everyone starts with a basic deck of cards to use in combat, a fusion of dice-rolling and card-playing that feels way too complex and takes about three times longer than it should, right up until it comes together and gives you a whole lot of ways to use your troops. It still ends up a touch too fiddly, but it transforms combat from a dice-chuck into a tight tactical affair, where you make use of your units and the cards you’ve purchased to pull all sorts of mean moves on your opponents. Upgrading your combat cards gives you access to cooler moves, lets you deal more damage, or maybe just helps you weather three rounds, because at the end of those three rounds the player with the highest morale wins, no matter who pulled out the longer pulse rifles.
It’s even possible to upgrade your orders, transforming your run-of-the-mill options into highly defined moves that distinguish your faction from everyone else. But before we talk about those, we should talk about the factions.
One of the things that makes Forbidden Stars so much fun is that it absolutely nails its silly-grim setting. Not only does it manage to present a conflict with shifting fronts, really selling the sense that you’re an expeditionary force in an unestablished frontier, but each of the factions is brimming with personality.
Take the Space Marines, for example. Normally the dullards of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, here they’re the fighting elites, able to upgrade their troops earlier than anyone else, promoting Scouts to full-fledged Marines to Land Raiders, and without needing Cities to do it. This lets them get a strong head-start, then later take advantage of Drop Pod Assaults to put extra troops onto the surface of contested planets, Recruitment Worlds to hire troops out of Bastions rather than Factories, and powerful upgrades like Show No Fear that prevent them from being routed in combat. At all.
The other factions feel just as distinct. The Orks are all about having rowdy fun, leaping across uncontrolled voids and stealing special resources from their opponents and destroying their own buildings to keep them out of a conquering enemy’s hands. In combat, they overwhelm with superior numbers and free reinforcement tokens, force players to reroll their dice once they’ve established a strategy, and gamble by using cards off the top of their adversary’s deck. The Eldar are more disciplined, gradually transforming their fleet from sizable to planet-cracking, setting up extra structures on planets, and using powerfully specialized combat cards to undermine everyone else’s best-laid plans. And Chaos is… well, suitably chaotic. Whether traveling straight through warp storms, infiltrating planets with cultists before using them to summon more powerful units, or spending their morale for short-term super-bonuses, Chaos is all about barely-managed madness.
In short, Forbidden Stars is a clockwork behemoth, enormous and frightening but still tick tick ticking away. It hands you lots of things to consider, almost too much, purchases and upgrades and attacks and long-term plans, and almost never enough orders in a round to do everything you’d like to.
But somehow, it works. It threatens to overwhelm but never does. When two players get into a protracted fight, everyone else gets a moment to sort through those upgrade cards again, planning their next purchase. When someone swoops in and scratches you off the surface of a planet, you bounce back somewhere else. When a warp storm moves and blocks one opportunity, that same warp storm has just left another one open.
It works well with two. It works well with three. But in my opinion, it’s at its most fun with four, everyone slinging back and forth and swapping between nemeses and hunting objectives and making spur of the moment deals to protect a particular planet from whichever player is gunning for it.
It’s huge, it’s gorgeous, and for anyone who isn’t scared off by the prospect of a game taking up to four hours, I can’t recommend it enough.