A Few Acres of Stardust
Martin Wallace birthed a new subgenre with A Few Acres of Snow. Here was deck-building but tied to a map, every single location represented by a card. Seizing territory not only meant extra points and opportunities, but also more regions to administer, and your deck and hand could gradually choke on bureaucratic smoke that distracted from the conflict at hand. It was deviously clever. Also incomplete.
Wallace’s Mythotopia sought to fix up the concept, broadening it from two to four players and sanding down some of the system’s rougher edges while giving others their due. It made for a good time, as far as I’m concerned, though still an experience where a single pulled thread might unravel the whole thing.
Now Wallace is back with A Handful of Stars, the last in his trilogy of deck-building-on-a-map games. And as we’ve come to expect, there are some excellent ideas on display here — and a few that could have used some extra work.
Right away, A Handful of Stars inflicts its players with a setup that sticks around like an unwelcome guest settling down on your couch for a long chat about politics. Habitable and uninhabitable planets are spaced across the board, certain lanes are blocked off with black holes, and then everybody’s starting planets are doled out, slowly found on the random map, and populated. In some ways, it feels like a presage of what’s to come, especially if this game had gone the same route as Mythotopia by struggling to reach a timely conclusion.
Then, a miracle. Instead of plodding along, A Handful of Stars hits the hyperactive hyperdrive. Turns roll by quickly, propelled by the need to capture planets as quickly as possible, and soon you’ll be overseeing peacetime border tensions, outright war, and wild new technologies that mess with how both are conducted. It’s a race that actually feels like you’re expanding and conquering as fast as you can.
It’s hard to describe just why this is without drawing a few too many comparisons to Mythotopia. Where that game had no time limit, A Handful of Stars is carefully regulated by its own ticking clock. Whenever somebody shuffles their draw pile, a little marker creeps one step closer toward the end of its track. Once it gets there, everybody’s only got one more turn. And that’s it. No fussing around with hitting a point threshold or whatever. The game just ends.
Of course, it helps that everything in between that glacial setup and light speed finish should be engineered with laser precision. There are four resources to manage, and each card can only contribute a single thing to any endeavor, whether a resource or its printed action. But the system has been fine-tuned to a purr, and it’s rare that anybody is going to be confused about what they can or cannot accomplish with a particular hand. Energy moves your fleets, research picks up new cards, and population and matter can be used jointly to construct new fleets or separately for colonization and warfare. Easy.
More than that, it’s easy to tell at a glance just where things stand between you and your neighbors. Stacks of fleets and bases are easily counted, and a neighbor’s stockpiling of reserve cards — banked so as to be pulled out whenever they please — is a good determiner of whether your nearby garden world has started to look like the cartoon steak to their predator’s gaze.
Even battles are a breeze, a huge departure from the drawn-out sieges of A Few Acres of Snow and Mythotopia. Rather than you and your opponent gradually adding strength back and forth across multiple turns, battles pause the action and let both players contribute reinforcements and ammunition to the fight. It’s punchy and doesn’t outstay its welcome, which is especially appreciated now that there’s a time limit breathing down your neck. It also has one of the best methods of handling casualties that I’ve seen in a game like this. Rather than killing off all of one side, both players can expect to lose half their ships — though the winner will round down while the loser rounds up. Just like that, doomstacked fleets make their presence known but quickly lose momentum if committed to battles too readily, and the extra pips of damage from cards never lose their value.
All this talk about the game’s precision fails to fully grasp its wildness, which is where it truly gets special. At the outset, every player already begins with a robust deck, a combination of generic resource cards, starting planets, a few unique racial powers, and a pair of techs tossed in at random. It’s entirely possible, for instance, to start out with a centralized empire gifted with military conscription and super search engines for managing their deck. Meanwhile, another player might be a far-flung series of outposts and fleets just begging to be united, with dreadnoughts and force shields for teeth, while somebody else zips around with fast engines and stealth tech. It’s not entirely fair, but it’s only as unfair as your players permit it to be. Make no mistake, this is a game about teaming up against a leading faction until their poets are writing about sand-buried statues and the folly of empire, only to turn coat just as soon as somebody else edges into the lead.
Between new technologies and the minor improvement tiles earned with each founded colony, it’s possible to tailor your empire into something truly terrifying. Space mines for defense, diplomacy to prematurely shut down an aggressor’s invasion, terraforming to place colonies in spots where they wouldn’t normally belong, and new black holes are just some of the toys that spill out of the research deck.
Unfortunately, having nearly every option somehow related to war-making is one of the few areas where A Handful of Stars falls just short of its predecessor. Mythotopia also revolved around armies and conquest, but it also allowed for the occasional side avenue, like hunting for dragons, building roads and cities, or targeting specific neutral countries. Here, while there are a few extra ways to nudge yourself toward victory, ninety percent of your success will come down to your quantity of colonies and stations. There’s very little management of infrastructure, and while there are a few chances to attack neutral worlds, they’re usually gobbled up so quickly that most of the game will play out as a direct dispute between factions.
Which is fine. I’m not wishing for a different experience entirely, just that A Handful of Stars had displayed a little bit more breadth. For instance, one of the technology cards is “Culture.” When placed into one of your limited reserve slots, it’s worth nearly as much as a colony, a nice bonus that will never compete against the benefits of owning a far-flung empire. It’s the sort of thing I wish there had been more of, options for building a powerful but compact cluster of worlds, hunkered down and highly developed.
Then again, A Handful of Stars gains a lot from the streamlining of its predecessors’ excesses. Mythotopia’s armies existed in three different states — unavailable, available, and on the map — and the whole thing was a bit of a nuisance to manage. Here, fleets either exist or they don’t, and their absence just means it’s time to construct more. It’s simple, requires very little explanation, and works far more logically than owning a dozen armies who won’t show up to defend your capital until you re-recruit them.
Many of the individual elements in A Handful of Stars are like that, having descended from a long pedigree of ramblers and coming to the conclusion that the soul of wit must be brevity. It’s faster, leaner, and more enjoyable. If Daniel Berger’s Hands in the Sea hadn’t solved Martin Wallace’s hybrid deck-builder conundrum last year, I’d declare it to be the finest of its kind.
As it stands, it will have to settle for being the finest more-than-two-players incarnation. Flawed though it might be, it’s also mighty.