Carpe Astra by Ted Cheatham and Jackson Pope is a middle-weight tactical game for 2–4 players that combines a pleasing mix of tile laying, card play, resource management and area control mechanisms in an attractive, well-produced package.
Yesterday I got a chance to play it for the first time and played two games at Inner Sanctum Collectibles in Cambridge who were hosting a demonstration day for the game’s publisher and co-designer Jackson Pope of Reiver Games. In my first game I started well, but ran out of money and options towards the end; in my second I was a little smarter (and luckier!) so had enough ready cash to engineer a slim victory. And in both games one of my competitors was Jackson himself, so I think I did pretty well!
The compact game box contains a nice collection of components: two decks of cards, sturdy cardboard punch-sheets of tiles, tokens and coins, four sets of wooden playing pieces, and a full-colour rules booklet. The game set-up scales well for 2, 3 or 4 players, with the hexagonal tiles used cleverly to create a balanced initial layout in each case.
The array of components means there’s quite a lot going on; this makes for an engaging experience, if a mildly bewildering one for the newcomer. In my games Jackson did a very good job of explaining the game’s rules and revealing the relatively simple core idea, but it took a while for me to mentally ‘connect the dots’ and see how all the pieces fitted together (he said, mixing his puzzle metaphors). However, in play everything became clear after just a couple of rounds.
In a galaxy far, far away…
The conceit is that the players represent factions of an archetypical Galactic senate, and as is the case with almost all archetypical Galactic senates (as represented in various popular film and television franchises!) it seems a rather dysfunctional one. The players vie for influence in this somewhat bellicose political environment by creating temporary ‘networks’ of agents (their playing pieces) that connect their own leader, the senate or another player’s character (each represented by a single hexagonal tile) with specific factions, as represented by six different symbols on the main double-hexagon tiles.
The game begins with each player already having two influence tokens of their own faction, two random ‘Network’ cards and a mere five coins, which, it turns out, is not much of a warchest. A player gets a couple of free actions each turn, but almost everything else costs (this is politics, after all) so running out of money or not having enough to compete effectively in the final few rounds is not a viable strategy. Look after those pennies, people!
Players gain the all-important influence tokens by creating networks that contain an instance of that symbol, and then playing a matching card. Each card shows 2 or 3 of these faction symbols and the cards themselves come in two flavours ‘Network’ or ‘Slander’. Successfully play a Network card and you may take a token from the common pool; play a Slander card and you may take it from another player and return it to the pool (if you want to keep it for yourself you need to pay a coin). When you draw cards you may choose to draw either variety, so the game begins with players drawing Network cards (and collecting influence from the pool) before necessarily switching mid-game to Slander cards (once the pool has run dry).
The tick of the clock
The game last just 10 rounds, with this timeline represented by 10 random ‘Event’ cards drawn at the beginning of the game from a separate deck. In each round, except for the first, one Event is in play, and these allow players to gain additional advantages (more money or extra cards) if they can successfully play Network or Slander cards featuring specific factions in that round. Since the only other way to gain money in the game is to play no cards in a turn (and hence gain no influence) players must try to take advantage of these events if they want want to do well. The events in the two forthcoming rounds are always revealed (the remainder are laid face-down) so it is possible to plan ahead to some degree.
Although the tile layout can grow as the game progresses, this only happens if the players actively choose to pay to place tiles in their turn, so the board can remain very tight. Adding tiles can indeed make gaining influence easier at the start of the game but players need to be careful. Any tiles laid close to their own character will make slandering much easier for their opponents later on.
So, although this is a game with tiles, it is not a ‘tile-laying’ game in the sense familiar to, for example, Carcassonne players. The gameplay is not dependent on building and populating an ever-expanding landscape; rather each turn players have to manipulate and utilise the limited arena created by the tiles as efficiently as possible. In this respect the game can be a bit of a puzzler, with the possibility of downtime between turns while your opponents try to wrap their head round the various permissible permutations of the tile layout, their cards and their usually limited finance.
Once the slandering kicks off, however, any previously good relations between players are likely to become strained. There’s little a player can do to directly protect himself from slander, so in this case attack (and counter-attack) is the best and only form of defense. The final scoring is based on the influence each player has accrued (and kept hold of) at the end of the 10 rounds and this information is open. The leader, then, is likely to get a good bit of bashing, at least until such time that he isn’t the leader any more! The scoring, entirely dependent on the relative distribution of the influence tokens of all six factions at the end of the game is a little mathsy, but does set-up some interesting choices.
The art of the possible
I greatly enjoyed both my games of Carpe Astra. For me, it had the right mix of tactics and strategy (that is, more of the former and less of the latter) and enough options in each turn to allow me to feel as if I was making positive, useful choices, even if I wasn’t at all times keeping up with my opponents.
The inescapable luck of the card draw (and the ability to mitigate it by paying to swap cards in your turn) means that it may always be possible to overcome bad choices (or bad luck) in earlier turns, so hope is never completely lost. And being an inveterate puzzler, the problem of manipulating the tiles and my agents in each turn was an enjoyable exercise. There’s plenty of player interaction, with the game forcing the players to eventually confront each other, whether they like it or not!
The game’s unforgiving end-game reminded me of the oft-quoted lines from Thomas Hobbes’ influential political treatise Leviathan, which as luck would have it I was reading about on Wikipedia only the other day.
Hobbes argued that the natural state of men, stripped of the central political authority provided by an absolute monarch, was to lead a life that was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, and that since everyone would have a right to everything, there would exist a natural and constant state of conflict, a situation he rather pithily summed up (in Latin) as follows:
‘Bellum omnium contra omes’ / ‘The war of all against all’
Play nice children, play nice.