Thursday, 3 September 2015

Board Game Review - Forbidden Stars

Published by Fantasy Flight Games

“There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter and the laughter of thirsting gods.”
   –Warhammer 40,000

"Command your armies and battle for the Herakon Cluster in Forbidden Stars, a Warhammer 40,000 board game of interplanetary conquest for two to four players!

Forbidden Stars puts you in command of massive armies battling to claim the Herakon Cluster at any cost. In every game, you and your opponents build up your forces, expand your strategic options, and clash on the field of glorious battle. You’ll deliver orders to your troops on a strategic level and command your armies through tense tactical battles as you fight to claim your objectives. The first player to capture his objective tokens is the victor, but your opponents will undoubtedly defend them against you. You’ll need all your strategic skill to outwit and outmaneuver your opponents and claim the Herakon Cluster!"

I don't get to play board games that often so I like my sessions to have a certain level of complication; not too confusing that I'll need a degree in Tabletop Gaming Theory to understand it, and not so simple that I can learn it in five minutes, play it in ten, and be home in time for cornflakes. It was with a sense of trepidation, then, that I unwrapped Fantasy Flight Games' (FFG) newest offering 'Forbidden Stars'.

I'm a big fan of the grimdark gothic universe of Warhammer 40,000. I like the setting and atmosphere it invokes, and while I haven't played the wargame for many years I still play the 40K roleplaying products also produced by FFG. I think that's what drew me to Forbidden Stars; the promise of new adventures and experiences in the 40K universe was too much to resist and I set about securing myself a copy.

When it arrived and we unpacked it I was somewhat shocked. It's a hefty box with plenty of weight to it so straight away I could feel it's worth - the RRP is £79.99. Upon emptying the contents I was amazed - and terribly frightened - by what we splayed out on the table - 1 rulebook, 1 rules reference sheet, 112 combat cards, 32 event cards, 20 order upgrade cards, 24 objective tokens, 36 structure control tokens, 32 order tokens, 4 reference cards, 1 round tracker and marker, 1 first player token, 36 asset tokens, 16 custom dice, 12 combat tokens, 4 materiel dials, 12 double-sided system tiles, 4 faction sheets, 4 warp storm tokens, 35 plastic structures and 105 plastic units for Orks, Space Marines, Chaos Space Marines and Eldar. You get these great stands for the ships, as well.

Amazed because there was so much; frightened because there went my hopes for a simple board game.

Lets get two things out of the way - firstly, this is a FFG product so the first thing you expect is quality, and this game succeeds in every level. The box is hardy and strong so it'll last a long while, the tokens and cards are of thick and durable card stock so they're quite hardy, and the figures are well designed and detailed, and will prove a bit of a challenge to the painters of the hobby. I do, however, have a one complaint about the contents and that's the design choice for the units of the different races. We get some lovely structure, starship and war machine miniatures, but the models for the ground troops are like standards and are not actual representations of the races. So, for example, instead of an Ultramarine figurine we get a symbol on a stand; I would have liked to have an actual figure in a combat pose getting ready to get into a fight instead of the symbol as that would have looked great on the board along with everything else, and would have been great for the painters in the room.

The second thing is that the rules are somewhat complicated and I'm loathe to go into any great detail in this review, so I'm going to link to the FFG website where you can download and read the rules for free. That's something I like about the FFG range, the fact that you can have a look at how a game works before making your choice. These detailed and component-rich games can cost a pretty penny so it's great to be able to see what your getting for your hard-earned cash and if the game will suit you or not. Rest assured that I've not yet played a FFG game that I've not considered worth the money, and Forbidden Stars definitely falls into that category. It's definitely worth the price - you can feel that in the box - but it's also a lot of fun.

I'm going to say this again so that it's fully out in the open and you'll understand where I'm coming from for the rest of this review; Forbidden Stars is complicated. You're not only getting plenty of stuff in your box, you're also getting a detailed and comprehensive game that'll take you an hour or two to get into. Once you get that first game out of the way it'll get easier, I promise, but expect a lot of page flipping and exclamations of 'what does that even mean!?!' as you hit the learning curve. Perhaps that's just me and the friend I played with, as one of us had the rulebook and the other had the rules reference, so as we worked through the book and set the game up and learned the rules one of us would read from the rulebook and the other would clarify what the rule meant using the rules reference document.

The rules reference document was a handy tool as it detailed each section of the rules in alphabetical order so that you could find what you needed as you required it, but without the rule book you couldn't understand the full context of those rules. Sounds complicated? Well, it was. Perhaps what we should have done is just follow the rulebook and leave the rules reference for the actual game. It was a bit muddled, and sometimes we had to see the rule in action on the board to fully get the gist of it, but it all made sense in the end. No doubt there are board gamers out there who the rules will click with and they'll sail through the rules and the game itself with a smile and dismissive wave of the hand to us feeble ones who struggled, and well done you. All I can say is that it took us the better part of an hour to get the pieces out of their cardboard holders, set up the board and get through the rules so that we could get on with an actual game. Even then the first round of play took us nearly an hour as we had to check and double check that we were not only doing it right, but that we were doing it in the right order and the pieces on the board were positioned correctly to allow us to do it. That's a long time in my book and starts to bend my rules regarding what makes a board game fun for me.

However, once we got into it the game was, for all the bluster over learning how to play the thing, a lot of fun. We placed out figures and tokens, and set about moving our pieces, building structures, gathering resources and improving our forces. In fact, resource management and building was the order of the day at first and we were tempted to call it 'Logisticshammer', but once we got into grabbing planets from each other and having battles, things got really interesting really fast.

There are objective tokens that players put around the board and these tokens are specifically for one faction to get hold of, so you find yourself fighting for worlds to make your way to the token, fighting for it, and then moving on. The sheer insignificance of entire worlds in the 40K universe, something that makes the grimdark of the 40K galaxy so well defined, shines through in this game as there may be a world you'll fight tooth and nail for, and then in a round or two it will have served it's purpose and you'll pretty much forget about it, even allowing other players to take it.

Also, the order tokens that everyone places in turn are a great way of cranking up the fun as you do not have any idea what is coming next. Players take it in turns to secretly place their tokens face down on a single board section, and the player after puts there's on top so that they stack up. Then you flip the token over from top to bottom, revealing orders. So, your order to build in one area could be ruined by the previous player's order to invade before you have the chance to. It makes you really think about what you really want in a system and what orders you place across the game board. Between us as just a two-player game it was a lot of fun; a full four-player game must be awesome to play.

If it does go into combat that's almost a mini-event in itself and sits apart from the rest of the game. You use the dice and the cards and battle it out, and the rules are a little clunky and this is where we had our more 'what the hell?!?' moments, but once you iron out the problems and go through it a few times you soon get used to it. I'd suggest playing the combat separately a couple of times before getting into the game proper just to make sure that you've got your head around it, or there may be a chance that combat will slow the game, which might be annoying if there's more than two players at the table.

What we got from our first evening's play was a bit of frustration followed by head-nodding as we finally understood what we were supposed to do, followed by some tentative steps. After a couple of hours we were playing with confidence and after three we were going along at a pretty good clip. The following night we were much better prepared and after half an hour we'd set up the game and we were conquering worlds and I was spilling blood for the Blood God with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. All told, between the two of us, I think it took about three hours from unboxing to finally get the game and be comfortable with the rules. Yes, it was a bit of a pain to learn but it was worth it for the hours of fun we've ended up having.

Forbidden Stars is a great game and will appeal to the type of board gamer who likes some complication in their rules, as well as the 40K fans out there. Players will find it a good social game that will have everyone second-guessing seriously strategising, and the uncertainty - thanks to those order tokens - will create not only some tense situations but also some genuinely laugh out loud moments. Who would have thought that a grimdark future of madness and death could be so much fun?


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