Forbidden Stars: first impressions

On Sunday, this happened:

Forbidden Stars is a massive board game of strategy and conflict set in the iconic Warhammer 40k universe, and was released earlier in the summer by Fantasy Flight Games. It had been mentioned jokingly at my local store, as I have notoriously poor willpower where either Fantasy Flight or Games Workshop are concerned (so it’s even worse when the two combine!), but I’d managed to resist thus far. Then, a couple of weekends ago, the manager broke open one of the boxes on display for a demo copy, and I was hoping to get to play soon after.

I was actually really impressed, I have to say!

We played a two-player intro game, I took command of the Ultramarines while the manager of the store, also Mark, played as Chaos. The object of the game is to take control of as many objective markers as there are people in the game – so we needed two – or, whoever controls the most after eight rounds is the winner. So already, 40k players should be seeing similarities to the tabletop game here.

I didn’t take a whole lot of pictures – in fact, only that one from my tweet above – so here’s the always great Rodney Smith from Watch It Played to give an overview of the pieces and their functions:

As an aside, I love this channel, which is currently doing an indiegogo fundraiser for the next season – you should definitely take a look!

Anyhow.

First off, let me just say that I really liked this game. It was a bit of a beast to crack, with a lot of stuff going on, but it turned into a really immersive experience with a lot to think about on your turn. Let’s take a look:

Preparation

Each game round is divided into three phases – they do actually have names, but I’ll just call them start, middle and end. At the start, you’re sorting out your army for that round, which is done through the order tokens – two each of four different types, placed in a system in which you want to do something. Multiple players can place orders in the same system, providing they have a friendly unit there, so the tactics of what to do where can be really engrossing. For the most part during my game, we were doing things separately, but when it came down to sharing a system, the order in which you place your tokens becomes key, as you need to ensure you activate in the right way. In this way, it’s also possible to be locked out of a turn as your opponent(s) might have tokens on top of yours, ruining your plans by forcing combat and killing your guys before you can claim an objective.

Movement

Part one of the middle phase, movement was a little confusing, I won’t deny. You can only move through a friendly “corridor”, which you open through use of your ships. Each system tile has planets and void spaces, and the ships float in the void, providing this passage to your ground troops. Pile-ins are controlled by only being able to move your guys from the same adjacent system, and each planet has a total capacity for each player. So there is an element of balance there.

Combat

If you move onto a planet with an opponent, this triggers a combat. This was a bit long-winded at first, but I thought it was actually fantastic once I got the hang of it! A lot of FFG big board games, such as Mansions of Madness and Dungeonquest, have card-based combat, where you flip a card and combat happens as dictated there. I like this, as it allows for so much more theme to emerge than merely throwing dice at each other, but I’ve also heard a lot of negative comments about it. Forbidden Stars uses both dice (and custom dice, at that!) and cards, and the result is actually pretty great!

Each unit has a power value that determines how many dice you throw. When that’s done, you draw five combat cards and choose one to play into the combat. Each card has a number of symbols down the left side, as well as two effects; one in a green box, which happens anyway, and one in a brown box, which happens if you have a specific unit in the combat. The symbols down the left add the relevant die to your totals, but the effects can either add more dice or tokens with the same symbols. This is important, because you’re limited to a total of eight dice per combat, so you should always look to gain more tokens. However, these tokens are discarded after each combat round, so you need to plan carefully!

There are up to three rounds of combat (called executions, if I remember correctly), depending on whether you have surviving units at the end of each. During combat, if a unit is dealt damage equal to its hit points, it is destroyed; if it has hit points remaining, it is routed, and placed on its side. At the end of three combat rounds, the person with the most morale (the aquila symbol) wins, giving them the opportunity to claim any structures on the planet as their own (more later) or, more importantly, claim any objectives on the planet.

The end

The end phase has several steps that I can’t completely remember, though any routed units stand up and, obviously, victory conditions are checked. There’s also a cool mechanic of drawing and playing event cards based on whether you played a Strategize order earlier in the game (more shortly). Event cards fall into two types – tactics and schemes. Tactics give you a one-time boost, then get discarded, but schemes are in play until you play another. I managed to pull the excellent Exterminatus scheme on one of my rounds, which has a wonderful effect I’ll get to shortly. During this step, however, you also move the Warp Storm marker – a dividing token that is placed between system tiles, making them impassable during the next round. This can be great for fencing off an important system from your opponent.

Other stuff

Like I said at the start, there’s a lot going on in this game, but that just means there’s a lot to like about it. The four different orders allow you to do different stuff, but you get two of each, and you must play four on your turn, so you can do the same thing twice somewhere. There’s a useful one called Dominate, which gains you resources and allows you to use a special faction ability, and Deploy, which allows you to bring new units into play. Each faction has a host of units you can use, but they’re costed in such a way that also provides some good balance, from what I’ve seen, so you can’t go nuts and bring out a Wraithknight until the late game, as you’ll need to have built three cities to provide the resources. There is also a materiel cost to units, which you gain from controlling planets. It’s all pretty nicely tied together into an immersive experience, like I said!

Strategize allows you to purchase upgrade cards for your combat deck, as well as Order upgrades – cards that provide a better effect when you play that Order on a future turn. During my demo game, I managed to draw the excellent combo of the Order upgrade that gave me a better Orbital Strike, followed by the Exterminatus scheme that made that Orbital Strike even better! An Orbital Strike happens if you only moved ships into a system on your movement step – you roll dice equal to the ship’s power value, and apply any damage to enemy units in the system. My order upgrade allowed me to add an extra dice to the pool, and Exterminatus changes all the dice results to damage results, which allowed me to clear away a lot of Chaos awfulness in one swoop!

Warhammer Ultramarines

I enjoyed playing as the Space Marines – a lot of people think the Ultramarines are the blandest of the chapters, and I hear a lot of snide remarks about them and whatnot, but they’re pretty badass. Plus, the above image is only of my all-time favourite Warhammer art pieces. Win-win!

I’ve talked a lot about balance in this game, and from what I’ve seen of it, I think it really does come across as balanced. Whether, because we were learning the rules as we played, we were both as inept as each other, I don’t know, but it didn’t feel like anyone had a particular advantage over the other. I’m assuming there will be expansions, though I suppose that does depend on how well sales of the base game do (fyi, it is actually out of stock on FFG’s webstore, so I assume that means good stuff), but we were talking afterwards and agreed it’s likely we’ll get Astra Militarum, Tau, Dark Eldar, and presumably more of the stand-out Space Marine chapters such as Blood Angels, Space Wolves or Dark Angels. Tyranids could potentially tip the balance too much, I think, but they’re an iconic 40k race, so it might seem disingenuous to leave them out. I hope Necrons also make an appearance, but I don’t know if they’re enough of a mainstream race to warrant bringing in. But certainly I can see them expanding the line almost in reflection of the Conquest LCG. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, anyway!

I haven’t actually bought the game, and at £72 for a game I’m not sure how often I could play, I don’t even know if I will. However, it is a really great experience, one of those games that you need to set aside some good time to play – our game ended in a draw after just over two hours, only because the store was closing. In this, Forbidden Stars has really pleased me, as it feels like those sorts of board games – those that I rather elitist-ly call “serious” board games – are still a thing worth pursuing. It’s a proper battle game, and while nobody will try to convince you it’s a viable alternative to the tabletop wargame if that’s your thing, it’s nevertheless a really great complement to it if you want a different experience in the same universe.

Definitely worth investigating, if you can!

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