Review: Starbase Annex06 Oct 2014 0
My grandmother is a Gin Rummy player, and by "player" here, I mean something rather less innocent and more ruthlessly predatory than the association with "play" might suggest. Many traditional card games have a high skill ceiling and a basic mechanism which generates interesting choices, but also have a themeless blandness and significant gameplay flaws which make developing that skill something of a chore. Rocco Bowling thought it would be pretty cool to highlight the heart of such a game by adding some tactical positioning and setting it in the same universe as his masterful and well-maintained Starbase Orion. So, instead of playing a five to take a two and three as in the classic Italian card game Scopa, you're launching a midsize cruiser to ward off an attack on your home star system. Like tabletop gem Nexus Ops, Starbase Annex is still fairly simple, but departs from its traditional card game roots in that playing feels more like being a galactic emperor and less like being an elderly hairdesser.
Fans of Starbase Orion will need to remember that epic scope and complexity aren't the goal of Annex. Pint-sized 4X has very different virtues, and Annex doesn't attempt to be a recognizable subset of the larger game (Starbase Orion's Belt?). There's no exploration, and half of the role of diplomacy in the game consists of killing diplomats (Zack Snyder and Frank Miller should be credited on that subsystem). Instead of a sprawling starscape, your maneuvers will have a backdrop of hex maps of varying shapes, none large. But they're starry hexes, and your cards are spaceships--to a grounded, pragmatic player, that might have no more appeal than hearts and spades, but the child in me who dreamed of space exploration while learning Rummy from his grandmother thinks that makes all the difference.
In Annex, 40 ships of strength one to ten are divided between the players. Each player purchases ships from his or her pool, places them in friendly systems, and moves them about. Combat is a simple matter of comparing total strengths, with a total of n able to capture up to n strength from the opponent. For example, if a 1 and 4 attack a 5 and 6, the losses would be the 1, 4, and 5. Crucially, all losses go into the attacker's capture pile. You win the game by fulfilling three of the five victory conditions, some of which involve the contents of that pile, so it can be advantageous to maneuver so that you have the opportunity to bash your ships against your opponent's, rather than allowing the AI to take the initiative. There are several embellishments, but even that most basic dynamic forces you into tradeoffs of territory vs. initiative, progress on one goal vs. progress on others.
I am concerned that the goals may be less independent than they seem, and so that there are fewer paths to victory than there at first appear, or perhaps that all but one is extremely rare. In my games, I found I could have my victory in any color I liked, so long as it was military dominance. While I sometimes considered finding opportunities to capture Human cards, and tended to avoid fielding the Human Diplomat or Mammoth (which grant victory points to your opponent if lost) until victory was all but assured, I never played a game in which the player who won the Militaristic Victory point lost the game. There are still interesting questions about how to pursue that--going for direct obliteration of the largest opposing fleets, spreading quickly to gather resources, maybe picking away at your opponent's supplies--but it's not nearly as thematically satisfying as one with an attachment to the fictional universe might like, largely because the only means to accomplish any of the goals is battle.
There's also a quite curious psychological oddity I've only noticed while playing this game: if a single-player-only game has one AI opponent, I am generally done with it very quickly. Three, I usually take a good deal longer, and play the top AI many times even after I've beaten it. Up above ten, though, I start feeling like the AIs are simply levels, never to be revisited once defeated. While I'm delighted to be able to say with confidence that many of the foibles of my psychology are not widespread, I imagine this experience is common. Fortunately, the awareness of Annex's roots in a card game endlessly replayed by generations of Italians helps defuse that assumption.
The interface initially activated my burning hatred of interfaces which require extra taps, but once you're moving around larger fleets, those taps help manage movement more effectively. After the sacrifice of an alien baby, the god of wrath was appeased. Because the only randomness occurs at the beginning of the game, Annex is able to include an undo feature which can give you a do-over of up to your entire turn once you notice your blunders. That lack of randomness may do more than anything else to push the feel of the game away from its 4X cousins; barring a highly unusual distribution of ships at the outset, you own even the smallest failure. There's never an unexpected catastrophe, nor are there any alliances which could shift against you. Combined with the low early difficulty which increases only slowly, this results in an early feeling of mastery which only a few of the later challenges are equipped to temper with a dose of humility.
I'm not always gracious about accepting input from my predecessors about games. The beloved status of Monopoly and Bingo pretty much guaranteed that. Consequently, I'm all the more appreciative when the best elements of our traditions can be passed on in a way I find appealing. Starbase Annex is much more than a rethemed Scopa, but it demonstrates the value of seeking inspiration in older games with awkward qualities, because we have genre-blending tools available which can address those weaknesses. Like the reforging of the shards of Narsil into Andúril, Flame of the West, Annex demonstrates that it's a little troubling that the name of the reforged sword of the heir of Elendil comes to mind so easily. Also that the old made new is groovy.
Starbase Annex was played on an iPad Air for this review.