24th Oct2018

‘Master of the Galaxy’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

master-galaxy-box

Master of the Galaxy is a brand new 4x (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate) game that claims to be playable in under an hour, without compromising the deep, strategic gameplay that this genre has become known for. As you can imagine from the name and the images, Master of the Galaxy takes place at an abstracted, planetary scale that avoids the fiddly micromanagement of fleets, individual planets and so on. Instead, it uses build-a-bag, card drafting and clever resource management mechanics to drive gameplay.

Strictly speaking, two to four players can enjoy Master of the Galaxy, although it’s fair to say that there are already viable solo mode options available on Board Game Geek or elsewhere. If anything, I’d also love to see Master of the Galaxy at five or six players, since it is indeed more or less as quick as the back of the box promises and it’s a game that seems to thrive from the chaos and mayhem of having more players competing for the same spaces. On that note, let’s begin with setup, which does actually scale nicely for playing at either two or three players by using black hole tokens to cut out one corner of the board.

Master of the Galaxy is easily among the fastest 4x games to setup that I’ve come across, which certainly counts in its favour. There are seven decks of cards to simply shuffle and place to one side and then each player takes five resource cubes from each of the five colours (black, clear, blue, red, yellow) and places them into one of the four included cloth bags. A starting player is chosen, who will randomly draw a cube (except black) and then place her first space base on the corner system that matches the colour of that cube.

The starting player then takes the remaining eight space bases and five supremacy tokens in the same colour as her bag and draws two species cards, keeping one and placing the other at the bottom of the pile. Each other player places a base on the system in the corner nearest them (going clockwise from the starting player) and does the same to setup their bag and choose a race. That, aside from handing out player aids, is more or less all the setup needed to get going in Master of the Galaxy. The game is relatively easy to teach thanks to its simple structure, but I do recommend a play by play demonstration since much of what you’ll do in Master of the Galaxy is a bit unusual compared to other games.

On that note, everything in this game is driven by the five different kinds of resource cube that are in each players bag. In principle, Master of the Galaxy couldn’t be more straightforward. On their turn, the active player simply draws three cubes blindly from their bag and acts based on what cubes are drawn. The options include placing cubes onto spaces on cards they hold (only their species card at the beginning of the game) or putting cubes on unoccupied planets in systems where they have a space base, which allows them to generate more cubes to be added to the bag. In order to expand their empire, players will also need to trace matching lines of coloured cubes between planets, which can take several turns.

The challenging thing about Master of the Galaxy (and indeed the feature that adds a great deal of strategic depth) is that whilst placing resource cubes is very simple to do, placing them efficiently and at the right moment takes some time to master. For example, if you wish to strike out from your home system (which is yellow) to a neighboring one (which is red) then you must place a full row of either yellow or red cubes to connect the systems, without any mixing. Imagine that on this occasion, the route is six cubes long – and also remember that you only begin the game five with cubes of each colour.

So, you’re going to need more resources, but that’s OK since more cubes can be obtained by placing the cubes you already have (permanently) onto the one, two or three planets that occupy each system. Placing a cube of any colour onto a different coloured planet will return two cubes of that colour, whilst placing a cube of the same colour as the planet will return three. To continue the example where we have a yellow starting system, let’s pretend that we invest two yellow cubes into planets (for a return of six.) We now have ten yellow cubes (five minus one, plus six) in our bag, alongside twenty other cubes. We can safely begin to place yellow cubes onto the board as we draw them, but since we need six, our chance of drawing yellow cubes will become increasingly low as we continue to draw cubes turn after turn.

Since yellow cubes represent commerce, there are also many other ways to spend them. Some races need yellow cubes to build space bases, for example, so if we do make our six cube route to the neighbouring system, we may then still need to draw more yellow cubes to colonise it – unless of course we built the space base before we begin building the route, in which case the cost of two yellow cubes would have been returned to our bag. Each species card has one or two other projects to invest resource cubes into as well, one of which will affect the Supremacy Track and unlock more powerful leader and card abilities. The problem with that particular track is that should you ever invest cubes into it and increase your Supremacy level (which acts exactly like a tech level) then you’ll never get those cubes back unless you’re willing to lose the Supremacy bonus that it provides.

As a game of Master of the Galaxy goes on, these choices get harder, because the players will receive leader, conflict, government and technology cards, all of which allow further investment in cubes. Some of these are very powerful – they allow players to draw more cubes, steal them from other players or manipulate the colour of cubes being used in projects. New players tend to make mistakes like investing all their cubes into a project that can’t be finished (or which will be very hard to finish) which can actually lead to situations where the game kind of grinds to a halt.

The fact that Master of the Galaxy pulls no punches in this regard makes it feel slightly bumpy at first, but over several games it also proves to be what makes it quite appealing for those who enjoy it. It’s worth noting that the black cubes represent government or bureaucratic endeavours and can be used to cancel existing projects, which allows players to return cubes from the board or a card into their bag – but this can mean a lot of wasted time. Many (if not most) modern board games often boil down to decision making efficiency, but few that I’ve played lately have been as demanding in that regard as Master of the Galaxy is.

Master of the Galaxy actually presents players with a very high level of variance from one game to the next. The board next changes, but the species drawn and the project cards available drive very different experiences. For example some combinations of starting position and species might drive you to think that focusing on just two colours is the best route to victory – and it might be – whilst in a different game, your species card and starting location might force you to be more dynamic. In either case, there are some very powerful cards among the technology decks and should you spot one (all decks are played face up) and want to shoot for it, then you might slant your early efforts that way.

In almost all games of Master of the Galaxy, there will be blood. Driven by conflict cards, the skirmishes, battles and disagreements in Master of the Galaxy work just like any other project, except that players on both sides are able to compete. Place a “Total War” conflict card between your system and your opponents and you may be able to dislodge them from the neighbouring system if you can invest enough resources, but if they beat you to it, then it’s your space base that will be removed, or in some cases, your resources or cards that will be discarded. Conflicts range from the obvious, open warfare, to more subtle disagreements like insurgency or special operations. The cost that each side will pay to be successful is often asymmetric, making the decision about which conflict card to play, on whom, and when, absolutely critical.

Ultimately, the winner of Master of the Galaxy will be the player who either deploys all her space bases, captures an opponents starting system or raises her superiority (on any of the five tracks) to five. The third of these is the most likely in my experience, followed by the first (it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s possible to build a space base on each planet in a system, so some systems can support up to three, which is also the easiest way to access leader, conflict and government cards.) The chance of capturing an opponents home base is slim and in coming even close to it, that player would be having such a grim experience that I suspect they would quit long before it actually happened.

Master of the Galaxy is a resounding success for me. It’s a hugely surprising mix of accessibility and depth that I just wasn’t expecting and whilst I think the suggested playtime of under an hour is possible only with two rather experienced players, Master of the Galaxy is still a very fast paced and exciting experience. The only negative points that I can place against it are very minor; for example the cubes are more or less precisely the size of the spaces on cards, which means that cards do tend to fill up and look a little busy. The space bases are nicely sculpted, but a little on the small side I guess – and now I really am into nitpicking.

I love some of the more expansive 4x games like Twilight Imperium IV or even Empires of the Void II (which is only marginally heavier than Master of the Galaxy in terms of strategy, but much more complex to setup and get into) and yet I don’t think I can name another game that delivers the same sort of experience in such a short, tight manner. As a result, Master of the Galaxy is set to be a long term addition to my collection, since it really does occupy a unique niche that I never knew I was missing. It isn’t the most showy of games, but it offers an accessible yet rewarding experience that is hard to find elsewhere.

**** 4/5

A copy ofMaster of the Galaxy was provided for review by Ares Games.

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