Master of the Galaxy Review
I Kickstartered Ares’ Master of the Galaxy as it promised once of my favourite genres, 4x games, but combined it uniquely(?) with bag building. It also promised a snappier play time which appealed as getting monsters like Eclipse to the table has become a stretch, despite their brilliance. Since its release I was stunned by the poor press it received from a certain Miami-based games reviewer and the poor BGG rating (which I know signifies little, but still). So, I though I would right the wrong and nudge people to a bargain, as it keeps appearing at sale prices which make it too good to be true.
You start the game with a solitary base on a system in one corner of the board. Then pick a species card from one of two dealt to you and this, like the cards other you will acquire, is placed openly on the table in front of you. Take a bag of 25 cubes, 5 each in the four ‘expandable’ resource colours (red, yellow, blue and clear) and 5 black which are used for resetting aborted plans.
There are three routes to victory. You can occupy enough systems to be able to get all 9 of your bases on the board - systems can hold 1-3 bases depending on the number of planets they contain. Or can expand and fight across the map and conquer an opponent’s home world. Or you can reach the fifth space on one of the 5 supremacy tracks which you climb though planetary expansion, card play and conflict with other players.
Each turn you are going to draw 3 cubes from your bag, place these on the board and/or the cards in front of you to try to do stuff. Putting them on a planet of a system you have reached is the route to more cubes – the systems are coloured in the resource colours (not black) and if you match the colour you put three of that colour in your bag. If you don’t match it you put two in your bag of the colour placed (never black).
Putting them on a track from one system to another is one route to expansion into neutral systems – all spaces need to be occupied by the same colour and this must be the colour of the starting or destination system – so some careful bag management is needed. Once you are there you can start to add bases to the new system once you have built them.
Putting cubes on the different tracks (‘projects’) on cards will help you build bases to colonise new systems and get closer to winning or draw more cards into your array or gain points on one of the 5 Supremacy tracks. The colour of the spaces always dictates the colour of cubes laid. These are almost all in the four ‘expandable’ resource colours. Once the spaces on cards are filled, in some cases the cubes then go back in the bag (potentially with some permanent discards) while in other cases they stay on the card for the rest of the game, unless an opponent steals them.
The cards come in 7 flavours. First is your starting species which always gives 3 projects: to acquire bases, development cards and some supremacy points – but all have different colour and number of cube combinations to achieve this. Next are 3 flavours of development card, which always contain a single project to acquire supremacy points and a special power (some almost Cosmic Encounteresque in their magnitude) once the card is filled and the project completed. There are also three kinds of politics cards – these are acquired by placing a number of space bases in a system or completing a development card(s).
The lowest power cards are Leaders: they all have a project to steal cubes from opponents using black cubes (black’s only use other than cancelling other projects in mid stream) and a power for having the right combination of supremacy points.
The next most powerful (and more difficult to acquire) are Conflict cards which allow a different way of expanding into neutral systems or attacking other players’ systems. They are placed in the board between two systems. They have a ‘project’ on each side and if used to contest with another player there is a race to complete this to trigger the indicated effect, from occupying their system to gaining cards or trashing their cards.
Diplomats of the Galaxy
There are also government cards, which are hardest to acquire. They have similar projects to the species, as well as another Cosmic Encounteresque power which is accessed as soon as they hit the table in your array – all very desirable and sometimes quite game changing.
After you have placed (or discarded) your three cubes, completed any projects, placed bases and resolved project effects you then as final actions in your turn place any conflicts on the board and discard any cards permanently from your tableau which also gets you resources of any ‘expandable’ colour into your bag.
How Does it Play
Turns are brisk as the mechanic of ‘draw three cubes and place’ them is quick. The overall game pace is very much 4x as you are going to expand, develop your board presence and tableau and acquire individual powers, relatively undisturbed (except for maybe having the odd cube stolen). As you do this there are interesting puzzles to solve though. How are you aiming to win? What are you putting in your bag and how many cubes do you want there - I have tried building big bags and keeping very lean bags too and both are viable approaches. And there are plenty of routes for the thoughtful player to manage their bag – helped by the legality of checking its contents any time other than during the cube draw.
You also have to choose how to expand – you can only put multiple bases in a system if it has multiple planets and if you have a route from that system to another system you occupy. But keeping routes open means the cubes are on the board not in your bag and some of those routes are 7 spaces long. Or you can expand into a new neutral system using a Conflict, but then there is no route and the most bases that system can hold is one regardless of the number of planets. Unless you then build a route retrospectively – which could be a new, shorter route into another new neutral system.
Conflict in the Galaxy
Ultimately though you are only going to be able to expand so far without running into other players’ expanding systems. Then, unless you are going for a supremacy victory, you are going to have to fight. And conflict are interesting as the different sides of the cards have different completing requirements and different rewards. Also, the defending player gets the first go at putting cubes on a conflict so there is some careful planning and real risk associated. Another interesting rule is that the dominant player in a conflict, up to the point when it is finally resolved, gains a temporary supremacy point on one of the five tracks – and I have had a friend sneak a win, and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat using this.
Development cards and government cards also have some truly epic powers on them which in many cases seriously mess with the rules and create some fascinating asymmetry as the game progresses – changing strategies and seriously affecting victory conditions.
On the downside, the rules for drawing cards from the decks when required gives too much choice and this decision making can really slow play down. So we house-ruled it to reduce the choice, which improved pace and, given the discard rules, left no one feeling sad if they drew cards not worth them keeping. The other pain is keeping track of player progress on the supremacy tracks as progress moves a lot and the stack of chips on the five tracks make it hard to see how you and others are doing. I replaced them with pawns and then moved to colour-copying the track so every played had their own copy, which works well. But these are just minor mods to a great game.
Master of the Universe?
Production values are fairly high and the art is colourful and evocative in the main. The game plays best with four but is perfectly enjoyable with two and three as the board is shrunk in setup by placing a number of black holes. The rules are pretty crunchy in places – so I can’t see it being for a causal gamer and haven’t tried it with my 8 year old (who can play up in years), but it should hold no fear for a fairly experienced group. Time to play is shown as 1hr + and typically stretched to 1.5 to 2hrs after the first play which has been 2 to 2.5hrs with explanation – though time flies.
Overall this is a great, overlooked gem. I really like the range of strategies available, the bag management, the developing asymmetric powers and the 4x pace to the whole thing. It’s going to be back out on the table pretty swiftly once we all get out and about again. I heartily recommend picking up a copy - don’t let others put you off.