Monday, December 12, 2005

Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga Review

Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga, developed by Worlds Apart Productions and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Good meld of multi-level strategy, no “luck” battles, fairly good tutorial, multiple races and victory conditions
The Not So Good: Slightly overwhelming at first, takes some time to develop a good strategy
What say you? A strategy game spiced up with card enhancements: 6/8

Apparently, there is quite a large gathering of people who play collectable card games. You know the kind, where you buy endless amounts of decks, constructing the perfect deck so you can whoop up on other players/nerds using a level 5 paladin. Ah, but what if you could play a collectable card game without all the hassle of having actual cards, and play against other players/nerds from all over the world? Thankfully, the good people at Worlds Apart Productions have filled this void, combining a collectable card game with a board game in the form of Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga. This game was originally available as a free online download and you bought subsequent decks so you could own the competition; the newest version has been repackaged by Matrix Games and adds some new cards and other features to the lineup.

Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga doesn’t need and doesn’t have impressive graphics and sound. The art on some of the virtual cards is well done, and along the lines of what you’d expect to find in physical versions of the product. The game is presented through easy-to-navigate menus and a simple 2-D game board where all the action takes place. It all works well enough and the design makes it fairly easy to find specific ships and statistics on planets, you just won’t be overcome with emotion by the gravity of the presentation. The sound falls along the same lines: there are some battle sounds of lasers firing and the like, but it’s all very generic.

As I alluded to in the introduction, the basis of Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga is maintaining a deck of cards that you use to enhance play in a solar system strategy board game. This title features play against human competition, and campaigns and a practice mode with AI opponents (who are fairly tough for beginners); for multiplayers, there are casual games and structured tournaments which may have some stipulations, such as the use of unopened decks of cards. Finding a match is easy and I found that the central server was well populated during the most common gaming times. I found that building and organizing a deck, especially if you have a lot of cards, is a little more cumbersome than needed. The game does have some good filtering options so that you can include the rarest or most expensive cards in your collection for a specific deck. It would be nice to see an “auto deck” feature that would select the best cards for a particular type of victory based on the race you select. This would help out beginning players tremendously and cut down on wondering whether you’ve selected the best possible cards, especially since gauging what each card does involves a lot of reading. There is also an interface where you can trade cards with other players to get rid of some of your more common cards in exchange for more desirable offerings. I think that this game was designed with the slightly experienced player in mind, as there is a slight learning curve associated with Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga.

There are three ways to win Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga. A military victory is earned by eliminating all the other players on the map, accumulating 30 or more destiny points earns a cultural victory, and a political victory is earned by winning three votes in the Star Chamber (the galactic council of sorts). Each of the ten races in the game has their specialty, and one particular type of victory is easier with race different race. The primary difference between each race, other than a small bonus each receives, is the two techs each race earns periodically during the game that is used to play cards. For example, the Ixa race has order and entropy and can play cards with order and entropy requirements more easily. You are given a set number of tech points (which you distribute when a new tech point is earned) at the beginning of each turn, and can apply these to playing the different types of cards. The cards come in four forms: heroes, ships, modifications, and zaps. Modifications and zaps are slight rule changes (for example, increased production for three turns) that, when used effectively, can tip the balance of a tied contest. The cards aren’t an overwhelmingly important aspect of the game, and really serve to mix up the action and serve as a sort of tiebreaker.

The game board represents a portion of space, and the game entails moving ships around each of the planetary systems in order to capture and control them. Each planet is either industrial (where units are produced), artifact (which provides an additional tech point), or barren (where nothing happens) and capturing an artifact planet earns your race two destiny per turn. Each planet is connected to other planets through set paths called jump lanes, so you are not allowed to traverse the solar system in just any order. Citizens can be produced at industrial planets and provide influence so that you can capture a planet: the race with the most citizens at a particular planet wins. Three types of ships transport citizens: fast scouts, slower but more powerful cruisers, and bombers that “remove” evil citizens during wartime. Because there are set paths to navigate, winning the game involves effective management and control of the several chokepoints around the map and successful anticipation of your foe’s next move. The maps are designed so that you can’t cover all of your territory without spreading yourself too thin, so there are important decisions that must be made. Combat is initiated whenever two opposing ships occupy the same planet. Combat is conducted in several rounds where a specific weapon type is fired, and the most powerful weapons fire last (so ships that use them must be protected until late in the phase). The side that fires first is based on the possession of any hero units, and the damage doesn’t feature any dice rolls or other silly random elements: it’s purely based on the stats of the ship, so you don’t have to worry about losing a ship because you got unlucky. After you bomb the stuffing out of the competition, you can transport citizens to the Star Chamber, the intergalactic planetary voting body. Every six turns, a vote is taken at the Star Chamber and you are allowed to distribute your citizens into three voting categories: power play (three power play votes wins), alien support (a destiny bonus) or peacekeeper (a powerful ship). If you win a power play vote, you also get to choose a special bonus, such as declaring war, hiring an assassin, or purchasing tech.

Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga is a mostly successful combination of strategy and card game. The interface and multiplayer options are good once you learn how to effectively use them, although it’s a little daunting for beginners. I like how Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga gives some variety in the win conditions, and the game usually results in a race to two different types of victories and who plays better along the way and inhibits the opponent from gaining their victory. I’ve had a tougher time than usual developing a good strategy for winning the game, as you really have to concentrate on one victory type and changing mid-game is not recommended. Finding the correct race for your play style is kind of difficult, considering there is ten to choose from, and you also must consider for which race you hold the strongest cards. This is not a simple strategy game by any stretch, but finding your niche results in some satisfying play. The cards are a nice addition that doesn’t become a central focus of the game (which is good), just an enhancement to the overall scheme of things, and most strategy gamers will find something to like here.