Cardboard Children - Forbidden Stars
Forbidden Stars is the much-anticipated board game of galactic conquest set in Games Workshop's Warhammer 40K universe. It's a game from Fantasy Flight Games, who used to do these big epic board games that shipped in what we called “coffin boxes”. Twilight Imperium III, Starcraft, Runewars, Descent First Edition – all these games came in big giant boxes, packed full of miniatures. These games launched before the current board game boom, when board gaming was still quite niche, and players were willing to plow through 40-page rulebooks before getting a game on the table.
But things changed. The audience expanded, and board games started to become more streamlined, more simple. The length of time you could expect to play a board game for started to shrink. Fantasy Flight released a Second Edition of Descent, and it was a prime example of how the industry was shifting. It was cleaned-up, stripped down, faster to run through. The rulebooks were improved and slimmed down. Descent Second Edition was a better game, probably, but it was definitely lighter. It had definitely lost a bit of that crunch.
And me? I was waiting for things to tip back a little bit in the other direction. I was waiting for the big, long, deep games to come back – with a little bit of that new-age streamlining in the mix. The perfect mix of the old ways and the new. And the wait, thankfully, is over.
Forbidden Stars is a game about capturing objectives from your opponents. These objectives are spread across the galaxy, housed on planets in sectors that are hostile to you. You will take control of one of four factions – Space Marines, Chaos Space Marines, Orks or Eldar – and expand across the galaxy, growing in strength and number, until you can lay siege to the planets and objectives held by your rivals.
The galaxy is built tile by beautiful tile, laid by the players at the start of the game. This gives the galaxy a different layout every time you play. The galaxy itself is made up of spaces representing the void of space, and spaces representing planets. Planets can be mined for resources, and the void can be populated by ships, allowing ground troops passage across the map.
The game flows through an order system that shares some similarities with the system used in the brilliant Starcraft board game. Each player has a stack of 8 orders, two copies each of Deploy, Strategise, Dominate and Advance. These orders are placed face-down, in the middle of any sector on the board, in player order. You place an order somewhere, then the player to your left places an order somewhere – even on top of your order. As orders come into the same sector, stacks are created.
Once everyone has placed their orders, they are flipped and revealed off the top of stacks, in player sequence. You can only activate an order if yours is on top of a stack – thus, the timing of orders is a constantly shifting thing. It's worth you noting at this point that, because your earliest placed orders often end up on the bottom of a stack, you're often placing orders in reverse. If you want to build then move, you would be placing your move first then your build later.
The issuing of orders is fun, deep, and crucial to your strategy.
Deploy is straightforward. It lets you build army units (if you have a factory) and then you can build a structure – either a factory, a city or a bastion. Every faction has different units with different stats and costs. The structures are a shared thing – factories allow you to spit out units in a sector, cities increase your command level to unlock better units and upgrades, and a bastion is a defensive structure that protects your planet from orbital strikes and aids you in battle.
Yeah, I said “orbital strikes”. I'll get to that.
Strategise lets you place an order token on your event deck. Cards from this deck give you tactics and schemes that will aid you, and you receive these at the end of the round. The strategise order is also how you buy upgrades, and upgrades are necessary in this game. In fact, these upgrades are the most exciting element of this board game – through the upgrades the player factions, already very different from each other, become further separated in play style. You can even upgrade these very orders I'm telling you about.
Yeah, we'll get to that.
Dominate allows you to rip assets from the planets you control. Some planets give you forge tokens, used to build terrifying machines of war. Some give you army reinforcements that can be used to soak up bullets in the heat of battle. And some give you cache tokens that can be spent to reduce the cost of units and structures. It's also through the Dominate order that your faction's special ability activates. The Chaos Space Marines, for example, can spread their influence into neighbouring sectors, creating cultists on other planets. The Ultramarine Space Marines can upgrade their units. Yeah – think about this – the Space Marines, with their For The Emperor ability, are constantly growing in strength and zealotry throughout the game. Left unchecked, their weak units train and improve. And they are THE ONLY FACTION who can do this.
The Advance order is how you move your units and fleets through the galaxy, and how you initiate combat. You place the order in the sector you're going to, and then move your stuff in. Spaceships can move into any area of space. Ground troops need to move from planet to planet, crossing deep space over a path of friendly spaceships. So cool. If you don't initiate any combat by entering an enemy space, you can make an orbital strike upon an adjacent enemy planet with your ships. You check your player sheet, see how many dice your ships will let you chuck, and you roll. This is how you attempt to weaken planets before you make a ground assault.
Does this game sound good yet?
Let's go deeper in.
BEFORE WE GO AGAIN
Before a new round starts, players check to see if they control a planet that holds one of their objectives. If they do, they grab the objective and are on their way to victory. Then, all factions pull some sweet sweet cash from the planets they control. Then, those players who strategised during the round can pull an event card and move a warp storm.
Wait, what? Warp storms?
Yeah, those beautiful, brilliant, warp storms. Hold on.
The event cards are unique to each faction, and each of them does beneficial stuff. Tactics are cards that resolved instantly, and schemes can be held by the player until the time is right to enact them. The Orks, for example, have a wonderful scheme card that lets them tear down structures during combat. I watched as an Ork player lost a battle to an Eldar player who was desperate to capture their city. The Orks just tore that sumbitch down when the tide of battle started to turn. A beautiful scorched-earth style strategy that just suits that player faction perfectly.
And only the Orks can do this.
The Chaos Space Marines have a scheme that lets them fly their fleets through warp storms – we'll get to why that's so fantastic in a moment. The point is – these event cards are all so cool, so unique, and so flavourful.
Each event card, when drawn, instructs the player on how they can move a warp storm. Let us step out for a moment to talk about warp storms.
THE WARP STORM
The Warhammer 40K wiki says this about the Warp Storms - “The Warp is an extremely volatile medium. At times, disturbances can turn areas of the Warp into raging storms of incomprehensibly destructive fury that can breach the barrier into realspace. These storms can last for days, months, or even standard centuries. These "Warp Storms" can isolate star systems and entire sectors from each other, by making the Imperium's normal methods of interstellar travel and communication impossible as the Warp surrounding those regions becomes too chaotic for a starship to safely travel through or for an Astropath to send or receive a telepathic message through the psychic "interference."
When you set up a game of Forbidden Stars, you place some warp storms on the board too. These warp storms are barriers that separate sectors from each other. You can't advance through them. They are, essentially, walls across the galaxy. They pen some races in, divide enemies from each other, create new battle lines. And at the end of every round, some might move. The event cards tell you if you can slide them horizontally, or rotate them – and then you choose one and do your best, or worst. Maybe you want to open a line of attack. Maybe you want to defend yourself, by sliding a storm into the path of an Ork onslaught. Or maybe you want to encourage two of your rivals to go at each other, by cutting them both off from the rest of the action.
The storms are a wonderful idea – an extra wrinkle of strategy, and an extra element of concern. And yeah, like I said earlier, sometimes the Chaos Space Marines can come flying through the things. Sometimes the Chaos Space Marines can draw POWER from the warp storms that surround them.
And only the forces of Chaos can do this.
This game just finds so many ways of differentiating the factions. It's staggering.
On page two: combat, chaos, figurines and more.
We must talk about combat. The combat in this board game is just wonderful. It's a mix of dice-rolling and card play, with both elements equally crucial to the final outcome. Forbidden Stars has found a way of giving a weaker force a fighting chance of victory – smart card play, and better cards, can help some cultists stave off some Space Marines.
Here's how it works. Each player looks at the forces they have in the battle, and check how many dice those forces award them. The dice are rolled, and they will result in either offence symbols, defence symbols, or morale symbols. Each player collects these into sets.
Every faction has a unique (again, unique) combat deck of ten cards. These are shuffled, and five are drawn. Then each player places one face down. Down the left hand side of these cards there are additional offence, defence and morale symbols that will be added to the player's pool. There are also special abilities on the card that might activate if the circumstances are right. Cards are revealed, abilities enacted, and then symbols compared.
Defence cancels offence, any offence left over is transferred into damage and enemies are either killed or routed if injured.
Then, if units remain in battle, another round is played. Another card is selected and laid down. This goes on for three rounds, and if units still survive, morale results are compared – from unrouted surviving units and any morale symbols in the pool. The highest morale total wins.
Now – I know this sounds complicated. And the first time you try a fight, you will be moving very slowly. But eventually it all clicks and the fights go as quick as a whip. And these are clever fights. So smart. So enjoyable. They're even fun for other players to watch. The fights swing back and forth, with the combat pools growing and shrinking, routed units rallying – it's exciting. It feels like a proper battle. Each faction's unique cards are full of surprises – the Orks, for example, can steal combat cards from their opponent's deck and use their combat symbols. The Chaos Space Marines (so cool this) can make the dark influence of their battle fury create new cultists on neighbouring planets.
And only the Chaos Space Marines can do this.
Combat takes a little bit of time to learn, like back in the good old days, but when you know what you're doing it's an absolute treat. And you know what? In games like this, combat is rarely a brilliant thing. Usually it's all about overwhelming your opponent with numbers, flinging some dice, hoping for the best. But Forbidden Stars is full of surprises, everywhere, and particularly in combat.
UGH. SO GOOD.
AND WE'RE NOT DONE
And we're not done. 2000 words in, and we're not done.
Those upgrades I mentioned. Let's go back to those. The deck of ten combat cards I just told you about? You can improve that deck. You can buy new cards for that deck, some of them supremely powerful. The Chaos Space Marines can buy chaos “mark” cards to tailor their forces to the vile touch of Tzeentch or Nurgle or all those good old boys. The Eldar Psychic Lance cards can just blast an opponent's combat cards out of their hand and off the table. The Ultramarine Emperor's Glory card can rally every Space Marine unit and convert dice into morale results, for an incredible late-combat roar of triumph. You swap these new cards in, ditch the weaker cards. You are ready to conquer.
But it's the order upgrade cards that really blew me away. Because all those rules I've just explained to you? The order upgrades kick them into the warp, hard.
Orbital strikes can only be conducted if a combat isn't happening, right? Unless you're an Eldar with the “Corsair Raid” Advance order upgrade. Then you can do a combat and an orbital strike.
Factories let you build units, right? Well, if the Space Marine has the “Recruitment Worlds” Deploy upgrade, they can build units out of those big defensive bastions. Speaking of Space Marines – if they have the Advance order upgrade called “Drop Pods” they can use an orbital strike to fire Space Marines down onto the planet below.
And only the Space Marines can do this.
When you deploy, the rules dictate that you must build units first, then build a structure. This stops you from, say, building a factory then spitting units out of that factory in the same order phase. Unless, that is, you're an Ork player with the “Werk Fasta!” upgrade. Then you can fling up a building first before you make any units. This, my friends, is how the green tide is created. Only the Orks can do this.
And money, crude material, is of no real importance to the Chaos Space Marines. With their unique “Dread Ritual” deploy upgrade, they can pay for a unit with the influence of their cultists.
Only the Chaos Space Marines can do this.
And so, a game that has such strikingly different forces at the game's beginning, expands out and out and out until everyone is playing the game completely differently – making orders differently, growing their forces differently, fighting differently.
THE BEAUTY OF WAR
Only now, 2500 words in, do we come to the look of this incredible board game. Doesn't that tell you something? We're usually so obsessed with component quality these days, and here it's the last thing we talk about. But man. Man alive. The board is beautiful. The cards are beautiful. Every faction has a big, gorgeous player sheet. And then there are the miniatures. Every unit is unique, beautifully sculpted, practical. Fantasy Flight Games has pulled out all the stops on this one. It's almost as if they know how good this game is. This is a production for the ages.
And that's all we need to say about it. This isn't a game about toys. It's a game about game, and man – has this game got game.
It's important to be wary of hype, but the early word on this game was correct. This feels like a game years in the making. It has the ambition of games of old – an ambition to tell an epic, thrilling story over hours of gameplay – but it has the discipline of design more common in recent games. The rulebook is slim, easily digestable. The flow of the game is easily understood. There aren't a million different tokens representing a million different things. Your units are your units and your cards are your cards and your assets are your assets. There isn't a great deal of administration.
The game is all game.
As the modern classic Chaos in the Old World is to Warhammer Fantasy, Forbidden Stars is to Warhammer 40K. Here is your brilliant, beautifully balanced, asymmetrical, frankly batshit crazy board game about the 41st Millennium. If you have no interest in Warhammer 40K, I hope that you still check this game out – because I'm convinced that you too will be caught up in the sheer fuckingthrill of this old-school-new-school behemoth.
See – I'm thinking about it right now. I'm thinking about what my Chaos Space Marines should do next time. I'm thinking that I want to focus on my cultists, and their terrible influence, their wicked spread. My girlfriend, just this morning at breakfast, told me that she wanted to make a real sea of green next time – Ork spores and Ork production factories everywhere. Hey, maybe I should upgrade my advance order next time so that my mere presence above a planet is enough to send the units below crazy with fear. I'd like that!
How will you play it? How will you shape your storm?
Forbidden Stars is a game with a rich setting, a great story, thrilling gameplay, tons of variety and a level of production that is second to none.
Only Fantasy Flight Games can do this.