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A Handful Of Stars (2017) review
A Handful of Stars is the latest game in a "Deckbuilding" trilogy by designer Martin Wallace. This trilogy was initiated by A Few Acres of Snow and then followed by Mythotopia. As often with this designer, the classical mechanism is transformed into a rather interesting mix. In this series of games, Wallace has fun with deckbuilding. We start with a mechanism that we know but we will quickly end up with a gameplay quite different.
A Handful of Stars is a very playable game even with 2 or 4 players. The story is set in a science fiction universe where a very strategic confrontation will take place. You’ll embody a faction, an alien race and our goal is to conquer the galaxy. A Handful of Stars is a game that does not forgive, especially with only two players where the conflict is even more brutal. At three or four players, the forces involved can balance out and unofficial diplomacy plays a non-trivial role.
Aesthetically, the board and the overall rendering is beautiful. It sounds stupid to say that, but Wallace games are not famous for their graphics especially those edited by Treefrog Games (of which this was the last). But rest assured, we plunged into the "normal" when we talk about the tokens spaceships.
Each player starts on their native world, chosen among the choice in our hand. We embody one of seven alien races available. Each being asymmetrical. When set up, the planets that make up the galaxy are randomly placed. This ensures tremendous replayability, as even roads that connect planetary areas can be blocked by black holes. The initial arrangement of the board will only rarely be identical. This will also affect how the players start the game. Indeed, from one game to another, you may be lucky and begin with an advantageous start ... or, if you don't, pretty disastrous one. But you’ll have to deal with it. You don't become Emperor of the Galaxy without challenge.
Every planet under your control brings you cards. These cards will be your deck. Do not forget that this is a deckbuilder ... with an integrated 4X system ... or the other way around ... The more you will spread in the Galaxy and conquer systems, the more you will be present on the board. But the bigger you get, the bigger your deck will grow. The need to purify your deck or draw THE ONE card you need, will therefore diminish according to your warlike appetite. This aspect, thematic level, is reminiscent of an Empire lost in the middle of bureaucracy and its inertia due to the amount of planets controlled.
The concept of deckbuilding is quite important in the game. But not in the traditional way. Indeed, here no rivers of cards to buy. The cards that will form your deck will come from your conquests or your ability to invest in technology. With six cards in your hand per turn, you can play as many as you want. At the end of a round, you only draw until you have six cards again. Yes, we can keep cards from one turn to another. You don't have to play all your hand during a turn. But the more cards you keep, the less you renew your hand. In order to plan future actions or put aside cards until the right time, we find the action , thanks to Wallace, to "Reserve." In A Handful of Stars, on the individual player board, we have two "Reserve" slots. The first slot stores cards based on its capacity limit. This is one of the possible actions that gets rid of your hand or your deck while keeping the ability to play them later. The second slot is for some special cards that will have a permanent effect as long as they are visible. This is a very important notion in the game and above all very useful.
With the help of the resources present on the cards, we will gradually build our civilization. Each card can have several resources, but only one is used when played. The choice can sometimes be difficult. There are four resources available. Developing your research, allows you to acquire new technology cards. Recovering energy sources allows you to move. Acquire a special kind of material that will be used during spaceflight. Finally, capturing or pacifying populations will allow to settle on new systems.
The possible actions are quite numerous: put cards in reserve, move, recover cards technologies, play cards technologies, create front posts, settle on habitable planets, create your troops, remove a single card, discard one card or pass. To be honest, the last two actions are not useful in this game. Among all that, we can only choose two per turn.
One of the important points of the game is the fight. To become Emperor, peace is beautiful but it does not last forever, especially when others have the same goal as you. Suddenly, it poses a problem quickly. We realize that the Galaxy is not so big and that if someone could disappear, it would not be as annoying. The attacker will therefore go to the neutral planet or one belonging to another player. For this, they must spend energy to move their ships or bases. Each having it's own fighting force. We then have two possibilities. If the target is neutral, we look at its strength on the token. If the attacker has at least +1, they win. They can stay to eventually later settle down on that planet. If it's a player, the fight can become bloodier. Once the attacker has moved, the defender has the opportunity to do the same (also paying with energy). Players also play potential technological cards. They compare their forces, then half of each of the armies are slaughtered (rounded up or down depending on who wins). The winner remains, the loser flees their home (otherwise they perish). It's a violent game. Those who do not like to suffer or to be attacked, look away NOW! In space, the law of the strongest reigns supreme.
But how does this fierce struggle end? Again, Wallace has created a pretty clever system. The central mechanic is deckbuilding, therefore each player has their own deck to build. Once their deck is empty, they shuffle it. So far so good. Except that once a player (anybody) shuffles their deck, the turn token is moved one step further. When it reaches the end of the track (depending on the number of players), it's game over. Management and speed with which one will or will not play their cards, will count enormously. If player play too fast, or someone's deck is too small, the game will move much faster.
A Handful of Stars is an extremely clever game. Wallace has once again create a unique game in its mechanics while drawing heavily on what exists elsewhere. The tension is ubiquitous. The game is nasty, brutal and doesn't forgive much. The replayability is enormous due to the random set up, the choice of its race, and the way of playing ... The interaction is very strong. You must constantly monitor the others. Their place in the universe, their ability to move, the number of times they puts to mix his deck. Many factors to consider for a game that ultimately is not so calculating. With this game, I feel that Wallace has reached the end of his approach : transcended and transformed the essence of deckbuilding to make it even more intense and concrete. Be careful, the duration of the game is quite important. A game that will not leave you indifferent but that will require several plays before it can be tamed.
This game also has a small taste of bitterness. Even though it is very good, it will always have this little end flavor. Indeed, this was the end of Wallace, not to create games fortunately, but the adventure of his company, Treefrog. It may be anecdotal but it counts for me. This game is a little unnoticed as of its release and continues to be hard to find. Maybe it's a bit of that ... Anyway, if you like the 4X system and the deckbuilding go for it, you're in front of an excellent game.
Technical Score 7/10
You either like or don’t like old school graphics of this game. All components are correct without being extraordinary. Rules are very minimalist in their design but are ok.
BGG Score 8/10
(Very good game)
A very good mix between 4X and deckbuilding. Naughty and ruthless, the war is raging and will leave no one indifferent.
Combined Score 7,5/10
And now it's over to you...