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Second Look: Supernova

I don't normally go in for long rules reproductions, but here since it is not a very well known game I thought I'd have a go. The headings should give you an indication of what to skip if that's not your thing,

Ah, Supernova.

How I love your tile-adorned board's appearance, looking like a tactical display from a really attractively designed spaceship computer system. Clean and abstract, with easily distinguishable iconography the state of play is easy to see for everyone even from the other side of the table.


So, er... what happened with the rulebook?

Let me explain; my ideal rulebook is in turn order, with all options for each phase easily findable and simply described in each part. In Supernova's rulebook, a whole section at the end called, inexplicably, "components" describes several of the major choices in your turn totally out of order and making the quick location of rules tough if not frustrating.

Crucial rules included here include:

* The choice to exchange a tile for an encounter - many other players of the game didn't even know you could do this after reading the game rules twice!
* You can only raise each technology once per turn.

If you miss these your game will be very different from those played by other people.

Never mind the strange absence of any tiebreaker rules (answered instead, unsatisfactorily and self contradictingly, in the extensive post publication FAQ) but when one of the player aids isn't just unclear but CONTRADICTS a rule we're in real trouble.

This particular rule is to do with buying new battle cards - on the player aid it says, clearly enough, pay 1 resource unit (RU) to take three cards - keeping two and discarding one. That is what the aid says, no question.

Problem is, the rulebook says (paraphrasing here) "take three new cards of which you can keep two but must discard as many as you take from your either your hand or the ones you picked up". As far as I know there's no way to sum that up in a pithy little design and single line of instruction so while the confusion is understandable I find it inexcusable.

OK... rant about rules presentation over, I can talk, perhaps surprisingly, about what I really want to:


Quite aside from the fact it looks good on my gaming table, a fairly done to death angle on this game - congrats Mr Mike Doyle on the majority of your work - there's a lot of great gaming fun to be had from Supernova.

=======What's the game all about?======

You and your opponents previously led reasonably content, peaceful lives in the same set of systems, coexisting for the most part peacefully. Thing is, you've just found out the giant star in the middle of your home systems is about to go KABLOOEY and wipe out your civilisation.

Oh Dear.

What to do? Well, it's time for a brave odyssey out into uncharted space to gain as much influence in the new expanded galaxy as possible, while hopefully avoiding getting irradiated to death by the eventual, titular Supernova,

======So how do we win?======

Like so many games, we resort to everybody's love - the abstract method of victory points summation, in short - points mean prizes!

During your expansion you will place tiles on hexes to show your influence and control over them each is worth a point - if you have a tile under a planet or moon during scoring, you get more. Your RUs (resource units) are worth points too - as is your special power if you can resist the urge to use it.

The game is played over a modular board to keep the relative sizes similar however many players are involved, and battles between races occur when one player places a tile on an opponents controlled hex. These are resolved using numbered cards, with the higher total emerging victorious or ties being broken in the defence's favour.

In the service of your victory you can upgrade your weapons for an attack bonus, shields for a defence bonus, comms for extra battle cards at the start of your turn and engines for extra tiles to place.

======Wait. No Plastic Spaceships? No Dice?======

You don't need tonnes of plastic in every game! There are spaceships if you know where to look. Each battle card in your hand represents a part of your fleet, and is shown in the same 2d abstract style that characterises the game art, bigger ships are worth more in value.

The battle card system is ingenious. No matter what your starting hand size (dependant on comms technology's level), your hand of cards is only refreshed to a max of four once the current player is done with his tile laying, so if you use all our good ones in one battle, he may press home an advantage by attacking again elsewhere. The balancing of when to play your cards is crucial to success.

You are also restricted on which cards you can play - three suits exist (blue, green and orange) with some low value Silver cards, which are wild. Of these, in battle you are only allowed to play a hand of all different, or all identical colours (bearing in mind silvers can be played with any). This can lead to some frantic hand juggling as you try and form the best fleet to take out your opponent without crippling yourself for a later assault.

I can appreciate combat in Supernova is not to everyone's taste. Decades of resolving space battles by dice rolling and making "pyow! pyow!" noises as you move plastic ships about may be ingrained on you.

My description of the board as a ship's computer display is probably worth restating now - we're at a large scale here, as much in terms of time as size, and the fates of individual ships or even actions does not matter. The 9 tuns of the game are meant to represent 1000 years of time, so a little license is granted. I for one thought it works really nicely, and the escalation of conflicts in each turn is as fun to watch as it is to do.

======You mentioned planets and moons...======

Yes. Yes I did.

On each big board (there is one per player) there is a planet with a moon orbiting it. Each planet is already occupied by its existing race, and control of that planet gains you its ability - anything from a boost in weapons technology to being able to gain more RUs a turn. Planets are extremly valuable for points at the end of each phase too, the most valuable thing in fact, at 5 VPs per planet.

The moon doesn't give you technology, it gives you cold, hard, orange-sugar-candy-alike RUs - these are worth 1VP each even if you don't use them to upgrade technology, buy research and the like. Moons have a little problem for any would be overlord, and that is that they move each turn on their fixed orbits, meaning your influence must extend to much of their orbit if you want to get the most out of them.

Of course, anyone who owns a planet won't just let you mine the moon for free, so if someone else controls the moon's planet you must pay them half what you earn.

======Right, so I just lay tiles , battle and upgrade?======

You have one more crucial task. Somehow, not explained by the rules, you have the power to bid for control of the destructive solar flares that emanate from the dying star. Presumably there's som kind of flare redirection system being run by someone for profit, I don't know.

The practical upshot is that at the end of each round, if there is a flare (a coin flip determines that) , you make a blind bid in RUs and the winner decides which hexes (not tiles, crucially) are "burned up" and removed from the board. In early rounds this isn't too bad as only two will get destroyed but the supernova at the end of round 9 will destroy five whole hexes, which can make a massive difference to the final scores.

======Rules out of the way, what do we think?======

It is a testament to Supernova's fun factor that I am still a fan despite requiring serious work on rules before you play. It is a very simple game, which is complicated immensely by the way in which the rules are written. A turn is simply draw cards, gain income, place tiles and battle, spend RUs and swap cards if you didn't fight and that's it.

A simple step by step approach would, in my opinion, make the game easier to learn and as a result a lot more popular with new groups, who may see the complex arrangement of rules as promising more than is really there.

But simplicity of play turns does not mean simplicity of tactics - every single move you make, as well as every investment decision, affects your next one. The way in which you are forced to play tiles for fortification (simply putting a tiel on top of an existing one) before any expansion means you are always making the judgement call whether to consolidate your postion and go defensive or expand aggressively, but spread yourself thinner. This makes each turn a forward planner's dream

Of course like The Jam said, The Planner's Dream Went Wrong, well - in this context that's syntactic nonsense, but you get the idea.

The way in which the players can interact in terms of tabletalk or game politics is freeform and loose, with all manner of cooperation possible, either by mutual non-aggression or softening up other players, but as with any game like this, no rules enforce such alliances so, like me, you are always ripe for backstabbing if you rely too much on your "ally"'s honesty.

While these things are not covered by rules we found they really add a lot, capturing the feel of a "galactic council" if you like, cajoling, bullying or even begging others to take certain actions.

This brings me neatly onto the question of theme, or to be more exact, the question of "does Supernova actually feel like a game of galactic conquest?"

In my opinion, absolutely yes. While the necessary idea of your tiles representing "influence and control" rather than military forces may seem a change from the norm for fans of, say, Twilight Imperium 3, I simply see this as a question of scale rather then being overly abstract.

While there are plenty of choices to make, the encounter system hasn't been popular with my games since you are throwing away a tile that is a definit 1VP in value for an encounter of probably minimal or possibly negative long term value. I'm not sure that part of it is as good as it could have been.

Still, for the feel of large scale galactic events and desperate conflicts over resources, I really enjoyed Supernova - I think it should be looked at by every Sci-Fi fan and also many Eurogamers will find much to enjoy from their end too. I like it so much that I considered it for a rare 9/10 rating, but the rulebook just edged it downwards. It may go up as my feelings on that mellow a bit over time.

I commend the honourable candidates from Luaaq, Agni et al. to your attention!

Whatever you think of Supernova though, I hope you enjoyed the review - thanks for your time.

And whatever you do, keep playing games!


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