SUPERNOVA (Valley Games, 3-5 players, ages 10 and up, 90 to 180 minutes; $69.95)
Supernova, designed by Oliver Harrison and Mike Roy, is the third game in Valley Games' "Modern Line". Valley has an interesting publishing strategy, with games like this being new and a parallel line of classic reprints, such as Die Macher and Titan. The reprints will certainly be well appreciated by gamers as Valley as chosen some great titles so far. The modern line games tend to be medium to heavy weight designs and all are very well produced. Supernova clearly fits, with super graphics by Mike Doyle and loads of cards and cardboard in the overstuffed box. In fact, the box top does not even close fully when you get the game because of all the un-punched component sheets. Thankfully, everything fits, though still packed, after the parts are all punched out.
The galactic theme is shallow but effective: each player seeks to expand their presence in the galaxy before the sun explodes. But even before this game-ending event, flares from the increasingly unstable sun will wipe some development out but interestingly these flares can be controlled. Players score for presence (occupied hexes), controlled moons and planets, money (called resource units), and get points if they resist using their unique special power card. At the game's end, all of these items tally, but two earlier scores happen for moon and planet occupation.
The game setup is nicely variable depending on the number of players, ensuring that the amount of territory and battle tension is fairly consistent. The galaxy is made from both larger and smaller hex boards, with the ill-fated sun always in the center. The game plays fairly simply through nine rounds though there is a lot to consider. After some administrative tasks are complete (moons move around their planets, turn marker advanced, etc.), players draw cards, get income, get and place tiles, resolve battles, and can buy some fun things.
In general, the amount of cards a player can hold or tiles they can draw is a function of how much they have advanced their capabilities. Each player starts with a base value of four for each activity, but can grow these through technology purchases. This is nicely tracked on individual player status sheets. The key piece of each turn is the tile placement and here players can first fortify tiles previously placed and then expand to new territories. Expansion tiles must be placed adjacent to other controlled tiles or next to the supernova. In order to take over a hex controlled by another player, the battle sequence is used and this is one of the most interesting design aspects of the game. Players initiate a battle by placing a tile on top of another player's tile or stack of tiles.
To resolve the battle, first the tile stacks are compared. Since tiles can be fortified, it is possible for one stack of tiles to be meaningfully taller than another. The taller-stack player gets a one or two point positive modifier, and then battle cards are played face down, one at a time. These cards come in three suits plus one joker suit. At most, four cards can be played in any battle and these must be of all different suits or all of one suit. The cards are revealed after each player passes from playing more and the totals plus any modifiers (offense and defense) are compared. If the attacker wins, the tile placed on the opponent's stack stays, if not it is removed. The blind play of the cards is annoying; almost as in Taj Mahal (Spring 2000 GA REPORT), this could create more tension if the individual plays were revealed. The way it's done, players will waste cards either by playing unneeded strength or by an unaware futile play. Still, the card play is interesting and plays quickly. Along with the standard battle cards, players can add one of three high impact cards to their maximum four-hand bid. These create some chaos by switching or removing cards.
Before the tile placement and any battles, players refill their hands and get income. The income is used after the tile plays to buy technologies, research cards or more battle cards. The technologies allow more cards to be held, though the limit of four per battle stays constant. Technologies also allow more tiles to be taken and used; this of course becomes very important especially as each stack can be fortified only once per turn. Research cards played can effect many things on the board and add another good bit of chaos to the proceedings. As a catch-up mechanism, players missing out on a planet once all are owned get a desperation card; this gives a little more income and more ability to get cards and tiles.
In what seems to be a case of overproduction, discs called "encounters" can be collected by claiming a hex with a specific marker or by paying a tile (rather than placing it on the board) in exchange for an encounter disc. The 12 different encounters give benefit to battles, resource units or can do nothing or even harm the player who takes one. The encounters are the most questionable, and seemingly least developed, aspect of the game design.
At the end of each round, the round marker is flipped to see if a solar flare occurs. If it does, players participate in a blind bid of resource units to control the flare. The winner removes tiles from the board. The nine rounds are divided into three unequal phases; a flare occurs automatically at the end of phases one and two. The end of these two phases is also when the interim planet and moon scoring occurs. At the end of phase three, the supernova happens and this is managed like a flare except that even more tiles are removed. This often changes the final outcome of the game.
There are numerous situational issues that come up: with taxes paid if you try to collect income from a moon orbiting another player's planet, ownership issues when planets are attacked, adding new boards during the play and a few more. But the core idea of the game doesn't change – get your tiles out and defend them, take over the ones you can, and spend wisely to gain increased capability.
There is a lot to like in Supernova but also a lot to question. The basic design is solid but the game takes too long to play. The battles are interesting with the card play but there are enough random events to be frustrating. The final blind bid for control of the supernova can be critical in that the winner can dramatically change the environment and yet resource units are also victory points and half of your bid is forfeited even when you lose. The encounters cost too much for their average value, yet getting lucky with one can be helpful. Overall, this is game that probably would be better with more development as this would smooth out some of these inconsistencies. The game looks great in play thanks to Mike Doyle's artwork but it's not clear to me who will consider this a "must-play" game. The battles aren't as exciting as other games, there are no miniatures though the game seems like it could use them and you can make smart plays and still get screwed now and then by a game event rather than another player's smarter play. Not taken very seriously, this could be a fun game to play but the components and design doesn't suggest that this was the idea.
A cautionary note must also be made about the rules. Like the game itself, they are a mix of hit and miss. The rules use a lot of graphics and examples but don't methodically outline what you actually do through the game. Almost inexplicably, what looks to be an appendix in the back, called "game components", actually contains a number of important rules that aren't included anywhere in the section called "gameplay". This makes it necessary to read everything cover to cover before you play and also makes it more difficult to reference during play. This seems to be a case of people who knew the game well writing the rules but then never giving them to someone without knowledge of the game to quality check.
Overall, Supernova is an interesting idea that doesn't quite hit the mark. Gamers who really like the sci-fi theme should certainly check it out but for everyone else the opportunity cost is too high. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Ben Baldanza
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