Maybe I am out of step with the times in which we live, but I always feel a little sad when humans in gameland come up with something like jump drive or interstellar travel and immediately fire off into the unknown regions to partake in the old Expand, Explore, Exploit and Exterminate. I would like to think that future humans won’t give a 4X for all that stuff, but my hopes dwindle every time I play a military card in Race For The Galaxy or drill deeper into that Martian soil in Super Motherload. Still, on we go claiming all in our path, and Small Star Empires, the debut design by Milan Tasevski and Archona Games slots right into this expansionist desire, although for the lily-livered among us, it at least promises that all that establishing of dominance can be achieved in ten to thirty minutes.
The game comes tucked up in a small and neat box.
Should you make space for Small Star Empires?
Small Star Empires arrives in a commendably small box, holding its contents snug and tight, and this will fit onto most people’s game shelves without causing any headaches at all. You might expect the components to have been compromised as a result but for such a small box the bits and pieces that make up Small Star Empires are not bad at all. There are some very detailed plastic moulded ships, colonies and trade stations in four bright colours, tiles for the main board and home systems, and some extra tiles that can be used for the advanced game variants. The player pieces are light but solid, and are better quality than I had expected, but the board is just a little thinner than I might have liked, and it turns out to be frustratingly easy to knock in a game and also difficult to keep from coming apart. There is a generous scorepad as well and, possibly my favourite must-have accessory to have in a game box, a pencil too. The artwork on the box and on the boards has some lovely detail, so there has clearly been a decent amount of thought that has gone into this product. It certainly makes a good first impression.
Tiles and pieces in this game are finely detailed.
Small Star Empires accommodates two to four players, and the board size and initial allocation of ships changes a little at each player count – the fewer the players the smaller the board (if only marginally) and the greater the number of ships. The board is modular, and some standard layouts are given in the rule book along with suggestions for more adventurous players, including one with entirely separate systems that are joined by wormholes. If you have played something like Attika or Deus then you will recognise this kind of thing, and it is worth mentioning that the tiles in Small Star Empires are double-sided, adding to the possible variety, even if the differences between sides are slight, presumably to ensure that the many possible layouts remain balanced. Once the board is laid out players place their ships on their own homeworld and go off to colonise the outer reaches of the galaxy.
Easy to teach and quick to learn? Sounds good!
Small Star Empires’ rules are easy to explain and simple to grasp in the tradition of the great modern abstracts, also thanks to a really clear rule book, and involve a two-step move and claim procedure. Boiled down to its basics a player moves any one of their ships in a straight line and then claims the system they finish in either with a colony or a trade station. There are some restraints on movement, so a player cannot move through a black hole or system belonging to another player, and moving into a wormhole will spit you out somewhere else on the board, but apart from a couple of very small wrinkles that whole straight line thing is about as clear as can be.
Red ship, yellow trade station and blue colony.
Claiming a system involves a little more thought because of the way Small Star Empires’ scoring system plays out. Colonies will score points based on the systems on which they sit, so colonised planetary systems score one to three points based on the number of planets they contain, while sets of nebulae score two, five or eight based on how many of the same colour a player claims. This means that colonising three green nebulae would net you the full eight points, while one each of red, green and blue would only get you two each for a total of six. Trade stations work differently, however, scoring a point for each adjacent system colonised by another player, a nice little thematic touch. There is also a three-point bonus for the player with the largest single colonised area in the final reckoning, and in the advanced game there may be a couple of extra bits of addition to do as well when the variant tiles are taken into account.
Win or lose, it’s a bit of a score bore…
Small Star Empires continues with its players taking turns until either no legal moves are possible or all players have placed all their colonies and trade stations, at which point the scoring is totted up. Counting all the points can be a little fiddly, and although there is a suggestion in the rules that attempts to make it easier (and even a scoring app!), we ended up doing it the opposite way from the order on Small Star Empires’ score pad, beginning with the largest area count, then doing the trade stations and removing them, and finishing with the colonies. In many ways the scoring is actually the most fiddly part of the game, so simplifying it does help, else it can seem to take almost as long as the game itself.
Scoring can be fiddly.
As many other reviewers have noted, Small Star Empires bears many similarities to Hey, That’s My Fish, but where in that game the pressure is applied to players by the gradual and incessant removal of game tiles, here it is the inexorable overpopulation of the board that narrows the decision space and brings the game to its end. Thematically you can also make your own mind up as to whether you prefer penguins collecting fish or intergalactic empires subverting planetary systems, but there is no doubt that the two games inhabit similar gaming territory. In both players also need to be aware that decisions made frivolously in the early part of the game can come back to haunt them.
Four player games are pretty but pressured.
Light or heavy? Thinky or fun?
Small Star Empires plays commendably quickly, so much so that the designers have seen fit to include a tournament variant in the rules that is played out over multiple games, but it brings with it that lightness and deftness of touch that these kinds of designs often have. Players will have to make up their own minds as to whether this sounds right for them – personally I prefer a little more grit in the oyster, and for two players especially the likes of Hive and the brilliant GIPF Series offer more engrossing if thematically abstracted experiences in a similar amount of time, while Patchwork inhabits the slightly lighter end of the spectrum but still remains involving. In the two player field, therefore, Small Star Empires finds itself up against some fearsome competition and will struggle to find its niche.
Two player games feel wide open and probably need a tweak.
It takes (more than) two, baby, to make this dream come true!
At higher player counts, though, and notably with the full complement of four players, Small Star Empires does a decent job, especially as players’ decisions have the potential to alter the game state substantially by the time your turn rolls round again. The two-player game feels like skimming stones across a lake, but the four-player game is more like dropping a rock into water from a height and watching the effects the ripples have as they spread outwards. Maybe that all sounds poetic, but these were actual descriptions voiced by my fellow players. Yes, really. The action at higher player counts is helped by the fact that even though the board is larger there is less space per player. My counting may well be awry, but my brain reckons that 2 players get 57 spaces in which to run around, while four players only get 65, and three of those spaces will be colonised before your turn rolls around again – it is all much more pressured and much more enjoyable, and games like this really need a sense of that encroaching claustrophobia if decisions are going to carry the kind of weight they need.
Many gamers will want to decide between this and Hey, That’s My Fish in their collection. You would think that the penguin pusher from the big publisher would walk all over the pesky newcomer, but even though Small Star Empires is from a first time designer and publisher it really has much to commend it. The variants included in the box give it genuine longevity and variety, and for many gamers the idea of colonising space is simply more appealing than being a penguin, although I do know some people for whom the opposite would be true. The game boards could certainly do with a little more thickness, and players will need to be careful not to sneeze during their games for fear of destroying the galaxy, but there is a lot to like in this little box, and I think that its niche is probably best found at the end of a gaming evening with three or four players looking for something light but interesting to round out a spare fifteen minutes at the end of a session. I find it difficult to imagine the tournament variant being played very often, but single games of Small Star Empires with the extra tiles seem very much like the way to go.
Add variant tiles to the modular board for even greater variety.
Boldly going? Or timidly trudging?
So does Small Star Empires deserve a space on your shelf? If you tend to play two-player games then I would have to say not, as there are better games at this level and deeper that work much better, both established classics and impressive new designs. If on the other hand you tend to have a larger gaming group with a penchant for space and light abstracts then this is certainly worth considering, and especially if you and your colleagues found yourself with an awkwardly empty fifteen minutes at the end of your last meetup then Small Star Empires offers you an opportunity to fill that gaming gap and offer some support to the new kids on the block, especially as Milan and his colleagues at Archona Games appear to be on a single-handed mission to bring board gaming to Macedonia. Small Star Empires is undoubtedly derivative, whether intentionally or not, but it does enough with the components in the box to be different, and it is highly portable too. Ditch the box and you could easily carry around all you need in a pocket.
Assigning Small Star Empires a rating is going to be tricky, so I am going to cheat slightly. For two players I would award this only 6 out of 10 – it simply is too wide open, lacks the intensity of games at higher player counts, and feels disappointingly slight, and I would not recommended it as a purchase if that is the only way you will play it. Just because the box says you can play a game with two does not necessarily mean that you should play it with two, nor that it has been designed with that player count in mind. I was expecting much more from it as a head to head game, and I came away from those encounters disappointed, and we ended up playing our own two-colours-each variant which we felt worked much better. For three or four players, though, Small Star Empires is a different matter, and at that level the game begins to shine. With the full complement of gamers especially I would give it 8 out of 10, so that’s an overall score of (drum roll…) 7 out of 10, give or take a fraction. You’ll need to be careful with placing your pieces on the board, and the scoring can be fiddly, but, those caveats aside, I would say that this is certainly worth a try if you think that the theme piques your interest.
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I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and i'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.