Sunday, April 28, 2013

Core Worlds Review

Core Worlds was released in 2011 by Stronghold Games, and was designed by Andrew Parks.  The buzz around the game sounded promising, and I quickly ordered a copy soon after it came out.  I was immediately impressed with it's tight gameplay, and strong core mechanics.  Then it sat on my shelf for months because everyone was burnt out after one play.  They enjoyed it.  But it was intense.  It's a gamer's game, and sadly, it's not often I get a group of nothing but gamer's together.

Core Worlds is a sort of deck building, sort of drafting, sort of tableau building game.  The Galactic Empire is collapsing, like Rome of old.  And not unlike Rome of old, the barbarian kingdoms around it's borders are now invading for their piece of the old empire.  Except now they are space barbarians!  That would be you.

Rule Summary

In Core Worlds, there are 6 Sector Decks (0 through 5), and each player has their own personal deck, a homeworld, and a tracking sheet.  At the beginning of the game, players will draft 2 cards from Sector 0 to add to their personal decks, and then play begins proper.

During a turn, players will draw 6 cards, gain energy from their worlds, then the new sector cards are revealed.  The sector cards make up a common drafting pool for all the players.  The sector deck you select from also changes as the game advances, with more powerful and costly cards appearing every other turn.  Once the draft pool has been set up, you proceed to the action rounds.

The core of the game is the action rounds.  The game is divided up into 10 turns, and during each turn players will have between 4 to 6 actions to spend.  You will have 50 actions total during the game.  On a player's turn, they may draft 1 card from the draft pool, invade 1 world, deploy multiple units from their hand, or use "as an action" abilities listed on their cards.

To draft a card, you simply spend 1 action, then pay it's draft cost.  The card then goes into your discard pile.  To deploy units from your hand, you pay 1 action per unit, then also pay their deploy cost.  To invade a world, you spend 1 action and 1 energy, and then use your deployed forces to conquer the world.  Worlds have a fleet strength and a ground strength which you must overcome using your deployed units.  Then you put the world into your play area, and discard all the troops you used to invade it.

Players will continue drafting cards and conquering worlds until the game concludes at the end of turn 10.  Then players will add up all their points from the cards they acquired.  The player with the most points is the winner.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?

This game isn't very accessible to new players, and especially non-gamers.  The game mechanics aren't especially complicated.  In fact the core game mechanics are highly accessible.  However it's a combination of familiar mechanics used in novel ways.  Plus managing your energy and actions can be daunting.  Countless times new players will be off by a single energy or action, and miss their goals.  If they even have goals, which first timers frequently don't.  The game also progresses at a relentless pace.  Cards rapidly ramp up in cost to draft and deploy.  Worlds quickly become out of reach if you don't stay on top of drafting new units, and new units become difficult to deploy if you don't keep conquering new worlds!

You go from a Fighter to a powerful Dreadnought.
Hard to believe when you start the game.
Core Worlds is firmly a gamer's game.  It assumes you are willing to spend some time and thought on it.  That being said, it's an enjoyable time investment.  You aren't investing time going over all the nuances and exceptions to the rules.  In fact the core rule set is remarkable elegant.  For a game of this complexity and depth, the core rules are very streamlined.  There is only a single edge case during the Galactic Phase, when the draft pool is constructed for the turn.  And only the player setting up the draft pool needs to know it.

The learning curve exists entirely in learning the cards, and the pace of the game.  New players won't be slammed with a litany of rules, exceptions and restrictions to frustrate them.  They will just be presented with a constant barrage of new and often out of reach prizes that they didn't plan well enough for.  If your game is going to have a learning curve, that is the way to do it.

I have noticed that players who fall behind in conquering worlds tend to catch back up, and sometimes leapfrog the other players.  I think largely because when you can't conquer a world, you tend to draft units.  Additionally you may have a lot of deployed units sitting out.  This causes your deck to cycle quicker, getting your new units out faster.  It also all puts you in a superior position to get a newer high cost world.  Provided you don't keep lagging behind.  It's a very elegantly done side effect of the core mechanics to help players catch back up.  On top of this, you also have Energy Surge cards in your deck that give you extra energy if you are falling behind.

How does the new player versus old player match up go?

As I have already hinted at, this is a game that rewards experience.  Not to the degree that Race for the Galaxy does.  But it helps to have a few games under your belt.  Experienced players will have a better grasp of the pacing of conquering worlds.  When to grab what's out there quickly, and when to wait for richer prizes ahead.  They will have a better grasp of the rate at which they should draft better forces instead of grabbing worlds.  Most importantly, they'll have a firmer grasp of the importance of the titular Core Worlds that come out at the end of the game.

Fantastic reference material surrounds your energy and action tracks.

Many experienced players may revolve their entire strategy around earning as many points as possible off a specific Core World.  They are listed for reference on the player sheet, but sort of fade into the background for new players.  But the Core Worlds are of vital importance, since they offer a variable amount of points.  Usually 6 as a base, then extra points for each of a specific card type that you own.  So if you've collected 4 more infantry units over the course of the game, the infantry focused Core World would be worth 10 points.

New players miss out on a lot of this.  It's not as subtle or deep as the intricate card combos and phase piggy backing of Race for the Galaxy.  But it still requires a certain knowledge of the overall pacing of the game.

What could have been done better?

I'm not sure much could have been done to help new players jump into the game quickly.  The reference material is fantastic.  Especially since it lists the Core Worlds up top.  The pre-game drafting round from Sector 0 really helps jump start the game, and gives new players a better idea of what is to come than their regular starting cards.  But you really just can't teach timing or flow in any amount of rules or reference material.

I have also gotten better at teaching Core Worlds.  If players seem stumped or anxious, I try to remind them that missing out on a card isn't the end of the world.  Better cards are coming.  They don't have to invade a world every turn like clockwork.  Sometimes it's better to wait, and poise yourself for what is in the next sector.  This seems to take some of the pressure off, and lessen the brain burn and anxiety over making the wrong move.

It is also nice that the final sector has Prestige cards which serve as a sort of consolation prize.  Often players that failed to build properly towards a Core World can get those instead by simply paying the drafting cost.  They only reward players with a pittance of points, but at least the player isn't just sitting out the rest of the game.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

This game absolutely feels like a frantic land grab.  More often than not everyone wants the same things.  The competition for limited resources is great.  You don't want to waste a single action on anything that could be put off until later.  It's an incredibly tight game, with a lot of tension and some brain burning if you let it.  Especially in the latter rounds of the game, you will sit there thinking about your first action.  Because everything else through the next 2 or 3 turns of the game is likely to build off of what you start with here.  You'll add up the energy costs of all the units you want to deploy.  You'll double check.  Triple check.  You go to deploy them all.  Then your turn rolls around again and you realized that you forgot you needed an extra energy to activate someone's special ability, or deploy a tactics card.  It happens to the best of us.

Core Worlds also has a different feel with the various player counts.  I've found 3 or 4 players to be a good sweet spot, with 3 players being slightly easier.  It seems there are just enough cards out in the draft pool for everyone to go a different direction in a 3 player game.  Add a 4th player and toes get stepped on slightly more.  Drop back down to 2 players and there could not be enough variety in the cards to support multiple strategies!  I've yet to play a 5 player game, but I'm not sure I'd want to since the downtime in a 4 player game was already enough for me.

The galaxy is so large!

The other thing that raises Core Worlds to a truly fantastic experience is how it changes each time you play it.  The sector decks only have 24 cards, however you will rarely see all of them.  It's only theoretically possible in a 5 player game, if the players are wiping out the draft pool absolutely every turn.  An unlikely occurrence.  So every game ends up being a rather unique experience.  It really feels like you are exploring the galaxy.  Especially since the cards are so thematic and imaginative.  It's a fantastic experience I always enjoy, and which keeps me coming back to the game again and again.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

Sometimes the math gets in the way of actually playing the game.  Lots of the cards have special abilities, many of which require energy or discarding cards from your hand.  At the beginning of the game, it's not hard to math out your turns.  You only start the game with 3 energy, 4 actions, and few of your cards have special abilities.  Towards the end of the game, you could have around 15 or 20 energy, 6 actions, and nearly all your units and many of your planets will have special abilities.  The Core Worlds are so absolutely pivotal to winning, sometimes accounting for as much as half your score, that you will want to play your final 2 turns absolutely perfectly.

I think I can invade the world on the right this turn... or can I?
But the math gets ugly.  Really ugly.  Time seems to slow down significantly towards the end of the game.  The last 3 or 4 turns of the game could easily take longer than the first 6 or 7.  Not because there is more to do.  Just so much more to think about.  Sometimes I've felt compelled to get out some scratch paper to track my spending, and make notes for my future turns.

I think two things could have alleviated this problem.  One would be making the numbers in the game more manageable, likely by scaling all the energy values in the game down.  The other is by switching from energy and action tracks, where the tracking token sits on top of the value, to a pile of energy and action tokens.  What this would accomplish is allowing players to physically allocate their energy and actions to the places they need it.  They can physically make sure they have enough energy to go around before they commit to a strategy.  It's a trick I've used in just about any game that uses resource tokens, and drastically helps potential brain burn.  It would have the draw back of adding more components to the game, and possibly increasing the fiddliness.  Especially with the amounts of energy some players can have by the end of the game.  However I think it would pay off enormously in less time trying to work the same math over repeatedly, and losing track.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

Core Worlds I'd like to say is a more tactical game than a strategic one.  Oh the strategy is there.  You absolutely need to have a strategy.  You want to know which Core Worlds you will be trying to conquer.  You need to know which turns you want to spend deploying units for better things to come, and when you want to go for vicious land grabs.  Rest assured there is plenty of long term strategy.

But the tactical game is just so rich, and so tense.  The specific timing of events is always on your mind.  Trying to get the cards you want before anyone else does, but not jumping on them too soon since there might be something even more time sensitive you need to get done.  You will constantly be eyeing your opponents play areas, trying to figure out which worlds they can conquer.  That way you'll know if you are one step ahead of them and can snatch a choice world out from under them, or if you should switch gears and aim for a different one.

It is quite easy to get so wrapped up in the tactical game of jockeying for the first shot at cards, that you lose sight of the long game.  You get so obsessed with invading worlds before the other players, that you burn out.  You never draft more advanced units, and you end up ill equipped for the richer worlds that come out later.  Or the other way around, you drafted all the good units before anyone else, but now you don't have enough energy to deploy them!  It's a careful balance.

It's all about these
The other thing I want to hit on, is that despite the game having a random draft pool, the long term strategies don't suffer for it like 7 Wonders does.  Core World's avoids the issues I found in 7 Wonders by having a well balanced public draft pool.  Every turn there needs to be at least one world, and one non-world, per player.  Also, the Core Worlds that come out at the end of the game are not random, unlike the powerful Guilds in 7 Wonders.  Lastly the Core Worlds are remarkably flexible and robust.  There is a Core World for everything.  Infantry, Starfighters, Vehicles & Robots, Star Cruisers & Capital Ships, Tactics, and lastly a Core World that is just worth 8 points.  Plus there is a fantastic official variant where two people can claim a single Core World, further reducing the fragility of a long term strategy you may have stuck to for most of the game.  To me Core Worlds is a fantastic example of how to do drafting correctly, as opposed to 7 Wonders.  Although it could also be said that Core Worlds takes 2 or 3 longer than 7 Wonders.  So there is always that.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

The dilemmas in this game are amazing.  Put aside the mathiness of calculating how much energy or action you can commit to all your various goals.  If that's all the game presented you with, I'd quickly grow bored of it.  The real meat of the dilemmas is getting inside your opponent's head.

Are you competing for the same cards?  Can you afford to wait?  Should you just let him have this one, and hope a better one comes out next turn?  Have you drafted enough new units to keep up with the curve?  You get to garrison a unit on this world you just conquered, should you shed some Galactic Grunts or a Snub Fighter?  Do you remember if you've drafted replacements for them?

You are consistently challenged with ramping up the power of you deck, and the resources at your disposal. But you must accomplish this without letting either one become unbalanced, or falling behind the game's pace, or letting the other players snatch what you need.  It's just fantastic.

What makes the dilemmas so good?

What really makes the decisions truly interesting is the combination of competition for limited public resources, and your own limited private resources.  With so little to go around, the only way you can truly get a leg up is through timing.  Careful, exact, meticulously planned timing.  And I love it.  It is really exciting to pull off a clever combo of cards and special abilities, and somehow wring more out of your constrained resources than your opponents thought you could.

A well timed Medical Bot that allows you to keep your best infantry out.  Using a special Star Cruiser that allows you to deploy more Starfighters without spending precious actions.  But most importantly, finding the perfect time to do these actions, such that they allow you to take a choice card right out from under someone.

Physical component design and limitations?

All in all, Core Worlds just feels slightly cheap.  The player sheets are thin, easily warped cardstock.  The chits for energy and tracking tokens are alright, but not too substantial.  The cards themselves just feel flimsy, and I worry about them holding up past 20 plays or so.  I'm going to be sleeving mine as soon as my FLGS gets that size of sleeve back in stock.  I already mentioned how I feel using chits or beads for energy would have worked better than a single tracking token on an energy track.  I just feel let down by the quality of the components, but only because this game is truly amazing as far as I'm concerned.  The components aren't bad, but they don't live up to greatness of the game they constitute.

Long term prospects?

I can see myself playing Core Worlds for a long, long time.  It has that perfect mixture of strong core mechanics, deep gameplay, and variety that just enamors me with a game.

However, Core Worlds is a gamer's game.  When I visit my FLGS to play games, I have no trouble finding people willing to jump in.  I've gotten overwhelmingly positive responses to Core Worlds there.  But amongst my friends, even the friends I've been playing games with for years, Core Worlds gets met with some apprehension.  It can be rough on people.  It can leave you in the dust, and then take another 30 minutes to finally end.   Some people will have Core Worlds knock them around and get excited.  They'll puzzle over what they could have done better.  Other's will just write the game off as not being fun.  It's hard to blame someone who has a bad experience with Core Worlds for not wanting to invest another 60-90 minutes into the game. 

All that being said, I greatly look forward to playing Core Worlds often at my FLGS.  But if I didn't have one to go to, I'm afraid it would probably have ended up on my trade pile.  If you have a good group of gamers willing to invest in an amazing game which might whoop their ass a few times at first, I'd strongly recommend Core Worlds.


  1. I have seen this game take 4 hours plus at my game group as a 5 player with the expansion included! I like it but if I want to play something epic this is not it!

    1. That's rather incredible. The longest I've had this game take is 2 hours with 4 people. It usually takes about 60-90 though with 2-4 players. But we haven't played with the expansion. I agree that at 4 hours this game would have definitely outlived it's welcome.