Card Game Review: Core Worlds – Deck Building at its Finest
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been able to play Core Worlds with two different gaming groups and the Wife. Partly I did so for review purposes. But also because I’m loving the gameplay behind this late 2011 release by Stronghold Games. Though the box clearly says deck builder, this game has so much more going on. In fact, I don’t think that deck building is really even the dominant mechanic.
In the game, the civilization of the core worlds has gotten soft, weak, and bloated. The players are outlying raiders and empire builders who invade gradually from the outer, barbaric worlds into the core worlds themselves. All along the way, they conquer the territory they move through and adopt the greater technology they find.
The Basics. Players randomly select starting planets and every starting planet comes with a pre-made starting deck of cards. The decks are identical except for the hero the leads each nation. Other than that one difference, all the players start identically.
One aspect that makes Core Worlds distinct from the majority of deck builders is the way cards are acquired. Rather than having a static pool of cards throughout the game, the available cards change. The cards are divided into five sectors: Barbaric Worlds, Frontier Worlds, Industrial Worlds, Luxury Worlds, and Core Worlds. On turns one and two, only the Barbaric Worlds and technologies are available. But, on turn three, the players have passed through that zone and enter, instead, the Frontier Worlds. Now, those technologies are played for the next two turns. And so on.
Each turn, a set number of cards (based on number of players) from the appropriate stack are played into the Central Zone. Players can acquire tactics and planets from the zone, but there is usually only one copy of each card available. So once a player has nabbed it, his or her opponents are unlikely to acquire it.
But, there is much more than just amassing a deck or building an engine. To play the units and tactics that they have drafted from their hand, players must pay a specific energy cost. At the beginning of the game, the players are eking out a meager existence at three energy production per turn. By game end, eleven to fifteen energy is more common. And that energy is a precious resource. It is all too easy to run out of energy and not be able to acquire desired cards, attach planets, or play necessary tactics. At game end, you may be producing much more energy, but your super powerful units now require much more.
Planets, however, are not acquired by merely spending energy. They must be conquered. Each planet has a defensive fleet and ground forces that must be overcome by the player. So, as the player lays down grunts and fighters, they amass into an army. Once his army is big enough, he can attack a planet and add it permanently to his warzone. Most planets also produce energy. Some are worth points.
And, on top of that, players have limited actions during each round. Usually limited to five, the players have to plan their troops, attacks, and card buys around this restrictive scheme. As a result, though deck building is an important aspect to the game, the game really centers around managing your actions and energy, and knowing when to attack a planet and when to build up a larger army to fight on the next turn.
The Feel. One of the best aspects of this game is the restrictive action requirement. Often, you feel like if you had more turns, you’d get everything you want done. But that’s not the way Core Worlds works. This game forces difficult choices which require you to make sacrifices and often walk a razor thin line between acquiring a world and missing it by that much.
Plus, while direct attacks are virtually unavailable in Core Worlds, the indirect competition is fierce. With only one copy of a given planet, it’s first come, first serve. This creates extreme tension. Nearly every turn, I look around to see the strength of the other armies. Do I have time to amass and get my preferred planet before anyone else can? Or must I instead use this turn to plan on getting my second choice – which requires different troops. And, you have to take into consideration turn order (which rotates each round). It’s an exciting and riveting experience.
Because the game is played over only ten rounds, you ultimately shuffle your discards into your deck only about four to six times over the course of the game. That’s another reason why the deck building aspect feels a bit muted. Still, it provides a lot of the same strategy as a typical deck builder (including ways to remove starting cards and drafting potentially powerful combos), while layering on other exciting elements.
With ten rounds, you might think some players are at a disadvantage in three and four player games. After all, the first player will get to go first more often. Core Worlds addresses this by providing “energy surge” tokens to the other players. While it would seem that a one time boost of energy is not worth missing out on first choice of cards, in practice it works remarkably well. In one four player game, I was player four. The most disadvantaged, but receiving two energy surge tokens as compensation. Those tokens, which I used about mid game, allowed me enough energy to buy up some powerful cards, or to get a last ditch attack on a planet accomplished. Effectively, it allowed me to secure another card in each round and that definitely made up for the turn order.
I spent a few minutes trying to come up with negative aspects of the game. And, really, there are none. Maybe I could say its a little fiddly in that you have to monitor your actions and your energy. But, the player boards do an excellent job of simplifying it. So it is not an issue at all. I could castigate the game for including icons on the cards intended for an expansion but which are now currently meaningless. After all, if the expansion is ready to go, why hold it back? But then, I’m just picking on Core Worlds for being smart enough to plan ahead, rather than back engineering the expansion later.
I suppose that if you want a lot of player versus player combat, this game would disappoint. This is not an attack-your-neighbor type game. However, the scramble for cards and worlds is tight and cut throat. So interaction is maintained in watching your opponents’ moves and playing against them.
Components: 4.5 of 5. This game is solid. The cards are of a good thickness to withstand multiple shuffles. This is so important in a deck builder since the cards will be shuffled and reshuffled many times in every game. And Stronghold has made sure that these things seem up to the task. Player boards have all the information needed, even if they are a bit on the ugly side. The card art, on the other hand, is fantastic and often (though not always) maintains a retro boxy-future look. And the few necessary punchout pieces are all on fantastic stock.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. As a card game, there will be luck and variation. Sometimes you’ll draw what you need right when you need it. Sometimes not. But, the game really comes down to managing energy, actions, and the Central Zone. Calculating out exactly how much you can get away with given your current resources is all within player control. Since all the Core Worlds come out each game, you can also develop a long term strategy that maximizes points from an end world.
Mechanics: 5 of 5. Core Worlds is mechanically brilliant. While I wouldn’t exactly call its system “elegant,” it provides complex and entertaining gameplay with comparatively few rules. And, not only is the system wonderful – allowing players to build up their armies from weak to strong over the course of the game – but it is thematically very appropriate. As you, the barbarian tribes, slowly move closer to the Core Worlds, it only makes sense that the planets would be better defended, but more lucrative to hold. And that your access to technology and weapons would improve.
Replayability: 4 of 5. Unlike other deck builders, you do not use a defined subset of cards in any given game. True, there are more cards in each stack than will be dealt into the game. So, by default, a subset will be used. But it is not one that the players are aware of at the beginning. Instead, players may hope to see a particular card, but whether it appears or not will ultimately be determined during the game, not before. This random mix, especially as it is resolved during the game, helps make each game an original experience.
Plus, Core Worlds also includes, a beginning (round zero) draft mechanic for experienced conquerors. Each player can remove two cards from their starting deck. Then, in turn order, they select one of the unique round zero cards to add to their start deck. Then do the same in reverse turn order. This gives each player a different deck right off the bat and allows for early customization.
Spite: 1 of 5. Core Worlds has very, very low spite. In my plays, I’ve found only one other card that directly harms another player – and even then only by costing them a single energy. While indirect competition is high and cut-throat, there are no explicit “take that” elements that would allow any player to feel picked on.
Overall: 5 of 5. Core Worlds is fun. And that’s all there is to say about it. It is thematic, it is strategic, it is not difficult to learn, it has tons of replayability, it provides an “empire building” feel, and the components are solid and built to last. The game box reads sixty to one hundred twenty minutes. None of my games have exceeded ninety minutes and, frankly, I never noticed the passage of time anyway. Core Worlds just engrosses you. I highly recommend that you find a way to get in a play of Core Worlds.
(A special thanks to Stronghold Games for providing a reduced cost copy of Core Worlds)