Card drafting goes to space!
Android & iOS
# of Players
Among the Stars is a card drafting, space station building game from Cublo Games. In the game three or four players build to expand their space stations and pass unused cards to their neighbor. The cards provide victory points immediately and/or at the end of the game. A game usually takes about 25 minutes and the player with the most points after all of the card abilities are counted is crowned the champion.
As a card drafting game, Among the Stars will immediately be compared to 7 Wonders, the canonical card drafting game. The key difference brought to the table in Among the Stars is the spatial aspect of building your space station. Cards (locations) in Among the Stars are played onto your station by connecting to an existing location, think Galaxy Trucker, but, for the most part, any location can be played adjacent to any existing location, there needn't be a perfect fit. The spatial aspect is deeper than just giving you a cool looking space station at the end of the game, locations frequently score points based on where they are located in your station. This adds a layer of strategy to the mechanic that is very enjoyable.
A turn in Among the Stars is fairly straightforward. The starting player chooses a card to play, and does so, adding it to their station. Cards are played by using credits. Players start with a set amount, which replenishes every year, with stronger cards generally costing more. Should you run out of credits you may discard a card rather than build it to earn a few credits on your turn. Once a card is played, it’s immediate effect, if any, is scored and the next player takes their turn. Immediate effects might be direct points, or points based on neighboring locations, or many other variations. Once all players have taken their turn, each player passes their cards to the next. After the current round’s cards have been exhausted, a new round (dubbed “year” here) begins which is the same as the previous round expect the card passing order is reversed. At the conclusion of the fourth year, the game ends and all delayed abilities are counted along with a handful of smaller end-game bonuses which add to the final scoring. The player with the most points wins the game, with the most locations acting as a tiebreaker, and most credits being the final tiebreaker if needed.
There are a handful of other factors at play in Among the Stars. The most notable are the power reactors and location types. Power reactors provide power cubes to locations which require them, but only if they are played within a certain distance of a power reactor which has available cubes. Conversely, some locations can’t be played within a certain distance of power reactors. You may build a new power reactor on your turn by discarding and paying one credit. You get a point in end-game scoring for each empty reactor in your station. There are five different location types, designated by color, which often work together in their point bonuses. Some locations will reward variety while others will reward loading up on one location type.
Objectives and Races add a bit more depth to the game once you have a solid understanding of the base game. Objectives provide bonus points to players who meet the stated objects. Races provide special abilities which alter your rules a bit, adding some flavor and variation to the game.
For players with experience with the physical game, there are a few minor changes for the digital adaptation. These are called out in a special section of the in-app rulebook, a handy addition.
Among the Stars is a fun game. The planning and tactical adjustments necessary throughout the game to adjust to the available cards really make the game. The delayed abilities are vital, it is very easy to chase points from instant effects and ignore delayed abilities, but that is usually a great way to lose a game. Building a specific location early can alter your strategy for the rest of the game because those end-game points can be huge. These factors aren’t unique to Among the Stars, but the spatial aspect the game adds is. You will need to build carefully to hit the delayed abilities and maximize points, this often leads to tough decisions on which location to play and which to send on to your opponent, hoping they make it back around to you in a few turns. Overall, Among the Stars provides a great mix of strategic and tactical decision making in a fairly lightweight card drafting game.
Barrier to Entry
Among the Stars contains a set of text rules as well as an introductory tutorial. If you have experience with card drafting games, Among the Stars will be fairly simple to pick up. If you are new to the genre there will be a bit more of a curve, but the basic gameplay is fairly straightforward. The complexity comes into play with the specific locations and their abilities, but those are well explained on the cards themselves. I would advise, as does the game, to leave Objectives and Races out on your first few plays if you are new to the game.
A developing space station
Look and Feel
Among the Stars looks fantastic, the attention to detail in this app is truly special. The background graphic looks amazing, the menus are laid out very well, the in-game graphics are top notch. There are minor touches like the avatars being animated with subtle, lifelike movements. It is great to see such fantastic attention to detail in such a minor spot like that, it really makes the overall experience better for the user and is indicative of the quality of the overall visual product.
The controls work well, everything is point-and-click. Select a location card, it brings up the available options, then select where you want to build it onto your station. Simple enough. Another small, but fantastic, detail is when you go to build a location the names of the locations in your base are displayed over their cards. This is important as you can get bonus points if certain locations are placed adjacent to other certain locations. Overall, the controls are great, every action is easy and straightforward.
The only knock on the game in this area is that the animations are a bit slow. If there were an option to speed them up, the length of a game would drop considerably which would be a welcome addition.
Online play in Among the Stars has almost all of the options you could hope for. Games can be played with timeouts ranging from 15 minutes to 48 hours, with five options in between. It is a bit odd that the shortest timeout is 15 minutes, which prevents a true synchronous game, but asynchronous fans will be happy as the app has push notifications (note that they weren't working on my Android device at the time of this review being published, but the developer has stated this is a known issue so we expect it to be resolved quickly). Races and Objectives can be toggled on or off when the game is created. You can make your own game and wait for others to join or you can browse a lobby and pick which game(s) you want to join. You can make a game private by adding a password.
A handful of users have full email addresses as their online username. This is a bit odd to see. Mine was used when the app first launched but was switched after an early update that tied the game to my Google Play Games account, hopefully all users will drop the full email address once they apply the update.
The game features local pass-and-play for up to four players. The mode is implemented well, but works best on a larger tablet so you can see what your opponents are doing rather than having to click to their tableau each turn to get up to speed.
Among the Stars features both custom games against AI and a campaign mode. The AI has three difficulty levels to choose from, you may make each AI a different level if you wish. The AI is extremely competent when playing with Races and Objectives. I've found it difficult to win AI games with these turned on, as either the AI does a good job playing for these points or I do a terrible job. The AI with these options off, however, is fairly easy even on the most difficult setting. I'm not sure what the difference is, but I win almost every time with them turned off. This isn't a big issue as most players will enjoy the Races and Objectives once they get a hang of the basic game.
Among the Stars has a campaign mode. It places you in a normal game with added victory conditions. In the first mission you must win the game but also build three of each of the five location types in your station. This isn’t an easy thing to achieve as you are at the mercy of which cards your opponents don’t build. There are currently eight campaign missions, with more coming soon. Each mission tracks your high scores.
Pass the cards
Complete space station
The physical game has a few well-received expansions. As of release time, there is no indication whether or not they will be available in the app.
One issue I've had happen a couple of times thus far is getting stuck in an in-game menu such as browsing the discard pile or attempting to use a Race ability to swap cards with an opponent. The game appears to still be going but nothing I can do gets me out of the current screen. I eventually kill the app and restart. In both instances, I didn't have the issue after restarting.
The Wrap Up
Among the Stars is a game with great potential to succeed in the digital world and the port delivers on this potential in a satisfying way. The underlying game is quite fun, the spatial aspect on top of the classic card drafting mechanic is a fun mix, and the app has fantastic attention to detail which really makes it stand out. Outside of looks, the app packs online features, pass-and-play, AI games, and a campaign, which pretty much checks all of the boxes for game modes.
The only real downsides are a couple of lingering bugs, namely the push notifications not working and the occasional dead end when navigating some in-game options. We hope these are fixed shortly and will update this review when that time comes, but even as they exist, they don't hold the app back much.