The Portable Galactic Empire (PGE) is the first game from Castle Games, released at the beginning of October. I requested a review copy and tested it out in a three-player game. It’s a game that has some great potential, but also has a few weaknesses. I’m definitely planning to play it again to see how it holds up after repeated plays, but I wanted to at least outline the game and give a sense of what it’s about.
It’s an empire-building card-based game for three to six players (the designer is experimenting with variant rules for two), takes about two hours to play, and is recommended for ages twelve and up. The current price is CAN$30 plus shipping*. What you get: a roughly 5.5″x8″ cardboard box with 164 cards, two 6-sided dice, instructions, six player reference cards and six resource tracking cards. (It’s odd that the box itself says it’s a 5″x7″ box … must be Canadian inches.)
The components are fairly simple: mostly a bunch of square-shaped cards, with simple iconic graphics and a bit of text. I found the cards a little hard to shuffle, partly because they’re brand-new but also because they’re not coated and tend to stick together. I like the look of the icons, and while the text is handy at first, it takes up half the card and pretty soon becomes unnecessary. Still, as with Fluxx, you just start ignoring the extra text and it doesn’t really detract. It might have been nice, though, to have a different layout or design of the cards to make the gameplay easier—more on that later.
Each player gets a resource tracking card (what you see at the bottom of the box in my photo), and you’ll need to provide your own markers for tracking resources. (They recommend bingo chips or small coins; we used the little glass stones I use for my CheapAss Games.) These cards, and the player reference cards, are printed on a heavy cardstock—not as sturdy as cardboard but decent enough to do the job. The two dice included are pretty standard, although you can also purchase custom dice with little spaceships on them.
It’s a little disappointing to have to provide your own markers, at least in a game for this price. CheapAss Games used the strategy of provide-your-own markers, dice, and even boxes, but then they made games that sold for under ten bucks. At around $30, it would have been nice to have markers provided, and maybe more dice. (In most cases, invasions require each player to roll more than one die, which means you’ll probably be providing your own dice anyway.) Of course, since Castle Games looks to be a smaller and newer game company, I imagine their production costs haven’t benefited from economies of scale yet, so I’ll cut them a little slack.
As for the box, well, it is portable and smaller than a lot of games. But (as you can see from the photo) it’s still a good bit bigger than it needs to be, and the Portable Galactic Empire could be made much more portable with a pocket-sized box. The only problem there, though, is the resource cards, which are 5″x7″ and are the main limitation of the box size. I suppose you could do with a shallower box, or if you want to keep track of resources on paper, it could be really portable. Maybe people would balk at paying $30 for something pocket-sized; maybe box sizes really don’t bother other people and I’m just weird.
I liked the theme: a bit of space conquest, and required head-to-head conflict. (You need five monuments to win and there are only eight in the deck, so there are no ties.) Star systems contain one, two, or three planets, which provide you with either population resources or material resources. These in turn are used to build governments (which produce influence), universities (which produce science), and shipyards (which produce rockets). Then, you can combine various resources to produce weapons, defense systems, and the all-important monuments. Influence and rockets are required to mount an invasion on other players.
I think the theme holds up fairly well, though it does get a little abstracted in parts. There are a host of different types of weapons like Tachyon Beams and Laser Warhead Missiles but it really boils down to Beams, Missiles, and Cannons, and there’s really no difference from one Beam to another. Also, there are different sizes of star systems and planets, but less variation in the types of developments: a government is a government is a government. So, it’s not a really in-depth simulation, but as a resource-management game it works just fine.
The original rulesheet I received had a few errors, but Castle Games has since posted a few errata on their website and released a revised rulesheet, which they e-mailed to me, and said they would include the “patched” rules in shipments from now on.
The rules were fairly simple to follow, except for the “Invasion” phase. Invasion is the first phase of a player’s turn and is the most complicated. However, it’s also not really applicable until later in the game: you can’t invade unless you have at least one monument, and you can only invade others who also have monuments already. (Otherwise, their civilization is beneath you.) I would recommend, when starting up the game, to explain the other phases first, and then get to invasions later.
Other than that, the rules were concise and straightforward. There’s a little bit of humor injected into places, but not much. Personally, I could have used a little more “flavor.” There are certainly some games that overdo it, to the point where you wish they include a Quick Start guide, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have a little more back-story.
You can download a PDF of the rules here.
Okay, so now the part you really want to know: is it any good? My answer: yes, with some caveats.
The gameplay consists of drawing and playing cards, collecting resources and deciding how to allocate them, and then figuring out whether or not to invade someone else’s empire to steal their monuments. PGE is recommended for ages twelve and up; I think younger players might be able to learn the mechanics but may not pick up as quickly on strategy.
The game took a little over two hours for a three-player game (although this was for new players, so I’m sure it will go a little faster next time around). I regularly play games that last an hour or two (occasionally longer) so this was about par for the course. The turns weren’t always very exciting, especially in the initial stage when we’re simply building up resources, but the pace felt pretty comfortable and not dragging. Once we got into the stage where we could attack each other, though, you could feel the tension levels rising as we had to pay closer attention to our available resources and how to allocate them.
It does take a good deal of table space, and this is one weakness which I think could have been addressed. A star system card can hold up to three planet cards, which can each hold up to three development cards (depending on the stars and planets). In two dimensions, that makes for a pretty complicated layout. Add on top of that the fact that a player can have an unlimited number of star systems, and things start spreading out quickly. The photo above shows our three-player game, and you can see that if we wanted to add a fourth player things would have gotten too crowded. It would have been nice for the rules to show a suggested diagram, or perhaps there is some way to lay out the cards to make them overlap better. (I came up with a layout with lots of overlapping, but there’s still some information on each card that you need to see.) The other piece of the space issue is the resource tracking card, which is simply a card that you place markers on. I don’t know that I’d really want to track this on paper instead, but the cards themselves take a good deal of space.
I’d recommend using the alternate starting rules with equivalent star systems for each player. Somewhere between a bad shuffle and luck of the draw, it took me a long time to get any star systems—I just kept getting planets (which are useless until you have star systems to attach them to). But because there’s no downside to having extra stars (at least until you start putting planets on them), the other players had no incentive to discard them, and thus return them to the supply. It made for a frustrating beginning for me. But also, the initial phase is simply building up resources, so getting a boost with the star systems could speed the game up a bit.
Once you get to a point where invasions can take place, that’s where the risky decisions start coming into play. The invader and defender each decide how many ships they want to commit to an attack from their supply, and then there’s a few factors which determine how many dice each player gets to roll. The problem is, if you spend all of your ships on your turn for a successful invasion, you’re a really easy target during the next player’s turn. So there is some amount of bluffing and risk assessment. I really enjoyed this part of it, and I think the three-player game gave us a good taste of the player interaction.
However, I didn’t care for the rule that you can only attack star systems that contain monuments. One player had put a monument on a star system that also contained a material-producing planet with a shipyard. When he lost that, it knocked him down badly. However, my strategy was to simply put all my monuments on small star systems with one single planet by itself. If somebody attacked my monument, that’s all they would get. The rest of my developments were untouchable. I think it would add to the strategy if you could attack other star systems as well: capture somebody’s governments, and they don’t have enough influence to invade. Capture their universities, and they don’t have the science to produce weapons. Next time I play, we might throw in this house rule.
The one other thing I thought could be tweaked was that once you get past the mid-game, Science and Influence become less valuable. Once you’ve built your maximum number of weapons and defenses, you only need one Science point per Monument. Influence you’ll need for invasions (one point per colonized star system you own), but generally by this point you’ve got so much of it that you really don’t need to worry about running out. The only resource you need to watch is the number of rockets you have. This seems to me to be a weakness, because once everyone has weapons and defenses, it becomes a race to build rockets. There’s no alternate strategy, and in the meantime your people, influence, and science just pile up. I’d like to see something that makes the governments and universities useful past the mid-game.
Both of these last two issues might be addressed with the upcoming expansion. I haven’t seen the rules, but the description of “Fate, Politics & Heritage” includes new ways to interact with your opponents, and may add some needed variety to the gameplay.
I know I’ve done a lot of nitpicking with this game, but I see a lot of potential with it too. Perhaps the best testimony is that, in our three-player game, we played for over two hours without getting tired of it. (In fact, it was the folks playing other games that were getting impatient with us and wanted us to wrap things up.) The game needs a little polishing, perhaps, but I liked the theme and the basic mechanics. I really like supporting the effort of new game designers, so I hope Castle Games does well enough to improve on future games. (And speaking of future games, I see that they also have plans to release “The Portable Fantasy Empire” and “Realm: a Portable Role Playing Game.”)
In short, if you’re willing to take a risk on a new game from a new company, PGE is worth a shot. If you want to stick with time-tested games from established companies (or, if a two-hour game seems too long), it’s probably not for you.
Wired: Who wouldn’t want to build their own galactic empire? Small, portable game that packs a pretty big punch.
Tired: A bit pricey for what you get: it would have been nice to have more dice, or markers, or something.
*Castle Games recently stated that they’re working on cheaper shipping options, but you may be able to get a better deal if you can convince your friendly neighborhood games store to order them in for you.