Mindclash are best known for their ultra heavyweight mostly big box euro games so Astra marks a departure for them, represented too by a new ‘Mindclash Play’ imprint, suggesting that Astra is only the first of a new series of more accessible Mindclash titles.
Designed by Patrik Porkoláb, Frigyes Schoberl and Eszter Krisztina Sas, and with art by Csilla Fekete, Astra is a ‘roll & write’-style game, albeit without the rolling. The 3–5 players each have a coloured dry-wipe marker pen and a starting pouch of eight stardust crystals. Astra is themed around stellar constellations and these are represented by tarot-size dry-wipe cards. The constellation cards each show a number of stars. On your turn, you can spend ‘stardust’ crystals to take an ‘observation’ action. That means you fill in stars on any of the not-yet-completed constellations in the display. It costs one stardust to fill in one star and any subsequent stars have to connect with the star you previously filled in. Most of the constellations are designed so that you cannot completely fill them in a single turn.
When you have a Telescope token, you can spend it to take a second observation action; this can be used to help you complete a constellation or work on a second constellation, tho’ you always have to have the requisite stardust to pay for each star you fill in. Some of the stars let you advance on the ‘wisdom’ track on your individual board. This increases the number of constellation cards you can collect from the starting default maximum of three.
When a constellation is completed it is considered to be ‘discovered’. That means it is won by the player who fills in the last star, regardless of who contributed the most stars. When you win a constellation it earns you victory points plus whatever special ability is set out in the text on the card. Once activated for its special ability, a card is exhausted and the ability cannot be used again until it is unexhausted. When you 'discover' a constellation, other players who contributed to it get to choose a ‘boon’ of a Telescope token, wisdom advancement, stardust, increased pouch size (the amount of stardust you’ll collect when you ‘rest’), victory points or the reactivation of an exhausted constellation card.
You’ll find you’ll almost inevitably run low on stardust, in which case you’ll need to take a ‘rest’ action instead of your ‘observation’ action. You’re in effect passing on your turn but you replenish your stardust up to the amount indicated on your pouch and if you’ve any constellation cards that match the fire/water/air/earth symbol on the roundel tracker, you get to unexhaust them. Canny players then will always try to time their rests to coincide with the roundel position that will give them the most advantageous constellation card reactivations.
Astra is simple to learn with crystal-clear iconography and rules that are almost entirely intuitive. We’ve described it as for 3–5 players because it really shines at higher player counts but there are rules to facilitate play with just two. Tho’ Astra is easy to play, there’s subtlety in the jostle for ‘discovering’ constellations. Because the boons can prove to be very valuable, it’s always worth taking a stake in as many constellations as possible – doubly so if you can also nab a ‘grand star’ that nets you an advance on your wisdom track. There are key judgement calls to be made over which constellations to try to win. The special abilities are what powers the game, and one of the most fascinating aspects of Astra is the way the dynamics change as players increasingly make use of their constellation abilities, trying too to time their ‘rest’ actions so they get to get further uses out of the abilities.
Astra is a great game. Tho’ it’s very accessible, so playable even as a family game, there’s more than enough depth to keep even hardened gamers coming back for more. It's another strong contender for 'game of the year': a potential new star in the board game firmament!
(Review by Selwyn Ward)
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