Many hardened gamers reserve a special spot in their hearts for epic 4X space games. Twilight Imperium (FFG) is firmly established in the BoardGameGeek all-time Top Ten, and its 4th Edition revision has helped it to resist the challenge from the similarly very popular Eclipse (Lautapelit). Both have become modern classics where players represent various spacefaring races, as they eXplore space, eXpand their civilisation, eXploit planetary resources and ultimately eXterminate the competition. They both provide highly memorable play experiences but tho' their epic scale is among their strengths, it is also a bar to many players: they are both very long games. At higher player counts, Eclipse could well run to four hours, and you might need to allow twice that for a full game of Twilight Imperium. Is it possible to distill the eXperience of a great 4X space game into a more manageable package? That seems to be the inspiration for Channing Jones' design of Galactic Era, published by Seajay Games, with art by Diego Sanchez.
Galactic Era is played using a modular board made up of ultra-large double-sided interlocking tiles, and the layout for these can be varied for different player counts. There's often a problem with modular board layouts because they can sometimes result in one player benefiting from a particularly fortuitous starting position - more remote from rival players, for example. The design for Galactic Era solves this problem by positioning wormholes at the extremities of the tiles so that they are in effect connected at their remote edges. It's almost like playing on a board that's folded around on itself and it has the effect of keeping locations accessible.
The game comes with 17 different races to choose between. They each have their own special characteristics but they aren't as different from each other as their equivalents in other 4X space games. The key feature in Galactic Era, however, is that you can choose their alignment. Play with your character card on its STO (Service To Others) side and you'll mostly be playing peaceably with others. Switch to STS (Service To Self) and you can play much more aggressively. This Star Wars-style light and dark side doesn't just impact on your relationship with other players... When you eXplore planets you will find some are already inhabited and if you encounter a primitive civilisation when in STO mode, you're obliged to leave it untouched, much like the Prime Directive in Star Trek. If you're in STS mode, however, you can just enslave the population and subjugate them to your control. Switching between allegiances counts as one of your two actions which you can take after players have completed their ship movement.
You can move your ships individually (the distance they can move depends on how far you've advanced on the relevant research track) but you'll almost always want to move them as one of five fleets. Moving as a fleet means using tokens to represent your ships, allows you to slip in dummy tokens and is likely to leave opponents uncertain of exactly how many ships you have in position. Fleets also benefit from an additional ability, depending on your choice of Fleet token. Early on in the game we tended to find it most advantageous to use the Fleet designation that increased our range but later in the game, as players increasingly come into conflict with each other, it was usually better to go for Fleet designations that gave combat advantage. Your ships can share spaces on the board with those of other players with whom you are at peace; indeed, you need to share a space if you want to trade with them (ie: benefit from each other's progress on the technology tracks). Where players are at war with each other, however, there will be combat whenever enemy ships are in the same space.
Once all players have completed their ship movement and any combat, they each select tokens so that the two actions they take on their turn are revealed simultaneously. Turn order can be important in Galactic Era, and one of the actions you can take is to vary turn order, but you'll find the simultaneous reveal central to strategy and to the tension of the game as players bluff and try to second guess when, for example, a rival is switching alignment as a prelude to turning on one or more of the other players... It's in this action selection phase that you'll have options for eXpanding your space empire, growing your population and researching new technology to increase your capabilities. Prior to your choice of actions, there's scope for some negotiation and banter but don't expect a space version of Diplomacy (Gibsons/Avalon Hill).
The available techs are the same for all players - tho' some races start with a leg up on one of the tracks - and they help to give each game a clear arc as players' capabilities step up over the course of the game. Pretty much all the tech is highly desirable and you won't be able to advance across all five areas of technology in the course of each game, so you have some difficult choices to make over which very desirable tech to concentrate on. In our plays at Board's Eye View we found that we gravitated towards Propulsion (increasing the range of our ships and unlocking Stargate teleportation) early on in the game, along with Spirituality, which allows for remote scanning of face-down as yet unexplored tokens. In the end-game, maxed-out Spirituality offers insurance against enemy bombing runs because population discs 'ascend' when killed instead of being returned to your player board where they will reduce your end-game score.
We were often looking over our shoulders at what rivals were researching, and when a player focused on Military tech (increasing the combat value of ships) or Robotics (increasing ship production), it provoked the start of an arms race. It's Population that's key to racking up big end-game scores, and that's where the Genetics track comes in, but you can't just grow a planet's population at whim - population size is limited by the proximity of other inhabited (ie: eXploited) planets, regardless of who owns them. This forms another key dynamic in the game.
Each game of Galactic Era is structured around one of four 'galactic stories' that incentivise particular alignments and actions across each of the three 'Eras' of the game. In addition, each game will have one of eight 'galactic goals' which have the effect of incentivising certain playing styles. Players will also have their own secret scoring objectives through Domination cards. The core rules are relatively straightforward but the various special abilities, including those unlocked through the tech tracks, mean that quite a few conditional rules and exceptions get triggered as the game progresses, so there's an increasing amount of minutia to keep abreast of as the game arc develops.
Galactic Era is highly interactive. For that reason we found it was at its best at higher player counts. The game includes tho' modified rules to facilitate two-player games and even solitaire play. Does it succeed in distilling the epic flavour of its illustrious predecessors? Yes, and it achieves it delivering a memorable playing experience within a comfortable three hour playing time, even at the higher player counts.