Imperial Stars II follows the rise and fall of intergalactic empires in less than an hour

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Imperial Stars II is kind of a joke name. The first Imperial Stars isn’t a published game, but a prototype that Chris Taylor made some time ago. No, not that Chris Taylor. The other Chris Taylor. The one who made the first Fallout and, more recently, the superlative solitaire boardgame Nemo’s War. Taylor updated the Imperial Stars prototype enough that it was a whole new game deserving of a whole new title, at which point Victory Point Games published it. Imperial Stars II was born.

After the jump, when spreadsheets collide.

This is a two-player wargame of exploration and territory control that plays in less than an hour. Each player starts with a base on his homeworld and a modest fleet. From there, they set out across the map, spending action points to move ships, build reinforcements, establish bases, and found colonies. Each planetary system has a facedown chit for the taking. The first player to get it can cash it in later for some special power. Bases are powerful military installations that build ships and therefore project force out onto the map. Colonies earn action points and score victory points at the end of the game. The game clock is just long enough to ensure players will bump into each other for a handful of fleet engagements.

It’s a simple game, but it’s still very much a hexes-and-chits wargame. The stacking limit is pretty small — only six chits in a hex — but you’re still constantly checking which ships are in which stack, and adding up the numbers to see where your stack will fall on the combat results table, and carefully rotating some chits 90 degrees to represent damaged capital ships. As simple as it is, it’s still the stuff of an old-school wargamer who probably thought Ogre was on par with checkers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Taylor’s recent Astra Titanus, set in the same “universe” as Imperial Stars, is a direct nod to Ogre.

But there are several things that make Imperial Stars II stand out for me. The first is the asymmetry between the two sides. There are no overt differences in the rules. By reading the manual, you would have no idea the sides are different. In fact, if you’re just breezing through the turns, you could theoretically play without noticing. But if you’re paying attention, you’ll spot some discrepancies. For instance, the Marasian Empire, aka the red player, has a faster cruiser than the Northern Union, aka the yellow player. This is actually a significant difference, considering that movement rates aren’t very granular. All ships have a movement of three or four. The scale of the map is such that being able to move a stack four hexes is a meaningful advantage. Also, ships with a movement of four are eligible to interrupt the other player’s movement by intercepting adjacent fleets. So what’s up with the red player getting a faster cruiser?

If you lay out the chits for each side, you’ll see some intriguing differences. The Marasian Empire’s faster cruiser means they have an easier time moving stacks across the map, whereas Northern Union fleets will get bogged down by their slower cruisers. Of course, each side has pokey dreadnoughts that will slow down any fleet. But only the red side gets the mighty battleship, which is far and away the most powerful ship. It’s combat strength is seven compared the dreadnought’s five. It even comes with its own fighter squadron.

But you’ll also notice that yellow’s heavy carriers and escort carriers mean it has an easier time amassing fighters. Even the yellow base comes with a complement of fighters. Which it better, considering it has only half the firepower of a red base. But it also absorbs damage much more efficiently than the red bases.

If you enjoy parsing these sorts of disparate stats, Imperial Stars II has plenty of personality. But if you’re looking for personality in the theming or production values, Imperial Stars II isn’t so forthcoming. The ship artwork is as you could ask from tiny chits, but the names are simply US Navy designations. So you get CA chits (cruisers), CV chits (carriers), CVE chits (escort carriers), DD chits (destroyers), and so on. Again, the stuff of an old-school wargaming that doesn’t exactly evoke star wars. I understand that you can only fit so much text on a chit, but surely there’s a better way to express the sci-fi of it all. Imperial Stars II is a BYOI game: bring your own imagination.

The second thing that makes Imperial Stars II stand out for me is the way you build new ships. You can use your action points to build ships, but you don’t get to pick what ships you build. Instead, you draw from a pool of facedown chits. That awesome red battleship costs the same as a lowly destroyer, but you have to find it first. This adds an element of randomness to each side’s order of battle, and it makes building ships as tense as rolling dice for combat. This also means you’ll have to use a variety of ships, and that you furthermore don’t get to optimize that variety. Does that seem too random? Well, deal with it. Just as die rolls average out over time, so too do your chit draws.

The third thing that makes Imperial Stars II stand out for me is its scavenging model as a catch-up mechanic. As you lose ships — and you’ll lose them pretty quickly — they go into a scavenging box. You can spend from this box for extra action points, to draw from a pool of special powers, or to seed your reinforcement pool with face-up chits so you don’t have to build blindly. There’s still plenty of opportunity for a snowballing victory, but the scavenging box will be a versatile resource for the losing player.

The fourth thing that makes Imperial Stars II stand out for me is combat. The particulars are pretty basic. When ships from both sides end up in the same hex, they have a battle. Total up the strength of all your ships in a stack, note that column on the combat results table, and then roll a pair of six-sided dice to determine how much damage you inflict. The other player assigns that damage as he sees fit, using hardy capital ships to soak up damage or throwaway escorts to protect his valuable capital ships. His attack on your stack happens simultaneously. This represents ships firing their beam weapons at each other.

But battles also have separate phases for fighter combat. The difference is that when your fighters score hits, you get to assign how the damage is distributed to the enemy ships, with the stipulation that every odd point of damage has to be applied to an escort ship rather than a capital ship. This distinction between beam combat and fighter combat adds the perfect amount of tactical detail, lifting Imperial Stars II out of it combat results table. I call dibbs on the red faction with more fighters.

The final thing that makes Imperial Stars II stand out for me is its take on space terrain. Space terrain is tough to get right. In terrestrial games, everyone knows mountains slow you down, forests are good for defenders, and deserts are a terrible place to build a farm. But what are you doing to do with asteroid fields and nebulas? Imperial Stars II is as arbitrary as any space game, with nebulas that help fighter attacks, dust clouds that impede fighter attacks, and asteroid fields that make fighter attacks do more damage. Go figure. I have no idea what’s being modeled here and the rules don’t see fit to explain. But to the game’s credit, these arbitrary rules aren’t just splashed slapdash onto a space map.

Instead, Imperial Stars II comes with four maps, each characterized by a different terrain layout that affects the game flow. One map is wide-open. Your ships will live and die by their own capabilities. Another map has a central cluster of planetary systems nestled in a swirl of dust clouds and nebulas that you’ll have to carefully, and slowly, navigate. One maps has “lanes” formed by asteroid fields. These lanes channel each player to fight for a central planetary system that’s an ideal candidate for base building.

And one map — I’m not sure if it’s my favorite or the one I hate most — has a row of black holes across the middle. To model gravity assists, black holes let you move your ships for free, slingshotting them along adjacent hexes. The drawback is that they can’t stop there. Furthermore, damaged ships will be destroyed if they try to slingshot past a black hole. And since you can’t build bases near black holes, you’re going to have a hard time repairing your damaged ships. Better being along the industrial platform you’d normally use to build bases. And without bases, you’ll have to bring in reinforcements from the rear rather than building them locally. Imperial Stars II plays very differently on this map.

But here is another squandered opportunity for space flavor. The maps are called sector 1, sector 2, sector 3, and sector 4. Would it have killed Chris Taylor, who went to the trouble to call one of the side the “Marasian Empire”, to think up some sort of space names? Here, I’ll throw out a few that he can use in his next game: Orion’s Heel, Dead Sector Gamma, Ganymede Prime, and Singularity Row. It took me less than two minutes to come up with those. He can have them for free.

  • Imperial Stars II

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  • Veteran game designer Chris Taylor has done it again, putting a "Big 4X Game" experience into a small, cleverly-designed package of space exploration and conquest for two players. With multiple maps hosting the asymmetrical forces of the opposing empires, players will discover that there are many paths to dominating their corner of space!