Posted by: gschloesser | August 2, 2011

Galaxy: Dark Ages

Design by:  Reiner Knizia and Don Greenwood
Published by:  Avalon Hill
2 – 5 Players, 1 – 1 1/2 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

(Editor’s Note:  This review also appears in Counter Magazine # 11)

Galaxy: The Dark Ages is the much anticipated sequel to Titan: The Arena, that immensely popular game designed by Reiner Knizia and released by Avalon Hill.  Sadly, the game is no longer available and is much sought after on various internet forums.

Before Avalon Hill was devoured by Hasbro, they were in the process of developing a sequel to the T:TA, to be known as Galaxy: The Arena. Fortunately, GMT managed to gain the rights to this title and enlisted the aid of the game’s developer, Don Greenwood, as well as Reiner Knizia himself, to see the game to completion.

After a long wait, the game has finally been released. The components and quality of the rulebook does not disappoint.  T:TA has been nearly universally bashed for the incredibly poor rule book, which required a PhD … or mind-bending perseverance … to comprehend.  Fortunately, GMT has done a far superior job with the rulebook.  Sure, there are some ambiguities, but no where near the omissions, contradictions and confusing explanations offered in the original T:TA rules.

G: DA  plays VERY similarly to it’s predecessor. In fact, it is essentially the same game with a few ‘bells and whistles’ thrown in. The main differences in this new version are the addition of special powers for the lower valued cards (1 – 4) which can be invoked when played, and the ability to combat opposing cards if you meet certain conditions when you play a card. Other than that, the two games are essentially identical.

For those unfamiliar with T:TA, I’ll give a brief explanation. In Galaxy, there are eight worlds up for control. Players struggle for control of these worlds by playing various spaceships (cards) onto these worlds. Cards come in values of 0 – 10, one set for each world, as well as some ‘rogue’ ally ships (wild cards) which can be played upon any world.  I do like the addition of these ‘ally’ cards, as it does add some much-needed flexibility and options to the game system.

In addition to playing cards, players can also play one of their five ‘bases’ (poker chips) to the worlds, thereby exerting influence on that world. These bases can only be played on the current row which is under contention, however, and only onto a world where a base has not yet been played that round. The earlier a base is played, the more influence it exerts. For instance, if someone plays a base on a world in the first round, it is worth four points. If another base is played on that world in the next round, it is only worth three points. Thus, the temptation is to get your bases down early, but by waiting till later rounds, you will have a better idea of which worlds will survive. Bases on worlds which are eliminated are worthless.

A player who has the most influence on a world is named the Governor. That player gets to exercise that world’s special power each time he plays a card to that world. These powers are similar to those in T:TA and can be quite useful.   Some of the powers include:

  • Felowi – May reclaim one visible card from the Felowi column for your hand.
  • Myrmidon – May randomly draw half the hand of one player and place them in the victim’s reserve pile.
  • Imperial – Gain one automatic combat opportunity when you play a fleet ship.
  • Divergence – May play a second ship in this turn after the first ship’s power is used or forfeited.

A player may also place a ‘hidden’ base. This is done in lieu of playing a ship to a world  by playing a card face-down and placing a base on it. If this world survives to the end of the game, this base is worth five points.  A player has the option of revealing his secret base during the course of the game and retrieving the card back into his hand.  The base is then placed at the top rung of the appropriate world and will be worth five points at game’s end.

Finally, there are several ‘Technology’ cards which, when played, give the player a special power which usually remains in effect for the remainder of that round. These powers include such abilities as being able to retrieve a previously laid card, adding modifiers to a combat roll, drawing three extra cards, etc. Of course, since there are so few of these cards, it is quite possible one player could get lucky and be the beneficiary of several of these powers.  There is one Technology card which allows a player to immediately draw three cards into his hand, thereby vastly increasing his hand size.  This power is WAY too powerful as it gives that one player SO many more play options on his turn.  As the game winds to a conclusion, this added hand capacity is of overwhelming benefit to that player.  I am not fond of this card at all.

A round consists of players playing cards to the various worlds and placing bases. Previously laid cards in the current round can be covered by another card. Thus, the strength value of a ship played to a world can change during the course of a round as a new card is laid atop it.

A round ends when all worlds have a card played to it. Players examine the values of the ships played to the worlds and the world which has the lowest valued ship that round is eliminated. That entire column is removed, including any bases played to that world. A new round then begins, with cards being played one row lower than the previous round.

This entire process continues until there are only three worlds remaining, at which time the game ends. Players then tally the value of their bases played to the surviving worlds, as well as their secret base, if it has survived. The player with the greatest total of influence (bases) is victorious.

Yes, this system is identical to T:TA. As mentioned, however, Galaxy adds a  number of twists:

1) Ships (cards) valued at 1 – 5 have special powers. When a player plays one of these cards to a world, he may, if he desires, invoke this power. Powers include:

  • Moving a base in that column up or down a row (either yours or an opponent’s base), thereby increasing or decreasing its value;
  • Stealing a card from an opponent, forcing a player to set aside a card, etc. These set-aside cards can only be retrieved if a player foregoes the drawing of a card at the end of his turn.  Thus, he will be forced to play ‘short-handed’ for the remainder of the game.  This is particularly nasty

As mentioned, these special powers are only conveyed to the lower valued ship cards.  This gives these low valued cards an increased value in this game.

2) Combat. If a player plays a fleet card (valued at 6 – 10)  to a world and meets certain conditions, he may attempt to combat another ship in that row. These are the conditions, any one of which allows a combat opportunity:

a) Play a card which matches the value of another card or cards played in that round. For each card matched, the player has a combat opportunity.

b) Play a card over a previously laid card on a world.

c) Play a card to the Imperial world IF you are the Governor of that world.

Combat is a simple matter. The player targets another ship in that same row. Each player (the world’s Governor rolls for the defending ship) rolls two dice and adds the value of the ship. If the attacker has a higher total, the defending ship is eliminated and removed from the game. If the defender ties or rolls higher, he MAY counter-attack, in which case he becomes the attacker and the process is repeated. If he fails in the counter-attack, no cards are removed and the combat procedure ceases. Thus, a counter attack poses no risk whatsoever to the player executing the counter attack.

3) Players may only discard one card per turn of worlds which have been previously eliminated. I’m not quite sure I understand the logic behind this rule, as it makes it much more difficult for a player to get rid of ‘dead’ cards and refill his hand.   It also results in players having a handful of ‘dead’ cards in their possession in the later stages of the game.  Blech!

That’s it. Those who weren’t able to get their hands on a copy of T:TA should be thrilled that the game (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) is now available once again. Those who already own T:TA may not be as thrilled. The two games are so similar it is really difficult to justify purchasing both and keeping both on the gaming shelf. I really didn’t get any greater sense of satisfaction out of Galaxy than I get out of T:TA. In fact, the game really adds several mechanisms and features that, in the end, really aren’t necessary.  Joey Konyha, one of my fellow Westbank Gamers who is a HUGE fan of T:TA,   summed it up best: ” It’s Titan: The Arena with some extra stuff thrown in … and that extra stuff isn’t necessary.”  After repeated playings, I must agree with his assessment. One problem with the new version is that this ‘extra stuff’ does make it more difficult for ‘newbies’ to understand the game and get a grip on its various strategies.   T:TA was difficult enough for ‘newbies’ to grasp.  All of the extra features crammed into Galaxy just makes that task much tougher.

The combat system, although not without its merits and strategic possibilities, can … and often does … add considerable length to the game.  Several of my games have approached two hours in length, which is simply WAY too long for a game of this magnitude.  What happens is that ships (cards) are continuously attacked and eliminated, thereby requiring more cards to be played before a round will end.  So, rounds are prolonged, adding unneeded (and undesired) length to the game.

Perhaps my main objection is that all of these ‘bells and whistles’ which have been added does result in a significant loss of control for the players.  Let’s examine some of these:

  • In T:TA, once a base was placed, it remained in that position for the remainder of the game … or until that creature was eliminated.  Not so in G:DA.  Bases can be attacked via combat, or moved up or down via the use of ship cards or via the Spoils of Victory, which is awarded to the Governor with the highest visible ship card at the conclusion of a round.
  • In T:TA, cards played could not be eliminated, only covered by an opponent’s play.  Not so in G:DA.  Cards can still be covered, but can also be attacked and eliminated.  The opportunities for attack are very frequent, so cards played are rarely secure.
  • In T:TA, one’s hand of cards was relatively safe from ‘attacks’ by opponents.  Only one creature (the Cyclops) had the ability to assault an opponent’s hand and only the controller of that creature could exercise that power … and ONLY when he played a card to that creature.  Further, the loss of cards was temporary.  In G:DA, in addition to the Myrmidon power which is similar (but more harmful) to that of the Cyclops in T:TA, numerous ship cards allow the invasion of a player’s hands, either stealing cards or forcing the player to set aside cards into a reserve pile.  One or two such attacks on a player can truly devastate him, severely restricting his play options as the game progresses.

With discussions with one of the game’s developers, I’ve come to understand just why these changes were made.  GMT has a tradition as a “war game” company.  The bulk of their customers are traditional war gamers.  In order to make the game more appealing to their main customer base, it was felt that more combat and ‘attack’ features were needed.  Perhaps this is a wise business decision, but, in my eyes, the game just doesn’t measure up to Titan: The Arena.  Although I’m happy to see the game given new life, even in this altered format, like most motion pictures, I still much prefer the original to the sequel.


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