Core Worlds will get tabbed as Stronghold Games’ entry into the deck-building genre, although it also involves tableau building and other resource management. Core Worlds has a science fiction theme (as you could perhaps tell from the spaceship on the front of the box), with each player taking the role of a barbarian empire slowing picking its way to the center of a falling galactic empire, conquering planets and recruiting forces along the way. The game progresses on a 10-turn clock, with increasing resources available to the players as they try to balance energy versus actions and expanding their ability to play more cards vs. actually having better cards to play. Core Worlds retails for about $45.
What’s In The Box?
Core Worlds comes with five starting decks of 16 cards each (plus five each of starting homeworlds, player boards, actions markers, and energy markers), and another 120 cards that might get added into your deck or tableau at some point. There are also 5 sector cards, a round marker to keep track of the turn, a destiny marker to keep track of who went first that turn, and 15 energy and energy surge tokens. Note that Core Worlds has no dividers to help keep your cards neat, although you need to divide the cards up into specific stacks for every game. You’ll have to bag them, or else just have everything mix together in the box.
Each player in Core Worlds starts with a static deck and one planet in their tableau (called a Warzone). Each player must manage four resources – actions, energy, fleet strength, and ground strength. You have to use an action and some amount of energy to do pretty much anything – play a card, draft a card, or invade a planet. Fleet strength and ground strength is used to conquer planets and add them to your tableau. Drafted cards go in your deck to make it better; conquered worlds generate more energy so that you can actually play those better cards. Whoever has the most Empire Points, which are primarily generated by worlds, wins.
Every card in Core Worlds has a sector number (or goes in your starting deck). The game spends two turns in each of the five sectors (ending after 10 turns), and cards tend to get more expensive and more powerful as the sector number increases.
Cards in your deck come in three flavors – units and tactics. Units are the bread and butter of the deck, generating fleet and ground strength to invade planets. Each unit as a draft cost (unless it starts in your deck), a deploy cost, a fleet strength (which may be zero), a ground strength (which may be zero), and probably some rules text (such as a cost reduction under certain circumstances, or the ability to spend energy to increase strength). Units are deployed face up into your Warzone, and can later be used to invade planets. Units tend to be focused on either ground strength (infantry, vehicles, robots) or fleet strength (starfighters, star cruisers, capital ships), although some are both. There are also a handful of specialized units called Heroes.
Tactic cards, unlike units, are simply played instead of deployed. They have an energy cost to draft, and an energy cost to play. Tactics are basically played in one of three ways, depending on the card. Some can be played during an invasion, in which case they just cost energy, and generally boost strength. Others are played as an action, in which case they cost energy and (duh) an action. Finally, there are the Energy Surge cards (which are starting deck only cards) that you can discard at the start of your turn to have more energy to spend that turn. They are not to be confused with Energy Surge tokens, which although they have the same name, are a completely different mechanic that is used to balance out the inherent advantage of going first.
Worlds, unlike units and tactics, are not drafted and are not placed in your deck. Instead, each world requires a certain amount of fleet and/or ground strength to conquer. You conquer the planet, and it goes into your tableau, where it generates energy every turn and is also worth victory points. Some planets also have additional benefits for controlling them (such as the ability to cycle cards at the start of your turn).
Each player starts with one world and a 16-card deck. The decks are identical, except for a Hero and a number from 1-5 on the homeworld, which defines who goes first on the first turn. More than half of the deck are Snub Fighters (1 deploy cost and 1 fleet strength) and Galactic Grunts (1 deploy cost and 1 ground strength). The rest are Energy Surges, a couple of combat tactics, and a Medbot (who can let you keep units in play after an invasion). There is also an optional pregame draft, in which players can replace one of their junk starting units with one of the 12 “Sector 0” cards (I’d recommend using this optional rule ASAP, probably starting with your second game).
At the start of the turn, players draw up to a fixed hand size based on the sector the game is in (6 for most of the game, but it gets higher later), marks off a specified number of actions based on the sector you’re in, and generates energy. Energy is generated by the worlds in your tableau, with each player’s starting planet generating 3. Energy Surge tactics are also played now, generating an additional 1 energy by default, or 2 if anyone else is ahead of you in energy generation.
The cards available to be drafted are then dealt out to the Central Zone from the appropriate sector deck. The Central Zone will be filled up with at least 2X + 2 cards, where X is the number of players (the rulebook just tells you how many cards, of course). There must be at least X world cards and at least X non-world cards (you keep dealing until you get there, if you don’t hit the required number during the initial deal). If it is the first turn, then the starting Central Zone will have been empty. On later turns, there will be some number of cards hanging around. Before new cards are dealt, each returning card that has an energy token on it is discarded, and what’s left gets an energy token – so Central Zone cards will only be available for two turns, and there’s an added bonus for grabbing a card that didn’t get snatched on the prior turn.
The Action Phase is the heart of the game. The players take turns taking actions, until everyone has passed. Going first can be a big advantage, because it gives a player first crack at juicy targets (the fact that some players will go first more than others is why there are Energy Surge tokens to balance things out). In addition to playing select tactics cards, players can take one of three actions:
– Draft a Card: Pay 1 action and pay the draft cost of a unit or tactic. The drafted card goes into the discard pile.
– Deploy Units: Units cost 1 action to deploy per unit (multiple units can be deployed at once, they just chew up multiple allotted actions) and whatever the deploy cost listed on the card is.
– Invade: For 1 action and 1 energy, a player can attack one of the planets in the Central Zone. The player selects however many units as desired to invade the planet, and may play select tactics. If the total ground and fleet strength exceed the requirements on the planet, then it is conquered and added to the player’s tableau. The player may “colonize” the world by placing a Galactic Grunts or Snub Fighter under the world, thus thinning the deck. Other units that were used in the invasion go into the discard pile. They must be re-deployed before they can invade again.
After all players are done with the Action Phase, they discard their remaining energy and hand (each player may keep one card for the next turn). The first player marker passes to the left.
Ending the Game
The game ends after turn 10 (sector 5), and winning is based on victory points. They primary method of getting VP is the worlds in your tableau, and the biggest chunks are the Core Worlds, which only appear in sector 5. Most of the Core Worlds are worth variable VP, based on the composition of your deck, with most working out to around 8VP if you didn’t add cards of that sort. Sector 5 also features Prestige cards, which are cards that can be drafted and are worth 1-3 VP (they go straight into your tableau, unlike other cards that are drafted). Luxury Worlds from sector 4 can also be worth solid VP. In addition to worlds and prestige cards, some capital ships are worth VP – usually a small amount, but there’s one that can be worth 9VP!
Core Worlds is, in my opinion, another strike against those who have written off the deck-building “genre,” and emphasizes again that deck-building (or dice-building, chip-building, etc.) is just a mechanic, not really a genre on its own. It sits somewhere in between Race for the Galaxy (a game that, itself, sometimes gets retroactively labeled a deck-building game, even though it doesn’t involve building a deck) and Thunderstone. Like Thunderstone, you have to choose between improving your deck or gaining VP. Like RFTG, you create a tableau, and also get to see a variety of new cards from a common deck as the game progresses.
Core Worlds has more inherent tactical depth than a “typical” deck-building game. Players must manage their resources carefully each turn, trying not to waste actions or energy, and relying on educated guesses about what they may need on the following turn to invade worlds. Players must also balance their development in the long-term. Primarily this means judging when to snag a planet versus when to draft a unit, but also whether and if to focus on certain kinds of drafted cards in order to aim for big VP from a particular Core World in sector 5 (or to take advantage of individual cards that synergize well together). Players also have to carefully consider the resources that other players have available – each card in the Central Zone is a unique resource, and players can and will cut each other off from those resources. Early game, this means judging whether to draft a great unit (which may mean not being able to invade), or deploying units first (to ensure first crack at invading the best available world). Late game, this can mean paying enough attention to opponents’ decks to known which Core Worlds they have the best shot at taking out or getting the most out of – and then snatching one of those Core Worlds first.
To toss in a little more “there is no such thing as a deck-building genre” rant (even though Core Worlds has already been frequently described as “more than a deck-building game”), let me note that these problems are classic resource management ones – how do you balance your resources now, how do you develop your resources in a way to maximize your chances in later turns, and how can you prevent your opponents from getting resources. Really, although the shuffling of cards means that there’s more randomness than a traditional eurogame permits, Core Worlds could be labeled as a thematic eurogame, if one so chose. But, back to the game . . .
To me, at least, the most defining aspect of Core Worlds is the 10-turn clock, around which everything in the game revolves – how many cards you get, how many actions, and how good the cards are. There is no slow build-up at your own pace – the game is going to advance whether you are caught up or not. This clock drives all of your plans, and drives the pace at which your resource access expands, taking the place of a more organic development that has most often been seen in other games that use the deck-building mechanic. If you’re used to the way that other deck-building games have really explosive endings, when your deck has finally built up to its combo-tastic peak, the pacing of Core Worlds may require a little adjustment – you may find yourself always feeling like you could have just justacouplemoreturns of build-up.
More ways to get rid of your junk cards might help but, alas, colonizing is really the only way to do it (and can’t get rid of the less-than-amazing starting Tactics). Since the game is relatively quick in number of turns, your deck doesn’t inflate the early filler away either.
In sum, Core Worlds demonstrates another way that the deck-building mechanic can be incorporated with other longstanding game mechanics to make an interesting final product. Although not a heavy strategy game by any stretch, Core Worlds may be much more interesting for the strategy-minded gamer than something like Dominion.The deck-building mechanic is still in its infancy, and most of the games that make use of it are pretty straightforward – I know what the right plays are after a game or two, if that. Core Worlds definitely did not fall into that category.