Constellation is the premiere offering from Paper Dragon Games. Their mission statement is to bring good quality board game style adaptations to the PC. It would seem that they have succeeded nicely here. The game is a short turn based strategy affair that is instantly playable, addictive and fun. Although a round can be completed in less than a minute (and nearly always less than five minutes), I have found myself playing for well over an hour in a sitting.
In essence, the game is a territorial battle of control that sees each player, in turn, repeatedly choose one planet from the galaxy map on which to build a base. The base exerts control over the planet that it has been built on, as well as any other adjacent planets that are connected to it. Any planets where the player can exert more influence over than opponents is said to be owned by that player. At the end of the game (usually called when all planets are owned) the player with the most owned planets is declared the winner, and a new game starts afresh on a randomly generated map.
There are three sizes of planets in any galaxy, the smallest of which can only support a level one base. But on the medium and large planets respectively, level two and level three bases may be added. This is done by simply selecting a planet that already contains a base instead of an uninhabited planet on the player’s turn. These larger bases are capable of exerting extra control over adjacent planets. A lot of the strategic choice in the game stems from the player weighing up establishing a base on a larger but less well positioned planet, to colonising the smaller, but perhaps very well connected planets.
The core game rule set, as described above and as playable in the demo, makes for a reasonably entertaining game, but certainly nothing stellar. But once the game is registered (for a very reasonable $6) additional optional settings make the game much more fun. Firstly, special planet types are unlocked. Earth style planets are level two planets in size, but because of their inherent conduciveness to life, a base built on then is immediately a level two entity. This makes establishing bases next to them fraught with peril. All gas giant planets in the galaxy are connected in a mysterious and unexplained manner, which sees a base built on one to exert control (equal to the size of the base) on all other gas giants in the system. Very useful to bust apart an opponents empire from within! Finally there are small resource-rich planets that resemble the Earth’s moon scattered around. Even though they are only small planets and therefore can only sustain a level one base, they can project their influence through to any planet up to two connections away.
The flow of the game certainly does strongly favour the players who get to place bases first. The galaxies are only quite small, and having first pick means that your opponents can be on the back foot right from the start, depending on the map. The other feature that is unlocked once the game is registered is a handicapping system. Once enabled, the system places restrictions on the first turn only. Player one may only choose a small planet, player two may only take a medium or small planet, player three can take any size, and player four may take any planet including one with a special designation, if desired. This definitely levels out the playing field, and comes highly recommended.
Up to four players can play at one PC, and computer AI players can take any slot if required. I would consider myself reasonably competent at this style of game, but even though I can beat the AI on medium difficulty nearly always, the AI on hard level still takes on average seven games out of ten in a four player match against me.
The game runs in a fixed resolution window on the desktop, and there are no options to configure sounds or graphics at all. Music and sound is fairly basic and repetitive; there is a claxon style warning that serves to alert the player to a base in danger of being overrun by opponents, and some explosion noise if a base is captured. Player colours don’t seem to be configurable either, but at least the four colours chosen do contrast very well with each other and keep the focus on the gameplay rather than trying to decipher which player owns what.
There’s a tutorial that steps new players through the basic rules, which is a nice touch since the game ships with no documentation at all. I also made use of the mouse-over tooltip that appears on any planet. It shows the current level of influence exerted by all players on that planet and could help those that are unfamiliar with the advanced concepts, like special planets, and assist in planning base positions.
Constellation is a snappy and fast paced strategy game that doesn’t frustrate the player because not a great deal of time is required to play a few games. A ten game series versus three AI opponents can be completed in as little as fifteen minutes. I’d like to test the option to play on much bigger maps, but I do wonder whether such an option and the associated slower pace might make the game less endearing to me. The only real complaint that I can make against the game design is that the demo is an awful representation of the full game. Perhaps a time limited (BOO! … yes, I know) version of the full game might be a better choice? In any case, Constellation is well worthy of your six bucks.
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