08 August 2018
A thrilling but flawed crescendo to a distinguished deckbuilding trilogy
The final instalment in a series of deckbuilding wargames by designer Martin Wallace, A Handful of Stars caps off a trilogy that includes the historical A Few Acres of Snow and fantasy-themed Mythotopia. This latest release takes the series to a new and grander scale, casting players as the leaders of alien civilisations vying to colonise worlds and brutalise their opponents in savage space battles.
That premise is par-for-the-course for science-fiction empire-builders, and it’s not the only similarity the game shares with others in the genre. You’ll play as one of a selection of factions, each with its own strengths. But while this is all well-trodden ground for space games, the real appeal of A Handful of Stars is its deckbuilding mechanical core.
You’ll start the game with a deck of cards representing different resources, which you’ll spend to build spacecraft, dispatch them to distant worlds or colonise new planets. As you play you’ll add new cards to your deck, gaining one for each new world you conquer.
Expansionism has drawbacks, though. Some of the cards you’ll gain by colonising planets aren’t particularly useful, serving only to clog up your deck and stop you drawing more powerful or versatile ones. It seems counterintuitive – surely claiming new territory is always good? – but it actually fits nicely into the game’s theme. Like the Roman Empire, a faction that swells its borders can become bloated and tricky to rule. As an added bonus, it also makes it hard for one player to break out as a runaway leader.
There’s plenty more to like about A Handful of Stars: the way its scattered black holes block routes between worlds, forcing players into one another’s paths; the ongoing analysis of threats, watching where your opponents are shoring up their defences or building strong fleets; the simple but tense card-based combat system that ensures even the strongest attacks are never free of risk; and the array of strategies offered by technology cards, which can fundamentally transform your tactics. (In one game I managed to turn the Culturemoogs, a race of muesli-eating spacefaring arts graduates, into unstoppable combat monsters.)
In some respects, though, the game falls short. With three or four players, there’s plenty of scope for conflict, with opponents forming temporary alliances, ganging up on one another and stabbing each other in the back. With two, this political, psychological layer evaporates, and it can lead to a Cold War scenario, with two superpowers locked in a stalemate that runs out of interesting decisions about two-thirds of the way through the game.
Then there’s the production quality. While there’s some wonderfully evocative artwork, other aspects of the game’s presentation are decidedly lacklustre. In particular, the tokens representing your ships and star bases have a disappointingly generic clipart look.
Mechanically and strategically, though, there’s a lot here to chew on. Encouragingly, Wallace has licensed his deckbuilding system to Fantasy Flight, known for its high production values. Can we hope for a future version set in the Star Wars or Twilight Imperium universes? If so, let’s hope it’s packed with gorgeous plastic spaceships.
It comes with some disappointing cardboard components, and it loses some of its shine in two-player games, but with three or more players A Handful of Stars is a great strategic challenge – a fitting conclusion to Wallace’s deckbuilding trilogy.
Designer: Martin Wallace
Artist: Odysseas Stamoglou
Time: 90-120 minutes
This review originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.