Deck builders have emerged in the last few years to become one of the most popular mechanics in hobby gaming and they come in a variety of guises from the fast paced Dominion (which started it all), to the card drafting of Ascension and the heavy interaction and combo building of Nightfall. Core Worlds is undoubtedly the epic space opera of the genre; like 2001 it’s a long, weighty, grandiloquent experience the end of which sees space and time folding in upon itself in a kaleidoscope of possibilities, every bit as trippy and mentally challenging as the finale of Kubrick’s iconic film.
You play a barbaric spacefaring civilisation gnawing at the edges of a once glorious intergalactic empire, which, like ancient Rome, has begun its slow fall apart. Over the course of the game’s ten rounds you will fly from the outer rim of that empire, through its industrial zone and its leisure worlds, gathering strength as you go, and drawing ever closer to the titular Core Worlds. These zones are each represented by individual decks, from which you reveal a set number of cards each round. Not unlike the central zone of Ascension, the draft will consist of a random allotment of units you can purchase to grow your deck and worlds that you can invade.
The worlds that you capture through the game exponentially increase your energy production allowing you to field ever more powerful ships, whilst the game’s final worlds, the ‘core worlds’, will score based on types of units you’ve drafted (eg: infantry, starfighter, robot), so as well as building your armada you’ll also have to keep track of what you’ve been accumulating. The theme shines through not only in your actions, but in the stunning artwork on the cards (although this is sadly obscured by the rather bland graphic design of the cards). Some of the ship designs bring to mind the iconic look of the corvettes in the classic RTS Homeworld and, seeing the planets laid out in front of you, it’s hard not to think of Mass Effect.
As the game demands you use your limited number of actions as efficiently as possible these factions provide a double edged sword
Players take it in turns to act until they pass or run out of energy or actions. An action can consist of drafting a card to your deck, deploying any number of units from your hand to your warzone, or sending units from said warzone to attack planets. Keeping an eye on your opponent’s warzones in order to check whether they might be able to attack the planet you have your eye on before you is essential, but is the limit of the game’s interaction. Your main rival in the game is not so much the other players but your deck, which you must mould and tease into the most efficient engine of destruction you can. And just like an expanding empire it can slow down under its weight of bureaucracy, meaning it’s essential to cull weak starting units by garrisoning them on captured planets or to save your strength in your warzone for just the right moment. Timing is everything in this game. You can, for instance, use a powerful ship in an attack just before you reshuffle, increasing the chance that you can get it back into your hand (and into the fight) as soon as possible.
Where Core Worlds really comes into its own, though, is when it’s played in conjunction with its expansion: Galactic Orders. I would go so far as to say this should not be thought of as an expansion at all, but as an intrinsic part of the game, and I find it sad that it is not sold all within the same box. You might see this as a cynical way for the publisher to cash in by holding back a core aspect of the game play (Javik’s DLC in Mass Effect 3 springs to mind), but Stronghold games are an honest company and I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. The story goes that designer Andrew Park had an idea for an expansion at the last minute and asked the publisher to add symbols to the cards in preparation. These six symbols represent different factions which the player will curry favour with throughout the game.
At any point favour tokens that have been added to the factions, through playing aligned cards, can be spent for a powerful effect, from gaining an extra action to reducing the cost to deploy a unit. These effects allow players a lot more control over their decks and more flexibility when taking actions. The drawback to spending these tokens is that they are worth precious points at the end of the game. As the game demands you use your limited number of actions as efficiently as possible these factions provide a double edged sword; giving you wiggle room to make the plays you want to, whilst giving you just enough rope to hang yourself. In addition several of the cards added by the expansion interact with the factions in interesting ways, such as the Trinidad, which gains extra strength for each token on the Merchant Alliance.
The final two turns of Core Worlds demonstrate why this should be considered the meatiest of all the deck builders, as you perform the mental arithmetic necessary to figure out if you can squeeze out enough fleet and ground strength to take a third or even a fourth Core World. This is not a deck builder for the casual gamer or those new to the party, but for those who have graduated from the likes of Dominion and Thunderstone, Core Worlds is a deeply satisfying experience.
Smart, deep game play with lots of longevity
Stunning and evocative artwork
Has one of the best expansions ever made
Long play times, particularly with over three players
Little player interaction
Steep learning curve
Designer: Andrew Parks
Publisher: Stronghold Games
Mechanic: Deck building
Number of Players: 2-5 (Best with 3)
Length of Game: 60-150mins (30-45 mins per player)