StelCon: Infinity – Boardgame Review
Passed Inspection: Well-designed, sturdy maps and pieces; innovative game design; high replay value.
Failed Basic: Somewhat uneven play; too card-driven; low solitaire play.
StelCon: Infinity is a great-looking, highly innovative, if somewhat uneven, light strategy space game. Published by Conquest Gaming, the makers of the award-winning Warlords of Europe (click to read Armchair General‘s review), StelCon is game designer Russ Rupe’s attempt to do a board version of that Personal Computer wargaming staple; the 4X space game. 4X means: eXplore the environment; eXpand control; eXploit the resources; and eXterminate opponents. PC classics in the genre include Reach for the Stars and Sins of a Solar Empire.
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Right out of the box the player can see that StelCon is something new and different. First, there is no standard map; instead there are six map boards about the size of a restaurant place mat (10 X 14 inches). Each player gets a map board, which means the size and shape of the play area changes based on the number of players. The map boards are solid, colorful and easily readable. Next the player notices that the game pieces are not flat counters, but rather are nicely thick, three-dimensional cardboard ships with slots so they may be modified during the game. The modifications (mods) to the ships include increased firepower, greater range, better scouting ability and so on. The ships can be played vertically or horizontally, are color coded according to game faction and have a great solid feel. Besides the maps and the 240 different ship pieces there are six “star docks” (6×10 by inches) sheets. The star docks are the player’s primary means of managing ships and their economy. Ships are built, salvaged and repaired at the star dock. Fuel, the sole economic factor of the game, is tracked and managed here as well. There are 119 small conquest cards, 51 regular-sized sector cards, 2 dice and the 12-page rulebook.
The sector cards are the boardgame equivalent of the random generation of star systems in a PC 4X space game. Sector cards are drawn at certain points in the game and placed on sector locations on the map boards. Sectors may be planets, nebulas, asteroid belts, etc. Most importantly they have inherent defenses and resources, which the player adds to his “empire” when he colonizes or conquers a sector.
The conquest cards are the heart of the game. These cards can modify any aspect of the game when played. For example a conquest card can modify a sector to increase resources or defenses. Some cards increase ship’s combat power, modify crew attributes to increase their exploring or combat abilities, etc. Some can eliminate or override other cards. Still others can destroy sectors. Some can even be played during other player’s turns to influence events the card’s owner is not directly involved in. It is impossible to overstate the power and influence the cards have on play. In fact, StelCon could easily be considered a card game with pieces versus a boardgame with a card-playing element.
These two sets of cards are what give the game its essentially unlimited replay value. Given the randomness of the card draws and the players’ interaction with each other via the cards, no two games can possible play the same.
The game is designed to be played by between two to six players, with rules that allow the six-person game to be played by three teams of two each to speed things up. The two-person game uses four of the map boards for maximum playing area. The game designer states that a game should take about 30 to 45 minutes per player, so a two-person game should last about an hour and a bit and a six-person game (not playing as teams) should be about three to four hours.
StelCon has a four-phase sequence of play:
1. Star Dock: The player changes his ships’ status to ready to launch or decommissioned
Fuel Check: The player checks his fuel points; if he has a surplus he may build and mod ships; if he is short of fuel he must scuttle ships until he is at least even.
Building: The player puts new ships into play and mods other ships up to his fuel level
2. Moves: The player moves any and all of his ships at this time, before engaging in combat. The player “jumps” his fleet through wormholes, or jump lanes, to different sectors. The movement rules and board arrangements are such that regardless of players’ positions each player’s home-world is equidistant from every other player’s home-world. So there are no “natural” allies or enemies.
3. Combat: Resolve any combats.
Scouting: Any previously un-scouted sectors are scouted. The player draws a sector card and either lays it face down in the sector location on the board or discards it.
Exploration: The player moves ships into unexplored sectors or sectors owned by other players and, after defeating the local forces or taking it from another player, determines the resources and modifies the sector with conquest cards.
4. Draw cards: Players draw conquest cards for later play.
Unfortunately, the game play can be very uneven from game to game. For example, one game played with four people lasted only about 30 minutes when a player using some power cards, blitzed an opponent and conquered that player’s home-world, winning the game. In two other games, the clearly dominant player had fleets destroyed by much weaker players thanks to lucky card plays. In another game, lasting about two hours, one player was totally on the defensive having lost almost all his battles, yet he drew the right cards and with his last ship managed to take an opposing home-world and win that game.
Anyone who plays board games knows that random chance, usually through the die rolls, plays a part and is, in fact, an exciting factor in the game. But looking at games of about equal strategy level to StelCon, such as Fortress: America, or Axis and Allies, random chance certainly has a role, however, merely lucky card draws do not dominate the players’ strategy in those games as it does in Stelcon.
StelCon is a difficult game to bottom line. The game is certainly something new and innovative. It is a game that is both quick playing, with nearly infinity replay value and, when mere randomness doesn’t take too much of a part, is good fun. However, the outcome of strategy games, no matter how “light” they are, should primarily depend on the skills and abilities of the players, not on some dei ex machina cards being played. That being said, StelCon: Infinity is a good buy for those gamers looking for an entertaining and original playing experience and who do not mind the sometime over-mighty interventions of random chance too much.
Armchair General Score: 85%
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 2
About the Author
Patrick Baker is a former US Army Field Artillery officer, currently a Department of Defense employee working on games and simulations for training. He cut his wargaming teeth on Squad Leader and Victory Games’ Fleet Series. He bought his first PC in 1990, a Wang PC-240, specifically to play SSI’s The Battles of Napoleon (much to the annoyance of his wife). He has Bachelors’ degrees in Education, History and Political Science. He just earned his Masters in European History and has decided to use all his education to play more games and bore his family.