Most gamer geeks have heard of the 4x genre. If you haven’t, the label refers to games that include these pillars of human ambition — Exploring, Exterminating, Expanding and Exploiting. While not the rosiest picture of humanity, it is surely an entertaining one, especially when these motivations are rolled into a board or card game.
Games such as Twilight Imperium, Eclipse and Space Empires are examples, but you might notice a common thread among them. They are most often time consuming to set up, tear down and to play. Establishing dominance in the galaxy is no small matter, no matter how you go about it. That is until now.
The new Universal Rule card game from Button Shy and designed by Chip Beauvais is a meager 18 cards total and yet somehow manages to capture the intricacies and balance of a traditional 4x game, but in a far shorter time frame. That’s an accomplishment to say the least.
Size Doesn’t Matter
The best way to describe Universal Rule is by imagining every 4x game ever made tossed into a blender, boiled, and distilled into the very essence of the original source material. The end result is a surprisingly deep, strategic game that belies its size, and it’s playable in 45 minutes or less.
With a maximum hand size of just three planet cards, and a crew of up to five players, Universal Rule heats up quickly in the rush to be the first to 15 Victory Points. Players take turns colonizing planets, drawing new cards, upgrading their planets by rotating them to their more powerful and victory-laden side, collecting income and attacking.
With the exception of attacking, whichever action a player takes, the acting player sets a cost (up to the number of planets the player has in play) to allow other players to immediately follow with the same action, paying the current player (plus the cost of the action itself to the bank) in the process.
I wondered at first why this mechanic was included in the game and why a more traditional take-an-action-and-move-on approach wasn’t enough. Upon playing, the answer revealed itself: With only 18 cards, it would be all too easy for players to become overtly powerful by the time the turn sequence made its way around the table.
Giving everyone a chance to duplicate each player’s selected action (at a cost) provides a balance of power, gives Universal Rule a thematic, real-time feel, and keeps every player actively involved in the game outside the turn order.
A Look at Your Empire
Each card in Universal Rule depicts a planet, a cost to colonize it (play the card in front of you), a Fleet value (think spaceships), a military value (think planetary defenses and attack capability), an income value, victory points, and a special ability. If you upgrade your planet, the stats and ability change, and you rotate your card to reflect that.
While the stats on your planets drive some of the game’s strategy, the abilities often take center stage. Here are just a few of them:
“Attacker” — When you successfully attack, gain 2 credits.
Upgrades to “Provoker” — When anyone successfully attacks, gain 4 credits
“Colonize Glommer” — When an opponent colonizes, gain 1 credit
Upgrades to “Settling Victor” — Each planet you own is worth 1vp
“Produce Glommer” — When an opponent produces, gain 1 credit
Upgrades to “Free Producer” — When a player produces, you can follow for free
Note that the above planets all point to differing paths to victory and piggyback on other player’s actions. When you meld these with the up to 13 other planets in play, you’ll find that there are frankly too many different strategies to count!
If you haven’t yet figured it out on your own, Universal Rule is a game where every action you take directly or indirectly impacts other players. This can take the form of unintended income for your opponents, an opportunity for the other players to take the same action as the current player, or an outright victory for a player if you exercise too much constraint during a pivotal attack.
You can’t play Universal Rule by only paying attention to your own cards and abilities. You must constantly balance the actions you’re taking with the constant reverberation of unintended consequences.
Attack and “Universal Rule”
While the majority of the game’s actions are straightforward, acts of war affect all the players around the table in a big way. That’s because everyone will usually want to prevent a player from obtaining the coveted “Universal Rule” card with its six victory points, often representing a wild, sometimes game-ending swing in victory points.
Players around the table will pick sides in an attack, lending fleet support and financial support to the attacker or defender. The total of all these assets, including the military might of the attacking and defending planets themselves, determine the outcome.
Universal Rule isn’t Love Letter. It isn’t Lost Legacy. Don’t let the 18 cards fool you. This is a gamer’s game through and through, and I wouldn’t recommend pulling this game out as an introduction to the wonderful world of games that aren’t Monopoly.
Instead, I think this is a game that will impress and challenge more seasoned gamers, if only for the level of depth that’s been magically squeezed and balanced into such a quick-playing, tiny package.
As one of my friends put it, “I had the most fun getting my butt kicked in a game.” Now that’s saying something!
Look for Universal Rule to begin funding on Kickstarter in the coming days!