Theme and What is it?
In Stellar Leap, you take control of a burgeoning alien race, setting out to discover new worlds, mine asteroids for raw materials, and spread your people far and wide, all while competing with up to four other races who have the same plans. It is, at its lightweight and family-friendly core, a 4X-style game: explore, exploit, expand and exterminate, but with far less “take-that” kind of mechanics you would see in other games typical of the genre.
The “board” for Stellar Leap consists of six cards, each with a picture of a die labeled one through six which establishes the possible columns where discovered planet cards can be placed on a player’s turn. As the planets are placed, they establish rows which are called “solar systems” and the entire tableau is called the “galaxy”. It takes just a single planet in a row to form a solar system.
At the beginning of each player’s turn, they roll a pair of dice, manipulate the results using a particular species power (chosen during setup), and then place the die on their matching dice card. Each column that has a die on it is then checked for which races occupy which planets allowing them to gather resources. The dice are also added together and the sum of the result, if six or less, will possibly activate a third column that may grant some races more resources.
After the initial die roll in which multiple races have the potential to benefit, then the current player executes up to five possible actions, grouped into two categories:
- High Commands: Populate, Discover, Tax, and Attack. A player may do two of these actions in a turn, in any combination.
- Division Commands: Mining, Labor, Intelligence. A player may only perform each of these actions once per turn.
Movement is not considered an action and can be done at any time during a player’s turn, assuming they have the resources (fuel and oxygen) to change planet locations.
Along with the species power players also get to choose a race “trait”which effectively acts as an end game mission card where the player will score points based on the requirement of the trait card. The Explore trait, for example, grants the player extra points for each planet (or asteroid) they discover during the course of the game.
The game ends when a number of events occur, usually six in the base game (and which can be adjusted to manage the game length). Each event revealed changes some aspect of the game. Events are triggered by the players’ choices, such as placing a third asteroid card down, running out a planet deck, or forming a full row of six planets in a solar system. The game ends when the round is completed in which the sixth event was triggered. Scoring is based on resources, trait cards, population, number of planetary discoveries made and number of attacks on other races.
I first learned of this game on Twitter, after following the designer, Carla Kopp. I wasn’t really sure of what to make of it from the images at first, but got on board with the Kickstarter campaign.
Right before its release, Carla asked for volunteers to teach the game at Origins 2018 and GenCon 2018 and I took her up on the offer. I’ve taught more than twenty games and as a result, my initial impressions are based mainly on the how other people reacted to this game.
My initial impressions are great for this game. What I saw was that once the players learned the rules (which are summarized completely on a standard size playing card) and went through a turn or two, most folks quickly caught onto the game’s numerous and potential strategies. From there, table talk would often run rampant as they discussed possible moves, even when it wasn’t their turn. Most all players walked away from the game table delighted in playing the game.
Game Build Quality
The components in this game are standard quality. There are wooden cubes and meeples and the card quality is good, with a linen finish. Icons are generally easy to distinguish but a little on the small side, something that usually is only an issue if a planet card is on the other side of the table/galaxy.
The player boards are also of standard quality cardboard material, but where they shine is that they are double layered, allowing the cubes that track resources and actions to stay in place in their respective slots (usually; it can still be easily bumped, scattering pieces).
The artwork is well done. It is a little on the cartoonish side for my personal tastes, but that does not detract from the game. The images of all the alien races are colorful, consistent and professionally illustrated. The player boards have highlighted portions that indicate where the resources go during setup, which is a nice touch.
One minor nitpick is that the home planets (which only the associated race may occupy) don’t look much different from the other planets.This causes problems when a player is discovered to have occupied a home plant that is not theirs a turn or two later. I feel it could have been fixed simply by putting a highlighting border around the home planets for greater visual distinction.
A very cool part of the game are the alien meeples. Each race has its own uniquely shaped piece to represent population units. The board explodes with color and texture as the meeples, planets and asteroids expand to fill the tableau.
The fun in Stellar Leap comes from all angles. At the very start of a player’s turn, when they roll the two dice, there is immediate attention paid by all players, hoping the numbers will favor the columns with planets they occupy. The active player has tactical decisions to make right away.
In the mid-game, there are a lot of choices; from what order you take actions in, to where you place newly discovered planets, and how you meet the goals of your hidden racial trait card. Each game has a different flair to it; sometimes planets are evenly spread out, while other times they are clumped into one or two long columns. It all depends on who is playing and which cards are drawn.
For me, the Mining Division action is the most fun to see happen. When an asteroid is discovered, a die is put on the card with the three side face up. This means that the first player to get there gets to roll three dice to determine how many resources they get (highest of the three dice rolled). Then the die is decremented to two, then to one and finally removed. Because the dice roll can grant such a boon in resources, it’s fun to watch players scramble in a resource rush to get to that asteroid.
Age Range & Weight
This game is easy enough to learn for a teenager, 14+ (and I taught the game to a few who picked up the rules very quickly). It’s fairly lightweight overall, as the rules are not particularly complicated, despite the number of actions a player can take. The “switch” mechanism on the player board which tracks a player’s chosen actions is a clever way to keep track.
Stellar Leap is also, as the publisher notes, a family-friendly game; this can be seen especially in the way races “attack” each other. When a player activates the Attack High Command on a planet, if they have majority of all the meeples, the other players must “scatter” their respective populations, meaning simply moving them to another valid planet in the solar system and making them exhausted (meaning they can’t collect resources during other player’s turns). More of a diaspora then an armed conflict.
Stellar Leap also scales well from two to five players, as the triggers for the game ending event conditions force a change in strategies as more people play. Adding a fifth player changes the rules up a tiny bit to prevent the game from getting too bogged down.
Stellar Leap is a delightful game, and for me that couldn’t be more apparent than from seeing the reactions on the faces of all the people I’ve taught the game to.
It’s not a perfect game however; the layout of the tableau can take up a lot of space as the game progresses; there are a lot of tiny pieces deal with during setup and tear down; the smaller cards can be a little hard to manage; and the fronts of mission cards are just a little too close in color to distinguish between sometimes.
And despite being a game with relatively simple rules set, a player can get trapped in analysis paralysis. I have found this especially true in the late game when a player is scanning at all the planets, usually looking for one that provides the single resource they need to fulfill part of their strategy, while balancing the fuel costs to get around.
Most of these downsides are minor however. If you’re looking to try out the 4X-style genre, but don’t want to invest the time those games are typically associated with; or if you just want a family-friendly game that is full of dynamic choices and lots of replayability, then I’d recommend Stellar Leap.