Gateway to the Stars reviewby Christopher Weuve
Note: Earlier versions of this review appeared in Paper Wars and Vindicator.
Gateway to the Stars is a strategic level board game of stellar exploration and conquest. It is easily playable in an evening, and includes both military and economic scenarios for any number of players from one to seven (except three). The game was designed by Mark A. Snowden and published by Twentieth Century Renaissance. The game consists of a mapboard, counters representing colonies and ships, a pad of Turn Record Sheets for tracking income and expenditures, and decks of Power, Survey, and Special Result cards.
Each player represents an expanding stellar power, new to the region of space represented on the board. As players explore stellar systems, create colonies, exploit resources, accrue credits, and advance their technology base, they occasionally run into the other players of the game and fight battles for colonies and resources. Victory points are awarded for total number of colonies, technological and other advances, and for various odds and ends.
Starting position is determined randomly. Play then continues through a number of phases:
- Power Order: The Power cards are drawn randomly to
determine turn order during the Movement/Combat/Discovery
and Survey phases. Players can try to change this order
through a bidding process.
- Economics: Players simultaneously determine income
from colonies and trade missions to independent
(friendly) colonies, build any of several types of ships
ranging from scouts and survey vessels to starbases,
negotiate with each other, and trade Survey cards. Ships
must be built at starbases; starbases are limited by the
rules and the counter mix to four per side, except in the
long Two-Player Scenario. A starbase may be built in any
system containing a colony.
- Movement/Combat/Discovery: Each player in turn moves
his ships, making a navigation roll when entering new
systems -- ships failing the roll are eliminated, except
scouts, which automatically succeed in navigation
attempts. If opposing forces are present, simultaneous
combat may then take place. If a player has any ships
left after combat, they may conduct a superficial
exploration of the system called Discovery, locating
existing independent colonies (friendly and unfriendly),
and determining the general habitability of the system.
- Survey: Players may then survey any system in which a
unit is present. Sometimes the immediate results of a
survey are benign, such as a one-time bonus, an
initiative modifier, or "no unusual results". Other
survey results may involve a die roll (modified if a
Survey ship is present) versus some menace, such as Venus
Mantraps, "which lure lonely space travelers by
attractive mimicry!" Depending on the result of the
survey, players may be awarded special victory points or
need to draw a second Survey card or a Special Result
Survey cards also represent the material or academic results of survey missions and are used to fill each players Advance Table. The Advance Table has spots for 17 cards in five series: Resources, Exploration, Sciences, Development, and Thought. Each complete series is worth a number of victory points, in addition to immediate benefits such as initiative modifiers and extra income. The Venus Mantrap card, for example, fills the Life Sciences spot of the Sciences series, which is worth five victory points if completed at the end of the game. Sciences also makes colonization easier in some situations.
- Colonization: Colonies are then created by converting colonies captured in the combat or by colony ships moved to eligible systems--the number of colony ships is determined by the base habitability of the system (determined in the Discovery phase) and the number of colonies already present.
Conceptually, this game bears a strong resemblance to the Metagaming/Avalon Hill classic of the genre, Stellar Conquest, originally released in the early 1970s. It has important advantages over Stellar Conquest, however, in the way that it handles geography, exploration, economics & colonization, and combat, and in the wealth of scenarios it presents.
The first important advantage is that the space represented in Gateway even has geography. In Stellar Conquest, once a player has achieved Unlimited Ship Range, one piece of space looks like another--since encounters can only take place at star systems, the location of stars on the board solely affects travel time. Enemy systems can be easily bypassed with impunity. Combat is therefore limited to a relatively small number of hexes, which I always thought was a waste of a perfectly good hexboard.
In Gateway, on the other hand, travel is along hyperspace jumps along pre-defined routes, such as in GDW's Imperium and Fifth Frontier War. Like any transportation network, some systems become important nodes through which most travel must flow. This makes some systems important defensive boundaries--or targets, depending on your point of view. Not all jump routes are created equal--some are more difficult to travel along than others, requiring a die roll to see if the ship survives the journey. This adds some interesting variables to defense planning: Does your opponent have the guts to attack along that axis, risking the emasculation of his fleet before it even sees combat, or did he purchase the technology allowing him to reduce (if not eliminate) the risk of that avenue of attack? What happens if I attack along that route and am then forced to retreat? A player never can be sure if his fleet is about to emulate Hannibal's army or the Spanish Armada.
The second advantage of Gateway over Stellar Conquest is the variety of the exploration results. Stellar Conquest exploration is fairly mundane: A ship enters a system. If not a warship, it rolls to see if some unknown menace destroys it. If not destroyed, it determines the habitability (in terms of maximum supportable population) and the mineral wealth of the system. Gateway, however, both expands that process into the two parts (the Discovery and Survey phases) and increases the variety of the possible results. Uninteresting systems need not be surveyed, reducing the chance of losing the survey force--or of gaining a rare prize. This variety in both results and methods makes exploration much more interesting.
The way economics and colonization are handled is the third major advantage of Gateway over Stellar Conquest, and this is where I think the design of the game really shines. Where Stellar Conquest focuses on population itself, Gateway focuses on the economic effort required to create new colonies. Gateway abstracts population into the habitability rating for the system and the current number of Total Colony Forces (hereafter TFs) already present. A player builds Colony Expeditions (identical in concept to a Colony Transport in Stellar Conquest), which are converted into TFs during the Colonization phase. The number of Colony Expeditions required to create a TF is equal to the habitability of the system (which ranges from 1 to 6) and the number of TFs already there. A system with habitability 2 and 4 TFs present, for example, requires a total of 6 new Colony Expeditions to create the fifth TF, yet that fifth TF produces the same number of credits per turn as the first. This does a good job of simulating the diminishing marginal utility of adding more colonies to a system.
Another important difference is the way Gateway handles combat. Stellar Conquest simply mandates that all fire is simultaneous, and resolves it with a single die roll based on a chart listing both the attacking and defending ship. The target is either destroyed or missed. In Gateway, a player with the initiative may elect to either retreat or attack. If he attacks, the results of his attacks are applied immediately to his opponent, who then has the opportunity to return fire. If neither player gains the initiative, then neither player may retreat and fire is simultaneous. A player rolls a die to hit for each undamaged unit step in combat, with each hit causing a step's worth of damage.
The designer appears to have taken modern missile navies as his model--relatively lightly armed ships are able to at least sting bigger ships before being destroyed. Stellar Conquest, on the other hand, uses the big-gun battleship model, where some ships are so overmatched in terms of gunnery range that they die before getting close enough to shoot. I personally like the option of going down swinging.
Finally, unlike Stellar Conquest, Gateway includes more than one scenario. There are three solitaire scenarios, three for two players, two each for four, five, and six players, and one for seven players. The scenarios differ in terms of emphasis, with some balancing economics and military considerations, while other being purely military. Overall, the game also plays much faster than Stellar Conquest. A standard Stellar Conquest game lasts 44 turns, with a production phase after every fourth turn. Most Gateway scenarios last 9 turns, with a production phase each turn. As a result, players spend more time doing things and less time waiting for their ships to trudge across the map. The optional Society Types rules, which modify the way each player counts victory points, give added flavor to the various scenarios.
As you have already figured out, I like this game. This does not mean, however, that it does not have its problems. First, the physical components are not particularly durable: the cards, board, box, and counters are made of flimsy cardstock; multi-step units are not backprinted; and the smallish map comes in two pieces (which, fortunately or unfortunately, are not thick enough to warp). The map has multiple other problems as well; the colors and type sizes used are often difficult to read; systems are numbered in a haphazard way, making setup difficult; and difficult jump routes have a notional distance printed next to them, which the player must then cross index against a chart in the book to determine the die roll he must achieve for safe passage. Printing the die roll itself on the map would have been a better use of ink.
Second, there are many things that seem superfluous or silly. There is no three person scenario. The Special Result cards are in all ways (except color) identical to Survey Cards and are not needed as a second group. The Survey cards themselves seemed to be based on episodes of Lost in Space, and suffer from "exclamation point" syndrome: every card has an exclamation point at the end of the description. (See the Venus Mantrap example above.) The Exploration Advance series contains two slots, "Adventure" and "Spectacle" -- do these really sound like advances? Total Colony Forces are abbreviated TF, guaranteeing confusion for any one who has ever played a game with task force counters.
Perhaps the worst, most useless part of the entire game is the stargate. Stargates are the way that ships get from point A to point B. They are created for free as part of the survey phase, but you can't determine where the stargate leads, you can't destroy them, and you can't elect not to create them if you want to survey the system. Since players will almost always survey (because that is the only way to get Survey cards), in the end their only function is to soak up counters that could have been used for more ships.
Finally, there is what may be Gateway's greatest flaw, at least in comparison to Stellar Conquest: the complete lack of research and development. In Stellar Conquest, players may conduct research into a variety of fields, over multiple turns. Deciding when and what to research is of major importance: Should I get 4-hex speed now and turn some 3-turn trips into 2-turn trips, or should I invest in industrial technology to allow factories that will increase my income? In Gateway, however, technology isn't pursued, it just sort of happens to you, in the form of Survey cards. Thus, there is no real way to conduct a research project aimed at achieving a specific technological goal, and the number of possible goals is greatly reduced.
Overall, I would have to give Gatewayto the Stars high marks. If you like Stellar Conquest but are looking for a change of pace, you will at least like the military scenarios. If you don't like Stellar Conquest, this game has the advantage of twenty years of additional thinking on the subject, and may have what you are looking for.
Note: I originally closed this page with a link to "a review with a somewhat dissenting conclusion," which is long gone. I guess that means I won.