[UPDATE: If you want to know what I think about the game after a few more plays, check out my follow-up review. ]
Ad Astra is the first of Nexus Games’ Nexus Designer Series, published in North America by Fantasy Flight. The Designer Series shines a light on specific designers; for this first entry they chose Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget, the authors of Mystery of the Abbey. This is an interesting project, but I believe it falls short. The manual offers a cool history of the creators and their previous games, but that is all that distinguishes this game from anything else they might have done. As for the game itself, it may not be the best showcase for their talents.
The game is great, but it is a clear mash-up of Settlers of Catan (randomly placed resources to gather) and Race for the Galaxy (programmed action cards). Ad Astra is unique enough to not be “Settlers – IN SPACE,” but the mechanics seem cherrypicked more than “designed.” If this was to showcase their talents then I think they should have come up with more on their own. This almost feels like Nexus Designer Series: Teuber/Lehmann’s Ad Astra.
That being said, the random placement of planets, which represent the resources, and the programming of action cards work well within the game’s universe. The actions include exploring planets, harvesting resources, and constructing colonies. When you enter a solar system with a ship, you can flip all of the planets over secretly, and then you choose one to land on. Thanks to the scoring actions, you can vary your strategy throughout the game. For example, you can choose to score for the size of your fleet, or you may choose to score by your influence in systems.
I need to play through the game a few more times, but the scoring may be the biggest flaw in the game. While I like the principle of the system, in practice there may be a run away leader. In a three-man game, Jeff scored big several times by being the only player with terraformers, but he would still earn enough points to stay ahead if we tried to score on anything else. What propels someone in his position so far ahead is that the player who earns the most on the scoring phase receives a three-point bonus. I hesitate writing it off, however, because I suspect it could just as easily fling someone ahead in an opposite scenario.
While I may not have been impressed with the marketing of Ad Astra, this still remains a strong recommendation. At first glance, it is easy to make comparisons to other games. Even Serge Laget compared it to Catan several times in an interview, but the game is distinguished by what it doesn’t borrow from its influences. The importance of luck is diminished, and there is no correlation to that damned robber. On its own merits, the scoring is unique, and the exploration is fun. Ad Astra is a good start, but I hope the philosophy of the designer series improves in the following releases. I’d hate to see a Zooloretto/Blokus mash-up.
Actually, that sounds pretty rad. Nexus Games, get Knizia and Selinker working on that.
Here is a neat list on BGG where Bruno Faidutti mentions all the influences to Ad Astra. It is interesting to hear him speak so candidly, and I do feel more was “borrowed” than stolen. He also says RftG is not an influence, and that Puerto Rico inspired the action cards. I’ll believe him, and back up my comparison as an opinion based upon never playing PR.