One Sentence Synopsis: This is a Side A and Side B nebula- why don’t you exmitter your way out of it?
Regardless of your taste in mechanics, your preference in theme, or your entry-point to the hobby, there are some games just about every gamer has played or will play throughout the course of their gaming journey. It’s not that these games are the best of their genres, or even that they’ve particularly maintained a feeling of being new or innovative that keeps them relevant: rather, I’d say it’s their accessibility combined with just enough depth to keep more seasoned hobbyists interested that accounts for their continued pervasiveness and expansion.
For tile-laying games, the 800-pound gorilla with staying power in the genre is Carcassonne. Published in 2000 and just recently receiving a completely refreshed edition, Carcassonne has continued to thrive and expand while barely batting an eye at competing games, and it’s a title that appeals to long-time gamers while still functioning as one of the oft-recommended introductory points to designer/hobby gaming. Any game utilizing tile-laying as its main mechanic gets compared to Carcassonne at some point, so we’re going to go ahead and get squaring up with the menacing gorilla out of the way right off the bat: for me, Galaxy of Trian is a deeper, more confrontational version of basic Carcassonne, but because of its heavier inclusion of take-that elements it won’t be replacing Carcassonne as my recommended entry-level tile-laying game.
Galaxy of Trian is advertised as a tile-laying game for 2-4 players, but my Deluxe box from the Kickstarter has enough player components to seat 6, and enough tiles to do so thanks to expansion content. Although it’s nice to have the option of seating that many, the game hits its sweet spot at 3 or 4 players: with 5 or 6 you really start to run into long wait times between turns since it’s hard for people to fully plan things beforehand without seeing what others do first. Also, if you’re used to playing longer games with lower player counts by using all the tiles in the core game, then even with the added tiles from some of the game’s expansions you’ll end up taking less total turns than you would otherwise. The game functions OK as a 2-player game as well, and I actually prefer it to seating 5 or 6 people, but matches can turn into one primary contest for an epic system if both players are heavily invested, and that takes away from having the freedom to consider all the other options available to you on a turn past making sure you don’t fall behind the fight for system control.
Like Carcassonne, Galaxy of Trian is all about points. You play an alien race vying for control of the ever-expanding galaxy, gaining points immediately for closing off space, planetary systems, or red/blue gas nebulae, and additional points at the end of the game for maintaining control of and further developing planetary systems and nebulae. Nebulae are worth the least amount of points initially (one per tile), but give extra points during final scoring which can be multiplied by modest amounts if you’ve invested in research or space stations, and they generate minerals which are mined for additional points at the end of the game. Planetary systems are worth the second most points immediately to the controlling player once closed (two), and have the potential for the highest number of points at the end of the game due to an insane x10 multiplier if you’ve developed a space station on one of the planets. Contrary to the other two types of areas, space is not worth any points during final scoring, but it provides the biggest immediate boon to points totals at three per tile. Since space is composed of any tiles not inside of a nebula, including any planetary systems within the space, it can often generate well over 60 points if you’re able to align the last tile on your turn.
You’ll receive a number of things starting the game, including a baggie with your race’s image that’s used to secretly hold any minerals you mine during the game, a player board with all your emissary and station chits and scoring gems, and a two-sided player reference board that has details regarding setup for the 2-4 player versions, as well as iconography depicting actions you may take on your turn and the effects of some of the special tiles. The reference boards are a nice idea and one I usually welcome, but I found their utility greatly diminished by having iconography only, and the choice to include setup information on one side rather than scoring formulas is an odd one. The rest of setup is generally quick, organizing the tiles in the vertical tile organizer that comes with the game. The tiles are two-sided for added variation, but some tiles require certain sides to be placed face-down which is somewhat of a nuisance.
On your turn you collect up to two minerals from each of your controlled nebulae depending on their development levels, and then take and place one tile followed by performing one of six actions. Placing an emissary on the tile you just laid is the means by which you’ll expand your control of the galaxy. Each emissary on a nebula or planet in a connected system counts as one control, and the player with the most control when a feature is closed gets the points for that area. Emissaries also serve as the building blocks for your stations and can up your points multipliers at the end of the game, but their numbers are limited so you have to use them wisely. Activating a Research station lets you place one of your research station tokens on top of an emissary in a closed system to make a stack, giving you much larger multipliers at the end of the game and allowing you to later upgrade it to a space station which offers even greater end-game points multipliers.
The fourth and fifth options for your turn revolve around two of the three special types of tiles included in the game: trade outposts and teleporters. Placing an emissary on a trade outpost lets you both activate a research station and/or upgrade one to a space station. If you played a tile featuring a transporter you can elect to take any emissary from a surrounding tile and transport it anywhere on the board that doesn’t already have a token, and is not in a system controlled by another player. This is a great way of gaining access to an area that was closed off without anyone having control, or a system that is no longer controlled, or of even removing someone’s area control if it hinges on an emissary placed on the edge of known space. Researching is the sixth option you have on your turn if you don’t want to perform any of the other actions, which simply generates two victory points.
Galaxy of Trian features three main take-that elements in addition to normal tile laying strategies that make it more confrontational, and in my opinion more interesting, than your standard game of Carcassonne. The first is the aforementioned teleporter which lets you take anyone else’s emissary on a surrounding tile and place it somewhere else on the board. That can really derail fights for system control, or in the case of closed systems may actually force the player to desert an area entirely, leaving it open for re-capture through additional teleportation. The second is the exmitter tile which forces all emissaries on surrounding tiles back to their owners’ boards. Finally, finishing (closing) a system when you’re not the controlling player lets you trap the other person’s emissaries. Although they get the points for controlling the system, you can make their victory very costly by effectively reducing the number of emissaries they have available to use in future conquests or development for the rest of the game.
I’m not usually a fan of take-that elements that have no way of being countered, but I’m going to be hypocritical in this case and admit I actually like them in Galaxy of Trian even though there’s literally no way of defending against a timely exmitter or transporter placement, or a lucky tile draw that traps a chunk of your emissaries. While the addition of two potentially confrontational tile types and a take-that area completion mechanic isn’t a huge variation from Carcassonne, it gives Galaxy of Trian just enough direct player conflict to make tile laying strategies more interesting. It’s true Carcassonne has a number of expansions that add similar mechanics, including some very direct PvP expansions, but I’ve always felt the game gets bogged down with more than a couple of expansions added in, and it doesn’t ever feel as cohesive or as smooth as Galaxy of Trian.
That said, learning Galaxy of Trian is an affair that’s ten times more difficult and frustrating than it should be. Once you’ve got things down then playing and teaching the game becomes very easy, but the rulebook is one of the more convoluted attempts I’ve ever had to slog through (and this is coming from someone whose favorite game is War of the Ring). It’s not that the rulebook is missing information or that it contains conflicting information- rather, it’s that it seems to contain conflicting information, and important rules subtleties are buried in dispirit sections of the rulebook that contain selective highlighting. For example, at first read you may think you’re allowed to transport your own emissaries into closed systems controlled by other players, thereby throwing those systems back into contention. That’s actually not the case, but the rules don’t include that in the section of “can’t do” moves when transporting. Instead, all it says is that you can move an emissary into a closed system you already control, and you can move into a system with no owner. In this case it’s a problem with phraseology, and in trying to break out and highlight what people can and can’t do point-by-point but excluding certain situations, the writers have basically ensured you’re going to have to go back and give each section a very careful read to find out exactly how a mechanic works. A solution would have been to simply include one sentence along the lines of “When transporting an emissary into a closed system the system must either contain no other emissaries, or only those emissaries of the color being transported.” In short, the rulebook makes the game seem way more complicated than it is, and increases the initial learning curve significantly.
The rest of Galaxy of Trian’s components are generally very good, though the Deluxe edition’s box has trouble properly fitting all the expansion goodies when you include the vertical tile organizer that works well on the table, but is awkward in the box. The tiles themselves are very thick, and the fact that they’re double-sided makes for a great, varied selection each play. Player boards, reference boards, and the emissary/station chits are likewise very sturdy, and the layout of the player boards themselves actually makes organizing tokens and tracking victory points very easy. The mineral gems are a good size that aren’t too small to pick up but don’t overwhelm the board when they’re placed, and the color selection fits well with the rest of the game’s colors. The Deluxe edition also includes some shiny bags with each race’s portrait on them for secretly storing those minerals after extraction.
Speaking of the racial portraits, Galaxy of Trian’s art is absolutely top-notch. In fact, I’m not exaggerating when I say you’d be hard pressed to find better artwork in any sci-fi game on the market. No joke, and it’s not just the alien portaits: the entire game just has a beautiful aesthetic that looks absolutely stunning as the galaxy takes shape on the table.
Now, expansions! In addition to sets of extra tiles for longer games at increased player counts (which they technically count as an expansion, but I’ll just leave my explanation of it at that) I picked up the Wormhole expansion, Wealth of the Ancients expansion, and the Beginning of Conquest expansion that was included in the Deluxe set.
Wormhole Expansion: this isn’t so much an expansion as it is a few extra tiles that add a variant to the teleporter aspect of the base game. Rather than only transporting the emissaries on tiles touching the long edges of the teleporter tile, the wormhole expands the affected area to any tile that touches the wormhole tile in any way, even if it’s just the tip. They’re extremely powerful, to the point where I actually would have liked to have seen some sort of a cost or pre-requisite to place them. In the end it’s an easy addition to the game if you feel transporters just don’t have enough range to cause problems for other players, but not one I’m sure everyone will enjoy.
Wealth of the Ancients: New tiles are added with crystal symbols that let you put a random-colored, larger crystal on the tile when placed. At the end of the game you collect any large crystals in your controlled systems, and they’ll make any like-colored smaller minerals you extracted worth one additional victory point per larger crystal of the same color. Given the random aspect of the mineral placement and the random aspect of the larger gem placement, this expansion didn’t add much meat to me when implemented on its own. However, it’s a different story when adding it with the next expansion…
The Beginning of Conquest: Whereas I’m barely lukewarm to the other two expansions, I’d consider The Beginning of Conquest a must-add to the game as soon as everyone you’re playing with is comfortable with the base game. That’s not because the base game needs the expansion, but because the expansion adds such a great new element that complements existing mechanics so well; it is to Galaxy of Trian as Scoundrels of Skullport is to Lords of Waterdeep.
The Beginning of Conquest adds Corvette and Rogue ships to the game, which you start with three and two of respectively. These ships are added to the board as your action during your turn, or can be moved up to three spaces on subsequent turns either across adjacent tiles (not nebulae), or through teleporters. Corvettes are the battleships of the game, expanding players’ options for battling over control of systems by blockading enemy emissaries and effectively stopping them from contributing to control, or protecting your own emissaries from the same fate. Corvettes are also used to kill Rogues, which are smaller ships that don’t have any combat utility but are used to zip around known space extracting minerals from any nebula you decide to park them on regardless of who controls it. Combat against ships is a simple rock (Corvette) beats any number of scissors (Rogue), with Corvettes simultaneously blowing each other out of the sky should they come into contact with enemy warships, and the winner receiving five victory points.
The nicest thing about The Beginning of Conquest is there’s really no burden in terms of learning complex new mechanics; the ship combat and movement is simple, and their use simply enhances elements that are already there. It adds some additional direct player interaction and a way to snipe uncollected resources from players who would otherwise get a free pass at the extra victory points provided by mining large nebulae. You’ll find many nebulae are completed without anyone actually having control, so the Rogue ships also shore up that flaw in the base game of generating untouchable resources. Additionally, access to all those extra minerals makes Wealth of the Ancients much more worthwhile to add: you’ve got the ability to focus on certain colors of minerals you need regardless of where they are on the board, rather than hoping you get a lucky handful of your needed color when first populating completed nebulae.
COG Takeaway: Galaxy of Trian has replaced Carcassonne as my go-to tile laying game for more experienced groups of players, though for newcomers the less confrontational Carcassonne is probably still a better bet. Hitting your stride in the game won’t come easily due to an extraordinarily obtuse rules explanation that makes the game way more complicated to initially learn than it actually is, but once you do the added interactive and developmental elements of Galaxy of Trian make games much more interesting than Carcassonne even with similar expansions added in, and it provides a smoother game experience overall. Galaxy of Trian has its own set of expansions as well, of which the Beginning of Conquest is the most stellar (pun intended) by adding additional interactive elements that emphasize existing mechanics rather than making you learn a whole new set of rules or scoring. I also love the space theme and its accentuation with gorgeous art, which makes the game a real treat to see take shape as matches progress. If you like tile-laying games but want a little more complexity than Carcassonne with a more involved theme, and are willing to take some time deciphering the rulebook and to pay a slightly higher price of entry, Galaxy of Trian Deluxe is definitely worth a look.
P.S. If you can’t find a copy now, a second, revamped edition is on its way to Kickstarter in the coming months. We’ll probably post a highlight article when that happens to highlight the fixes and new content.