I am a sucker for a solid, fun, low-investment card game. I am especially keen on card games that utilize new mechanics, take a different spin on an otherwise overused mechanic, or merely improves the “status quo”. Conquest of Orion attempts to achieve success through incorporating additional mechanics within the overplayed trick-taking genre.
Conquest of Orion comes in an attractive, albeit mildly oversized box. The game consists of 44 numbered cards – 11 cards per suit (planets, colonies, industry, and ships) plus 10 Leader cards. These “Leader cards” are role-selection cards which define specific unique powers that each player can select for a round of play. The suit cards are color-coded by suit, and have an identifying marker for each type. Each suit card is numbered 1 through 11, naturally yielding weakest to strongest in the suit. Also, each suit card has a quantity of “stars” on the base of the card, yielding the endgame scoring points.
The card quality is above average, with a nice silken gloss and average to above average thickness. They shuffle very well without the fear of creasing or bending the cards. As well, I am very impressed with the artwork on each card. For the first 30 minutes after opening the game for the first time, I merely sorted the cards out by type, and just admired the artwork. Each ship, planet, colony and industry card has a distinct look.
The 4-page rules insert is adequate, in full-color, and conveys the rules with minimal confusion. Setup and phases are detailed and easy to follow, and examples of gameplay are noted where applicable. I would have liked a few more gameplay examples rather than the single phase example supplied, but this is a minor quibble. The typeface utilized is easy to read, and italics and boldface print are used in a way that naturally provides emphasis, suggestions, or examples.
As Conquest of Orion is solely a 4-player game utilizing 2-person teams, it is imperative that the team members orient themselves as to not take consecutive turns for a single team. The best way that this is handled is for team members to sit across from one another. Obtain a notepad and a pencil to keep score (there is no scoring track included) by team for the three-round session.
Gameplay in Conquest of Orion is fairly simplistic and is segmented into three rounds of three phases each, as follows:
- Setup Phase
- Conflict Phase
- End of Round Scoring
Setup Phase During the setup phase, the System Deck (the 44 suit cards) are shuffled, and four are removed from the deck, which will not be initially utilized during the gameplay round. The remaining 40 cards are dealt, 10 to each player. The “Politician” Leader card is then removed from the Leader card deck and placed in the middle of the play area. The remaining Leader cards are then shuffled, and two are dealt to each player. The sole remaining Leader card is then placed with the Politician in the center of the play area. The start player is then determined (first round is the owner of the 1-point planet card, 2nd and 3rd rounds the lowest scoring team chooses start player), and chooses a Leader card, either from their hand of two cards, or from the selection in the middle of the play area. Clockwise, the remaining players follow suit, and choose their respective Leader card. Unselected Leaders are removed from play for the round.
Conflict Phase Up to 10 Trick-taking rounds are played. The person leading off the round plays a card of suit, and unlike usual trick-taking games, each subsequent player must play a different suit if they have the ability to do so. If not, the player can choose any suit, without penalty. Ship cards can be played at any time, regardless of suit inventory in the player hand. Once 4 cards have been played, the winner is determined. Ship cards are ultimately the “trump” card of the deck, and beat any other system type, regardless of value. Therefore, a 1-value ship card can beat any other system card, regardless of point value. If no ship cards were played, the highest value card wins the round. If there is a tie, a “War” (explained later) ensues. If the winner of the round wishes, they may start a “War”, or collect the 4 cards.
If a war ensues, the 4 cards from the round are turned over and are unaffected by the cards played within the war round. In a war round, if a player has a “ship” card, it must be played. After all cards are played, the winner of the war round collects the war round cards as well as the face-down cards not yet claimed from the previous round.
End of round scoring Teams arrange the cards which they won into “systems”, a set of three cards containing one planet, one colony, and one industry. The team is awarded points equal to the sum of the stars aggregated across complete systems. Cards which do not contribute to a system are not scored, and Ship cards do not yield points to end-of-round scoring either. Any end-of-round Leader abilities which influence point scoring are evaluated accordingly. Once points are noted on the scorepad, the next round begins until three rounds have been played.
Conquest of Orion is a game that I really wanted to like, and I think with some tweaks, could be a solid trick-taking game. However, as the game is shipped, there are some inherent problems.
First, Ship cards are extremely powerful, and there is no way to counteract a team holding a massive inventory of ships. The other team is just going to lose. If I could make any single change to the game, it would be for the inclusion of a mechanism to repel a “Ship” attack. Maybe if the “non-ship” team played 2 system cards of the same value, all opponents’ ships are destroyed. Maybe, certain low-powered non-ship cards had the ability to reduce the value of a ship, or mitigate its play altogether. I am not sure what the right answer is, but in the game’s current setup, there is no way to counteract ship cards at all, and can be highly frustrating to players when they continually get few ship cards.
Second, there is no penalty to not following the rule of “play a different suit”. So, you cannot play a different suit of card from the ones played already in the round? No worry, just play your highest value card, and you win. So, that eliminates any sort of suit aggregation strategy. It just turns the game into a slightly varied version of “War”, where the highest card value, regardless of suit, is the winner.
Third, limiting the game to four players only greatly decreases the chance this game might hit the table. I rarely have four players in my gaming group (maybe 25% of the time), so this game would rarely see play time. I checked the developer’s web site for alternate rules for solo-3 players, and there just are not any. A 3-player variant is noted as “coming soon”… but nothing material could be found as to “how soon”.
Lastly, the Leader cards are quite unbalanced. Now, this is not a major ding against the game, as each player has ample opportunity to choose between no less than 4 Leader cards at the commencement of any round. That being said, one Leader card contributes 10 points to your team’s end-of-round scoring. Couple that with a ship-heavy team round, and it is possible to literally create a runaway situation which is hard to overcome in 1-2 game play rounds.
There is a quality game embedded within the confines of the Conquest of Orion box, but not in its current state. With a few rules and scoring tweaks as well as some card balancing, a nifty trick-taking game could ensue. The whole time we played the game, it just felt as if the Conquest of Orion were 80% complete… almost as if we were play-testing an almost finished game to determine encountered issues for refinement. As it sits, there is a lack of need for strategic thinking in order to win, and even the best players cannot overcome a bad hand of cards. Hopefully, the creator of Conquest of Orion can refine some of these points, and churn out a re-make. I feel it is so close, yet so far away from achieving the status of a “long-term keeper” for any collection.