From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Game Review – Galaxy: The Dark Ages

Imagine the scene, if you will. An evening on an island off the coast of North Carolina. Small island, houses of venerable stature perched on improbable stilts in the drifting sand. The heat is oppressive in the way that requires both the summer sun and proximity to the ocean and we are all unfamiliar strangers and old friends, bonded by isolation, a wedding rehearsal, and the time-honored application of gin and tonic as a salve for the thickness of the summer night.

A cheerleader, a doctor, a chemist, a game designer, an HR manager, a banker and a hairdresser in-training. Hardly a group you would expect to find huddled around a game of galactic conquest, not so much because these professions don’t breed gamers (anyone who has played a tabletop RPG can put the lie to that) but rather because the majority of these people were self-declared non-gamers, outside of the 1950s styled social norms of poker, canasta and football.

I had brought with me an almost unheard of game by Reiner Knizia and Don Greenwood. At the time, I was developing a proposal to create an online version of the game, one with an AI capable of giving your average player a satisfying game even in the absence of human opponents, so I carried a copy in my pocket in case inspiration struck. Faced with a handful of rapidly shot-down party games like charades and quarters (not sure when quarters transcended from frat-house back-alley entertainment to “party game” but I’m an equal-opportunity gamer, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt). I took the risk of pulling out the Galaxy deck and presenting the idea of a game to the group at large. It began with the usual run of disclaimers; “I don’t play games, it looks too complicated, why does this guy have three eyes…” So we grabbed four adventurous souls, including the bride, and ran up a practice game to show it off. By the end of the evening we had banged through four games in all and everyone had a go, from the bride to the footballer, and when people weren’t playing directly, they were forming teams behind their favorite races and offering advice and drinks to the people in play.

Now, for the connoisseur of small tabletop games, Reiner Knizia is the master of tight engaging gameplay. His rules may read like they were written in ancient Sumerian and eventually translated through three other native tongues before finally arriving in something understood by the Western mind, but this is where Don Greenwood’s production skills come into play. One of Don’s many talents lies in making sure the instructions are clear (though perhaps a little less clarity might suffice in some cases). Later versions of the game instructions include sample games that show in a few pictures what the pages of clarifying text can sometimes overshadow.

Based on the ruleset for “Titan: The Arena” and designed for 2-5 players, it resembles to the layman as nothing so much as a well engineered, combative of solitaire. There are 8 alien races and you begin by laying the cards out in a line on the game table (or coffee table, or bar-top, or flat log, whatever is handy) what begins next is a round of guessing, bidding and double-crossing as you take a look at the cards you have and begin laying them down. At the end of the round, the race with the lowest number value (based on the ship cards, bids, etc.) gets taken off the board.

But while the gameplay itself is relatively simple, the mastery of the game is not. Much like classic tabletop games like Diplomacy or Nuclear War, the truly interesting bit comes in when the players start to barter, bargain and backstab one another. With the lot of you huddled around a table, deals get struck right there in the full view of everyone and sometimes you can do nothing but watch the inevitable crumbling of your alliances and wiping of your race off the tabletop.

There are some sticking points in the game-play if you go back to compare it to the original Titan rule-set, but I played this as a newbie, neither I nor any of the members of this impromptu gaming group had ever played the “original” and as such, arrived on the scene without any baggage to speak of. Under those conditions, the game-play didn’t seem overly complex, the decision-making was occasionally desperately random, but the end result was a game that played very well and was easy for a large group of non-gamers to pick up and run with on a moment’s notice.

One of the nice things about Galaxy: The Dark Ages is its limited time frame. Unlike a game of, say, poker, which can go on for days if you have good players, this game is constrained by its very turn-based nature. When 8 turns are done, you’re finished and while we all know a few masters of the delaying tactic, there’s not a lot here for them to work with. With such a clearly defined rule-set, those who usually choose to haggle over details like the average airspeed of an un-laden European swallow, will find themselves without recourse and as such the game plays well and has a very natural flow and finish.

On first pass, the artwork really cements this game in the late 80s when space epics like Babylon 5 were the big kids on the sci-fi block. It is all high-quality work, no “nephew art” here and the visual styles of the ships and aliens are distinctive by race, so determining whether or not the image on the card is a Cylor ship or a Divergence is not a huge stretch. As with most well-produced card games, half the fun is in the richly detailed artwork, and Galaxy: TDA is no exception to this rule. If anything, I think my prime complaint would be that the artwork is a little *too* detailed for the card space, like the artist neglected to take into account just how small these images were going to have to be compressed down to fit onto the cards and as such I suspect there is a lot of information lost between the reproduction and the original image.

All in all this is one of those games that fell through the cracks, a delightful, innovative play mechanic, quality production, but it just never got its time in the sun. You can pick up copies of Galaxy: The Dark Ages on eBay, or through some of the online board-game sites, but GMT games regrettably is no longer publishing this title directly.

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