Thursday, October 29, 2009

Game Impressions: Planet Busters

This is a tile game from Tom Wham, whose games from Dragon Magazine I have fond memories of. This game less of his characteristic humor and whimsy than some of his others, but it is still cute.

The basic idea is a spaceship combat game where you collect forces to attack those of the other players, trying to steal or destroy their planets; at the end of the game ownership of planets determines the winner. There are lots of types of spaceship forces you can draw, and the combat system seems fun. I generally enjoyed the madcap chaos of the big pitched battles you can get at the start of the game.

When I tried a 2-player game, however, I found that the overall flow of the game didn't work so well. Basically, you draw new tiles (essentially cards) into your hand every turn, you can play as many as you want, and you have a hand limit, but no limit to the number of units played. One oddity is that only units can be attacked, and you start with no units, so the initial draws and plays seem very random and very critical, in a way I didn't find pleasing. Once both sides have units, they can send in starship attacks to savage each other. The trouble is that since combat is pretty bloody, it seems likely that after a few heated battles, one side will be victorious and destroy all enemy forces. That seemed to happen in all of my games. At this point, the winning side can continue to build up ships, but any ships the losing side puts down will be outnumbered and crushed. So the losing side has to wait until the perfect hand can be put down all at once to have a fighting chance, while the winning side builds up more and more ships and planets until it has an overwhelming advantage. But the winning side can't do anything to make the game end sooner. In my tests game the real fighting lasted about 5 turns, but the game lasts more than 30 turns. You could try to fix this by cutting the game short when a winner becomes obvious.

Another very odd feature is that the victory condition is based on the number of planets you have, but planets are drawn randomly and are very rare. Plus, you can draw "planet busters" to try to destroy planets, and their chance of success doesn't depend on the size of the enemy's forces. But you get a game benefit from playing planets. This creates all sorts of strange effects. If you get lucky and draw multiple planets, you can end up with a very strong edge. If nobody draws planets, there can be nothing to fight over. If one side is totally winning but has few planets, it could lose them all to planet busters, then both sides could try to horde planets in their hand so they can't be destroyed. So potentially, a side which has decisively lost the space battle and plays nothing for 25 turns could just try to get lucky and be the one to draw the end of game tile, then play all the planets in their hand and win the game.

A game with three or more players would probably work quite differently. But it seems likely to follow one of the usual 3-player game mechanics. Perhaps two stronger players conspire to crush the weaker player then battle between each other. Perhaps a balance of power is created, where nobody is ever allowed to get ahead, and everyone just tries to save up for a power play that will give them a sneaky win before anyone else can stop them. Perhaps everyone is too afraid to attack at all, as a battle of attrition between 2 players gives the third player an advantage. I don't really like any of these dynamics of unregulated multi-player wargames.

I've been trying to think of an analogy to the flow of this game. Basically, it is as if you were playing a WWII wargame, but instead of using the carefully designed orders of battle and starting positions, you just scooped up a big handful of counters, sprinkled them over the map, and started playing. The individual tactical battles may end up pretty interesting, but the sense I get from a lot of modern games, of a well-crafted overall play experience, is missing.

I have to say, though, that I find the spaceship combat simple, colorful, and fun. I feel like I do with a lot of old games, that I want to make some adjustments to the game so I can enjoy the good parts.


  1. I have fond memories of playing Planet Busters many times after receiving it in Dragon Magazine. I still have that original copy. I also more recently acquired the Troll Lord Games version. However, I haven't been able to convince anyone to play it.

    Based on my recollection, this isn't a very sophisticated game. But the cute art and silly components made it an enjoyable experience.

  2. I borrowed the Troll Lord Games version from a friend. I bet I too would have had fond memories had I played it long ago, when games weren't expected to have as much sophistication as they have now. I still have my Dragon Magazine copy of File 13.