Today’s review comes in the form of a futuristic dungeon crawler with miniatures released by the ever impressive Mantic Games, described as the spiritual successor to their very own Dungeon Saga. This 1-5 player one-versus-all or fully cooperative game pits a band of Mercenaries against the ‘scheming Nexus player’. Why they are considered scheming rather than generally just the bad guy? I’m not sure, they just are! Let’s see if this 9-mission space campaign can compete in an already crowded environment.
We won’t go through all the components, but that is where I will start. The game comes with a rulebook that contains an introductory mission to walk players through the basic mechanisms before introducing additional rules and a mission book that plays through the Eiras Contract, although it does state that further mission booklets will become available. Both books are well presented with plenty of art, diagrams and action photos to break up the text which is separated into easy ‘need to know’ sections, i.e., as you are playing through the introductory missions, the text seems to follow suit, which is a brilliant way to set-up a rulebook.
Star Saga is, of course, a miniatures game, and having reviewed Mantic’s The Walking Dead: All Out War earlier in the year, I was mega excited about getting my hands on said minis. This was my first disappointment when it comes to this game as, for me, these minis are nowhere near to the standard of All Out War both in detail and material used. The AOW minis were solid, clean and made me want to paint them. Star Saga’s equivalents seem soft and bendy with what I see as a huge disparity in detail. Some of the minis have outstanding detail, which strangely enough appear to be the Nexus minions rather than the hero Mercenaries or the bosses.
The cards suffer from the same issue, some such as the deployable equipment or mission bonuses have really nice artwork plus the required text, whilst others such as the skill or Nexus cards are just dull in comparison, and when you consider how important and well used those Nexus cards are, it feels like a massive shame.
The components that I absolutely love are the scenery minis which include cabinets, terminals tables and others. These, when placed on the playing surface, really add to the experience of the game and spit in the face of some of its rivals who have simply drawn the scenery on the board and put a coloured line around it. Great touch by Mantic.
Star Saga is played on a modular board and comes with 33 double-sided pieces, all of which have plenty of detail and serve to offer plenty of variety, whether that be through this campaign, future Mantic releases or ones that the players have created themselves. Also included are custom dice, tokens and range rulers, etc., all of which are of good quality, although a couple of the tokens are slightly small. I particularly like the flamethrower ruler.
Before the games begin, there will be a short backstory to read out loud, explaining why the Mercenaries have been hired and what the objective may be. This carries on as you progress through the campaign and will also appear when certain triggers are met within a mission usually read out by the Nexus player. It will also outline victory conditions and recommended builds for the Mercenaries.
The game is broken down into three phases of play: the first being the Mercenary phase which allows for players in turn order to first move their character, then preform an action which could be to shoot or carry out a close assault, open/close doors, access terminals or interact with scenery. A player must complete their full turn before the next players take theirs. In normal circumstances, the Mercenaries will get four activations throughout that phase as there are usually four characters.
Once all Mercenaries have gone, it’s then the Nexus phase: The Nexus player will have a hand of Nexus cards, usually three, but this can be less. They will begin by playing any number of Nexus cards they wish, which will either allow them to use the ability on the card, such as drawing extra cards or activating an additional minion character. The Nexus cards also allow for reinforcement minions to enter play by discarding the cards and placing that level of minion on the reinforcement tokens.
The Nexus player may then activate the number of its minions as detailed in the set-up; these activations are pretty much like the Mercenaries with a few restrictions included. As the Nexus player draws back up to their starting hand size from a pre-build Nexus deck, they may also reveal event cards that simply bring the story on and may trigger certain actions.
The third phase is the end phase which allows players to clean up the board as necessary, although this will not always apply, and the game will continue back to the Mercenary phase until either they have achieved their victory conditions, or the Nexus player cripples enough Mercenaries, usually three.
As with all dungeon crawlers, the Mercenaries can pick up loot along the way, receive bonuses if they succeed at the mission and upgrade their Mercenary with skill cards purchased with experience points.
One of the mechanics that I really didn’t like was being forced to move first then preform another action, such as shoot or interact with scenery. Why make that a thing? Why can’t I blow a guard to pieces then move behind his crate ready for the next turn? A needless rule for me that offers no positives in return and can only be fixed with a skill card, of which there is only one, so good luck to the other three Mercenaries.
The way combat in Star Saga is resolved is pretty cool and allows players to gain extra dice if they position their minis behind cover or sneak up on an enemy and attack it from the rear. The game also introduces ‘pot shots’ that allow attackers who would usually be behind cover to pop out, fire off an attack and get back behind cover. On the face of things, this seems like a really good mechanic, and I tend to agree, although I can see this being open to abuse in certain situations.
There is also a way to distract the minion characters, allowing the Mercenaries to move the minions away or toward certain locations.
Essentially, the dice are made up of generic hits & blocks but done slightly differently as these scale down, meaning a shield with a “!” symbol inside will block every type of hit, whereas an empty shield will only block the lowest level of hit and nothing above that; the attack dice scale in exactly the same way.
Regarding the board tiles, there are two things that immediately jump out to me: Firstly, they don’t fit together, instead they merely line up against one another, meaning if they get knocked, the board will move around, which just adds time when it comes to re-aligning the playing surface. The second aspect of the tiles that I don’t like is that unless I’m missing something, none of them are numbered, which makes set up a complete chore, especially when you consider they are double-sided; a massive oversight for me.
It’s worth mentioning that Star Saga comes with a built-in AI that can take on the role of the Nexus player, allowing you to play solo or cooperatively with friends.
I like that Mantic have created a dungeon crawler with a space theme; the dungeon crawler market is already saturated beyond belief with countless generic fantasy versions available that tend to feel very similar. However, this puts Star Saga in direct conflict with the already established powerhouse that is Star Wars: Imperial Assault, which has a lore that most people, especially in our hobby, already know and can relate to, but even stripping that away from it, Imperial Assault is just a better game with more detailed miniatures and easier to use components. Plus, pricing is similar, and there is already a huge catalogue of expansions and upgrades.
Designer: Stewart Gibbs