Core Worlds Review

Core Worlds
Design by:  Andrew Parks
Published by:  Stronghold Games
2 – 5 Players, listed time 60 minutes (ha!)
Review by:  Jonathan Franklin

You have a hand with three snubfighters, two grunts, and Lord Banner.  Do you play the the snubfighters and grunts to your tableau to take over a planet or do you spend your energy drafting a new technology for your deck?  Taking over the planet will gain you more energy per turn for the rest of the game, but drafting the tech will benefit you every time you draw it into your hand. You know that next turn you will likely be drawing more grunts and some extra energy, so perhaps setting yourself up for an amazing new tactics card is the way to go.  Core Worlds is a game of choices – lots of hard choices.

In the first wave of deck building games, deck building was the game.  In the second wave, deck building is integrated into a larger game.  Core Worlds is one of the exemplars of the second wave, along with Mage Knight and perhaps Eminent Domain.  I can hardly wait for the third wave, even though I was not really a fan of the first wave.

Core Worlds takes place over ten rounds and the players start in the hinterlands and slowly make their way to the final rounds, the Core Worlds.  As they progress, they build up their resources by acquiring cards that are placed either in their tableau or their deck.  The cards that go into their deck are the core of the deck building aspect of the game.  You draw five to seven new cards each turn.  Those cards in turn give you air strength, ground strength, and lots of special abilities.  The game is vaguely scripted in that there are five distinct decks, one for rounds 1 & 2, one for rounds 3 & 4, etc.  However, the variety is so great that flexibility is more important than having a rigid strategy.  As you build your deck with new tech and tactics, you are shedding snubfighters and grunts by having them protect the planets you have already conquered.  In this way, your deck remains lean and mean.

When taking over planets, technologies, tactics, or playing cards to your tableau, you expend action points and energy points.  Once every player has expended all the action points they have or want to, that round ends and the new one starts.  You need to have air and ground power in your tableau to take over planets, at which point the planets are placed in your tableau, but the used ships and infantry are placed in your discard pile.  Actions and energy are used to draft cards to add to your pile and to play cards to your tableau to take over the next planet.  When your draw pile is exhausted, you shuffle the discards to create the new draw deck, as you might expect.

The vanilla version of the game has all initial cards except one the same – that one offers a special power that can often define your initial strategy.  One step above vanilla is the intitial drafting, where you can choose a direction for your empire before the game starts.  I strongly recommend this step, as I think hand differentiation makes the game more fun.

Unlike deck building games where you crank through your deck and the game has lots of turns, since the game has only ten turns,  you will be lucky to see most drafted cards more than two or three times, so every card really does matter.

I enjoyed Core Worlds and gather there are expansions ready for launch.  At the same time, it has a few issues that are important to know about.

Core Worlds takes a long time.  I like it with 2-3 players, but probably won’t play with 4-5 players because there are so many hard choices that downtime can be an issue.  You would think that choosing your action would not be hard, but each decision has downstream implications that need to be considered.  I have mild-AP and find some decisions both important and tough.  I could play casually and quickly and more likely lose or tax my brain and have people rue the day they agreed to play with me.  BGG says 60 minutes.  Honestly, my games have all run over 90 minutes, but perhaps that is my fault.

One important aspect of playing with 2 or 3 players is that you see only a part of each deck of goodies.  This means that you cannot design a strategy around a specific card or card type because it might not appear.  This is because the number of cards drawn from the deck each turn depends on the number of players, so you see fewer cards with fewer players.

There were some early comments about the importance of turn order in the game, especially when the rounds do not divide evenly.  This has been addressed in a post-release modification, Consuls of the Empire variant.  The benefit of this variant is that two people can possess the same core world.  Given that much of the game is setting yourself up to conquer a core world, turn order basically eliminated the second player to be able to claim the same core world, as it was gone.  Some prefer the rules as written, so your mileage might vary.

In some ways, this feels like Mage Knight: the Card Game set in space.  You can whine about your hand and sometimes have little to do, but generally you can skillfully build your empire while pursuing a broader strategy.  With skillful plays and lucky draws, you too can conquer the Core Worlds.

There is a Core Worlds FAQ here:

A list of commonly missed rules is here:

The Consuls of the Empire variant is here:

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers:

Nathan Beeler: I don’t think it was Jonathan’s fault that his games ran long; this is a lengthy game.  However, I have no problem with that in a game that’s fun and earns its keep.  My initial impression was that there was really a good solid game to explore here, something worth the bulk of an evening.  But over time it has felt to me like there are only a few basic strategies, based primarily on which large planet you are shooting for at the end.  I would be very surprised to see a winning strategy that ignored the large planets, for instance.  I agree with Jonathan that there are a lot of hard decisions to make.  But in the end it felt like it didn’t matter overly which way you went, as long as you didn’t trip on the path you chose.

Matt Carlson:  I am a big fan of almost all deckbuilding games, but Core Worlds didn’t manage to rise above the “background” noise of the rest of the pack.  I will start with a disclaimer that i only played a few games, and those were mostly without the initial bonus draft.  (I think that initial draft is necessary to give each deck a bit more character, and should be used nearly all the time.)  There are a few interesting things here, but much of my enjoyment of the deckbuilding mechanic is watching my cards develop into a more powerful machine.  With the way cards appear and the mechanics of the game, the game makes it quite difficult to pursue any particular strategy or card combination.  Sure, I can have a general thrust of where I want to go,  but many cards are too specialized to make them trustworthy.  While an early card that gives bonuses to having heroes might make for a decent strategy, one that gives a bonus to medium sized ships is nearly useless as the odds of getting it to “work” more than once (if that) is extremely low.  As Jonathan said, every card does matter – having one that is unlikely to set up a decent combination later means several cards in the deck are not all that useful (to me).
There is also the issue of (essentially) three different types of resources that must be managed – energy, troops, and ships.  Having to manage levels of all three resources constricts deck possibilities even further and is yet another way to inhibit deck specialization.
I did not experience the long games that Jonathan saw, although we were near the 60 minute mark at times.  The other players (primarily high school students) of the game enjoyed it, but it didn’t grab them like some other recent games we’ve played.  The game reminds me of my issues with another deckbuilding game, Ascension.  While they are solid games and have their strengths, I am looking for more control over my deck than either of them provide.

Larry Levy:  I’ve played this once and my impression was that it’s a quality game, but that it’s not really aimed at me.  It’s a kinder, gentler deckbuilder, which is about as much as I can take, but it’s still deckbuilding, which doesn’t come naturally to me.  There’s a good deal of text on the cards and it will take you a few games before you can deal with it in a rapid fashion.  There are also some long-term strategies which need to be assimilated and that will take some time as well.  I like games with learning curves, but I need to enjoy the path which will take me there.  With Core Worlds, I didn’t feel that would be the case.  In fact, at the halfway point of my game, I was ready for it to end.  If I belonged to a group which was determined to play this half a dozen times over the next few weeks, then I’d probably deal with it and wind up with a game that I kinda liked.  But with so many games that I like right now, I don’t see any reason to put in time with this one.  Those who are more attuned to deckbuilding would probably be more receptive and find that this might well hit their sweet spot.

Patrick Brennan: You start with a set number of actions each turn and energy equal to the worlds you’ve conquered so far. From your hand of 6, you deploy your ship and infantry cards, spending an action for each card plus the energy denoted by the cards. The more powerful each card (eg the more infantry a card is worth), the more energy it costs. You then spend another action to conquer a world in the middle. Worlds provide energy in future plus VPs. The more energy it provides, the more ships and infantry you’ll need. So you also spend actions drafting even better cards (which will use the same 1 action to deploy, but provide more oomph). So the tradeoff throughout the game is when to buy more energy versus when to buy more troops for later bigger worlds and the saving of future actions. Any cards deployed but not used for conquering hang around to next turn (hoping for better choice). There’s 10 rounds and the cards in the middle for buying (refreshed between rounds) get more powerful every 2 rounds (ie there’s 5 Innovation style decks to draw from). The game worked fine. There are other decisions to make in terms of do I take cards with no special powers for more points/power, or take cards with special powers I can use, so then you work towards combinations. The last deck has Puerto Rico style bonus buildings which require lots of oomph but deliver lots of victory points, so you aim towards buying one or two of these, tailoring your purchases along the way towards maximising those bonus VPs (eg +1VP per ship in your deck). Like most deckbuilders, you want to trim your deck early (cards buying worlds can “settle” those worlds and disappear from your deck, meaning your new more powerful cards will come out more often). I’ve only played with 3 players where the game lasts the right amount of time. It seems pretty standard for the genre but is done well and worth exploring.


4 (I love it!):
3 (I like it): Jonathan Franklin, Patrick Brennan
2 (Neutral): Nathan Beeler, Matt Carlson, Larry Levy
1 (Not for me):

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3 Responses to Core Worlds Review

  1. Thank you so much for the review of CORE WORLDS, guys! It is very appreciated.

    If you don’t mind, let me make a few comments:

    On game length:
    The Core Worlds box indicates 60-120 minutes. It probably should have said “25 minutes/player” (which we did with Outpost, since that scales 2-9 players). This is the closest approximation to game length. Once you have played a few times, a 4 player game should no more than 90 minutes.

    Sweet spot for number of players:
    This is a tough one. With 3 players, it’s easy to see what each player is doing and where their strategy is moving…but you don’t get to see all the cards in the game. With 5 players, you see all the cards, but it’s hard to keep track of what everyone is doing…and knowing this is rather important, as counter-drafting and countering-strategies is important to win. Personally, I like 3-4 players, as it’s a good balance of time to play and the ability to see what each player is doing.

    Deck-building and Resource Management:
    The game is obviously deck-building, but also resource management. There are actually 5 resources to manage in the game, and each one is quite important: Energy, Fleet Strength, Ground Strength, Action Points, Cards-in-Hand. Forgetting any one of these at any time is a recipe for disaster, both tactically (i.e. you won’t be able to invade that planet that you needed to get before your buddy gets it) or strategically (i.e. you can’t get World Ship since you ran out of actions/energy/cards to do so).

    Andrew Parks is a brillant designer and great guy. I’d like to direct you to his Designer Diary for Core Worlds, which he did right around the release for the game at the end of last year:

    Thanks again for the review! It is greatly appreciated…

    Stephen M. Buonocore
    Stronghold Games LLC

  2. Andrew Parks says:

    Thanks for the review, guys! I just wanted to add that over time, you will indeed discover strategies beyond those dictated by the final Core Worlds, although those of course are a great starting point. We played a 4-player session recently where all the Core Worlds were snatched up, and two players had each grabbed 2 Core Worlds all for themselves. However, the player who won the game actually had 0 Core Worlds. He had simply grabbed enough VPs throughout the game, including 3 Luxury Worlds (Sector 4) and a bunch of Prestige Cards. As you continue to explore the galaxy, you will discover lots of new ways to thwart your rivals! :-)

    Andrew Parks
    Quixotic Games LLC

  3. Andrew Parks says:

    Thanks for the review, guys. I just wanted to add that there are indeed scoring strategies beyond those provided by the Core Worlds, although those are a great starting point. We recently played a 4-player game where all the Core Worlds were snatched up, and two of the players had each managed to grab two Core Worlds for themselves. However, the player who won the game actually had 0 Core Worlds. He had secured a good deal of VPs along the way, including 3 Luxury Worlds (Sector 4) and several Prestige Cards. As you explore the galaxy, you will continue to find new ways to thwart your rivals! :-)

    Andrew Parks
    Quixotic Games LLC

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