9/10 A deck-building game greater than the sum of its parts.
I’ve played mostly 2-player, but also at 3 and tried a couple of fan-made solo variants.
Core Worlds, designed by Andrew Parks and published by Stronghold Games in 2011, is a deck-building game where each player takes control of a fledgling faction represented by a starting deck. The empire has fallen, and each faction scrambles to claim territory and allies for themselves, beginning at the outer regions and closing in on the prestigious Core Worlds.
Each player begins with a small starting deck belonging to their faction, which includes a unique hero card and a starting homeworld which will produce energy, the main currency of the game. You use energy to perform most actions such as deploying units from hand, buying new cards from the central offer, and invading planets. You also have a limited number of action points each round with which to perform these actions. The game takes place over 10 rounds, every 2 rounds exploring a different sector of the old empire, offering unique sets of units, action cards, and planets to conquer. To conquer a planet, you invade using your deployed units. A planet has some combination of ground strength and fleet strength that your units must equal or exceed to successfully invade. New planets can be worth points, increase energy generation each round, and offer new abilities.
After 10 rounds, players total their points and the player with the most points wins. As a side note, there’s a set of cards players can draft into their starting decks (replacing a couple of basic units to make room) before the game begins that are more interesting than their normal starting cards. I don’t recommend it for your first game, but I fully recommend it for every game after.
Core Worlds has a far-flung future theme where mankind has built a vast empire in space, filled with space ships and robots of all kinds. But really, you get an immediate sense of the theme by the stellar box art. The game’s art is without a doubt one of the first things to draw you in. The ships all look cool, the units look cool, and the planets sell the sense of traversing through space. I can’t understate that the choice to depict the planets from space instead of from the surface really enhances the theme. You feel more like a commander staring at a screen, eyeing the planets you want to conquer and managing the ones you’ve already claimed. The player dashboard also helps. It’s a nice take on the theme where there’s more focus on management, less on the chaos of battle with prolonged combat. Despite the theme, Core Worlds is a Euro at heart, but the theme works with the style instead of fighting against it with abstracted ideas.
For many gamers, deck-building is a divisive thing. You love it or you hate it. I think part of the issue is that some players were introduced to the idea in more abstracted, pure deck-building games such as Dominion or the original Thunderstone. Core Worlds was one of the (or was the) first games to use deck-building only as a base mechanism and add new ideas to the mix. The game is equal parts deck-building, resource management, and tableau-building. The cards don’t just break down into “buy power” and “fight power” the way a lot of early deck-builders did; the cards have a variety of abilities, offering many fun combinations (you also have no dud starting cards). The worlds you conquer are primarily where your energy comes from, while you focus on how to spend the energy and combo your cards instead of just playing out your hand and counting up how much money you have.
But there’s one idea here that truly sets it apart from other deck-building games, something that, even to this day, few games have ever explored, and that’s tableau-building. You don’t conquer worlds by playing your cards from hand, units go into your tableau, your War Zone, and wait for the exact moment you decide to use them. You can build up your forces and even wait another round for the perfect card to show up in-hand before invading. This build-up of units not only introduces a new layer of strategy to the deck-building genre but also helps reinforce the theme as your armies and fleets grow, ready to invade at your command. It also makes pulling off those satisfying combos easier, rather than relying on luck to draw the cards in the same hand. The trick is that you can’t just deploy all day and wait for the perfect conditions; the game is only 10 rounds and good worlds will be gobbled up by the other players if you wait too long.
As mentioned, the artwork, much of which is by Maciej Rebisz, is amazing. The graphic design, maybe less-so. It functions, but it’s maybe too light and pastel-colored for the gritty sci-fi setting. As for the physical elements, Stronghold has had a reputation for cheaper components, and it’s hard to ignore. The player dashboards are thin card stock, they’re not hard cardboard. The tokens are fine, but they’re not handled that much, the action and energy tokens are only slid around as needed. The cards are okay and have a linen finish. I’ve certainly seen worse, and the white border is nice as it hides the fraying edges after several plays.
One of the big problems is that the manufacturer used the wrong insert in the base game (an issue I don’t know if it was ever fixed in later printings), so you didn’t have a functional insert and had to use baggies to store the cards. Something that fans of Fantasy Flight are used to anyway. The first expansion, Galactic Orders, offers a larger box with a proper insert, but it’s fairly thin blank-white cardboard. Not a great insert. The outer box itself is also rather thin. It’s a good thing that the game, for all of its components, isn’t very heavy.
Rules Clarity and Balance
The rules aren’t bad, but there were a couple of areas I remember struggling with when I first learned the game. In particular, how you go about invading and all of the timing quirks that can arise when you have a lot of complicated abilities and action cards to play during the invasion. I seem to remember another rule that was a problem when I first started playing, but it’s been so long, I no longer remember what it was.
On the upside, the abilities are pretty easy to figure out. I don’t recall ever having trouble understanding how an ability worked. As far as balance, Galactic Orders included new versions of two base game cards that had been updated for improved balance, so if it’s of concern, you should investigate the expansion (spoiler, if you enjoy CW at all, get it, it’s a great expansion that adds some really cool ideas).
Worth mentioning, the game can be slow towards the end, as players have larger decks full of more complicated cards, and the core worlds themselves can be difficult to invade. For this reason, most players seem to recommend not playing at higher player counts. It’s about 90-120 minutes at 2-3 players, maybe faster if you play it a lot and know more of the cards by heart, but maybe slower for your first game since you’re also referring back to the rules. I’d recommend your first game be at 2-player. Even the rules warn against playing at 5 until players are experienced with the game.
For years, Core Worlds has been my favorite deck-building game, even though calling it a deck-building game unfairly dismisses the other mechanisms of the game which all play a large role, but such is the way of genres in board gaming. In truth, Core Worlds is a Euro game, a game focused more on strategy and tactics over luck. I look forward to seeing what the new sequel game, Core Worlds: Empires, is like.