Universal Rule: Preview

Fairway has a long history with playing 4X games. 4X means “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.”  And with the release of Civilization VI, it only seems fitting to preview than Button Shy’s upcoming wallet game: Universal Rule. It’s a space-themed, 4X game in 18 cards.

Universal Rule is a three- to five-player, space-themed, 4X microgame designed by Chip Beauvais and coming to Kickstarter this week.

Initial Impressions ^

  1. There is a huge amount of game in these 18 cards. It’s amazing that it really only uses 17 of those cards create the feeling of a full fledged 4X game.
  2. Each card is a two-sided, multi-purpose card, but they’re well designed and intuitive considering how much and how varied the game play information is on them. Good, intuitive graphic design
  3. The building out of your system is a lot of fun and lots of people will find the press-your-luck battles fun too
  4. It’s an truly portable, relatively quick game

Game play ^

In Universal Rule, players are leaders of different factions competing to rule the local planetary systems. The entire game consists of seventeen planet cards, one “Universal Rule” card, and, in my case, a self-supplied set of tokens  for the in-game currency.

Most of the game centers around the seventeen planet cards.  Each card has two sides: standard and upgraded planet. In addition, each card has two “cost,” “attack,” “production,” victory point values as well as two special powers, in each case, one set is for the standard and the other is for the upgraded planet.

At the start of the, each player starts with three credits and is dealt three of the planet cards and selects two of them to keep. The remainder are shuffled together and form the exploration deck. The game is then played over a series of turns until someone score enough points to win.

On your turn, you can do one of five actions: explore, colonize, upgrade, produce and attack.  To explore, you pay one credit to the bank and drawing a card from the exploration deck.  To colonize, you pay the “cost” of the standard planet in your hand to the bank and play it face up in front of you.  To upgrade, you pay the cost difference from the standard and upgraded planet to the bank and then turn it around.  To produce, you collect the total production value of your colonized planets.

For each of these actions, you will also declare a “follow cost” (usually the number of planets you have, but always at least one credit). Other players can pay you the follow cost (in addition to the action cost) to perform the same action.  If they don’t follow, they collect one credit instead.

Finally, you can use one of your planets to attack another player’s planet.  At a basic level, this is a comparison between the attack values of the planets. However, each player gets an opportunity to play cards from their hand to add a “fleet” to the fight.  The fleet’s attack value is equal to the standard attack value of cards you play.  Each player also gets to contribute credits to the fight.  Each credit adds one attack.  Fleet and credits from players are revealed simultaneously and are added to those players’ attack/defense value.  In addition, other players can come to the aid and defense of either player by contributing their own fleet or credits to the fight.

When the battle is over, any spent credits are returned to the bank and fleet cards are discarded. If the attackers are victorious, the player who had the largest attack value takes the Universal Rule card (worth 6 points).  If the defenders are successful, anyone contributing at least one card or one credit gets a free explore action.

The game continues until someone has the requisite number of victory points, depending on player count.  You earn points from planets (number of stars), the Universal Rule card (6 points), credits (1 point per five credits), and some special powers.  In addition, if you’re just barely short of the point requirement, you can attempt a fleet victory by bringing in your fleet (cards in hand) for 1/2 point per unit, but you’ll lose if another player can bring a larger fleet.

On the green ^

The 4Xs.  It’s hard to overstate this: cramming such a complete 4X game into 17 cards is quite the feat.  In particular, we enjoyed the exploration and colonization mechanics a lot. For me, I really wanted to play the game like I play Civilization games: expand and explore and capitalize on the planetary system I established. Going to war felt… so… destructive. But it was definitely a necessary component of the game. And that’s hardly a fault.

The Follow Action.  This little bit of economics is a nifty bit of game design. Letting players establish a follow cost to perform actions moves the game along quickly and provides all the players opportunities to play when it’s not their turn. There’s almost no downtime in Universal Rule. It also fixes the first-player advantage since the last player will have either taken a bunch of actions or collected a bunch of credits. Games like Tiny Epic Galaxies also deploy this idea, but Universal Rule’s is very intuitive: players picked up very quickly on it and no one forgets to take the follow action or collect their coin.  Well done!

Multipurpose cards.  The cards convey so much information in a very concise manner. It is a great example of how to design cards that can be deployed in many different ways. In this case, the cards are used including as two different planets and as fleet cards.  The iconography and designs are intuitive and easily teachable.

Play time and learning time.  This game is pretty easy to teach and plays quickly.  Even with higher player counts, none of our games went much more than about 25 minutes, especially once people got into a groove.

Where it comes up short ^

If I have one gripe its that that Universal Rule card swings the scores a lot. The Universal Rule card amounts to almost half the necessary points. This fact combined with the “fleet victory” option means that sometimes victories come out of nowhere.

On the green ^

I like Button Shy’s wallet games. I’ve backed a bunch on Kickstarter and a number of scored well on TIGR.  But Universal Rule has certainly distinguished itself. The game features an amazing amount of game play considering how few components there are: essentially seventeen cards. There’s a great deal of depth of strategy at various levels of the game and a real feeling of player choice in deciding what to build, when to follow, and when to attack. This game will not disappoint fans of other 4X games like Civilizations. And this one has the benefit of being ultra portable and relatively quick to play.

Universal Rule is in the hole for a Birdie! ^

Fairway was provided a copy of Universal Rule in order to write this preview but was not otherwise compensated for this opinion. Ryan Sanders is media manager for Button Shy and a regular contributor to The Indie Game Report, but did not contribute to the review or writing of this piece.

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