This is the thirteenth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1704 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,175,279.81 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Our next random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is Lew Pulsipher’s Doomstar, by LargeVisibleMachine. Its tagline in the bundle reads:

The hidden unit board game of strategy and cunning

A board game, you say? This wouldn’t be one of those games that requires multiple humans in order to play, would it?

Reader, it is not! Or rather, it is, but there’s also a single player tutorial campaign and skirmish options against the AI, as well as support for online play. All of which is to say that, unlike some recent entries in the series, I can actually play this one!

I admit I had to look up who Lew Pulsipher is. Apparently he designed several board games in the 1980s, including Britannia, a light historical war game that has spawned several imitators. With Doomstar, he’s gone for a science fiction theme, with players moving their different strength spaceships on a chess-like grid. Well, I say chess, but apparently Doomstar is closer to Stratego, which I have never played. Players can see where their opponent’s ships are, but not which ships they are, and since higher strength ships always defeat lower strength ships, this leads to a lot of bluffing as each player tries to suss out where the threats are hiding. Victory comes if the enemy command ship is destroyed. As the weakest unit, the command ship can be destroyed by any other ship. If you can find it.

Usually, players can only move one ship one space in a cardinal direction per turn. This would make the game very simple, were it not for two exceptions to this rule. The first are black holes which feature on some boards. These can’t be entered, but moving next to them lets a ship slingshot around it one extra space. Honestly, I found these confusing at first, as it was hard to tell exactly how they affected movement, especially when multiple black holes were close together so slingshot maneuvers could be chained together. During the tutorial mission covering this, I often got attacked with moves I didn’t think were possible, and it took me several attempts before I started to understand. The user interface, which seems designed for touch rather than mouse control, didn’t help. But once I got it, I appreciated the extra strategies that black holes enable.

The second exception to the single-space movement comes in the form of fighter units. These are relatively low strength, but can move in a straight line as far as desired, and players can move two fighter units per turn (but doing so reveals them as fighters to the opponent). With proper positioning of fighters, one fighter squadron can fly onto an enemy unit to reveal it, then a second squadron can fly to the same space as reinforcements, letting the two squadrons work together to destroy a larger ship that would have defeated a single squadron. Add in some black holes, which let fighters turn their straight flight line 90 degrees and keep flying, and some cool surprise attacks become possible. Some other special units round things out: minefields can’t move but will destroy most ships that enter them (light fighters being an important exception), roving bombs can kill any unit they attack but succumb to any ship if they are defending, and the titular Doomstars are massive flagships that can defeat nearly any other unit.

The campaign included in the game is really just an extended tutorial. The computer AI is not that good, but most tutorial missions offer lopsided engagements in order to teach about specific units and moves. Even when outnumbered, or after making some poor judgments that left me without my most powerful ships, I found that careful use of fighter squadrons allowed me to get units into the enemy’s back lines to search for and eliminate their command ship. It’s fun to win against the odds this way during the campaign, but when finally facing an even battle at the end, it’s disappointing that the AI doesn’t put up much of a fight. Skirmishes against the AI can be played at any time but they’re not very rewarding.

So I looked to online play, but as I feared, there are few opponents to be found. I was actually matched with another player for asynchronous play, but it’s only as I write this a day later that I see they’ve made their first move. I don’t think Doomstar lends itself well to asynchronous play anyway, because you want to be watching your opponent’s moves to try to suss out where their units are. You need to pay attention to which units aren’t moving, since they might be minefields, and which have been moving, and where. With a long break between turns, any memory of previous moves will be lost, which will make the match a lot less interesting. Fortunately, there’s the option to set up multiplayer games against your friends, which should be a lot more fun.

With an opponent playing at the same time as you, I could see Doomstar being a fun battle of wits. Matches should be quick, as long as no one deliberates for too long, and there’s potential to pull some fast moves on each other. Failed to guess your rival’s intentions? Just play another round, it’s quick enough. Pulling off a clever move and eliminating a powerful enemy ship feels great, and is accompanied by a satisfying animated explosion. Your deliberations will be accompanied by a pleasant, if short, original soundtrack too. The game page advertises this as an “exclusive five-song soundtrack from space composer Simon Heath”, which makes me hope that Simon Heath carries around business cards that say “Simon Heath: Space Composer”, ideally in a laser font set against a starfield backdrop. He probably doesn’t. But one can hope.

So, do you have a friend who got the bundle? If you fancy trying to outmaneuver them in a space battle, why not challenge them to a game of Doomstar? If you (or your friends) didn’t get the bundle, Doomstar is available for a minimum price of $9.99 (including Windows, Linux, and Mac versions), as well as on Steam. Just be sure to get someone to play with you, since the AI won’t keep you busy for long.

That’s 13 down, and only 1691 1728 to go!