Imperial Stars II is a big game in an unfortunately small package. The game sits in an interesting space between more straightforward tactical skirmish games, and heavier, not to mention much longer-playing, 4x and war games. It fires on enough cylinders—and offers enough fun, replayability, and asymmetry—to be a great choice for players who yearn to play epic space 4x games but don't have the time, and for players who long to play incredibly deep tactical war games, but might be intimidated by the learning curve of those games.
Strictly a two player affair, Imperial Stars II places players in control of either the Northern Union or Marisian Empire factions. While both factions share a common ancestor of the Terran Homeworld, neither is willing to share space with the other, leading to war wherever the two shall meet. The factions aren't just differentiated by color and name, though—both field different units. The Northern Union units tend to have stronger, slower moving ships with powerful Beam Weapons, while the Marisian Empire units tend to be more mobile and can field swarms of Fighters.
Players compete over control of the various Planetary Systems scattered around the game's map, of which four are included in the box. Unless one player can manage to capture and control the other player's Homeworld, the winner of the game will be determined by who controls, and has colonized, the most Planetary Systems. In addition to providing victory points, players also gain Operations, the game's currency, by constructing colonies in the Planetary Systems, as well as gaining powerful, one-shot abilities the first time each Planetary System is colonized . The struggle over those systems forms the core of the conflict in Imperial Stars II.
Claiming victory isn't as simple as grabbing as many Operations as possible and swarming your opponent, however. The total number of Operations a player has at their disposal is not only determined by the number of colonies that they control, but via a semi-random Operations draw, which also acts as Imperial Stars II's timer. Each turn, a player draws one Operations chit, ranging in value from 4 to 8/3 (the 8/3 chit forces the player to chose 8 Operations or 3 Operations plus the option to build a Base), and adds this number to their colony total. This means that players need to be able to try to maximize the effect of the Operations that they have on hand each turn, whether it be a plethora or a mere handful.
Players can also recycle their own ships that have been destroyed in order to gain a few precious Operations. At the end of each round, after both players have drawn all of their Operations chits, both players remove their lowest value chit from the game. Once the final chit is removed, if neither player has conquered the other player's Homeworld, the game ends and points are tallied.
The total number of Operations available each turn isn't the only unknown that players have to contend with. All of the ships available for reinforcement are kept face down, usually only to be revealed after a player has paid the Operations to put them in to play. Each faction's reinforcement pool contains the same ships each game, but there is no telling exactly when you will draw the Dreadnought or Heavy Carrier that you desperately need to turn the tide of battle. Even though a few draws may not go your way, eventually players will draw their heavy hitters, and planning around the ships that you do draw, especially when those plans bear fruit, is one of the most satisfying aspects of Imperial Stars II.
Each of the four included maps are the same size, but contain different Homeworld positions, and various terrain such as Asteroids, Nebulas, Dust Clouds, and Singularities. Some of the maps favor a more methodical, planned-out approach that allow you to see all angles of approach that your opponent can take while others, especially the map with Singularities running through the middle, will see ships sling-shoting fleets of ships across long distances in the blink of an eye. The cost of reinforcements vary from map to map as well, significantly increasing replayability, as well as letting players choose to play on maps based on their preferred play style.
A note on “chrome”: The biggest downside to Imperial Stars II are the maps, courtesy of the size of the box. The box is so small that the maps have to be double folded to fit into it. Unfortunately, that means that the maps come out of the box permanently creased, and it is difficult to get them to lie flat during play. One of the maps in our review copy was folded so tightly that it was ripped in the middle when it was packaged. The rest of the components are decent. The cardboard is thick and the dice are functional, if small, although the player aids are very thin. The game would greatly benefit from being upgraded to a larger sized box so that the maps only had to be folded once.
The bottom line:
Imperial Stars II is a great 4x/war-lite game that's let down by its production values. It does grand strategy on a small, streamlined scale and is perfect for players who want to get their war game fix yet are time limited. If you are interested in getting in to heavier war games, Imperial Stars II is a great place to dip your toe into the water without jumping fully into the deep end. There are interesting strategic decisions to be made throughout the game, and the four different maps add a good amount of replayability. Imperial Stars II would be a great candidate for a deluxe version, with board mounted maps and upgraded components.
Get this game if:
You like tactical skirmish games and want something with a broader scope, but aren't ready to jump into a full war game.
You like two player head-to-head games with asymmetrical factions.
You want to play out grand space battles but don't have all day in which to do so.
Avoid this game if:
You are looking for a full on war game or heavy 4x experience.
The copy of Imperial Stars II used for this review was provided by Victory Point Games.