The Subastral board game is a small box card game for 2-5 players. It takes about 30 minutes to play and is recommended for ages 10+. But gamer kids a bit younger will probably be fine with it after a play.
Comparison site Board Game Prices lists multiple retailers delivering it (UK) for around £20, which feels a little steep for what you get: a scorepad and 112 cards (seven of them oversized). But the card and box art are nice and the component quality decent.
The theme has absolutely no bearing on the game, which is wholly abstract. While the name and box cover give off a sci-fi vibe which simply isn’t there. What you actually get is a pack of numbered cards in eight suits, along with a few cards that help with table layout etc. That said, the artwork is gorgeous and the cards include nice little factoids about the various biomes they represent (savanna, rainforest, tundra etc).
Teaching the Subastral board game
Subastral is one of those simple card games where it’s almost easier to just start playing than spend time teaching. You choose from one of two actions on your turn, both of which become routine after doing them once or twice. The complexity comes in what cards to take and what to do with them. And you’ll really need to score a game before that really sinks in. luckily, it’s a very quick game.
The central play area has the card draw pile and six numbered placement card, which are seeded with one/two cards each during setup. Each player starts with three random cards from the deck in hand. On your turn, you always lay a card to one of the numbers in the middle, then take all the cards from one of the other numbers. If you take a pile left of where you placed, the cards go into your hand. From the right, they go directly into your score area/tableau. If you place into the left or rightmost piles, you get slightly different choices. But the concept remains the same (cards to hand or score area).
Taking cards to hand gives you more choice of what to play on later turns. Which can be hugely important, as you’re usually looking for specific cards. But it’s also a useful tactic to get cards away from other players. One way to score points is by collecting different suits. And not all suits are created equal. For example, in a two-player game, the number of cards in each suit ranges from 4-8. So, with a bit of luck, denial is a potential strategy.
Alternatively, take the pile (or single card) for your scoring area. If multiple cards, you choose the order to play them. But only the suit is relevant (card numbers are purely used for placement in the main area). Your tableau can have eight score piles, one for each suit. Once you start a suit, extra cards in it will be added to that pile. And the order is important, as both ways of scoring take the suit’s position (from left to right) into account. Once laid, the order can’t be altered. So the first card you lay will always be in the leftmost (number 1) slot.
(Roughly) when the deck runs out, it’s time to score. This is done in two ways (sound the ‘clever Knizia-esque scoring’ klaxon). First, sets (or rows): you get points for each set of cards you have (from 1 card (1 point) to 8 (36 points), with the caveat each row must start at card slot 1 and have no gaps. So, if your second row has cards in rows 1,3,4,5,6,7,8, sorry – that space in column 2 means you’re only getting 1 point for a one-card row.
Now score your two longest columns. Longest means most cards, with ties going to the column furthest to the left. So if your 1st, 3rd and 8th column all have three cards, you’ll be scoring columns 1 and 3. Upsetting, as the column scores its position multiplied by the number of cards in it. So in this example, you’ll score 3+9 for 12. And miss out on 24 points from that eighth column. Hence, what you want is lots of full rows of eight cards. Which also have the longest columns on the right. Good luck with that! Highest score wins.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: It’s nice to find a modern game with a smart idea, but doesn’t over or under do it. Fails for me include long-winded euros which rehash too many old ideas around one new one (such as Underwater Cities). Why bury your smart mechanism as an also-ran element of a three-hour grind-fest? Or games which are a mechanism, waiting for a game (see Splendor, Spice Road etc). I think it’s insulting to new gamers’ intelligence to think they can’t handle both at once. Subastral delivers a quick, unique-feeling experience, with some nice ‘aha’ moments. A proper game, with depth and replayability growing from interaction.
- The thinker: As filler card games go, this is a good one. You usually have genuine choices to make and it feels as if you’re influencing the game. That said, there’s a little too much luck of the drawer for it to become a favourite. And with two players it is a little short and zero sum. It’s not a bad two-player game, but it didn’t work for me. But with more, it’s a fun and interactive filler card game.
- The trasher: While Subastral isn’t exactly a take-that game, a good (read: winning) player will never ignore what their opponent is collecting. However, this can create the ‘who’s to my right?’ problem. If the player to my right isn’t looking/ thinking, quids in! I’ll probably get what I want. But if they’re like me, I’ll be starved of opportunities. Either way though, it’s a real brain burner. You have to score both ways (at least a bit) to win. But it’s hard! The ‘clever’ scoring is a bit too much of the game to make this a favourite – but I’ll play it.
- The dabbler: I had no idea what was going on in the first game. And kind of still didn’t after the second one. And it didn’t help that the colour palette went from blue to brown. The pretty cards drew me in. But then you realise the important part is actually hard to see at all! I’ve managed to avoid a third game so far…
Key observations: The Subastral board game
Renegade Game Studio is successful publisher, with several BGG Top 100 games. But it was only founded in 2014 and sometimes it shows. Here, the only relevant card info is the suit and number. This info is squeezed into a tiny corner, with small/thin icon on nondescript colours. Worse, the potentially useful card reference on the back of the rulebook shows the (even more wishy-washy colour-wise) whole card of each suit, rather than the icon.
Then there are the oversized cards used as table props. These look lovely. But placed as intended take up a ridiculous 2.5+ feet of real estate. It’s no surprise there has already been a request for smaller ‘cloud cards’ on BGG. As well as a few player-made rules to fix some distribution issues with the two player rules. So while it looks super pretty on first look, there are quite a few niggles under the surface. nothing that can’t be overcome. But at £20 for a card game, I’d like the polish to go beyond the cosmetics.
In terms of gameplay, the only real issue is whether the level of trickiness in scoring is undermined by the amount of luck of the draw. This will come down to personal taste. And with a play time this low, I think it’s absolutely acceptable. But if your group strongly prefers skill over luck, it may be a pass.
Finally, from a two-player perspective, I’d have liked to see a variant that uses more cards or less suits. Something like the 7×7 variant in Kingdomino. The game works with two, but it’s hard to get much of anything going due to the restrictive nature of the card deck. So while fun, it doesn’t quite feel as good as a game with more.
I’ve enjoyed my plays of Subastral and it will definitely be staying in my collection. I’m a sucker for a simple, elegant game with clever scoring and this is exactly that. Would I have preferred it in a smaller box with a lower price tag and better colour choices/iconography? Sure. And would I have liked more thought going into the two-player experience? Absolutely. But the fact these things don’t get in the way of me giving Subastral a solid recommendation says just how clever and satisfying the rest if it feels.