Universal Rule – A 4x game in a tiny package that gets the job done

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Note: Universal Rule is on Kickstarter now through November 12!

4X – eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. These are games that I really love! You get out there, build an empire, try to take out the other players while also finding new things and managing resources. I love them on computers, I love them in cardboard and really I only have one problem with this genre as a whole. It takes to darned long to play these games! I wish I still had hours to dedicated to them (and sometimes I make the time) but most often I just don’t. Then along came Universal Rule.

Universal Rule plays with 2-5 people, in about 45 minutes for ages 12+. It’s designed by Chip Beauvais and published by Button Shy Games. And it does all this with eighteen freaking cards as part of the Button Shy Games’ wallet series. I’ve played the prototype and pre-Kickstarter print and play versions. There may be some changes to the production version of the game.

Editor’s Note: Button Shy Games are the publishers of my game Ninja – Silent but Deadly.

How to play

In Universal Rule, players are competing to colonize new worlds, exploit them for money or military power and by either cunning or force be the first player to reach the winning number of victory points. 15 points for three players, 13 for four players and 11 for five players.

To start off, there are 17 Planet cards and 1 Universal Rule card. The Universal Rule card is put aside and the 17 planet cards shuffled. Each player is dealt three Planet cards and will choose two to start the game with. The remaining cards, including those discarded by the players are then shuffled into the main deck.

Players will have to provide their own money counters (called Credits) for this game. There’s a hard limit of 25 credits per player. This can be taken care of by providing 1 dime, 2 nickels and 8 pennies per player. Or use something else. I prefer original M&M’s as you can eat them at game’s end.

Each of the 17 different planet cards have an ability that can be used when they are colonized (when they are played to the table). They also have a cost in credits (gold number), a military power (red number, which includes their fleet) and an income (green number) which shows how many credits they could potentially generate. Every non-upgraded planet is also worth 1 victory point, as shown by the star just under the name. When upgraded, the number of stars increases, increasing the total victory points that planet is worth. In addition to this, each Planet card can be rotated 180 degrees to be upgraded – offering generally larger numbers. There’s a cost to upgrading though. From these planet cards each player can determine everything they need to know about their galactic empire. The first player to reach or exceed the winning victory point number on their turn immediately declares themselves the winner.

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On a player’s turn, they can select one of five different actions. Other players can also follow all but one of these actions, for a cost. In a neat twist to other games that feature a similar role mechanic, the role doesn’t vanish when it’s selected (so that other players can also select it) and the players themselves determine the cost of following. To follow, the player sets the cost at a minimum of 1 and a maximum of however many planets they currently have colonized. They set this before they themselves take their action.  If a player decides not to follow, they take 1 credit from the bank. And what are these actions?

Explore: Here players can pay one credit to the bank and choose to draw a card (if any are available) from the deck and add it to their hand. You have a hard limit of 3 cards for your hand.

Colonize: Take a card from your hand and place it on the table. Pay the cost as indicated on the card and that planet is now colonized and in play. If you can afford the more expensive, upgraded side of the planet, you can put a planet directly into play, already upgraded. Other players may follow and pay your follow cost to you, and the cost of colonizing their planet to the bank.

Upgrade: Pay the difference in their planets initial colonize cost and the upgraded cost, then flip their planet card 180 degrees. They now use the upgraded military power and income numbers. When following, other players pay the follow cost in addition to the planet’s upgrade cost. You cannot downgrade a planet.

Produce: The player takes the credits generated by all of the planets colonized and in play. If other players choose to follow this action, they gain their planetary income before they must pay the follow cost – so it is possible to follow this action if you have no cash on hand to start with.

Attack: The one action that cannot be followed. Players select one of their planets to attack with. Let’s go more in depth with this action as combat involves all of the players.

The player doing the attacking picks another player’s planet to attack and then selects one of their planets to lead the attack. Those planet’s military value is where this attack will start. The winner is the one with the most military value, defenders winning all ties. Now comes the neat bit. Each player, starting with the attacker and going in turn order, can add their fleet and as many cards from their hands as they would like to add. To add cards, it’s always the fleet value of that card (signified by the little wings on the Military Power icon) and each card is played face down.

Next, players can add funds to the battle. Each player takes tokens into their hand equal to the number of fleets they possess on planets that aren’t currently the attacking planet or the defending planet. They secretly separate these tokens into funds they want to spend (their right hand) and funds they don’t want to spend (their left hand). Those numbers can be zero.

Now the reveal! At the same time (count to three) all players will reveal their credit support and also point to the player they are supporting – either the defender or the attacker. Now it’s time to total up and see who won. The attack value is the attacking planet’s military power plus all coins revealed by those siding with the attacker plus the fleet value of all cards contributed (played face down above).

The defense value is calculated the same way – the defending planet’s military power plus all coins revealed by those siding with the defender plus the fleet value of all cards contributed.

In this example, almost all of the other players, including my own daughter are siding with my attacker.
In this example, almost all of the other players, including my own daughter are siding with my attacker.

If the attack was successful, the defending planet is downgraded. If it can’t be downgraded, it’s destroyed (and added back into the main deck). The player who contributed the most (in coins, cards and planet’s military power) then takes the Universal Rule card, which is worth 6 victory points. If unsuccessful, each player that supported the defender and contributed at least 1 credit or played 1 card gets a free Explore action, in turn order. If the attacker had the Universal Rule card, it’s returned to the center of the table. Either way, all coins spent in an attack go to the bank and all cards played are discarded to the main deck.

And that is the game – play continues around the table until someone hits or exceeds the vp total needed to win. Quite a bit going on for a little game like this!

Why you should play

4x games can be a bit on the complicated side. While that’s certainly ameliorated by having only 18 cards in play, Universal Rule is not a simple little card game. There’s a lot going on here! Thankfully the graphic design choices put everything you’ll ever need about each world right on the card. That makes playing this game a lot simpler when everything you could possibly want to know is right in front of you on the table or in your hand. I love that this game turns an hours long 4x experience into less than an hour play time even with five players! I still feel like I’ve gotten my 4x experience in as well, which is gratifying.

I love the inclusion of following on other players actions (or at least earning a credit) as it keeps all of the players, even in a five player game, on their toes and thinking during each player’s turn. Everyone’s engaged – and if there’s combat? Woo boy, then everyone’s really engaged.

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Metal tokens do not come with this game.

There are a lot of interesting, sometimes stressful decisions to be made at any point in the game as well. The need to explore to have more cards (and potential colonized worlds) in your hand balances with the need to actually get some planets on the table and generate income. Do you add these worlds to your budding empire? Save the cards so you can properly defend or attack another player? Maybe you just need to expand your base so you can generate more cash. More cash means the ability to follow more often, so you can get more done! But then that depletes your ability to add money into an attack and grab the Universal Rule card for six victory points!

The special powers, unique military and credit values and the differing victory point values (once upgraded) of each planet mean that even after many plays of this game there’s still a good deal of replayability built right in.

Really, the most telling thing I can say about Universal Rule is that five minutes after getting soundly thumped in my first game I was thinking about different paths I could have taken and itching to get another play in as soon as possible. Chip and Button Shy Games have really hit this one out of the park – this could be the most game I’ve ever seen squeezed onto 18 cards. I’m saying that as someone who loves to play and collect tiny games. The ability to sit down and pull a legitimate 4x game out of my pocket, and I mean literally out of my jean’s pocket, is pretty amazing. Yes, you do have to add your own counters for the in-game cash, but that’s a trivial thing. A bag of M&M’s costs about eighty cents and two rolls of pennies costs exactly one dollar and each are just as portable as the game itself.

Universal Rule is currently on Kickstarter and can be had for $10. This is Button Shy’s 21st project on Kickstarter and they have a very solid track record of delivering good games on time.

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