Moe's Game Table: Universal Rule Preview

Moe's Game Table: Universal Rule Preview

Publisher: Button Shy

Game Designer: Chip Beauvais

Players: 3-5

Playing Time: 30-45 minutes

Suggested Retail Price: $10


Pocket 4x

Button Shy continues down the winning path with their newest title Universal Rule, which launches on Kickstarter this morning. With a component count of just 18 cards, designer Chip Beauvais stuffs a lot of game into a small wallet. This is not a hollow boast either. What we get is a micro 4x game that fits easily in your pocket but doesn’t skimp on decisions or action, and it plays much bigger than you expect at first look.

Micro package, macro game

Forget any worries of having your next 4x experience being both a time and financial sink. Universal Rule serves up a tight, balanced and fast playing experience in a wickedly clever package for just $10. Shuffle the deck and deal the cards, then explore, colonize planets, squash opponents and take their money. Just another day’s work for a universal ruler.

The 18 card deck is comprised of 17 planet cards and one Universal Rule scoring card, which we’ll talk about later. While 17 cards may not sound super exciting, this straightforward design has a lot going for it. The cards are dual ended, with a basic planet on one end and an upgraded side when rotated, effectively doubling the planet count to 34.

Planet abilities are both intuitive and unique. Each has a differentiated cost, military strength and income ability making all of them exclusive assets. Dramatically increasing strategic potential and giving us a lot to explore in this tiny game.

A good economic tableau before upgrading

A good economic tableau before upgrading

Upgraded economic tableau

Upgraded economic tableau

Players receive three cards at the start, keeping two before discarding the last back into the draw deck. Your fledgling empire also starts with 3 coins in its coffers to get you going. During their turn, players carry out one of five different actions: Explore, Colonize, Upgrade, Produce and Attack.

Explore allows you to draw another card into your hand, which is limited to three cards. By paying a planets cost from your hand, you can colonize it into your tableau and begin reaping its benefits. If you pay the upgrade cost, rotate your planet and it transforms into a different entity. Produce nets cash from planetary income and possibly from special abilities, and the attack action is pretty obvious.

At the start of each player’s turn they first set a follow cost. This is a fee paid to you by other players who wish to carry out the same action you choose, out of turn. It cannot exceed the number of planets you have colonized, but must always be at least one coin. This is one way to build a small income stream and is not to be overlooked. Cash is not just for upgrading your planets, it also count towards victory points and can factor heavily in combat.

Basic planets are all worth one point and have an interesting mix of special abilities. The one exception is the ‘little moneymaker’ planet, which has no abilities but does live up to its name, providing the highest income once upgraded.

Upgraded planet values increase to an average of two to three points with one at four. The new abilities mostly allow you to leverage other players for more income, or increase your victory points in various ways.

There are a multitude of combinations for you to explore and because of that, concerns of a runaway leader easily emerging in the first couple of turns are valid. This is limited by the use of the follow action, a smart way in keeping the games balance in check and players involved with each turn. Downtime is always an enemy in 4x games, that’s not an issue in Universal Rule.

A strong military tableau

A strong military tableau

Another interesting design decision is in keeping hands and income capped to three cards and five income in hand, per planet in play. This also helps with balance and insures that everyone teeters right on the razors edge of victory. However, some bold decisions will be likely in order to push you over.

Getting those last, valuable victory points is oftentimes the product of combat, as is to be expected in a 4x game. Yes, you can and will win without fighting sometimes, but where’s the fun in that?

Combat is the standard comparison of planet military strengths to see who wins but some fun twists have been added to beef this up. As with any war, it takes finances along with military cunning to wrangle your way to the top.

To simulate this, cards in hand can be played to represent fleets deployed to the front line. You can further augment these forces by throwing cash into the fracas and even try your hand at a little coalition building.

Keeping in the spirit of a contested star system, everyone can add in their two cents to the battle, literally. Players can toss coins into the pot, allying themselves with whoever they feel it’s in their best interests to back. As in any game with this option, there is the potential for king making but I’ve not encountered it yet as everyone is usually looking to be fairly cutthroat.

Winning in combat gives you the Universal Rule card and a cool 6 points, possibly pushing you across the finish line if you time it right. If not, it becomes a big neon kick me sign that paints you as the target of everyone else’s ire. Hey, you knew the job was dangerous when you took it!

Back or pass?

Universal Rule is an intelligent and elegant design that is proof positive that you don’t need a hefty cardboard box to get a big game, they do come in itty bitty wallet size too. It’s a little thinky 4x micro game that plays macro and does it in about thirty minutes, give or take. Button Shycontinues to impress with each release, proving they are a small game publisher with a growing stable of strong and viable titles.

Each planet has its own unique feel and identity. Their mix of abilities at both the basic and upgraded levels means that there is a lot of strategic exploration and experimentation in every play. The numerous potential combinations offer immense replayability, a surprising find in such a small game.

Combat isn’t based solely on strength, but also your ability to garner support to increase your own power or in dethroning another leader. I really like how it involves everyone at the table while tacking on a bit of politicking in the process.

Designer Chip Beauvais has nailed it with this design. These 18 cards pack quite a wallop, a full 4x feel that stores in a wallet and fits in your pocket. Outstanding!

If you’re looking for a great little 4x game that eschews a high component count for ease of transport but doesn’t skimp on a surprisingly deep 4x experience, Universal Rule is one to back. With what you get for $10, it just can’t be beat.


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Note: A prototype of this game was provided to me for this preview.

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