[Note: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for a fair, unbiased review. Due diligence, full disclosure, and all that.]
One of the coolest moments in a board game player’s life comes when you’re immersed in a game, and someone walks by, stops, and simply must ask, “What is that?” Because you’re showing them something new.
Homeworlds got that reaction the very first time I played it at the office. A coworker walked by, saw what is essentially an array of colorful triangles on the table, and asked the question. They didn’t know what it was, but they were intrigued.
Honest praise doesn’t come much higher than that, does it?
Homeworlds is a difficult game to review, because there’s so much to cover. The rules are expansive and complex, even though the elements are simple. It’s three sets of Looney Pyramids each in four different colors: red, blue, green, and yellow. And yet, it might be the most involved, complicated game we’ve ever reviewed on PN Blog.
And to be fair, we’re going to spend way less time than usual covering the rules. There’s simply too much to explore, and to be frank, throwing a novella of rules at you doesn’t tell you about the game and why it’s worth your time.
So let’s try it a little differently today.
Homeworlds is chess plus Risk set in space. But unlike those games — or basically any strategy games with territory control and resource management elements — which require lots of different pieces and a host of tabletop real estate to enjoy, Homeworlds can easily be toted around and played on any flat surface. And it still manages to encapsulate all the complexity, variety, and tactical planning of those games.
You and your opponent are both playing spacefaring races that are trying to wipe the other player’s influence from the universe. You can do so by eliminating their fleets (through capture or destruction), destroying their Homeworld, or forcing them to leave their Homeworld defenseless.
There are specific rules governing how you build your fleet, how you travel to different star systems, and what you can do when you arrive there. These are all dictated by the colors of the ships in your fleet, which allow you to build new ships, travel, attack, or transform ships (swapping them out for ones with different abilities).
Any pieces not currently in use by the players sit in a communal bank, waiting to be pulled and deployed as either new star systems or new ships. (I love this aspect of the game. It’s like every time you travel to a new star system, you pull that place out of the ether and place it onto the table in front of you. You essentially make each game space you need to use.)
The communal bank adds a third player of sorts to the table, since you must always keep an eye on the bank to not only manage your resources but prevent your opponent from capitalizing on your moves. For instance, you must pull the smallest sized pyramid available for a given color. But size of the pieces does matter. So if you impulsively pull the last small green pyramid, you’ve left the bank open for your opponent to grab a medium or a large pyramid, leaving them with a more powerful ship than you.
Trust me, it’s a lot to take in at once, like the first time you play chess and you’re overwhelmed trying to remember how the little horse-shaped ones move while all the other pieces are doing their own thing. Unless you watch a detailed how-to video, your first few games of Homeworlds are going to be a wash. Because, like chess or Risk, there are important steps you need to take first before you can really get into the game.
But those early learning sessions are still great fun. You slowly drink in all the rules. You figure out choosing your Homeworld can affect the entire scope of the game (by determining how many or how few spaces away your opponent’s homeworld is). You puzzle out devious little tricks like sacrificing one ship in order to take multiple actions, sometimes even undoing that sacrifice in the same term, like you’ve built a perpetual motion machine or found a loophole in the rules.
As the game progresses, what was an overwhelming jumble of complexity becomes an elegantly balanced logic tree of possible options unfolding in front of you.
Catastrophes you might have accidentally caused in earlier games — or studiously avoided in later ones — become tactical moves you intentionally inflict in order to tilt the battle in your favor. Any reader who has sacrificed a piece in chess in order to capture a more important piece from their opponent knows exactly what we mean here.
That fluidity of play, the endless potential to affect the game, makes Homeworlds as exciting and dynamic as possible. In Risk, for example, one country is always the same number of moves from another. But in Homeworlds, an aggressive play can make the trip from your Homeworld to your opponent’s Homeworld perilously quick.
This game will undoubtedly be daunting at first. The instructional booklet alone is two or three times bigger than that of any other Looney Labs game I can think of. But when you get past that, you’ll find a game that is endlessly rich, challenging, and satisfying, one where every new game feels like a positive step forward.
You get to look out at that same eye-catchingly baffling array of colors and shapes that made someone stop and ask you “what is that?” and in an instant, you see moves, countermoves, chances to be taken, and gambits to be foiled.
And that’s pretty cool.
I don’t think there’s another game in the expansive Looney Pyramids library that gets so much out every aspect of the pyramids. The color, size, and arrangement of each is absolutely essential to the gameplay, and choosing the wrong pyramid at the wrong moment could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Homeworlds perfectly captures everything great about strategy games, tosses aside extraneous game boards, tokens, and pieces, and delivers a killer play experience at a fraction of the price.
[Homeworlds is available from Looney Labs and select online vendors for $20, and is part of PuzzleNation’s 2020 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide, so be sure to check out this game and other offerings from Looney Labs in this year’s edition of the Gift Guide!]
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