Ain’t nature grand?
I think it is. All of the beautiful landscapes that are out there. Nature photography is some of the best photography out there.
And nature games, too!
There’s been a bit of a renaissance in nature-themed games in the last few years.
I just reviewed the new card game Earth that’s all about the flora on this wonderful planet.
What about biomes?
Do you even know what a biome is?
I know you do. I was just testing.
(I have faith in you).
Subastral is a card game about the biomes that make up the Earth and is a fitting companion to that other game.
Some might think that I planned this! (They may or may not be right, I will never tell).
(Editor – “That might be giving you too much credit”)
Subastral was published in 2021 by Renegade Games and was designed by Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle. The gorgeous artwork was done by the incomparable Beth Sobel.
It plays 2-5 players and is a great go-to game for a lunch or starting/ending a game night.
Especially because it plays 5 players, meaning it can work for those awkward times when you have too many players but not enough to split up into two games!
How does Subastral work?
Let’s take a look.
Subastral is a set collection game with a bit of a twist.
Or at least a bit of a wrench in the works.
Six cloud cards are placed in a row numbered 1-6. The biome deck is placed at one end and the Sun card is placed at the other end.
Each player will be dealt three biome cards.
Finally, six cards are dealt to the clouds, one card per cloud. Then two more cards are dealt to the clouds, being placed on the cloud that matches the card’s number. If the same number is revealed, draw until you get a different one, shuffling the other card back in.
Things are ready to begin!
On your turn, you will choose a card from your hand and play it onto the cloud matching the card’s number. You then decide which cards you want to pick up from a different cloud.
If you choose a cloud to the left of the cloud you played on, then you place the cards in your hand and draw another one. This is really the only way you will replenish your hand (if you find yourself out of cards somehow, then you just spend a turn drawing one card, but that is…suboptimal).
If you choose a cloud to the right, then you will be placing the cards you take into your journal.
What is the journal?
This is where you are collecting your biome sets. There are 8 biomes in the game.
When you journal, you place the card in the matching biome of your journal. If you haven’t journaled that biome yet, then you place it on the right end of your journal. You can’t break up your previously-journaled biomes. You have to place the new one on the end (though you can choose the order if you pick up multiple biomes that you haven’t journaled yet).
This will be important for how you score, and is part of the brain-burn this game can give you.
Once you are done drawing or journaling, then you draw the top card and place it on the newly-empty cloud. Then you check the clouds.
Are there at least two clouds with multiple cards on them?
Then you’re done. Next player!
If there aren’t, though, then you keep drawing, placing the card on the same-numbered cloud as the card. Do this until you have two clouds with multiple cards.
(We play a house rule where if you keep drawing the same number, you move the third card to the next cloud. This prevents the next player from getting a huge windfall of cards if you kept drawing a 4 card, for example. Keep in mind that this is a house rule, though and not in the rulebook).
That’s essentially it.
Play goes around the table until the “Game End” card that was placed in the deck as per the rulebook (depending on the number of players) is drawn.
Keep playing until the current round is finished (all players have had a turn that round) and then do one more round.
At the end of the game, the cards you’ve journaled are scored in two different ways.
Let’s show the above picture again so you can see it without scrolling.
First, the number of mixed sets is scored, counting from left to right.
The thing is, though, that the set has to go all the way across. As soon as there is not a card in the set, that set stops. It does not continue to the end.
What does that mean?
In the above picture, there is one set of 5 biomes (the first card in each column).
However, the next two sets are only 2 biomes.
That’s because there is no card in the third biome for that set.
It doesn’t matter that there are 4 cards in the fifth column. The mixed set stops as soon as there isn’t a card.
So that journal would score one 5-card set and two 2-card sets.
Set scoring is in a triangular sequence (1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36) depending on the number of biomes in it.
Secondly, you score matching sets of the two largest biomes you have (by number of cards).
Ties are broken from left to right.
However, the number of points each card in the biome gives you depends on what column that biome is in.
In the picture above, the largest biome is Temperate Forest. It’s in the fifth column.
Each card (4) in that biome will score you 5 points, so a total of 20.
You have a tie for second largest biome, at 2 cards. If a tie, the leftmost biome is used, so your 2nd-largest set is Chaparral in column 1.
You only get 2 points for that biome because it is in column 1 (so each card is worth 1 point).
That score will actually suck.
Anyway, whoever has the most points is the winner!
Is Subastral a stunning nature shot of remarkable beauty? Or is it a sewage-infested river just aching for a cleanup?
Subastral is such a sublime game, and so beautiful on the table too.
I can lose myself in the amazing Sobel artwork on the cards and have to be prompted to take my turn.
I like a lot about this game, but what I really like is the scoring.
It adds some substance to a card game that otherwise could get pretty boring.
Not only do the cards you pick up and journal mean something, but the order you do so does too.
There is a guide on the back of the rulebook for the biomes and how many of each biome are in the deck, even broken down by players!
For example, in a 4-player game, there are 7 Arctic Tundra cards in the deck, but there are 14 Subtropical Deserts!
That means you have to be careful when you pick up and journal certain biomes.
Maybe don’t start with Arctic Tundra, because you may not see a second or third one, and mixed sets depend on how many cards you have in the first biomes you take.
You can’t move them afterwards!
However, if you journal Subtropical Deserts later in the game, they won’t be in your first couple of columns, but they could score massive matching sets points for being the largest biomes in your journal. If they are in the 5th or 6th column (or the 7th or 8th, even better!), each card will give you a shit-ton of points (yes, I am still using that word).
Yes, it is a bit of luck in how the cards come out and with more players, will you even see those cards by the time it’s your turn? Or maybe you’ll get lucky and they’ll come out because of the previous player to you.
It’s a card game. There’s going to be luck.
The one issue I have with the game out of the box is that super-lucky “wow, I drew three 6s to refill the row, so the next player is going to get a bunch of cards for free” aspect.
I like the house rule about shifting a drawn card if that number has already been drawn that turn.
You can still get lucky and get a large card draw if a previous player had to play a card to an already full cloud, but it’s not as likely. They’re already having to make that decision for themselves on which card to play anyway.
I also like how quickly the game flows.
The gameplay is easy, it’s just the “which cards do I want to pick up or journal” that can be difficult.
Even at 5 players, the game is over in about half an hour.
There are still decisions to make, tactical ones that depend on the cards that are out there. Sometimes it can be a bit agonizing.
Do I pick up that set of cards with the card I really need, but it will also make my first column the largest biome I have? It’s late in the game, so do I suddenly want to make my largest biome worth 1 point each instead of 6?
Of course not…but I really need the other card that’s with it!
It’s not Brass-level brain burn, but you can feel a bit of a spark in there.
Even for as quick of a game as it is, the last round can drag a little bit as all of the players are min-maxing their play to figure out which ones will give them the most points (or will cost them points like above).
There aren’t so many choices that it takes too long, but it is noticeable.
You can’t plan ahead because the game state is constantly changing.
I’ve already mentioned the artwork on the cards, but as far as components go, the cards are of pretty good quality.
I haven’t sleeved them and they’re holding up pretty well.
There’s not a lot to say about the game because it is so quick but yet so delicious.
I haven’t tried Pinchback and Riddle’s 2-player game, Stellar, but this game makes me want to.
They moved from the sky to the planet around us, and with Subastral, they’ve made a real winner.
Give it a try if you get a chance (and don’t mind too much chance, but really, if you do, why are you playing a simple card game to begin with?).
This review was written after 5 plays
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