Subastral joins the crowded field of set-collection card games, bringing a novel mechanic where the cards in your hand never go directly on to your tableau. It’s a quick-playing title with a thoughtful design, but does ask you to cope with a fair amount of randomness that can foil a strong strategy.
Designed by the same duo behind Fleet, Fleet: the Dice Game, and the brand-new Three Sisters, Subastral is a sort of spiritual sequel game to 2020’s Stellar, also by Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle, but simplifies the earlier game’s more convoluted rules on card acquisition and placement. As in the earlier game, Subastral distinguishes between three places where cards can exist: Your hand, your tableau on the table, and the center row of cloud cards. On your turn, you’ll always play something from your hand onto one of the cloud cards in the center, and then will take cards from another cloud in the center, either playing the cards to your tableau or putting them into your hand.
The cards, called biome cards, show eight different ecological habitats that you’ll try to collect over the course of the game. Every time you get a card showing a new biome, you create a new column in your tableau to the right of those you’ve already created; if you get a card of a biome you already have, you add that card to the existing biome. The order in which you create those columns will have significant consequences for scoring, so deciding which cards to take early in the game is a major part of Subastral strategy. The cards aren’t all equally common in the deck, coming in low, medium, and high frequencies.
Whether you get to play cards to your tableau or put them in your hand depends on locations. Biome cards have numbers from 1 to 6 that aren’t related to their biomes. When you play a card from your hand, you play it to the matching cloud number, then choose to take cards from any of the other five clouds. If you take from a higher-numbered cloud, you put the cards into your tableau. If you take them from a lower-numbered card, you put them into your hand, and also take the top card from the biome deck into your hand. You do need to take cards into your hand sometimes, because they’re the currency you use to get cards in future turns, and if you ever run out of cards in your hand, you draw one card from the biome deck and do nothing else, which is the equivalent of losing a turn. Whether you take cards into your hand or to the table, you must take all the cards from the cloud, so you may be taking cards that help you less or even cost you points.
Your tableau scores two ways that tend to work against each other. One is by rows: Each row scores based on how many cards are in it, counting from the left, in an uninterrupted string. If you skip a column, the string breaks, and no cards further to the right count. Points for rows follow the triangular number sequence, so if n is the number of cards you score in a row, you get n(n+1)/2 points, which is spelled out in the rulebook. (Thus a full row of 8 cards is 8*9/2=36 points, the sum of all digits from 1 through 8.) The other way you score is by columns: You find your two longest columns, and each card in those columns scores points equal to its placement in the tableau (so the leftmost column’s cards are worth 1 point, the next column is 2, and so on). If there’s a tie for the second-longest column, you pick the one that’s furthest to the left—that is, that’s worth fewer points per card.
The conflict inherent in the scoring is what makes Subastral so interesting to play, regardless of player count. The quirky way in which you play cards and take them is easy to think your way past, but maximizing your scoring is an ongoing challenge. Getting a rare card in one of the leftmost columns makes it easier to push your longer columns towards the right, where they’re more valuable, but make it harder to complete rows beyond your first one. You need those rare cards to complete rows of eight, however, so you often have to consider those tradeoffs—and the randomness of the deck means you may never get a shot at a particular biome. You change the size of the deck by player count, so the game plays from two to five without huge changes in the odds of seeing a particular biome on your turns.
Subastral is light, playing in under a half hour, as little as 10 minutes for a two-player game, and it’s a small-box game that’s easy to take with you. It’s a “filler” game in the industry vernacular, something you play when you don’t have time for a longer or more involved game, but a fun one with great art and easy-to-learn rules.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.