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Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga

Score: 85%
ESRB: Not Rated
Publisher: Matrix Games
Developer: Worlds Apart Productions
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Card Games/ Turn-Based Strategy/ Board Games

Graphics & Sound:

I'm amazed at how the way we play games changes. The furor over collectible trading card games left me with a hankering for the kind of strategic, analytical gameplay that was the hallmark of serious games like "Magic: The Gathering" and even made an appearance in more kiddie fare such as "Yu-Gi-Oh" or other imitators. The real tragedy was trying to make your way through the comics store on a Saturday when a card tournament was in full swing. Forget it. Japanese subways have more elbow room...

If you loved the idea of a strategic card game, but wanted something a little more on your own time, Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga is right up your alley. And, if you want to see the natural evolution of the collectible card game genre (CCG), this is also a window into the future. I'll admit that as someone who has always loved handling the cards, I was skeptical about the translation to online play. Seeing the card art and the beautiful detail of the game environment made me a believer, and when you wrap in some great music and effects, the old cardtable starts looking pretty plain...


And let's face it, the hardest part about loving to play a card game is finding someone to play with you. Those of us sequestered in smaller towns may find that official tournaments pass us by, and player tournaments are not that frequent. Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga offers as deep an experience as you'll ever have in a CCG, but with the added benefit of an online gaming community, and a developing story.

The story element makes this more than just a game where opposing players throw cards down to capture, outscore or freeze out the other player. There is an epic space drama happening in Star Chamber, and it reminds me of an old shareware classic, "Galactic Conquest." There are themes of all kinds of sci-fi epics running through Star Chamber, and the goal of build, protect and conquer also plays heavily into the story. The really cool thing is that you do everything with a combination of resource development and card play. The resource development feels very much like a turn-based strategy game, but the cards add a great element of strategy missing from most turn-based games that rely on resources. Most times, whoever gathers the most resources and deploys troops strategically wins the day. Not so here.

Using cards, the tide of battle can turn quickly. Cards are drawn, played and discarded against various elements on the game field. Card effects are marked, and can in various situations strengthen a particular resource, speed up gameplay or guard against a particular enemy attack. Using spaceships, planetoids, citizens and heroes, Star Chamber builds a great space opera that binds together great strategy gameplay and decks of cards you can trade with other players or purchase from the online store. The element of trading cards makes this a complete package, and if you get bored playing the computer scenarios, you can go online against human players. This is certainly the card player's equivalent of digital cocaine, so don't say I didn't warn you.


The learning curve in Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga is fairly steep. A great tutorial introduces each element of the game, but you'll need a refresher before setting out on universal conquest. Learning how pieces move, how resources are built and how cards are played is simple enough, but trying to get each element working in harmony is like juggling saw blades. I thought I had a pretty good handle on the game after a while and as someone who has played my fair share of strategy and CCG forms, I expected to be a quick study in Star Chamber. The genius of the format is how it so smoothly combines two forms that haven't really lived together before now. Strategy gameplay is its own challenge, but the way cards can enhance or diminish resources makes for some pretty crazy moments at first. The cardplay also serves to make for a quicker resource game, which is awesome. Anyone who has spent much time in resource strategy games knows there is often a slow build up before a final battle where the superior force wins, but the cards make resources just one piece of the action.

There is always difficulty in learning a game as deep as Star Chamber, but the effort will pay off. Some great documentation on the web site helps to provide a reference point, and the ability to watch games in progress online also makes it easier to learn from others. Just don't expect to find this a "pick up and play" experience.

Game Mechanics:

What really impressed me about Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga was how it blurs the line between an online and offline game. In fact, many of the game modes are available without signing in, in case you want to play scenarios or build decks without going online. The Deck Builder is amazingly strong, and I found myself thinking that if Worlds Apart never did anything but promote a tool to organize and evaluate CCG decks, it would have been a big hit. Casual players may miss some of the really cool features, like the ability to analyze a constructed deck for strengths and weaknesses, right down to the chance of a certain card coming up, which is critical to certain gaming strategies.

Install and update of Star Chamber is easy, and the patches are checked against a central server whenever you connect to the game lobby. Player vs. player games can be constructed while online, and it is easy to see games that are waiting for players or to watch games in progress. Description of the different rules and types of deck options for play goes beyond the scope of this review, but it really blew my mind how well everything is thought through. Campaign modes for single player are most like the old strategy games, with a card twist. During play, Star Chamber employs a type of tool-tip format that shows card stats, on mouse-over, that makes navigating the screen and keeping track of progress very easy. There aren't a lot of high-end effects, but polish clearly went into the interface and gameplay elements, including card illustration. Once you jump into the Star Chamber world, everything you need from instructions to a new virtual pack of cards is available and easy to find. With online events and a subscription service that includes new card packs and event passes, dedicated players willing to spend some money can get deeper into the online community for Star Chamber.

Uncovering this little beauty will make traditional CCG players blush with that "What have I been missing?" look on their face. Gamers who enjoyed traditional resource building, turn-based, strategy games but wanted something more complex will also find great satisfaction here. Since Harbinger Saga is just the latest iteration of what promises to be many future Star Chamber releases, I'm really excited to see future refinement and expansion of this awesome new game.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

Minimum System Requirements:

Mac OS 10.3

Test System:

Mac OS 10.4

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