In the months following the holidays, gamers start to discover that the luster has worn off the shiny new games they acquired in late December. Fortunately, I came across a great new strategy game -- Star Chamber. But don't expect to walk into a store and buy it. Instead, you visit the game's Web site (www.starchamber.net), download the free engine and start playing.
Star Chamber is a turn-based strategy game that, at its most basic level, puts you and an opponent on a map with various planets, nebulae and meteor clusters connected by travel routes. Your job is to build a force on your home world and start exploiting the rest of the galaxy.
The twist that Star Chamber integrates into this simple gameplay is the use of virtual collectible cards. Each player has a deck of cards that have different effects and draw on different resources. Carefully playing these can develop infrastructure and knock back opponents. Think Monopoly, but with the ability to develop factories, embassies and military buildings instead of just hotels, and you'll begin to get the idea.
Normally, I hate collectible card games. You need to buy hundreds of the damned things just to play. And the person who spends more always has the edge. Some of that's true in Star Chamber. You purchase packs of virtual cards, which are kept online, and use them to build a deck that suits your own style of play. But somehow, the balance in Star Chamber makes even a $20 player (that nets 210 cards) a contender. That sort of flexibility is hard to find in games these days. And since there's another actual person at the other end of your game, you can chat away, and even trade cards when you're finished.
But the thing I like most about Star Chamber is the room it leaves for personalization. On one of the game's online player forums, building a deck is compared to composing a poem. While the two activities certainly diverge in terms of technique and outcome, both arise from a desire to uniquely express oneself. What a player is doing when assembling a deck is planning for a certain set of eventualities. In Star Chamber, you lay down a path that makes things happen in a certain manner. Winning in Star Chamber doesn't just feel like a victory; it feels like you've made a statement.