The players play races thrown together into an undeveloped galaxy battling to achieve superiority. You expand your economy and add ships to your war armada, while Babylon 5 attempts to sit neutrally in the middle of all the action.
Each race starts with five unique map pieces, a race specific fleet, and a race setup sheet that also includes special race abilities, ship movement, and the starting economy. Players take turns placing face down the map pieces to start, with generally only four of the five map pieces used. Foreknowledge of a map's contents is an important edge during the initial explore and expansion phase --warping blind into an asteroid field is deadly.
Generally each race's map choices are three "normal" systems of planets with asteroids, the mandatory "home world" hex, and a fifth "nasty" map hex like the Black Hole that is a trap for other players to mistakenly explore. Planets are where bases are built, and bases win the game. Board layouts tend to have the best economy adding planets clustered around home worlds where they can be sure to be grabbed early in the expansion, while the center of the board is a minefield with a few weak planets thrown in. It's a good thing Babylon 5 is in the center and remains neutral and relatively clear to navigate.
Your economy is central to the game. It allows you to build, it allows you to maintain your fleet, and if you have twice as large of an economy as everyone else for a turn, you win. Each turn your bases produce economy points (or EPs), which your existing ships need for upkeep and are also spent to build new or repair existing pieces. Unused EPs go to your bank and can be used later. Maintaining a sustainable fleet size is crucial. You may have the EPs to add a new carrier this turn, but it will continue to drain your economy every turn afterwards— even while sitting in the scrap yard waiting to be recomissioned. Can you also support these future costs?
The ships themselves are nicely pictured from the TV show, with the race being indicated both by the background color of the defense strength stat and in writing underneath. Ships are limited in which directions they can fire weapons (both heavy and laser) and how they can move, making facing important --which takes a while to get used to. Empires differ in both fleet makeup and ability.
Movement is largely taken from B5. There are a handful of jump gates, but your larger ships generally have their own ability to jump. Damaged ships lose their warp ability, so movement is quickly into battle with the victors limping out. Ships are also restricted in movement by their facing, making retreats difficult. Large carriers deploying heavy squadrons are terrors.
Combat is simple. Add up the number of bearing attack points and then subtract a special defensive die from it. The system is in favor of large capital ships, making them difficult to destroy, slow to take damage, and cheap to fix if you withdraw them when crippled. While small ships and fighter squadrons tend to be destroyed early and often, the expensive capital ships will often enough emerge undamaged. Also, with no stacking allowed, a fleet of small weenie ships will find it much harder to coordinate their firepower with the same effect that a single capital ship can bring to bear.
Then there are the cards. Players may buy cards allowing special actions above and beyond the normal game, like an extra move or more EPs. The more powerful game changes are brought up in council vote to be decided. There are rules for creating decks for each player as per MtG, but there aren't enough cards for this in the core set, so we just draw from a common deck to our hands after handing out the empire specific cards. This looks to evolve more in the future, which will also make the freighter and transport ships make sense. (Each ship docked at B5 provides one more vote for that Empire during council votes, which would almost make the non-combat ships worth the upkeep)
The board and pieces themselves are very good quality, featuring full color computer images. While die cut, you will probably want to use an X-acto knife when you punch out the pieces. The game itself is much better looking than the box would lead you to believe.
There are several things to be admired in this game. First, is how dice have a diminished role in combat. The better ships, rather than just getting to roll more dice, instead have better maneuvering ability allowing them to bring more of their weapons to bear in attacks. This works wonderfully well with warp movement, and leads to some actual surprises. (It's also a grateful change from most other empire conquest games, which tend to become roll fests.)
One of my favorite gambits is to sit on a jump gate with a carrier full of fighter squadrons, threatening to attack both a home system through a long range gate jump and some other system within jump range. It's also quite possible to warp in, cripple someone from an angle that they can't respond to, then warp your way out before they can do anything about it.
Secondly is how the designers limited each empire to only a handful of ships (a la Ogre by SJG), eliminating the board clutter of most other empire conquest games and a lot of boring housekeeping in the process. The emphasis is on quick movement and decisive action, allowing the game to play in under an hour for two people.
Finally, many empire building games decay into making gobs of the cheapest unit and swarming everyone with them. Not so here, and I for one am glad for the change. A few strong capital ships will easily triumph over a large, disposable fleet of weenies.
There are a bunch of currency tokens mixed among the punch outs to keep track of your economy on your race card. I've found it much easier to write down the three economy numbers for each race and just draw a large line across the page to show the status of each at the end of the round. Too many times we found ourselves going, "Did I add to my economy yet?" This helps solve the problem.
The Component Game System is an expandable game that plays with as many players as you have race sets. It is being sold both as individual race sets and as a core set of all four races. I suggest buying the core set unless you know someone else with a set already.