Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Saturday 13 July 2019

The Game Shelf Reviews:- Subatomic

Game: Subatomic

Publisher: Genius Games

Designer: John Coveyou

Year: 2018


Subatomic was Kickstarted last year by Genius Games, who are know for their games that combine real science with modern board game mechanisms. As geeks both on and off the tabletop, we originally fell in love with Cytosis and have been seeking out more games from the publisher ever since. Cytosis has been the heaviest of these games we've played and along with delivering a good medium-weight gaming experience it also packed in a lot of hard core science. At the other end of the spectrum was Covalence which touched on the science of covalent bonding with a light deduction game. Subatomic falls somewhere in the middle as a light deck-building game that certainly has some gamer appeal as well as having a good grounding in the science of atoms and subatomic particles.


In Subatomic your goal is to create elements by crafting them from the various building blocks of atoms. Of course that's too easy! So Subatomic doesn't start you with the building blocks of atoms. After-all any fool can mash a Proton or two with some Neutrons and call it a day! Instead it starts you with a deck of the building blocks of those building blocks, quarks and photons.

Like many a deck-building game you start with a deck of not very good cards. You can play any card simply to gain energy, which you'll need to fuel your various abilities. Once you have a little energy you can spend cards in the right order, to buy better cards such as protons and electrons. You can even spend more resources to buy advanced cards such as proton-neutron pairs. You also have the option to spend only energy to gain cards with special abilities themed after famous scientists, or to annihilate 2 cards from your deck entirely!

All of this is done in the aim of crafting atoms. Each player has a personal board on which they track the number of electrons, protons and neutrons in their current construction. By playing a proton card you move a glass bead up one spot to make another point of mass added to your nucleus. Eventually you will have enough parts in place to claim one of the 3 atoms on the common market. To claim a card you first spend the required amount of energy, then reduce all of your markers down to the 0 spot before taking your card. Every time you take an atom card you may place 2 scoring markers on the board in any place that doesn't match the atom you just claimed. For example if I took a Lithium card then I could place a scoring token on Helium and Boron. If either of those places still had a bonus token you can claim it and use it later to gain the one-time benefit. The game will end once one player has placed all of their end-goal tokens in this way.

Amy’s Final Thoughts

There is something immensely fantastical about a game that has you starting with some of the smallest subatomic particles, trading those up to get bigger subatomic particles and then finally using those to create atoms. Which are, in themselves, the building blocks of molecules, which are the building blocks of organelles, which form cells, which form organs, which forms the person playing the game in which you start with the smallest subatomic particles...


Genius Games have once again combined their love for all things scientific with the world of board games. and it's clear exactly how much love is poured into the game form the second you open the box. It's quite possible you will have a moment of confusion when you open the first book you see and realise it doesn't contain any of the rules of the game, but instead the scientific background of every card in the game, from quarks to the revered scientists featured on the action cards. While there is this clear passion throughout the design the art style could have been worked a little better. The protons are smiling and, well, positive. But the neutrons look sad and defeated, all together rather negative, which doesn't quite match the neutral charge they should have. This is then compounded by the electrons which look happy, why don't they look negative!?

Gameplay-wise Subatomic is a deck-builder and you'll see a lot of familiar elements, you have a market of cards to buy, those which are out longer are cheaper. The same is true of the atoms. You can expand your deck, you can trim your deck, you can buy basic cards, or you can invest in special action cards. It has essentially everything you can expect from any deck-builder you pick up. So what are the unique parts? It's pretty neat that any card can be used for energy, it gives you a reason to keep your weaker cards in your deck, because it sucks having to discard one of your powerful cards just because you need more juice. But the stand-out selling point is the end-game scoring. As you gain atoms you get to choose yourself how you want to be scored at the end of the game, it's a great concept which adds almost an area control element to the game as only the people who have invested the most into boron will get any bonus rewards.

But overall these unique attributes aren't enough to keep the game fresh for me. Ultimately Subatomic is a fairly average deck-building game. It's competent, but not outstanding in it's genre and for such a full genre that's a little disappointing. Some of the cards have balance issues (the scientists can be insanely good) which really doesn't help matters and the bonus tokens end up helping a runaway leader issue which can appear. But it's still a competent game, it teaches science in a fun way and if that's something that appeals to you it's certainly worth giving a try.

Fi’s Final Thoughts

Subatomic is a deck-building game with layers. Many people look for a progression in deck-building games, where you get to thin your deck and get it better, and Subatomic does this many times over. With your starting hand of photons, up quarks and down quarks you'll make electrons, protons and neutrons, but then you'll likely use these cards to make better cards with multiple subatomic particles on each card. All the while you'll discard cards from your deck, until you're eventually scrap cards that you bought in the early game. Due to these mechanisms, the game also has an arc where you're spending the first 60% of the game building your deck and then in the late game you might even get to the stage where you're building an atom every turn.

All too often the game can be won in the early turns. Spotting a good scientist and using your first couple of turns to just convert cards to energy to get good scientists can be a game winning move, which speaks to the fact that some of these cards are just too overpowered. It's also cheaper to trash cards in the early game, so it pays to trash early if you can afford to thin your deck early.

I wouldn't suggest that Subatomic is a complex deck-builder - it's certainly accessible which is perfect for the audience who could also learn from the science. However, with that said it does have more going on than more basic games like Dominion. It's great that all of your cards have a purpose, even if they're just discarded for energy and it's interesting to to figure out how much you want scientist cards vs. streamlining your deck into an atom-building machine from the outset.

The overpowered scientists and the fact that the game doesn't vary much from play-to-play means that it probably doesn't engage us enough, but if you're a gamer parent, then this would be perfect to play with teenage kids and it's enough of a game that it's like sneaking education into fun time. It's always great to see that educational games can be something more than just a classroom experience.

You Might Like...
  • Being able to use every card as energy means that no hand is wasted.
  • Building your deck is a definite balancing act that feels like trying to create exactly the right recipe to start making balanced atoms as quickly as possible.
  • The games teaches the structure of subatomic particles and atoms, as well as delivery some history of famous scientists.
You Might Not Like...
  • The neutrons look really grumpy, whilst the electrons seems to have a very positive outlook on life - that's not really teaching me about the charge of these particles like it could!
  • The Maria Goeppert Mayer just seems too overpowered - buying two of these cards whilst other plays choose a different strategy seems to guarantee a win.

The Verdict
7/10 Subatomic is an interesting deck-building game with multiple layers that build a pyramid to the atoms that ultimately score you points. Building your deck takes on new dimensions that are supported by the ability to shed cards and the interesting special abilities of scientists cards. Whilst the scientific principles it teaches are basic, the game also delivers gameplay that is good for a gateway audience and the education value is an added bonus.

Subatomic was a review copy kindly provided to us by Genius Games.

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