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Review: Burning Suns

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The suns are burning! (That’s a good thing, that’s how suns work)

So is the ambition of every major alien species in the galaxy! (That’s a bad thing. More competition for limited space!)

Time to gather up your fleet, embrace your ideology, and get out into the universe. There’s antimatter out there, the most valuable source of power, and only the race that controls it can reign over everyone else. It’s a fight to the finish in Burning Suns.

How It Plays

Burning Suns is a massive 4x space game in which your unique empire (made up of parts – ideology, race, framework) is racing to control the Antimatter sources in the universe. Each empire has a number of unique elements, such as as the abilities provided by your ideology that increase as you gain antimatter, a set of powerful Race cards you can use for one-time effects, and the stats and costs of your ships.

The board is made up of unique circular tiles (and some diamond-shaped tiles) you can arrange any way you so choose, with several suggested layouts for different player counts. Circlular tiles contain planets, which provide Crystals (currency), bonus abilities, and Antimatter.

It’s not your typical galaxy

Player actions are driven by a worker-placement system. 4 action tiles with 3 actions each (which could be categorized as economic, exploration, espionage, and aggression) are shuffled and placed in a random order at the start of each round. Then, in turn order, players take turns placing one of their Leaders on an action slot. (Each action has only 3 slots). After all leaders are placed, the actions are resolved starting from the top left and working your way down each column.

Each action is pretty straightforward. Jump lets you move a fleet on the board, while Construct lets you build new ships. Battle lets you engage in ship-to-ship combat whereas assault allows you to invade planets. Diplomacy allows you to try and take inhabited planets peacefully, or you can Colonize uninhabited planets. Scan and Recruit give you a chance to discover artifacts or recruit agents (both types of action cards). Barrage to bombard on-the-ground armies with your fleet (and vice versa). There’s an action called “Activate” used to activate certain cards, actions, or race powers, and finally Mission is an opportunity to do any of the above actions with a risk of failure.

Certain actions require a Leader roll in order to perform them. This is an 8-sided die roll that must hit under your leader’s power level. Diplomacy, Scan, Recruit, and Mission all require these rolls.

Combat must be triggered through an Assault or Battle action rather than occurring automatically when two fleets coexist. During each round of combat, the players involved roll simultaneously, one die per ship. Any ship that rolls equal to or less than its combat value scores a hit, and each player decides which of their own ships takes the hits they receive. In addition, the attacking player gets a +1 bonus (to their target number, not their roll) for the first round of combat. No surrender, no retreat; combat continues until one side is wiped out.

Mighty, might die ships. These things are actually pretty cool.

In addition to standard units, each player has 3 unique units – a Starbase (a powerful defensive ship), a Titan (a powerful army unit), and a Colossus (a powerful aggressive ship). Each of these not only rolls additional dice in combat, but can take more than one hit before being destroyed. These hits are tracked using a die slotted into each ship’s miniature.

Each planet under control of a player has an Unrest level. Peace allows the controlling player full control and all the benefits of a planet, Unrest forces the controlling player to cover up one of the two planetary bonuses, and rebellion actively throws the player off the planet. In addition to using combat to conquer someone’s planet, you can utilize Diplomacy both to gain control of a neutral planet or to increase Unrest (possibly causing rebellion) against another player’s planet.

Winning the game requires controlling a certain level of Antimatter. A majority of Antimatter comes from certain planets, but you can gain antimatter by defeating large fleets, finding certain Agents or Artifacts, buying certain upgrades from the galactic market, or destroying another player’s unique unit.

Warm up your jump engines!

The bigger the sun, the bigger the burn

Burning suns is a game with a big heart and a lot of good ideas, packed densely from floor to ceiling with aliens, tokens, and mechanisms. It’s a bold undertaking for a new designer, and you can clearly see the spark of passion that went into creating this. I can almost feel the heart pumping bright red blood through its veins (or maybe it’s green blood. You know, aliens).

There’s a lot of stuff going on here, and I don’t just mean components. Every alien civilization has a whole slew of unique abilities. Setting aside the differences in stats for now, you’ve got ideology powers and race cards. Ideologies provide permanent boosts that get pretty mighty as you increase your Antimatter control, changing the way you can interact with the board and other players. For example, one Ideology eventually grants the ability to convert 2 enemy ships to your fleet at the start of a battle. Race cards are just as mighty, even moreso, granting free units or moving fleets or adding new tiles to the board, although these cards are one-time-use. Alternatively, you can use these cards to create alliances with other players, granting each player in the alliance a permanent boost and causing them to win together if one of them reaches the allotted point goal.

Then you can get Agents or Artifacts, which are powerful action cards that range from the fairly mundane (+1 to your max fleet size) to the disruptive (blink a fleet anywhere on the map and execute any action) to the excessively valuable (score 1-2 points!).

These are further compounded by an “alignment” of light, neutral, or dark, based on the current ideology level of your race, which affects the effectiveness of these cards.

Beyond powers, each empire has unique stats. Everyone has Dreadnoughts, Battlecruisers, Raiders, and Regiments, but the costs and combat values are wildly different. You’ve also got unique numbers for how far your fleets can move with a jump action, how far your diplomacy reaches, how many things you can build during a construct action, how many artifacts or agents you can hold, and some built-in re-rolls during combat. Your three leaders you place for actions have different levels.

If your first thought is “whoah, that’s a lot of cool stuff!” your second thought should probably be “but doesn’t that make for a complicated mess?”

“Convert 2 enemy ships to your own fleet” – Yikes

The answer to that question is, sadly, indeed it does.I’m all for asymmetrical powers, but this goes too far. There’s so much going on here it’s hard to keep track of… anything. Any long-term strategy you have can easily get flipped upside down by a single use of a power or play of a card, even as each individual action is even-headed and geared toward gradual process. The best you can do is reach out and grab at something as quickly as possible, and hope that someone doesn’t snatch it out from under you. Even trying to figure out how powerful that enemy fleet is? Good luck. Those three Raiders could be strong enough to take down your five Dreadnoughts. An enormous army of Regiments might only hit on 2’s.

Making these numbers so different doesn’t really add to the fun of the game. It just adds to the confusion and frustration as you try to make any plans at all. Yes, weaker ships are cheaper to build, but you’re still going to be at a military disadvantage throughout the game. Yes, most of the information is public, but good luck remembering everything.

 

Beware the Psyonic Leviathans of the Eclipse!

It’s stuff like this that, rather than making any given player feel like they have a special power, forces a given empire into a strategic rut. Unlike, say, Twilight Imperium where you can decide if you want to spend your money on the cheap-but-weak ships or invest in fewer but more powerful dreadnoughts, you’re just given what you’re given. Even with the option to upgrade your ships, there are very limited options and opportunities to do so.

Weird, too, because you have the three unique Die Ships, and it would make sense for those to be unique for each race while leaving the standard units alone.

Also, having such a variance in numbers across the board means it’s almost impossible to balance one empire against another. Someone might get an Ideology that heavily boosts combat and pair it with a Race that has already strong ships. On the other hand, someone might get a more economic focused Ideology and find their only options are for cheap ships and a low construction limit. Whether each individual section of your empire is balanced against the variants of the same section or not, the combinations certainly don’t even out.

This design wants to give players big, exciting moments, but it’s trying too hard. It’s trying to force excitement, rather than give players the tools to create it.

Choose your actions wisely

But let’s swing back around, because on the other end of the stick I see a lot of attempts to streamline the mechanics into an elegant gameplay system. Center stage here is the action board, which attempts to force players to think about their immediate actions and keep the game fast paced and tactical. It does this by randomizing the order of the action tiles, so you can never be sure if jump will come before or after battle, or if diplomacy follows assault. Planning on building a fleet, jumping it into the unguarded system, and conquering it for the Antimatter? Maybe you can, but maybe Jump will end up in the last column.

I admit, this does force you to take each round as its own thing. You have to look for immediate opportunities that you can snatch before someone else does. However, it simultaneously undermines any tactical sense by also forcing you to choose your three actions in advance. Is that other player going to move their fleet into your system, or someone else’s? Is that Battle going against your units, or against the Dark Fleet in the neighboring sector? You might end up wasting an action trying to reinforce a fleet that isn’t at risk, or find yourself at the wrong end of a sharp stick if you make the wrong choice. This would be fine… except there’s no quick way to react, since your actions are set in advance.

Not to mention, it doesn’t feel particularly dynamic since each type of action is resolved all at once for each player. Rather than fleets positioning themselves, an attack here, a diplomatic action there, another attack, a retreat – it all just unfolds like a spreadsheet.

A scary, colorful spreadsheet

Some of the actions themselves feel over simplified, especially actions that have a potential to fail. Yes, that’s right, your action can just fail. Okay, sometimes you get a small consolation prize – not much, but something. For Mission and Diplomacy, you get nothing. You can just fail. On a single die roll.

This is not fun to me. When you have only 3 actions per round, each action matters. I get that you may want a risk of failure for certain actions, diplomacy especially, but reducing it to a single die roll is so bland. The point is simplicity, but simplicity isn’t inherently engaging. I wish Diplomacy was a much more fleshed out system. I wish Recruiting agents and Scanning for artifacts had a cost instead of a die roll. So many moments in this game the momentum just died for a poor die roll I could do nothing about.

I wish planets weren’t narrowly categorized into “hostile,” “neutral,” and “uninhabited” limiting how diplomacy can affect them. Why not make these (at least hostile and neutral) steps of a diplomacy meter? It’s fine if some planets start out hostile and take more concerted effort to turn, but why can’t I try to put the pressure on and diplomacy them into my empire, especially if the empire I created is strong in diplomacy and weak in fleet power?

It brings me back once again to the idea that all the unique features of empires, planets, etc. just force players along specific rails rather than giving them the freedom to approach the galaxy how they choose.

This race will blow you up… or build entirely new fleets

I really wanted to like this game. It had a lot of cool ideas. I like putting together a unique empire based on different elements that have a gameplay effect. I like the Die Ships with their hit points. I like the idea of diplomacy allowing opportunities to engage with NPC planets rather than the only option being invasion.

I just wish all this stuff was finished. The numbers feel all wrong. The ships feel imbalanced. The frameworks don’t add up to me. The Galactic Market, where new tech, upgrades, and structures can be found seems off. Example – a Structure upgrade that costs for Crystals produces 1 extra Crystal per round on a single planet. So it will take you 4 rounds just to recoup the cost, before you actually gain any benefit, which is about half the game. This is one of the cheaper upgrades! On the other hand, there’s a Mercenary ship that costs 8 Crystals and is worth a point. One point, out of 8 points needed to win, for 8 crystals.

Suffice to say, the more I played this game, the more rough edges came out.

Burning Suns wants to be both a tight, fast playing strategy game with streamlined mechanics, and it also wants to be a sci-fi game of galactic proportions. It wants mechanisms to be simple and straightforward so you don’t have 12 layers of rules to learn, but it also wants players to sweep across the universe fighting battles with their massive fleets, wrestling for control of planets in an epic tug-of-war. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite land in either respect.

Buy some expensive stuff!

It’s too bad, because I feel like this game could be pretty good with a bit more development. There are a lot of interesting ideas; crafting a unique empire, the cool Die ships, diplomacy. All of these things have great potential, but the numbers are just off and the systems need more fleshing out.

Games like Burning Suns have to be about freedom, at least to a degree. When players feel too limited by the available actions, or caught up in the currents of die rolls and card plays, they don’t feel engaged in the expansion of their empire. They feel less like they have meaningful impacts on the outcome of the game, and the actions that are fun to do aren’t the actions that lead toward victory.

Now, it’s possible that it just takes more time to grasp how all the systems interact, to figure out how to counter certain cards, or to understand what is valuable in the galactic market. It’s possible that assumptions got in the way of embracing something different. It would be difficult to say without playing a dozen times or more. But after several different plays and with different strategies and ideas in mind, I found myself more and more frustrated with the game, not less. More and more, die rolls got in the way of resolving actions, the costs of certain items felt not worth it, the worker placement system felt too limiting.

And maybe I would keep playing, keep exploring the system to understand it better, but this game doesn’t exist in a void. It exists in a world that has Twilight Imperium, and Eclipse, and Scythe, and Clash of Cultures, and other games that have gotten the experience right, and I’d much rather spend my time with those.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Sun Tzu Games for providing a review copy of Burning Suns.

  • Rating 5.5
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Summary

Pros

Lots of components
Some clever, inventive ideas
Spaceships!

Cons

Everything feels unfinished, underdeveloped, and imbalanced
Way too many unique powers force players into strategies
Giving each race unique numbers (and ship designs) was not a good idea

5.5 Lame

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

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