You’ve fled the Earth, and now you just want to rest. But building a new home on a far-off planet from the ground up is hard work, and it involves a steady hand on the tiller as well as quick and adaptive thinking. Can you manage the resources you need to build up Beta Colony while also earning the confidence of its people?
How It Works
Beta Colony is an action-selection, area control game for two to four players. Players are refugees from Earth seeking a new planet to colonize. The player who gains the most confidence points wins.
To begin, the board is put in the center of the table. Pods are placed on their corresponding spots on the board, and each player places discs on the board next to the influence tracks and the score track. One card for each cycle is placed on the board, and the special construction cards are placed next to the board. The players determine a start player, who receives the start-player token, and in reverse turn order players choose a player board and a starting space on the rondel.
At the start of a round, the start player rolls the four dice, and each player sets their corresponding dice to the same number. Players take turns using a pair of dice until all four dice are used.
On a turn, a player will use one die’s value to move clockwise around the rondel and the other die’s value to determine (usually the strength of) the action taken at that space. Three spaces on the rondel grant players materials to build pods on the three colonies of victus. One space grants players fuel to modify the numbers on their dice. Two manufactory spaces allow players to place pods onto the colonies. The final space allows players to either gain a resource and a fuel or build one of the statues or buildings (which are worth end-game points).
When players place pods onto the colonies, they generally gain “influence” based on the value of the pod and adjacency to the colony center and other pods of that color. When players gain influence, they move their marker along that colony’s track, which grants immediate benefits like points, materials, or artifacts (wild materials).
At the end of a round, the start player marker passes.
At the end of each cycle (three rounds), the special scoring bonus on that cycle’s card becomes active. At the end of the third cycle, players score points for their artifacts, statues, and buildings and for their presence in each colony. The player with the most points wins.
Brave New Rondel
I read a comparison a while back between what the writer called “classic” Euro games and “modern” Euro games, and I’ve found it a useful tool of thought ever since. The author’s point was that classic Euro games tend to favor interaction, streamlining, and depth over solitary puzzling, complexity, and variety.
Based on this rubric, Beta Colony feels decidedly “classic,” and that is not a knock. Its central conceit–the “roll-del”–feels fresh and novel while also feeling like it could have been designed twenty years ago–in a good way.
One of the first things you’ll notice when reading the rules for Beta Colony is that there aren’t many rules. The flow of the game is simple–one player rolls, everyone sets their dice, and then the dice act as coordinates in performing actions. And while there are seven spaces around the rondel, most of them operate in very similar ways. Yet despite this simple framework, there are lots of interesting choices to be made.
The first problem players have to contend with is how to use their dice. In all of the resource-gathering spots on the rondel, higher numbers are better. Higher numbers can also propel you farther around the rondel, helping you potentially reach far-off actions sooner than a leisurely trip around. But players have to be careful how they allocate these dice. For one thing, players only have four to work with in a round, and if you use a die on your first turn, you won’t be able to use it on your second. And for another thing, several spots on the rondel reward you with points for using a specific color die to activate the space. So the start of every round usually slows down a bit as players (mostly) plan their next two moves before executing either.
The use of dice is eased somewhat by a few tools that players have at their disposal. First, each player chooses a unique player board at the start of the game that grants a bonus material at a certain spot on the rondel and generally allows the player some freedom in performing a specific action with one color of their dice. Second, players can collect fuel, which gives them more flexibility in the numbers showing on their dice, allowing them to adjust the number up or down. While it seems like a lame move to stop by the Ridback and just take fuel on a turn, fuel is the kind of resource you never want to be without.
So the first thing players usually do in a round is plan out both of the moves they want to take. But it doesn’t take long for plans to go awry. One of the hallmarks of “classic” Euros is interactivity, and there is lots of that in Beta Colony. This interactivity is not conflict–there’s nothing you do in the game to steal resources from another player or destroy their gains–but what you do on your turn can affect players downwind from you. And part of this interactivity is baked in by design: because all players have the same four numbers to work with, it’s likely that they will be fighting over the same things. In this case, specifically pods.
Pods are the main thing players are trying to get with their resources. Pods always require two materials, one matching the color of the pod and one matching the colony space where the pod will be placed. And pods generate both points and special actions, which makes where they are placed hotly contested.
Pods can be placed on each of the three colonies on the planet Victus, and each colony has its own influence track that grants bonuses to players who place their pods there. Players gain influence by taking higher-value pods, placing pods next to the center of the colony, and extending groups of the same-color pods. All three of these metrics offer trade-offs that players have to weigh. If you choose a higher-value pod, you might gain more influence, but you also receive fewer benefits from the pod itself (and if you choose a value-3 pod, you don’t get to place a crew member in the colony at all, potentially affecting your end-game scoring). If you choose a lower-value pod, you will get a bonus from the pod itself (artifacts, fuel, points, or extra crew) but at the cost of influence in the colony. Extending a group of pods of the same color seems like a no-brainer…except that by doing so, you could be setting up another player to benefit more than you. A group of the same color can only be three pods, so you want to be the third one if you can. Bump, set, spike.
And then there’s the crew consideration. At the end of the game, players score points in each colony for the difference in crew between themselves and the player with the fewest crew. This can mean big points if players aren’t vigilant. Because of this, players want to distribute their crew members as evenly as possible across the three colonies. However, big bonuses accrue to the players who specialize in a colony’s influence track, so players are also pulled to specialize.
Another source of interaction is the special construction cards–statues and buildings. These grant potentially a lot of end-game points, either based on how well you fulfill a criterion (statues) or a set number of points and an in-game bonus (buildings). The statues, especially, are hard to get because to build one costs three artifacts (which are not exactly easy to come by) in addition to another material (to place the statue’s pod on the board). There are some statues that reward things players are already doing (e.g., having crew adjacent to colony centers), so there is usually a race to obtain these, and for good reason. But statues and buildings also can’t raise your influence in a colony, so you would prefer them to be a victory lap rather than an early chase. Decisions, decisions.
Players are also wise to play with the cycle cards in mind. Each “cycle” of three rounds is governed by a card offering a special scoring condition at the end of the cycle as well as some kind of bonus either at the beginning of or during the cycle. These cards help channel players into decisions and give them alternate things to shoot for if they’re having trouble with the main scoring conditions. At the very least, they give some direction to players, especially new players who are learning the game.
One of my favorite things for a game to provide is interesting decisions, which I think are best manifested in trade-offs: I can’t do everything I want to accomplish. Beta Colony performs pretty well when measured against this standard. Players are limited by the dice they have; they are pulled simultaneously in different directions; and the other players can get in their way to take things they want. The individual decisions are interesting and meaningful.
However, I wouldn’t say that Beta Colony is as tight as some would prefer (and, indeed, it’s a little looser than I like). The reason for this is that players don’t have to do everything. Every player starts the game with a bonus material they can collect if they visit one of the spaces on the rondel, and it’s not always necessary to collect resources at the other spaces. Several spaces on the influence track give extra resources, players can get artifacts through influence or pods, and there are generally enough pods of each color that players can finesse their options by hitting just a few spaces on the rondel over and over. Now, if players want to bend the game to their greatest advantage, they might want to collect all the resources to be ready to strike when the opportunity is hot. And as the game progresses, and as players hit the same levers, fewer opportunities might be available (especially for placing pods in the colonies). But there are usually enough options that even if another player gets in your way, or you’re not able to place the pod on the best space on the colony, you can still make do through specialization in what you’re good at.
I contrast this with a game like Navegador, which I think is the Platonic ideal of a rondel game. In Navegador, every turn is agony: you want to hit absolutely every space on the rondel because you need to, but you also might need to race ahead of someone else to take an action before they do–and if you do race ahead, you feel it for several turns. Money will be tighter than you wanted, or you weren’t able to hire that extra worker so you can’t build the building you wanted, or you passed right by the sailing action and now have to wait a while for it to come around again. Navegador makes every decision excruciating because every space on the rondel matters. In Beta Colony, again, you can prioritize the levers you want to hit. You’re not limited to one to three spaces; you’re constrained by your dice, so you can hit the levers you want to more frequently as long as you have enough fuel (its own concern). I understand why Beta Colony is a looser game than Navegador–because players are at the mercy of unpredictable dice, they need more ways to turn lemons into lemonade–but I do miss some of the tension of the traditional rondel. The puzzle of the roll-del places it more toward the tactical end of the spectrum than the strategic. Not a bad thing, and I enjoy both, but my preferences lean more toward the strategic.
Still, I do like Beta Colony a lot. My biggest problem with it is its competition. Beta Colony suggests 20 minutes per player on the side of the box, meaning a three-player game should come in at right around an hour, and that would be perfect. However, in my experience, this hasn’t been the case. While the rules to the game are very simple and straightforward, the decisions are not–which is how I would want it to be. Yet because the game runs longer than an hour, it puts it in competition for table time with many of the other 90-minute Euro games that are similar in weight–games like Concordia or Amun-Re or the more recent Riverboat or Navegador. I like Beta Colony enough that I wouldn’t always choose those or other games over it; it just has stiffer competition for table time than if it were short enough to fit into a lunch hour. I imagine the time each game takes would come down with experience, although I still imagine it would be difficult to fit a three-player game in an hour unless you intentionally play quickly. (With two players, it’s doable.)
Beta Colony’s being a tactical game and comparing it to its competition are just my personal preferences. The biggest objective knock against the game is the components, which is a little surprising, given all the wooden pieces included. And the wooden pieces are nice: the artifacts are painted gold (emphasizing how great it is to have them in-game), the dice are hefty, the colonists are the same shape as the credit markers in Roll for the Galaxy, and the player markers for the rondel are oversized rocket ships. Even the materials players gather are wooden cubes–not great, perhaps, but at least standard.
The problems are primarily due to the cardboard in the game. The material cubes come in six colors, but three of them are red-based–red, orange, and pink–and these are hard enough to tell apart in just moderate lighting. The problem is that the red color on the cardboard is muted a little, so red cardboard can look red, pink, or orange, depending (usually) on what you most want it to be. While it’s true that there are icons on the board and the tiles corresponding to the colors to help sort the matter out, these icons aren’t on the cubes themselves. In our first game, the color of the red pods threw players off at numerous points, despite frequent reminders. It got a little easier to sort out as the game went on, and it wasn’t a problem for seasoned players in subsequent games. But it is still a little surprising that such similar colors were used, given how these colors inhibit functionality.
Beyond the concern about colors, the components do work, although Beta Colony is not likely to attract passersby at a convention with its beauty, nor was it easy to sell it to my group by looks alone. I brought it to several game nights where it was passed over because of the cover before I insisted that we play it. And when it did hit the table, my wife said the rondel looked like word art from the Microsoft Office suite–not exactly a compliment, and I couldn’t disagree with her. The cards are punched out from a thin cardboard frame, as are the player boards. This is fine, but it does affect the overall presentation. All told, I’m more concerned about gameplay than components, and the components here are serviceable if not outstanding. I would just expect, if you get this game, that you might have to “sell” that first game to your group because they might not choose to sit down with it based on its looks.
That being said, I don’t think they will be disappointed with what they find if they choose to give Beta Colony a chance. Beta Colony strikes pretty close to that ideal balance between accessibility and depth that I tend to associate with older Euro games while also employing some modern design techniques that make it feel fresh (individual player powers, variable cycle cards). While Beta Colony does face stiff competition in its weight and class, it is a game I would rarely turn down and almost always be happy to play.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Rio Grande Games for providing us with a copy of Beta Colony for review.