If you read my reviews regularly, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of tile-laying games. I own (too) many of them and am generally incapable of culling them no matter how similar they might be to others in my collection. It’s an addiction to be sure! So it’s not hard to understand why I got ridiculously excited about the prospects for Planet. It’s basically tile-laying in 3D. (No glasses required.) But as cool as those magnetic planets might be, is Planet a good game at its core? Let’s find out.
How It Plays
Planet is a 3D tile laying game in which players are attaching magnetic tiles to their planet cores in an effort to build suitable habitats for the animals on offer. Animals and habitats help you complete your personal objective and earn points at the end of the game. The player with the most points wins.
To set up the game, the magnetic habitat tiles are shuffled and divided into ten face down piles of five. The animal cards are shuffled and placed face up in columns beneath the habitat tiles. The first two piles of tiles have no cards beneath them. The third, fourth and fifth tile piles get one card each. The sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth piles get two cards each, and the tenth pile has three cards. There are two open spots in the tile line for the eleventh and twelfth turns. These have no tiles at the beginning of the game (they’ll be added later, created from the discards of early turns), but you still lay down a column of three animal cards under each “invisible” pile.
Each player also gets a secret objective card which shows a habitat type. At the end of the game, if you’ve managed to place more than eleven of your habitat areas (an area is a single triangle on a tile) onto your planet, you will score bonus points. The more tiles you have matching this habitat, the more points you can score, up to a maximum of ten if you have twenty-five areas. (The objective cards aren’t used in the beginner version of the game, making scoring easier for younger players or non-gamers to grasp.)
A game of Planet consists of twelve turns and each turn has two parts. The first part is adding continents to your planet core. To do this, the first pile of habitat tiles is scattered face up on the table so that all players can see them. The first player chooses one tile from these five and adds it to their planet. Other players take turns doing the same thing around the table. once everyone has a tile, the remaining tiles are placed face down in the “invisible” slot for the eleventh turn. Once this pile has five tiles, place the remaining tiles from future turns into the slot for the twelfth turn. When that pile has five tiles, all future unclaimed tiles are returned to the box.
The second part of the turn is adding life to your planet. From the third turn onward, players will be acquiring animal cards from those beneath the corresponding tile pile. Your planet must meet the requirements of the card in order for you to win that card. Some cards will go to the player with the largest region of a specified type. (A region is a series of connected habitat triangles, all of the same type. So while your objective card rewards you for having just a single triangle in isolation, in order to have a region, you need to have multiple triangles connected.) Other cards may go to the player who has the largest region of a specified type which also touches another specified type of habitat. And still other cards may go to the player who has the largest region of a specified type which does not touch another specified habitat type. In the case of a draw, no one wins the card, but it is placed at the bottom of the card column for the next turn and can be won then.
After all cards are won or moved, the first player marker is passed to the next player and a new turn begins. The game ends after the 12th turn and after the last animal cards have been won. Everyone’s planet should be completely covered with tiles. Each player reveals their secret objective card and records any points earned from meeting their objective. Each player also scores one point for each animal whose natural habitat is the same as that on their objective card, and two points for each animal whose natural habitat is different from that on their objective card.
The Core Issue: Is Planet Gimmicky or Good?
Okay, aside from the fact that Planet is a tile-laying game (and I love those), the primary draw are the magnetic planet cores and the idea of sticking tiles onto them. It’s a feature not found in any other game I know of and the idea of 3D tile laying intrigued me. But… I didn’t go into this without some reservations because games with such a huge toy factor are often lacking in gameplay. The creators seem to hope that the gimmick will carry the game and fail to pay attention to good design. I hoped this wouldn’t be the case with Planet.
The first thing to note about Planet, before I get into the good and the less-good, is that it is a lightweight, family friendly game. It’s a game for easy nights, non-gamer friends and family, and family game night with the kids. If you’re looking for something deep and angsty, this isn’t it. That’s not a bad thing, simply an observation for those of you who dislike the lightweight games.
However, light does not mean brainless. The rules are very simple to learn, yet Planet will tickle your brain a bit. Much of this comes from working in 3D. It’s one thing to lay tiles on a flat surface or figure out the proper Tetris placement of polyominoes. It’s another to rotate a globe in your hands and visualize how each tile placement might affect the next few. If you’re looking for something to improve your spatial reasoning, Planet can help.
Beyond that, much of the strategy centers around drafting tiles that will earn animal cards for you in later turns. In the basic version of the game, all of the animal cards are visible, meaning you can try to take tiles that will help you earn useful cards on this and future turns. (In the advanced version of the game, some animals are hidden, making it more difficult to plan ahead.)
When faced with choices, what do you do? Do you aim for animals that will meet your personal objective? Doing so will earn you points from multiple directions. You’ll work toward your objective card’s points, plus you’ll get end game points for each animal that matches your objective card. But.. You can gain more points at the end of the game from animals that don’t match your objective card. It’s nice that you earn points either way, because there are going to be times when you can’t get the animals you wanted.
Your strategy will be thwarted by the tiles. You don’t know what’s in those tile piles until they’re turned up at the beginning of the turn. (Except for the last two turns. Those piles are composed of earlier discards. If you have a good memory, you might be able to predict what’s coming up on those turns.) Even if you see something great come up, unless it’s your turn to be first player, you may not be able to grab it. And if there are two great tiles in the pile, you have to choose because you only get one tile per turn. The rest move to the end, or are discarded into the box.
This level of randomness is fine, though. It feels fair for such a light, family-type game. That plus the random setup of the cards keeps every game from playing out exactly the same. Planet isn’t the sort of game that requires multiple plays to perfect or understand. You’ll have seen what it has to offer after the first play. The replayability comes from “solving” the different puzzle it presents each time the tiles and cards are shuffled for a new game.
It is possible to hate draft in Planet, taking tiles others need. One of the rules states that it’s acceptable to look at another player’s planet. You can try to see what they might need, and suss out what their objective might be based on how they’re building their planet. You can try to prevent them from reaching higher objective levels, or beating you to an animal card.
This can be awkward, though. In many games it’s easy to simply look around the board and see what’s what. Here, you have to ask for the planet, or ask the player to tell you how many of a certain habitat they have. This is a useful rule if you want to seriously strategize your moves. However, it’s also a colossal pain in the rear and it slows the pace of the game.
Worse, if you have AP prone players, things will grind to a halt while they study every single planet and optimize every tile selection. Planet is not a game that benefits from this behavior. It’s too light to put forth this kind of mental strain, and it’s better when played briskly. Plus, since you only get one tile per turn, you’re better served by taking what’s best for you. If there’s absolutely nothing else for you to do, then hate drafting can work. But if you have AP prone players, either get an egg timer, limit the investigation to asking one question per player, or forget this rule altogether.
I thought Planet played well at all counts. With just two, it was a little easier to strategize because there were always more tiles available, meaning you could probably get something useful even if you didn’t get first pick. Also, the whole “looking at other’s planets” thing was easier because we didn’t have to sort out three other planets. Only one. That really cuts the AP down. On the other hand, it was a bit easier to guess my opponent’s objective because the reduced competition for tiles makes it a little more obvious what they’re collecting. (Unless they’re taking stuff just to confuse you, which is a viable plan.) Planet is probably best at four, though. You get the full experience and can get more into the joy/frustration of the tile draft and competition for cards.
If you’re into games as education, Planet can help teach kids about animals and their habitats. The requirements of the animal cards are accurate representations of how those animals live in the wild. For example, one card shows a clownfish needing water, but that water cannot be next to an arctic patch. Another shows a rattlesnake needing all desert tiles. Penguins need arctic areas that touch water. And so on. Even if you don’t make an overt thing out of it, kids will likely soak up a little stealth knowledge.
There wasn’t really anything I outright disliked about Planet. As long as you control for the AP and are happy with a light game, it’s a fun, unique tile-laying experience that makes your brain work in a different direction. No, it’s not a game that’s going to wow the hardcore gamer crowd, but that’s not its intended audience. Kids will likely love the toy factor, and even adults will probably want to see what the planets are all about. Planet is, happily, more than just the gimmick.