In the far future, humankind has exploded out into space. With plenty of worlds out there to settle, the recurring need for more and better energy becomes a heated arena competition between major corporations across the galaxy. New technology is invented to harvest energy from pulsars. It’s a race to the top of capitalism hill! Who can build the best, most efficient, most advanced corporation? Find out in Pulsar 2849.
How It Plays
In Pulsar 2849, players race to collect the most points by exploring the galaxy, building collector rings, investing in technology, and connecting power transmission stations to the grid.
The core mechanic is based on drafting from a pool of dice. The first player rolls the dice, then sorts the dice by value. The median value is determined and marked. Then, players take turn drafting 1 die at a time in alternating clockwise-counterclockwise order until each player has 2 dice. If you choose a higher-valued die, you will have to move your marker down on the engineering or initiative tracks, which provide an end-of-the-round engineering bonus and determine player order in future rounds, respectively. If you choose a lower-valued die, you go UP on those tracks. The further from the median, the more you have to adjust your position on those tracks.
After all dice have been drafted, you’ll take turns in initiative order using all your dice. You’ll play all your dice at once, which is why initiative is especially important.
The value of your dice limit which actions you can do. Each action has a die value printed by it, and you can only use that die (give or take some possible modifier abilities) to activate that action.
You’ll fly your ship around the galaxy, which lets you build stations and pulsar rings. You’ll patent technologies, which can give you one-time, permanent/recurring, or point-scoring abilities. You can also build transmitters, which may require more than one die to complete, that provide one-time points bonuses and/or recurring accruement of points or engineering cubes.
You can claim gyrodynes and then activate them inside a pulsar ring to harvest points every round, claim dice modifier tokens, and in the full game activate unique actions on your corporation board.
All of these actions lead directly or indirectly to points. Gyrodynes harvest points every round, as do many transmitters. Technology patents can make certain actions easier or give you points for performing specific activities. Stations earn you points – the more you have, the more points you get. Corporate HQ boards can unlock “gate runs” in which you attempt to fly your ship through as many gates of a certain color and accrue points for each gate. And there are goal tiles, which offer bonus points for accomplishing difficult tasks (like building 9 stations or patenting 5 technologies) over the course of the game – and even more bonus points if you can spend engineering cubes on those goals.
You also have the opportunity to earn one bonus die each round – a third action. You can spend 4 engineering cubes, patent certain technologies, build stations on certain system tiles, or link 2 transmitters together to unlock the bonus die – but, again, once per round.
The game ends after 8 rounds and a final scoring phase. Whoever has the most points is the richest, most successful corporation!
To The Stars and Back Again
If you asked me to sum up Pulsar 2849 in a word, or even a short phrase, I’m not sure I could. Pulsar 2849 is a beast of a game with a dozen moving parts, none of which particularly stand out as the element that makes the game what it is – which is perhaps why it failed to collect much hype when it released in late 2017. There’s no gimmick. It’s just a game.
“Just a game” is, of course, a misnomer. While a game like this, with so many various pieces all stuck together, could easily fall into the trap of “everything and the kitchen sink” – bloated and unplayable due to an overabundance of ideas – Pulsar 2849 works, and it works really, really well. I’m going to try and dig into why that is, and I’m sure it’ll take more than a few words.
To begin with, Pulsar makes no apologies for what kind of game it is – a mid-to-heavyweight eurogame requiring strategy, planning, and quick adaptation when things go awry. It throws you into the fray and expects you to keep up, and there is a lot to keep up with. There’s no catch-up mechanism, no way to slow down the leader. Odds are excruciatingly high that the first time you play, if you’re playing with someone who has played before, you are going to lose. That’s just how it is.
Fortunately, your second game (or maybe your third), you’ll have a solid fighting chance, because everything starts to make sense.
While Pulsar is unforgiving in many ways, it’s also thoroughly rewarding. Everything you do gives you something, and a single bad investment isn’t going to make or break your strategy. Some of your actions are short term and will grant you immediate points; that feels great! Some actions are more about building a long-term basket of points to dump on your opponents at the end of the game. Seriously, this is one of the reasons first-timers almost always lose. They tend to do more of the immediate point-scoring actions and feel like they’re beating you – only to have you out-score them 40-50 points in the final scoring phase.
Fortunately, this isn’t quite as painful as it might sound – after all, you spend most of the game scoring points, which is fun. And when someone burns past you like that at the end, it’s very clear why they scored so many points, and what you need to think about doing next time.
Perhaps what most sets this game apart from others is that there is no scarcity of resources or scarcity of freedom – but there is a scarcity of actions. You can do what you want to do without worrying – do I need one more steel resource, one more energy resource? You spend no time calculating how much you have to save up or if it will be more effective to buy one big thing or two little things with your available goods, because there are no goods.
However, you get only two actions on your turn – possibly three, with a bonus die – which means everything you choose to take is a direct choice not to take something else. And you are constrained in your choices by the dice you draft, which makes the dice-drafting part of your turn immensely important. You are not railroaded into a specific sequence of actions or an “ideal” path after early strategic choices – but you’ve still got to think ahead to figure out what’s best for you in the moment.
This makes the game incredibly tactical. As much as you aim for a long-term strategy, if you don’t get the dice you need, that strategy could be in jeopardy. You have to make quick adjustments to your strategy to make the most out of the dice you can get. That may mean shifting your focus; or it may mean taking steps early on to ensure you can adapt the dice to your needs. Dice modification does not come easily. Either way, you must always be on your toes or risk locking yourself in an inescapable cage.
I mentioned above, the game appears as if it is made of many disparate parts. Pulsar gates don’t seem particularly connected to planetary stations or technology patents. The initiative and engineering tracks seem fairly unimportant your first few games. But I’m here to tell you that it all comes together quite cohesively, and everything is important. That’s what makes your choices so tough, and so interesting.
At first it seems much more important to take that 5- or 6-value die, and who cares about initiative, right? It’s only turn order. Or engineering cubes. But those engineering cubes stack up over the course of the game, and if you don’t compete for them, someone else will get them easily. Turn order becomes very important when there’s only one copy of the die you need for that tech patent to top off your strategy – but if you’ve neglected it up until the moment you need it, you’re in big trouble. Pulsar gates are tough to get up and running quickly, but if you spend a few early actions on that, they just keep giving you points. And flying your ship around can feel aimless, but especially in the early game it can help you stack up stations (worth points at endgame) as well as get some free bonus tokens, which can kickstart your point-scoring engines or give you flexibility when you really need it.
This is why experienced players will always beat newcomers. It’s just impossible to see how important the different elements are and what effect they have on the game – but when you do learn, the competition becomes quite fierce. In my first few teaching games, I destroyed my opponents thanks to the engineering track – no one saw it as important, since it didn’t directly earn points, so I easily controlled the top spot and earned dozens of cubes over the course of the game, which I used to score every single bonus goal at the end. I had to start explicitly telling people when I taught them the rules – don’t ignore the engineering track. You think it’s not important, but if you don’t fight for it, I will beat you by at least 20 points.
The ultimate conclusion, though, is that Pulsar 2849 is very rewarding. Once all the parts come together in your head and you realize just how much you can do, and how much doing things is fun, well… you’ll be rolling in points and spit-firing around the galaxy, ringing up Pulsars and discovering new star systems. From the tough choices you’ll make in the dice-drafting, to playing the Initiative and Engineering tracks, to building transmitter towers, you’ll be engaged and interested the whole time you’re playing.
It doesn’t hurt that the iconography is clear, visible, and mostly consistent. There are just a couple icons on the tech board that are obtuse (fortunately, there are plenty of reference documents), but it is very easy to look at the board and see exactly which dice you need to accomplish which task you’re aiming for. Once you get past a short learning curve there, it’s fairly easy to focus more on your strategy than what the icons mean.
My biggest complaint is probably that everything is built around the circular board, and curved things don’t pack extremely well into a square box. That feels incredibly nitpicky – especially since you get so much stuff in the box. After you master the basic game, you can add headquarters boards, which give each player 8 actions unique only to them, which also add new ways to score points. This opens up the option to use variants on the technology board – which comes in 3 sections, each with an A, B, C, and D variant. These can all be mixed and matched. And of the goal tiles, there are 6, which are double-sided. Did I mention the board is double-sided as well, offering different potential strategies and outcomes? My friend and co-dragonslayer Jon (FarmerLenny) remarked, “You could have sold me some of that stuff in an expansion and I would have bought it! You’re just giving it to me…as a complete game???”
Indeed it is a complete game. One that lacks simple attention-getting gimmicks, but is deeply rewarding in the variety of activities and the tough choices it presents, all in a package that takes about 90 minutes to play.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Czech Games Edition for providing a review copy of Pulsar 2849.