You thought the energy crisis was solved when society finally switched to fully renewable solar and wind energy away from gas and coal. As it turns out, however, even solar power doesn’t last forever. The sun is doomed to explode, and take the whole solar system with it.
But all hope is not lost. There are plenty more star systems out there in the galaxy if you can just reach them. And how do you reach them? By sucking the last remnants of your star dry to stock up on enough energy to send your mighty mothership across the vast void of space. Unravel the tale of the survival (or not) of your species in Sol: Last Days of a Star.
How It Plays
The goal of Sol is to have the most Momentum built up in your mothership when the sun goes boom, so you can escape with your people to a new solar system and rebuild your civilization.
On your turn, you choose from 3 actions – move, convert, or activate.
Move allows you to move your little ships, called Sundivers – launching them from your mothership, positioning them around the board, or even sending them into the Sun’s core to harvest extra energy.
Convert allows you to take your Sundivers on the board and build structures. What you build depends on the arrangement of Sundivers. You’ll need Gates to access deeper levels of the sun, and the three different stations – Energy nodes, Foundries, and Transmit Towers – each perform a specific task, explained below.
Activate lets you utilize the stations you’ve built. You can activate any number of stations of one type, as long as you have a Sundiver present at each station you want to activate. You can even activate other players stations, although that may award them some benefit.
Energy Nodes harvest energy cubes. Foundries convert energy cubes into new Sundivers. Transmit Towers convert energy into Momentum.
The deeper you are into the sun, the more of each task you can do at once. In addition, each layer of the sun provides both a base value and a bonus value. The activating player gets the base value automatically, but the base owner gets first dibs on the Bonus value. All values are all or nothing – so if you want to activate a Transmit Tower in the core (which provides a base value of 5) but only have 4 energy cubes, you can’t.
After taking your actions, you may need to draw cards. Sending Sundivers into the center of the sun, converting structures within the Sun, and activating structures inside the sun all add to the total number of cards you will draw. Some of these cards may be Solar Flares, which do 3 things: decrease the sun’s stability tracker, force any player with 13+ energy cubes to lose half, and automatically activate any stations in outer orbit for free!
There are other cards in the deck, though, and no matter how many you draw you can keep 1. There are a number of suits based on the number of players, and each suit is assigned a random power at the start of the game. These abilities range from bonus movement, easier ways to build structures or gain momentum, or ways to manipulate the pieces on the board.
When the 13th Solar Flare card is drawn, this signals the collapse of the star. The game ends immediately, and whoever has the most points survives while everyone else is caught in the sun’s explosion. If you’re feeling extra thematic, the rulebook contains a brief epilogue based on the number of points you earned, meaning you might just barely limp away, or you might have achieved universal enlightenment.
I’ve Got Sol But I’m Not A Soldier
So you’ve built up a civilization, but it’s about to burn to the ground through no fault of your own.
In a lot of ways, Sol is a somber, sorrowful game. While you’re building structures and towers and gates all across the board, nothing you create here is permanent. In fact, the goal is simply to leave it all behind. There’s no looking at the board at the end and thinking, thematically, what a great civilization you’ve constructed. This isn’t a civilization-building game, it’s a race for survival.
It’s not an easy race, either. While the mechanics are fairly straightforward, the path to implement those mechanics is wide open. That often leaves people at a loss, feeling a bit desperate to just do something useful. For the most part, I’ve seen players go half (or all?) the game without scoring any points. On the one hand, this is simply a function of the game; get your infrastructure in place and make sure you can continue harvesting energy and building sundivers before turning to hardcore momentum gather.
On the other hand, it’s easy to feel at a loss as to whether or not you’re making progress. The feedback is not necessarily immediate if your choices were good ones, especially early on. It’s when your supply chain breaks down, or when you miss your third opportunity in a row to use the bonus when another player activates your station, or when everyone is using everyone else’s gates and not your own that you realize how you could have done something different.
In short, Sol is a difficult game, tough to wrap your head around. Not the mechanics themselves, which are fairly streamlined, but how to put them into practice is the most effective way. Fortunately, by the end of the game, if you’ve been paying attention you will learn something. Feedback is not immediate, but by the final score you will have seen better strategies or realized how your early choices cascaded through the following turns. So despite the doom and gloom, the inevitability of everything falling apart, and the distinct challenge of piecing together an unpredictable, sometimes obtuse engine, Sol is a challenging, interesting and fun game featuring tough strategy and fair competition.
As you play, you start to see how all the different pieces come together in a way that creates unique situations, challenging decisions, and player freedom in a way that doesn’t feel chaotic or random.
Let’s start with the core mechanics. This is a Eurogame with the heart of an Ameritrash (or thematic) game; yes, when you get down to it you are harvesting resources and converting those resources into points or new ways to harvest resources and/or score points. But you’re also given a world to go where you want and build your stations where you think they fit best. Turns aren’t divided into phases you step through; a structure isn’t quite the same if you put it in the core versus outer orbit. That freedom is a huge boon – and a huge risk, as you can definitely make terrible choices throughout the game and cause yourself a rough loss. But those are your choices, and now you’ve learned something for next game.
A few other features ensure this gameplay doesn’t fall into stale, repeatable tactics with a few ideal strategies to max out your score. The main way you get that is from the action cards – but it’s not just a full deck of cards you cycle randomly through every game. Instead, you’ll have 4 or 5 powers each game that are different from the last game, powers which provide completely new tactics. Some cards make building structures easier; others offer new ways to score points. Some cards are simple bonuses that can affect the best placements, while others force you to completely rethink the framework of the game. Yes, it can get a little frustrating that the card text doesn’t exist on the cards you draw into your hand, and you’ll find yourself leaning over the table frequently to read the powers. At least everyone can always be aware of all the powers that are available, though, and in my opinion it’s worth the inconvenience to provide more dynamic gameplay with each new session.
Also worth noting; one type of card adds direct, conflict-oriented interaction between players. If you want that sort of game, it’s available. If not? Just leave out the red cards.
The mothership movement is one surprisingly simple feature that adds a lot to the game. The motherships are on the board, serving as a turn tracker – whichever mothership has more open space in front of it is the current player, and when you’re done you move your ship forward. It’s a fun, thematic integration, but what you don’t immediately realize is that it will truly mess with your strategy, especially on your first game. Your first instinct is to launch your little sundivers and build a couple gates and structures, but two turns later and your mothership is starting to pull away. That’s when you realize you can’t just hole up in your territory and keep to yourself; you pretty much HAVE to rely on other player’s structures, both stations and gates. There’s no turtling, because orbital currents spread everything out naturally.
I love this feature, not the least because you’re no longer thinking only about what you need to build to get your engine running. You start to ask what you DON’T need to build because you can jump on someone else’s hard work. You think about how you can make your gates and stations useful to other players, since they’ll have easy access to them 75% than you will, and you want to get those bonuses. Using other players’ things gives them rewards, but if you try to keep to yourself you will fail. That is extremely interesting and fun, and very unique. But it doesn’t feel forced! It just feels like a natural extension of the system.
I had one game, for example, where another player managed to build a very convenient energy node and gate very close to mine. I had tried to build a gate to easily access 2 stations, but the way it turned out more people used his gates and stations because they were closer – and often ended up skipping right over my own. It’s something I hadn’t thought about before, and although it caused my loss it was a fun thing to learn about – a new way to look at the game.
Another thing to be aware of – the game can have quite an abrupt ending. This is definitely thematic, but it has a lot of strategic implications. For one, you can’t wait too long to get your point engine going – the odds of ending the game before the deck is halfway through are low, but not out of the question. There’s no final scoring round, so you need to be winning at all times – any point you are behind is a point at which you may lose. That fact pushes people to action, and ensures that you have a pretty good idea of how you’re doing compared to the others once points start appearing on the board.
I have seen some discussion as to whether or not this gives an advantage to the first place, who will at best have the same number of turns as everyone else but at worse have one extra turn. I haven’t noticed the first player winning more often than others, because I think there are some counter-balancing features. For one, other players can react to what the first player does more quickly than the first player can react to others – meaning, you might choose your first station’s location based on where players earlier in turn order put theirs, which is a minor advantage. Also, if you’re winning you can try to speed the end of the game by undertaking actions that draw a lot of cards, and hope to push things through while you’re ahead. This is something players control, and all players can have at least some effect on – course it could backfire, giving someone the chance to end the game at the moment they eek out a few extra points. Basically what I’m saying is there are many small details that affect when the game ends and who comes out on top, and I think you can play this game and worry more about strategy than the teeny advantage of starting first.
Okay, it’s time to wrap up. I’ll mention the components – they are excellent. The board is clear and easy to read, the diagrams for the production at each ring level are printed everywhere, and the miniatures are solidly constructed without being over-designed. I love the flaming orange-and-red against stark black look on the box, rules, and board. I do have to admit, though, that some of the player colors clash with the board. Black and silver look good, but the green and blue in particular don’t jive well with the orange. Not that I have a solution, or better color options, and it really doesn’t detract from the game. Some people probably like it.
The box includes a ton of variants – a variety of action cards, variant powers, solo or cooperative play. Whatever your speed, there’s probably something for you in here. It’s nice to see a game with such passion and thoroughness – you can tell the designers really went all out, even to the inclusion of a separate “Mythos” booklet for more backstory on the game world.
We exist in a world where many people tend to pick up a game, play it a few times, and then move along to the next – but Sol is the sort of game that is simple enough, yet open-ended enough, that I hope it remains on people’s shelves for years to come.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Elephant Laboratories for providing a review copy of Sol: Last Days of a Star.