Designer: Dennis Chen
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
I really love the title Beyond the Sun (BtS). Not sure why it stands out, but the title piqued my interest more so than it should. I suppose the title matters, but in all fairness, the title accurately captures the space exploration and colonization narrative well. After all, the game is all about expanding beyond the pale blue dot in search of new planets to
From the mechanistic viewpoint, BtS is really just an action selection game with players moving one pawn around the board and selecting and performing one action each turn. Occupying an action also means potentially denying others the same action for that round. Nothing earth shattering here. What sets BtS apart is how the choices of available actions reveal themselves during the course of the game. A generic action selection game would have players compete for a set of fixed actions printed on the board. Perhaps a couple of new actions might be revealed during game play, but the board is usually static between rounds and games. That script is flipped in BtS because players will individually decide which path they want to take by choosing which actions are available to them on a technology tree.
I suspect most hobby gamers should be familiar with tech trees ubiquitously found in many civilization building games. As civilizations advance, new scientific discoveries are made which lead to invention of life-changing technologies. By selecting one branch or path of the tree, new options will be revealed with the passing of time – upgraded combat units, new buildings, more income sources and additional perks that come with progress. The tech tree advancement is a simple way for allowing players to control the direction of progress. Do you want to select the Wheel to allow construction of the chariot or agriculture to improve your granaries? You basically get to decide whether you want guns or butter. Of course, most of these advancements happen concurrently in real life, but in a game, the tech tree provides a sense of progress in a world of limited resources by affording players a simple choice between a handful of options. What is true though is that the tech tree is mostly a small part of civilization building games where the main focus is usually placed on territorial exploration and conquest.
In light of the ancillary nature of tech trees, BtS chose to – wisely in my opinion – focus on the tech tree as the major component of the game. In a first of its kind, the tech tree is featured front and center on the main board while the space exploration board is smaller and to the side. How’s that’s for a refreshing change! However, everything else about the tech tree feels familiar. To advance on the tech tree from levels 1 to 4, one must unlock key technologies in the spheres of science, economy, military X and in sequence with lower level technologies forming the foundation for high level advancements. At least half the higher level techs require researching two lower level techs from different spheres, allowing broader diversity in specialization. Unique for BtS, researching level 2 and 3 techs will always trigger a random event that usually impacts the board state or multiple players. Having these events occur makes sense as each discovery is bound to have major implications across the galaxy. Importantly, several of these key events are gatekeepers for pacing the game as they are always present in each session and help unlock additional basic actions available for all players.
I am always eager to see how a designer integrates resources and currency in a game to provide a framework for progression. For a civ-like, tech advancement game, there is always a danger of introducing one too many variables. It is possible in these games to see multiple resources circulating around the board which unnecessarily complicates the game without bringing anything new to table. Moreover, I think a game system needs enough flexibility to allow conversion between resources. More often, currencies and/or resources are so tightly separated that an imbalance in resource production or income flow can create player frustration. For BtS, that really isn’t an issue. There are two variables in the game to deal with: population and ore. While ore is earned by a traditional method of production, population is converted from a generic resource die by simply flipping over to the appropriate die face. To be clear, the die isn’t really a die in that it is never rolled, except in the case for one random event. Since each player starts off with the same amount of dice, every unit of resource/population is accounted for. I think this is a brilliant move not only because it makes resource conversion a little easier to manage, it also allowed the designer a way to to regulate how the resource dice are distributed and released during game play. In the case of BtS, the dice are placed in columns and are made available when discs underneath the columns are lifted. Further, the expansion boards for each faction show different columns heights, choke points for release of dice and other perks which makes it a great design choice as far as customization goes. I would not be surprised to see more player board variations in expansions.
While the tech tree takes center stage, the space exploration part cannot be ignored. I don’t think one can win by completely ignoring space exploration. There are a few reasons for this besides the healthy chunk of points players earn through planet colonization. Arguably, an even more important aspect of wresting control or colonizing a planet is that players are able to place food and ore discs from their respective tracks on their player boards on these planets. Recall that removing discs is important for activating columns of resource dice for population conversion. Similarly, there is an ore track with discs covering each slot. When the discs are lifted, ore production increases. As you can imagine, it is important to ramp up ore mining to accelerate action selection especially late in the game.
Wresting control of planets and colonization requires that a player has more power than his/her neighbor, a simple area majority control mechanism that is easy to grok even by newbies. Here is where the remaining four sides of the die faces come in – they depict spaceships with a power of one to four. As ships are upgraded from the resource columns, the die faces are simply flipped to show the new values. Many of the actions on the tech tree allow you build ships, upgrade them and then perform hyperspace jumps to new planets locations. Depending on player count, there are 3-5 planets available on the board each game and players will first need to gain control and then when sufficient power is achieved, colonize the planets.
In designing the space exploration part of the game, the designer, Chen, opted to go the Euro route which I really appreciate. Instead of bitterly fighting for control over a handful of planets throughout the game, colonized planets are simply remove from the board and placed in the corresponding player tableau with the participating ships returned as resource die back to the columns. A new planet is then revealed from the deck and the process starts anew. Moreover, rival fleets stationed on the newly colonized planet aren’t obliterated but simply relocated to deep space. What a friendly rivalry! These are all signatures of a Euro design where player units are not eliminated and there is negligible “take-that” elements. new planets enter the board at a good clip and the planet deck is quickly exhausted. In fact, in one of our sessions, the entire deck A was exhausted. In the end, I wondered if BtS should have opted for icons that show “influence” instead of spaceships. After all, there really is no mention of combat at all in the game and I definitely don’t feel engaged in a battle during my sessions. Players are just vying for influence (area majority) to colonize the planets . I suppose using ore to purchase influence comes across as a mismatch.
Between points scored from researching technologies, control of deep space and planet colonization, the final category of scoring comes from fulfilling achievements which also act as a game timer. As players reach certain milestones, marker discs are placed on randomly drawn achievement cards (i.e. .first to colonize four planets). Here, the designer chose again not to prolong the game by placing reasonable demands on the game clock – three or four milestones to trigger the last round depending on player count. The end game is never really far from the beginning and as your engines start to rev to full speed, the game is already on its way to the conclusion. In most of our games, getting to the level four achievements coincides well with the final few rounds of play.
I will say that as someone who enjoys Euro style interaction more than take-and-makes with individual player boards, Beyond the Sun provides a bit of both to suit my tastes. There is an individual player tableau for resource allocation, but also adequate interactions on the tech tree and in the space exploration boards to make you pay attention to what everyone else is doing. This comes across clearly when players spend most of their time scrutinizing the tech tree and exploration boards planning their next actions instead of staring at the own personal space. It is a good sign that that game feels incredibly tight and streamlined for a genre that involves space conquest. In many instances where the designer could have taken a hard right toward a path of complexity, he instead makes a left to simplify game play. As a result, I now have a game that can substitute for Twilight Imperium or even Eclipse for that matter, that will satisfy the same itch in two hours or less. This is a keeper.
As a final note, I think that BtS is just ripe for expansions. I say that as someone who generally ignores expansions and is turned off by most additions to the base game. Because BtS is driven purely by a tech tree, it stands to reason that different technologies on the board will generate a different experience while keeping the core game mostly intact. I do not really want more modules or additional boards to score points. I just want new technologies to replace the existing ones, perhaps new level one techs, that can create exciting synergies without reinventing the wheel that is already pretty glorious to begin with.