Wheels Within Wheels Within Wheels
After the iterative cleverness of Cry Havoc, which entrusted its players with the command of four highly distinctive factions, I’d gladly play almost anything designed by Grant Rodiek. Hence the initial allure of Solstice. Unlike Cry Havoc, however, Solstice would be a small production. No significant asymmetry, no mini sculpts, no fist-pumping Trogs. Just a fast-playing, hard-hitting, no-prisoners card game.
And hoo boy, is it devious.
Picture this. There are some planets that need controlling, and each of Solstice’s two to four players are packing the same six units. Dropping those units down onto the surface of those planets will accumulate two different types of control — strength and favor — either of which will, hopefully, result in you picking up a sizable bundle of points.
For the most part, these units aren’t glamorous. The Diplomat, Marshal, and Elder all function largely the same way, netting points if you happen to sport the strongest or most favored faction on that planet. The Duchess will score the planet’s value plus a little extra if you’re favored, with the twist that the Assassin likes to lodge his dagger between the fifth and sixth ribs of unsuspecting Duchesses. Of course, the owner of any Duchess might be able to protect them with a well-placed Legion, who will merrily absorb any attacks.
When described like this, Solstice might not sound like much. After all, we’ve heard this particular song and dance before, whether in the gone-popular Smash Up or the more niche (and far more interesting) Omen: A Reign of War. So what sets Solstice apart?
First of all, this isn’t a game about simply plopping troops onto a planet. Instead, it’s a bluffy sort of game, in some ways an evolution of Grant Rodiek’s Hocus. Where Hocus transformed poker into a game of ever-escalating crafted hands, bids, and magical powers, one where information was only as certain as its source’s murky intentions, Solstice dims its subject matter to an appreciable grey by simply flipping all its cards face-down. Each planet requires some tidbit of information be disclosed whenever a card is placed there — “this is an elder,” perhaps — but other than that, nearly every card at the table is blind.
This is already pretty clever. But it isn’t Solstice’s main twist.
Each round begins with a draft, that opening salvo of activity where players will select the hand they’ll toss into the fray. There are a few events to pick up, ranging from the destructive to those that harvest additional information from the table. And it’s from these and the entire pool of units that everyone will assemble that round’s set of tools.
You read that right. You’re drafting other people’s cards. As in, you might wind up holding somebody else’s complementing Legion and Marshal, or maybe your own Duchess but somebody else’s Assassin. And no, they won’t flip sides and work for you just because you were nice enough to draft them into your grubby hand. This isn’t choosing teams in Little League.
Rather, there are some capital-i Implications to this. For one thing, the first few rounds of Solstice — crud, the first couple games — can feel directionless. Random. Capricious. You might find yourself wondering what in the Million Worlds you’re supposed to do with all these cards, especially when you flub by positioning a Diplomat so that she scores a bunch of points for your rival.
Little by little, Solstice congeals like bloodied sand. That enemy Legion you’re holding? You can use it to block someone else’s bid for control, effectively cancelling out two competing factions. That Duchess? You can use her to lure every Assassin away from your own target, whether it’s a planet you hope to command via strength or your own Duchess squirreled away in some remote corner. Deployed events become breadcrumbs of information that leave everyone straining to remember what they saw during the draft. Will that face-down event provide an opportunity, like an Imposter or Prophecy? Or perhaps it’s a trap meant to take down that planet’s strongest or most favored faction?
There’s a lot to master, is what I’m saying, but it is there to master. There will be missteps and misread information, because of course there will be, but Solstice provides enough tools for cautious players that it’s possible to recover from a disastrous round. This often comes in the form of your once-per-turn Prisoner slot, where you can stash a single card, whether to stow something valuable for a later round, deny an opponent a powerful deployment, or just wait to see how the round develops. Other times, it might just be the inbuilt balance of the game, which ensures that everyone’s cards see the light of day equally. While you might have a round where very few of your troops are drafted, you’ll never have two such rounds.
Between its juicy glimmers of concealed information and the way it forces everyone to work with woefully hostile hands, Solstice is very nearly a perfect short-form game. Sure, the production could have more gutsy, and it would be wonderful if its reference cards came in the four player colors — having to ask who’s playing blue isn’t just annoying, it’s a form of information leakage — but perhaps that’s the necessary price of an independent designer like Grant Rodiek minimizing the risks of producing a game without flashy miniatures or a big board.
More’s the pity, as Solstice’s main downside is that it’s already nigh-impossible to lay hands on. It earns my wholehearted recommendation. If only that made it easier to find.