A dying star. A utopian civilization becoming less utopian as it grows more desperate. A cohesive union splintering into factions. A bitter race to escape the coming supernova. The lingering suspicion that all of this was your fault.
It’s rare that I’ll read the fluff for a board game — if there’s one thing designing a board game doesn’t qualify you for, it’s writing compelling fiction — but Sol: Last Days of a Star almost convinced me to go all the way. Almost. The included mythos book, with its short stories about characters the game never reveals and motivations that are distant from what you’ll actually be doing, was a step too far. All it earned was a quick skim. What does Sol think it is? The Canterbury Tales?
Not quite, but it is something rare: an actual honest-to-goodness science fiction game. With something to say. And systems that actually support its message.
Here’s the gist. By harnessing the abundant output of its parent star, your civilization was able to create a life of peace and harmony for all. In terms of energy production, you’re basically a Type II civilization on the Kardashev Scale — yes, I desperately need to prove that I read books. Unfortunately, it turns out that harvesting a star also gradually kills it. As the sun begins its collapse, your only hope is to place your people aboard a massive ark and shoot it off into the cosmos. There isn’t room enough for everybody, prompting your once-serene civilization to fragment into competing arks, each hoping to be the one that will successfully blast off to discover a new star—
“Wait,” says Geoff. “What happens when we reach a new star? Won’t we just destroy it, too?”
It’s a trenchant point, and from the member of our group who uses “sustainable” as a swear word. That’s the power of Sol. Despite resembling an abstract, predestined, mathed-out sort of game, its pressures are always there, breathing down your neck, the sun’s remaining hours ticking away at regular intervals. And the only way to ensure your survival is by hastening its destruction.
Sol is a race game, though it’s unlike most race games in that hitting the accelerator means stuffing a rag down your gas tank and flicking a match at it. To ensure that your ark is the one that escapes the coming supernova, you need momentum. But momentum comes from constructing and activating the same equipment that will pull more cards off the top of the instability deck. Draw thirteen solar flares and kaboom, the sun is gone and whichever ark had generated the most momentum will ride that wave all the way to somewhere new.
In essence, the very same actions that will save you will also doom you. Worse, if you think that this will encourage everybody to behave in the most conservative, anti-wasteful way possible, think again. For one thing, the faction in the lead has no reason to play fair anymore. As far as they’re concerned, it’s drill baby drill, don’t mind the sunburn. The only ones who need to buy more time are those lagging behind.
More importantly, Sol’s progression appears straightforward, except that it’s straightforward the way assembling a microwave oven from scrap is straightforward. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to generate momentum. One, by hurling sundivers — your cutest and littlest ships — into the sun’s core, and using the data they generate to gain an edge. And two, by setting up transmission towers and operating them regularly. But both options are more complicated than they first appear. Whether constructing, operating, or hurling themselves into the core, your sundivers need to actually get into position, and that means you’ll need to set up safe passageways through the sun’s various layers. More than that, you’ll need to generate energy to pay for everything, and set up foundries to build additional sundivers to replace those that are lost to the sun or reconfigured into stations, and—
And regardless, there’s your orbiting mothership to worry about. This is where you’ll spit out new sundivers, but it’s locked in a lazy orbit around the sun. Since it will be over ten turns before your mothership orbits around to where it started — and likely where your first solar gate was built — it pays to plan far ahead, but pays more to play opportunistically. And this is where the abstract, predestined, mathed-out puzzle that is Sol starts to get a whole lot crazier.
Earlier I mentioned the instability deck. Whenever you take certain actions, you’ll draw from the top, each card bringing you one step closer to final annihilation. The trick, though, is that the deeper into the sun those actions were taken, the more cards you draw — but also, the greater the benefit of the action itself. For example, an energy node out in distant orbit won’t cause harm to the sun, but also won’t generate much energy. Near the sun’s core, though, you’ll pull in heaps of energy whenever you operate it. All at the high, high cost of drawing three cards each time you flip the switch.
There are a few important things to note about these stations. First, you can operate a whole bunch of the same type at once. You’ll need a sundiver at each, and much of the game’s strategy revolves around navigating all those ships into position so that you can activate two, three, four nodes or foundries or transmission towers all at once.
The other detail is that you aren’t limited to operating only your own stations. Instead, everything can be borrowed, though doing so will allow its owner to take a bonus. Usually this means they’ll get to use the same action — gaining momentum from transmission towers, sundivers from foundries, or energy from nodes, just the same as you. Traveling via another faction’s solar gate grants them a free pip of energy. And in both cases, this means you’ll need to weigh the benefits of using somebody else’s stations, since you just might be funding a rival at a critical juncture.
Or better yet, you’re free to play the capitalist and set up much-needed stations right where other players will use them. Solar gates along easy ingresses into the core, foundries and nodes as regularly spaced as gas stations, towers near the core. If you build it, they will come — and you’ll be swimming in bonuses.
It’s clever the way stations drive everybody toward the map’s center and create opportunities beyond what you can construct yourself, but the main thing preventing Sol from feeling too abstract, predestined, or mathed-out is its instability cards. Whenever these are drawn, you’re allowed to select one to keep for a future turn. And it soon becomes obvious that deploying them at the proper time is the key to catapulting your ark to the front of the pack.
One of Sol’s deftest touches is that each play only features a small handful of the things — dredged from a sizable pool of options — yet that narrow selection of cards quickly defines the way that particular game operates. A deck of nothing but blue cards will play a bit like the Platonic ideal of a stereotypical Eurogame: heads down, nothing too swingy, plenty of ways to further optimize your actions. Another deck with lots of yellow and red cards will enable a chancier competition, with gambles and sacrifices and even outright attacks on the other factions. Whether it’s “multiplayer solo” or something more tooth-and-nail, Sol fits comfortably into any number of roles.
In both cases, Sol’s tempo is both measured and inexorable, every launch, station, and advantage feeling as though they’ve been undertaken at the expense of five others. At times, it can drag; not because the turns themselves are complicated, as a single move is usually a minor thing, but because every move must feed into some grander scheme. When even the slightest misstep can mean you won’t get to take advantage of a big payoff — one sundiver too few, not enough energy, the wrong placement by a single space — the result is either that you take your sweet time now or feel like a big idiot in a few turns.
Fortunately, in Sol’s capable hands the occasional moment of quiet thoughtfulness is a boon, both for the gameplay and the underlying message of the thing. It’s appropriate that a game about sustainability and the dangers of over-consumption should reward a careful economy of action and penalize the slipshod. While the sun jitters ever-closer to destruction, only those who know when to conserve and when to burn it all will make it out alive.
Mere caution means sluggishness; wanton action leaves you nowhere. This particular crisis demands both discretion and boldness in equal measure. That’s Sol: Last Days of a Star in a nutshell. It’s rare enough that we get an abstract-ish game this good. That it should also function as a compelling piece of science fiction is the cherry.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. Unlike the poops in Sol, we’re 100% sustainable!)