Beyond the Technology Tree
For decades games have noodled over how to represent technological progress. Tracks? Random cards? Kitsch that doesn’t bear any connection to its stated purpose? Sorry, that last one was a dig at Tapestry. I’ll never pick on it again. Promise.
For Beyond the Sun, Dennis Chan goes with the technology tree. A sturdy favorite. Reliable. Dull, even. Except in this case, Chan has done the unexpected by introducing something new to the idea: a pulse.
So why all this talk about a technology tree? When it comes to games about human progress, isn’t technology, like, a bunch of bonuses? Modifiers to your defense and attack values, periodic unit unlocks, maybe an extra space of movement range?
When it comes to civilization games, technology usually exists to serve everything else. It’s the sideboard, the thing that informs what happens in the game’s main arena. Not so in Beyond the Sun. Here, the technology tree takes up three times as much space as the star map. Each player has a production chart that’s similarly dwarfed. Frankly, one of the game’s few weaknesses is that you’ll spend a lot of time craning across the table to investigate some new piece of tech. Incidentally, that’s also the reason the design is so crisp. Illustrations would only further crowd out the information on each card. It’s enough that in any other game, it might be too much. Here the density of these icons and actions and immediate bonuses is functional because technology is a goal in its own right. It not only informs your capabilities, but drives them.
Earth is dying. That’s the conceit. Good thing mankind is no longer tethered to a single system. The invention of warp drive makes it possible to cross the final frontier in search of exoplanets rich with resources and breathable atmospheres. That’s the first tech. It’s so low on the tree that it’s technically level zero. Robotics, genetics, terraforming, and combat lasers — those are level one. They all come after the warp drive. The implication is immediate: the warp drive, like the printing press, the wheel, and sharpened sticks, is enough in our rear-view that we take it for granted.
Let’s take this in reverse. For much of Beyond the Sun’s duration, your goal is to colonize planets. To accomplish this, you require a certain amount of tonnage in the sky above that planet, dominance over any competitors in that airspace, and the ability to actually transform your orbiting ships into a viable colony. To do that, you need to build, staff, and move your ships. To do that, it’s necessary to automate your economy, harvest the requisite ore, and free up enough of your population so they can focus on spacefaring rather than tuber farming. Z requires Y requires X and so forth.
Except it’s boring to follow a trail of breadcrumbs, so Chan instead lets you do all of these things at the same time. There’s really nothing stopping you from colonizing a planet early on. The terraforming tech is right there at level one. If you’re so inclined, you can grab it on your first turn. It’s expensive. The ships you’ll need to actually secure a planet will also cost. You’ll lose one of your workers when you finally make landfall. But it’s right there, beckoning. The only hiccup is that all of the techs in this game beckon. Instead of colonizing, maybe you’ll focus on improving your production line. Or seizing shipyard systems to pump out vessels nearer to prospective planets. Or developing a tech empire. Or going all space pirate on everybody. Point is, there are lots of avenues to pursue. And they’re all tied together by the game’s most holistic component, the resource cube.
You may notice some resemblance in size, coloration, and texture between the resource cubes and the dice from Roll for the Galaxy. Despite that resemblance, don’t call them dice. Apart from the odd event, you’ll never roll them. Instead, cubes are moved from one place to another based on your choices alone. Depending on where they’re located, they can be workers, ships of various strengths, supplies waiting to be leveraged to your benefit, or the staff keeping your technologies running.
More importantly, they’re the element that ties all those disparate boards together. When they’re removed from your supply columns — a process that’s accelerated by colonization and automation — they become workers. Workers become techs and ships. Techs enable faster production of workers, better utilization of ships, and therefore the discovery of more tech. Everything connects together in a way that’s both impressive and sometimes tough to grok. It’s the sort of optimization puzzle that proves familiar while also providing the occasional bottleneck. Too many ships means fewer engineers and technicians for maintenance. Too many eggheads means not enough pilots and pioneers. Not enough food means you’ll struggle to maintain any profession.
This is also Beyond the Sun at its most mechanical. That isn’t a condemnation. The integers never soar so high that they’re difficult to evaluate, and provide a framework for the decisions and tradeoffs you’ll make throughout. Still, tinkering with an optimization puzzle feels gamey alongside the fluid expansion portrayed on the star map, and even more so when considered next to the game’s absolute best element of discovery, the tech tree. Because where the resource cubes are the game’s hands and feet, the tech tree is its living heart.
Let me illustrate what makes the tech tree special by way of example.
Right away, there’s a solid connection between each card’s title and what it does. In one recent play, I had just researched a pair of level-two advances. The first, Plasma Cannon, let me roll out an especially tough ship as an immediate bonus, and then take a single jump on the star map. Better yet, it unlocked a new action. For some ore, I could transform a worker into another tough ship and take three jumps. The implication is that the first bonus awarded the prototype, while the action churned out the finished product: a costly ship-of-the-line, but with greater force projection to match its price tag.
The other advance, Bio-Synaptic Network, was a little less intuitive. Rather than offering an ongoing action, this one revolved around its one-time bonus. Namely, it let me repeat another tech’s bonus, while also letting me automate some of my production line. Of course, I copied the bonus of an advance I was never going to bother learning. By plugging into a planet-wide network, I’d just swiped somebody’s proprietary data.
Between these advances, I was faced with a decision. I wanted to climb to the third branch of the tech tree, but I needed to decide what to research. A lesser game would have faced me with a preset chart. Beyond the Sun is too smart for that. Because Plasma Cannon was a military tech while Bio-Synaptic Network was economic, I was forced to choose what I wanted to prioritize for the slot where they came together. A quick glance at the technology guide told me what I needed to see: military helps with ships, but economics are for increasing automation. Since I was faced with a labor shortage, economic it would be. I drew cards from the level-three deck until I’d found two economic options: Cerebral Implants and Subatomic Fabrication.
It might seem strange to draw from a deck to determine what you can research. In practice, it’s no stranger than Archery becoming available after Animal Husbandry in Civilization VI, and hews closer to how the process of invention functions in the real world. All the better that it nudges players into thinking on their feet. In this case, Cerebral Implants made it easier to research new advances. But I already had access to Psionics, another level-two tech for affordable research. Instead, Subatomic Fabrication gave the ability to use tokens interchangeably along my ore or population tracks. Since I was ore-rich but population-poor, I took that — and could now begin rejiggering my economy to account for any shortfalls.
In other words, I wasn’t handed the easy solution I’d been searching for. What I got was better. Fixing my economy took some effort, some time, some brainpower. But it informed my decisions going forward, ultimately proving as impactful as one rival’s Wormhole Tech, another’s Mercenary Fleet, a third’s Transdimensional AI. Each player became specialized, a threat in their own right. All because of how Beyond the Sun doles out its research semi-randomly, while also allowing just enough direction — and making each individual advance considerable enough — that you’re never left floundering.
The best thing about Beyond the Sun is its realization that the important discoveries are being made right here. Sure, the planets are different. They offer minor bonuses. Some can only produce ore or population. Others encourage conquerors to engage in little feuds. But the game’s greatest expanse is the gulf of difference that grows between players over the course of two hours. That’s what makes each play come alive, what gives each stretch from one branch of the tech tree to the next its import. Space exploration is fantastic. But the transformative nature of technology? Science that results in wilder outcomes than any hypothesis could account for? Penicillin, X-rays, Coca-Cola, all produced by accident? That’s far cooler.
So of course there’s a mode that strips it out in favor of long-term planning. Not only does this mode excise any sense of actual discovery, it also increases the necessary table space by forty percent. A hog in two dimensions.
Fortunately, that’s a variant. Experienced as intended, Beyond the Sun revels in the process of learning, wallows in it, exults in it. This is a paean to tech trees, yes, but also to discovery and invention. By taking the technology sideboard of other civilization games and making it a rightful focus of attention, Chan has created something wondrous.