Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Beyond the Sun

The Game

Beyond the Sun is a recent game from Rio Grande Games. When Eurogames were just starting to become popular in the English-speaking world, Rio Grande Games was one of just a handful of game publishers in the industry, releasing great games from Europe in English. Now there are many more publishers in the industry, and Rio Grande is no longer one of the the biggest names among publishers. I have bought many of their games, like Race for the Galaxy, Power Grid and Dominion. Beyond the Sun is the debut work of designer Dennis Chan. It has been well-received, and is already out of print! I am happy for Dennis and Rio Grande, since I have been a big fan of Rio Grande. Hopefully the reprint will come soon and more people will get to play this game. 

In Beyond the Sun, humankind has developed interstellar travel, and is expanding beyond the solar system and colonising other star systems. In the beginning you only know basic starfaring techs, but as the game progresses, you will discover and learn new techs. You will build spaceships and send them to control and to eventually colonise new planets. The game ends when a certain number of objectives are achieved by players collectively. Whoever scores the most points wins the game. You get points in many ways, including developing new techs, colonising planets and achieving objectives. 

What stands out most in the game is the tech tree, on the right side of this screenshot. There are five levels of tech. Along the left edge of the tech tree board you have basic starfaring techs, and at the start of the game you already know some of them. To their right you have techs from Levels 1 to 4. At game start, the Level 1 techs are revealed but no one has learned them yet. You need to perform the research action to learn them. The lines on the tech tree determine how you can progress in technology. To discover any Level 2 tech, you must have learned all of its prerequisite techs. Whenever you learn a tech, you place one population die next to it. 

The core game mechanism is worker placement, and everyone has just one worker, i.e. like Le Havre. You don't restrict your opponents a lot. Usually you'll only delay them for one round. When you take a spot they want, they just need to wait for you to vacate the spot next round. You can't stay put. Still, at critical moments, even one round of delay can be crucial.  

Actions you can perform include researching, building spaceships, upgrading spaceships, moving your spaceships about and colonising. Along the bottom of the screenshot above there are four objective cards. Two of them are fixed every game, the other two are randomly drawn. Objectives include colonising four star systems, researching a Level 4 tech, and owning a specific amount of population, ore (ore is money) and spaceships. 

On a player's turn, you do just two things. First you assign your worker to a new spot to perform an action. Then you choose to produce population, produce ore, or perform resource conversion. 

These are the player boards, and I am quite fascinated with how they work. First, let's talk about the two rows of discs at the bottom. Those with leaves are farms, and those with gears are mines. At game start, these two rows are filled except for the leftmost spots. This indicates that your population and ore production capacity are both 1. As you move discs away and uncover more spots, your production increases. You can move discs away by performing automation, which moves discs to the automation row at the top of your player board. You can also move discs away by controlling and colonising planets. You will place one disc on a controlled planet, and two on a colonised planet. 

The cubes on your player board look like dice but they are not used that way. When in their columns, they represent available supplies. When you produce population, you take these supplies from their columns and turn them into population. When you build spaceships, you take population and convert them to spaceships. Let's look at the green player board above. In the farm row, two spots indicating production capability are revealed. This means when the player decides to produce population, he will take one cube from the first column, and another from the second column, matching the spots which indicate population production capabilities. He can produce two population because there are cubes in both of the leftmost columns. Now let's look at the red player. His population production capacity is 1, but unfortunately his first cube column is empty. If he chooses to produce population, he will not produce any, because there are no cubes for him to take. He will need to remove one more farm disc, so that he can produce population from his second column of cubes. 

Ore production works in a simpler way and does not depend on the cube columns. You just produce as many ore as indicated by the mine row. 

You are going to be kept most busy at the small star map on the left. At the bottom you see Earth. There are four planets available for colonisation, and three shipyard planets which you can use as remote bases for building spaceships. When you build ships, you will send them moving about the star map. Ship strength varies from 1 to 4. Highest total ship strength at any location determines control. If you control shipyard planets, you'll be able to build ships there, sometimes saving much traveling time compared to building ships on Earth. When you take control of a planet, sometimes you gain a benefit. You will also have the right to colonise it, at least until someone else wrests control from you. When you colonise a planet, you claim the card and put it in front of you, and you gain a benefit unique to the planet. You then draw a new planet card to refill the star map. Ships spent on colonisation are consumed and returned to your player board. 

You can always build ships on Earth. Control of Earth and the shipyard planets give 1 victory point at game end. Not a lot, but still worth considering. 

Every time anyone discovers a Level 2 or 3 tech, an event will be triggered. Usually it affects everyone. Sometimes there are choices involved, and the player who triggered it gets to decide how to resolve the event. He will try to resolve it to his advantage, naturally. This screenshot shows an event which affects a planet. Traveling to the planet becomes more expensive. You need to spend ore upon arrival. Allen placed the event on a planet where he already had presence, to deter Han and I from coming to compete with him. 

Cubes placed on the left of a tech card indicate the players who have learned the tech. There are four categories of techs, e.g. red is military, yellow is commercial. Whenever you discover a new tech, its category must be the same as its prerequisite techs. You will draw tech cards until you have two viable options. You then get to pick one. 

Some techs give you an immediate benefit. Some give you one or more action spots. The higher level techs give you more powerful actions. In the screenshot above, the new action spot allows you to pay ore to discover a Level 3 tech. To do this you must have also learned the relevant Level 2 techs. 

The tech tree is where you will unlock more and also more powerful action spots, which will help you compete on the star map. You mostly do stuff on the star map, fighting for control of planets and then colonising them. The techs help you do these effectively. 

The Play

I played with Allen and Han on BoardGameArena.com.

I had originally intended to play a newbie game without using unique factions. However the default setting uses factions. I realised the faction powers are just small tweaks in setup and don't introduce any rule change. They are newbie friendly. 

Most of our activities were on the star map. We were always competing to control planets because we all wanted to place our discs. We needed to do that to increase our production. We couldn't attack one another directly. The worst we could do was wrest control and send our opponents' discs back to their player boards, and maybe disrupt their colonisation plans. The star map was all about area majority competition. We competed to have more ships and more powerful ships than one another. 

Whenever you colonise a planet, you will be sacrificing ships. That makes you suddenly much weaker on the star map. You need to build up your strength again by commissioning new ships. There is a cyclical nature and a tempo to the competition on the star map. Your job is to make the most of these and eke out a slight advantage over your opponents. 

Managing your population is important. You don't have that many cubes to play with. If you are low on population, you won't be able to build enough ships. You have to manage the cycle of cubes on your player board becoming population, then becoming ships, then being consumed and eventually returning to your player board. You need to have enough cubes in circulation. You will spend population on researching techs, so you are under pressure to increase population production. Discovering techs tie down your population cubes permanently. 

Although ore production is not as complicated as population production, you still need to make sure you don't fall behind. Many actions require ore. In the screenshot above, Han (blue) had maxed out his ore production. 

Allen was red. One of his events gave him a proprietary tech, now placed below his player board. Only he could use the action spot on this proprietary tech. 

At this point Han (blue) controlled four planets on the star map. This was good for him because it kept four discs off his player board. In our game the most distant shipyard planet was seldom contested, simply because it was far and it was a hassle. This was good for Han because it meant his disc stayed there safely for a long time. 

You have to be selective about the techs you learn. It is not a good idea to try to know everything, because learning techs requires population, and population is in limited supply. You should focus on what helps you the most. One important action in the game is colonisation. Initially only one tech allows colonisation. Later there will be more which allow colonisation, but the colonisation actions are not all equal. Some colonisation actions are more costly. Knowing more than one colonisation tech is usually good, because that means you have flexibility and there is less risk of getting blocked off from doing colonisation. 

Our game was in the final round now. Along the top you can see that together we had achieved three objectives, which triggered game end. Han (blue) and I (green) had both colonised four planets, and we had almost removed all our discs. Both of us did much automation and had many discs in our automation tracks along the top of our player boards. 

We played twice, but unfortunately did not manage to discover a Level 4 tech. 

The Thoughts

Beyond the Sun has a sci-fi theme, which is not very common. The tech tree is the star of the show, so the theme is appropriate. The core mechanism is worker placement. What the tech tree provides is more and better action spots for worker placement. Most of the real action happens on the star map. Most actions enabled by the tech tree are to help you compete on the star map. If you only look at the star map part of the game, it is quite simple, and it is rather abstract too. It's a symmetrical, perfect information board. It cannot stand on its own as a game, at least not a very interesting one. However, it gives context to the tech tree. The techs you learn greatly help you compete on the star map. The star map and the tech tree need each other. Together they make the game. 

I greatly admire the design of player board, especially how population production works (wait, that sounds dirty...). Removing discs from the player board is closely linked to the competition on the star map. You have to compete fiercely to remove discs so that you can improve your nation's productivity. I like how the cubes change form from supplies to population to spaceships, and eventually get recycled. It's clever and it creates a challenging problem for the players. 

This is a development game. It is satisfying to be able to perform more and more powerful actions, and to grow your production capabilities. It is fun to orchestrate your space colonisation efforts and claim those trophy planets! 

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