The premise of Sol: Last Days of a Star is that the sun is about to go supernova. She’s gonna blow any moment and you’ve got to beat feet, which is no mean feat, given that suns are a real drag. All that gravity, you know. Your only hope is to harvest sun energy to build up momentum to slip the fiery bonds of Sol.
The sun machine is coming down and there’s gonna be a party.
Plenty of boardgames are elegant. I’ve certainly thrown the word around a lot, because a lot of good games are also elegant games. Elegance implies fewer parts, systems that work well together, good pacing, extraneous stuff pared down, information presented in a clear, consistent, and simple way. Fewer more important decisions instead of more numerous but less important decisions. Neither is inherently better, but the fewer more important decisions are more likely to earn the description “elegant”.
But I can’t think of many games that are graceful. Elegance describes a thing, but grace describes an action. Grace implies movement, action, an unfolding or emerging, the transition from A to B, the traversal along an arc, the delicate coil of carefully laid tension, a complex system that flows so smoothly it looks simple. Grace is supple, flexible, maybe even mesmerizing. Nouns are elegant, verbs are graceful. Rules are elegant, shapes are graceful. Theaters, costumes, and upholstery can be elegant; but dancers can be graceful. Sol: Last Days of a Star is graceful.
Sol doesn’t feel like something made from pieces. It feels like something that drew pieces into its orbit. It feels like it coalesced around the gravitational attraction of its idea. Namely, harvest a sun for energy to power an ark of survivors before the sun suddenly explodes. Of course the board is a huge circle, with an orbit on the outside and concentric layers, each hotter than the next, on the inside. The motherships from which each player plays are drifting behemoths that can only circle the burning star. Little ships buzz about constructing an infrastructure — gates, towers, forges, generators — to harvest energy. They literally dive into the sun, so they’re called sundivers. As they poke, prod, build, and leach, the sun shudders and pulses, spitting out fire and heat by way of warning. She’s dying. Violently. She’s on her last legs. It’s going to be apocalyptic. Literally the end times.
That’s the overall feel of Sol. A handful of pieces and an eminently readable board express all of this. A deck of dwindling cards marks time. And just to make sure this isn’t some predictable Euro engine-building game about when to shunt resources into victory points — the classic but played out formula of so many engine-building games — instability effects wreak havoc. The game itself is the clockwork grace of a simple deterministic economic engine; the instability effects are the expression of impending catastrophe. They are quantum loopholes expressing one of the fundamental tenets of good game design: establish rules and then break them.
One of my favorite things to get to say as I’m teaching a game is this: “Everything I’ve told you so far might be a lie. Because what I’m about to tell you can break anything I’ve said.” This is where Sol really catches fire. The instability deck. It introduces unpredictability to an otherwise graceful and 100% deterministic economic engine game in two ways.
The first is as a game clock. Shuffled into the instability deck are 13 solar flare cards. There’s no pre-game setup to make sure they’re evenly distributed. They’re just shuffled in there. Most of them could be at the top. They could be clustered at the bottom. Maybe they clumped. There might be four in a row somewhere. The first card might be one. Each time a solar flare is drawn, it creates some minor drama, potentially good and bad. On the good side, the mostly useless structures built in the outer orbit get free production. The idea is that the solar flare kicks out a bunch of sunstuff to power everyone’s factories and generators. It’s a consolation prize for building in the less optimal outer reaches, which aren’t necessarily less optimal after all, because 13 solar flares guarantee 13 free activations every game. On the bad side — well, bad for some players — anyone hoarding energy loses half of it. The threat of a solar flare applies pressure to spend it while you got it. Do you save up for a big push next turn, hoping no one draws a solar flare before it comes back around to your turn? Or do you spend down now just to be safe?
But most importantly, each solar flare moves the timer along its spiral track towards the end of the game. The track shows how many solar flares are left in the deck. When the last one is drawn, the game is instantly over because, boom!, the sun has just exploded. Whoever has the most points at this precise instant is most likely to escape the supernova. Or, as it’s called in most games, “the winner”.
Because there’s no pre-game setup to evenly distribute the cards, there’s no telling when the last solar flare will show up. I’ve played games where the last solar flare is also the last card in the deck. And I’ve played games where we get down to the last dozen or so cards all too quickly and only one of of them is a solar flare. Since you draw a number of cards based on how dramatically you affected the sun, there will be plenty of times, particularly as the game goes on, when someone flips up four, five, six, or more cards at once.
This is Sol’s gracefully calculated accelerating tension. Early on in a game, you only flip up one card at a time because you’re doing relatively mild things like building a gate in the sun’s outer skin or setting up an energy generator in the relatively mild convective layer. Eventually, as you interact with the deeper and more lucrative parts of the sun, you flip up more and more cards each time. Sol is one of those games that looks like it’s going to take forever because you’re going through the deck — the game clock — so slowly. Then suddenly it’s melting away faster than you expected and now there are only three more turns. Maybe only two. In fact, depending on what the other players do, this might be your last turn. When did that happen?
The second way this instability deck introduces unpredictability is by breaking everything. It’s not just a game clock; it’s a deck of special powers. Game-breaking powers. Rules exceptions. In fact, given the graceful simplicity of the basic gameplay, any given game’s instability cards can define that game. You’ll remember the games with Pulse, Transcend, or Procreate. Those were the games where the economy was based on the outer orbit, where sometimes players could easily slip into the core, or where sundivers grew themselves instead of relying on forges. You’ll definitely remember the game with Hatch because that was the game when we infested each other’s ships to grow new ships. This dramatic flexibility, gracefully folded into the gameplay, is the defining ingenuous touch in Sol: Last Days of a Star.
The instability deck consists of a number of suits, each with 13 cards. The number of suits is a factor of how many people are playing (Sol supports up to five), so the more players, the larger the instability deck. A suit is just an arbitrary symbol, but when you set up the game, you either draw or select an instability effect to go with each suit. These effects come from a deck of 30 cards, color coded for how they interact with the game. The blue and green effects are relatively mild. The yellow effects are more powerful. The red effects turn Sol into a game in which players directly fight each other. Hatch, for instance.
Whenever you flip over cards, whether it’s one card or five or ten, you can choose one to keep in front of you. So you look at the suits you’ve drawn, checking them against their assigned effects, and figure out which special power you want. Now it’s a one-shot power you can use on a later turn. You only use it once. It’s not a new ability you’ve earned, it doesn’t tap and untap, it doesn’t get charges. It’s just once-and-done. But it’s never negligible. It will probably break one of the game’s graceful rules. Egregiously.
The beauty of this is that for all the havoc it wreaks, it only does so in small doses, which makes them all the more powerful. If everyone was always doing crazy rules exceptions, they’re hardly exceptions any more. But when they’re rare one-time events, they’re exceptional exceptions. There are also no surprises, no “gotchas!”, no hidden information in someone’s hand. You can always see what powers the other players might have. Looking around the table, any symbol in front of a player is something he or she might do next turn. Act accordingly. This otherwise 100% deterministic economic engine game just introduced dramatic instability. Like the flare of a sun on the verge of going supernova.
I’m fortunate that I have a group of friends who meet regularly to play boardgames. There are a variety of preferences and predilections among them, so one of the challenges is figuring out which game to play based on who’s playing. One of my friends treats social deduction games strictly as probability puzzles. Another friend is uncomfortable with games in which he has to play a traitor or lie about a hidden identity. Some of my friends are less comfortable playing games with direct conflict. Some of my friends take a long time to take their turns, so playing times will increase. Some of my friends are more patient than others. Some have a harder time with complex rules. Part of the challenge of any given boardgaming session is finding not just the game they all want to play, but the game that will fit the group.
There has never been a group for whom Sol wasn’t an ideal choice. Unlike a lot of my favorite games, Sol is very accessible.
Furthermore, everyone I’ve shown the game has come away eager to play more. One of my friends managed to score zero points, which is something you don’t see very often in any game. Zero points! Normally, that’s the sort of thing that would make you never want to play again. Yet my friend swears he enjoyed it. Maybe it’s because he knows he’ll have an easy time beating his previous record. But I like to think it’s because Sol is such a welcoming, fascinating, and supple game design.
(If you do play Sol: Last Days of a Star, here’s a variant I like to play. Every time a solar flare is drawn, secretly turn up the thermostat in your house by two degrees. Then, when the game is over and the ambient temperature has been raised to about 100 degrees, serve ice cream. But only to the winner.)