What's Eric Playing? #166: Sol: Last Days of a Star
Space games! Surprisingly, haven’t played that many, save for Roll for the Galaxy, Tiny Epic Galaxies, Stellar Leap, and like, one play of Cosmic Encounter. I like space, though, so I’ve been trying to get more space games into my system. Not terribly relevant, but, you know, these intro paragraphs are kind of just ramblings, anyways.
Anyways, enter Sol: Last Days of a Star. For years, you and other humans have been harvesting energy from the sun to power your various utopias, as one does. Unfortunately, all that sun power comes at a cost — it’s gone critical and might supernova at any time. As you might imagine, that’s not good for your utopia, or, well, you, personally. Your last, best effort is to harvest enough energy from the sun to escape the solar system before it’s too late. But you’re not alone. Will you be able to escape the sun?
There’s a fair bit of setup. The easiest one to start with is the board, which has two sides:
There’s a 1 – 4 -player side and a 5-player side, so use whichever is more appropriate for your game.
Give each player a mat:
And then give each player the pieces of their chosen color:
There are a lot of them, so I’ll break them down individually. There will be some clear Movement Tokens, but they’re hard to photograph so you’ll just have to use your imagination. There should be 5 motherships:
A bunch of Solar Gates:
Some Sundiver Foundries:
A few Transmit Towers:
Sundivers (which makes sense, given the Foundries):
And, last but not least, some scorekeeping tokens, known as Arks:
Put the scoring tokens on the scoreboard:
And place the Instability Tracker on the 13:
The tracker is super cool, right? Generally, rather than “points” the game refers to them as Momentum, so I will do so as well.
Take the red solar flare suit of cards and one suit of cards per player (I usually let the players pick whichever colors they like best):
This will form the Instability deck, which you’ll use throughout the game. You’ll also want to take some of these Instability Effect cards:
There’s a breakdown to how you should use them, though:
- Blue cards: Generally very simple effects. Good for your first game.
- Green cards: Somewhat simple but still straightforward. Good after your first game but generally simple enough to include in all games.
- Yellow cards: More advanced abilities. Good once you’ve gotten a real feel for how the game plays.
- Red cards: Aggressive / hostile abilities. Good if you want to add some “take that” to the game. The rules strongly encourage you to avoid using these unless all players have agreed that they’re okay with attacking other players and being attacked.
Either way, shuffle up the types you wanna use and flip over X, where X is the number of players, plus one. Put these Instability Suit Markers on the circles on the cards:
This will tell you which card corresponds to which suit. More on that later. To get the game started, put every mothership on the board so that they’re evenly spaced with one exception — that player should have an extra space in front of their mothership and they’ll be first player.
Have every player put their Movement Token on 3 and take 8 Sundivers and place them in their Hold (on their player board), leaving the other things in the Reserve (Towers, Nodes, Foundries, other Sundivers, etc) until they’re used.
Give every player 3 Energy Cubes:
And you should be just about ready to start! You might be playing (and I generally recommend playing) with the Vestigial Structures variant, which speeds up the game just a tick. If you’re doing that, here’s how that works:
- Each player in turn order adds either a station (Sundiver Foundry, Energy Node, Transmit Tower) or a Solar Gate anywere in Outer Orbit, Inner Orbit, or the Convective Layer (for reasons that will eventually make sense, you can only put Solar Gates on the line between the Inner Orbit and the Convective Layer). As you might surmise, you cannot put two stations on the same space.
- Once all players have done that, each player in turn order now adds either a station (if they previously placed a Solar Gate) or a Solar Gate (if they previously placed a station) following the previous rules.
- After everyone has done, that, every player moves their Movement Marker up to 4.
If you are not using Vestigial Structures, add in another Instability Suit (and an Effect card to match). Either way, you should be ready to go!
So the game ends when the Sun explodes. That’s probably going to be stressful, so I’ll break it down.
Each turn you will take one of the following actions: Move, Convert, or Activate. I’ll talk about each of those in turn. Some parts of these actions will force you to draw cards, and you will have an opportunity to play some cards during your turn. I’ll talk about those as well. Let’s look at the Player Aid and take each of the actions in order:
Move is one of the actions you’ll be doing the most throughout the game, and it relies on your Movement Points, represented by the number underneath of your Movement Tracker. When you move, you move using one of your Sundivers and paying a movement point to do a move action. You may use as many movement points as you’d like on a turn up to your current maximum.
For a single movement point, you may do any of the following:
- Move a Sundiver 1 space. You may move a Sundiver from one space to any other space orthogonally adjacent to it (up, down, left, right; just not diagonal). You may move as many Sundivers as you have Movement points to move, but only five of your Sundivers may ever be in any one space. If you would like to go deeper into the Sun, you must move through a Solar Gate. There are no Solar Gates needed to go from Inner to Outer Orbit (or vice-versa). Once you’re in a level of the Sun (Convective, Radiative, or Core), you may move freely between spaces in that layer but need to use a Solar Gate to go further in or back out.
- You can use any Solar Gates that you would like, but if you use another player’s Solar Gate they immediately gain one energy per Sundiver using their Gates. Think of it like purchasing a day pass for Solar Gate usage for each Sundiver. An important note, though — they cannot turn down this energy. You might wonder why that is, but, yeah, more on that later.
- Deploy a Sundiver. If you have Sundivers in your hold (not your Reserve), you may plop them out of your Mothership into space in any of the four spaces around your Mothership. You may put multiple Sundivers into the same space, but, again, only 5 of your Sundivers may be in the same space at the same time.
- Hurl a Sundiver into the white-hot core of the Sun itself. In what can only be described as my absolute dream, you can hurl your Sundiver directly into the heart of the actual sun and vaporize it, permanently removing it from the game. That’s a bold strategy, but it might pay off. When you do, immediately gain two Momentum (advance your Ark two spaces on the scoreboard). Then, draw a card from the Instability deck. If it’s a Solar Flare, gain an additional momentum and then perform the Solar Flare actions (see Draw Cards). In case it was worrying you, Sundivers are unmanned crafts. As far as you know.
Speaking of unmanned Sundivers, you can also reconfigure them into Stations, helping you advance further into the sun and harvest its delicious sun energy. How do you do that? Well, it depends on the structure you want to make, but you will need to get your Sundivers into a particular configuration. You cannot, however, put a Station or Gate on a space that already has a Station or Gate. The key thing is that this kind of activity can trigger instability in the Sun, especially as you go deeper into it. Depending on the level you’re building at, you’ll have to draw Instability cards:
- Outer Orbit / Inner Orbit: Draw 0 Instability cards.
- Convective Layer: Draw 1 Instability card when building a Station or Gate at this level.
- Radiative Layer: Draw 2 Instability cards when building a Station or Gate at this level.
- Core: Draw 3 Instability cards when building a Station or Gate at this level.
For more information about this, see Draw Cards. Anyways:
To make a Solar Gate, have your Sundivers positioned such that there’s one right in front of the line you want to put a gate on and one in the level one step out. You then remove both from the board and place them in your reserve (their parts become the Solar Gate so now you need to build new ones) and place theSolar Gate such that it’s between two zones — the one your Sundiver was in and one in the next level deeper. Two things about this:
- You do not need to build a gate into the heart of the Sun. You can always cast yourself into that abyss once you reach the Core. It’s inspiring, really.
- You are considered to be building a Solar Gate at the deepest level it touches. If you’re connecting Convective and Radiative, draw 2 cards (Radiative). Radiative and Core? Draw 3 (Core).
This one is fun. When your Sundivers are on two spaces with an empty space between them, you can pull them both back into your reserve and plop an Energy Node into the space between them. This will allow you to generate Energy for use later on. Nothing else really to say about this one. If this is the first Station (Node, Foundry, Tower) you’ve built in a particular layer (Outer Orbit, Inner Orbit, Convective Layer, Radiative Layer, Core), gain one movement point. This is why you start at 4 for Vestigial Structures.
Sundiver Foundries are, as you might suspect, a way to make Sundivers. When you Convert to this Station, you may place the Sundiver Foundry on either of the two spaces previously occupied by your Sundivers. Knock yourself out. Again, if this is the first Station (Node, Foundry, Tower) you’ve built in a particular layer (Outer Orbit, Inner Orbit, Convective Layer, Radiative Layer, Core), gain one movement point.
Transmit Towers are pretty vital if you want to win the game, as they can transmit energy into Momentum and send it back to your Ark. Either way, if you have your Sundivers in this configuration, you may place your Transmit Tower at the same level as the deepest Sundiver. To reiterate, if this is the first Station (Node, Foundry, Tower) you’ve built in a particular layer (Outer Orbit, Inner Orbit, Convective Layer, Radiative Layer, Core), gain one movement point.
Again, once you’ve Converted, draw Instability Cards for the level you built at.
As a slight aside, if you’ve planned quite badly (no offense, but c’mon) and you have no Sundivers on the board or in your hold, remove one of your Stations from the board and add two Sundivers from your reserve to your hold. If this means you have no Stations at a particular level, now, lose one movement point. You’d probably guess this, but try not to do this. Generally speaking.
Activating is a lot of how the game is played, and of course it works in interesting ways. When you have one or more Sundivers at a station of a particular type (Node, Foundry, or Tower), you may use an Activate action to activate all stations of that type where one of your Sundivers are present. You will then consult this handy table to figure out what happens next:
- Outer Orbit: 1, 0 Bonus
- Inner Orbit: 1, 1 Bonus
- Convective Layer: 2, 1 Bonus
- Radiative Layer: 3, 2 Bonus
- Core: 5, 3 Bonus
Note that I said all stations of that type, not just your stations. This means you can activate your opponents’ stations, as well! This means that you gain the base benefit, but they can choose to accept or decline the Bonus. If they decline, you have the option to take it as well. If you cannot or would prefer not to, it just kinda gets discarded.
Anyways, let’s explain what that means for each Station:
- Energy Node: You gain X energy, where X depends on the Layer the Node occupies. If your opponent would prefer not to gain the Bonus energy, you may gain it instead. You must gain all X of the energy; you cannot choose to only gain some of it.
- Sundiver Foundry: Spend X energy to move X Sundivers from your reserve into your hold, where X depends on the Layer the Foundry occupies. This is an all-or-nothing proposition: If you do not have enough energy or enough Sundivers in your reserve to do an X-for-X swap, you cannot activate this station. You may choose to only take the base and ignore the bonus.
- Transmit Tower: Spend X energy to gain X momentum, where X depends on the Layer the Foundry occupies. This is an all-or-nothing proposition: If you do not have enough energy, you cannot activate this station. As with the Foundry, you may choose to only take the base and ignore the bonus.
Once you’ve activated, return all the Sundivers used in the Activation process to your hold (they need to refuel) and draw cards for each Station you activated. This might … rapidly accelerate the end of the game, just so you know. Why? Keep reading and find out.
So, I’ve talked some about drawing Instability cards when you Convert or Activate (or if you hurl a Sundiver into the heart of the sun). Each time you do, check to see if any of them are the red Solar Flare suit. If they are, congratulations! The sun trembles a bit due to the instability. Perform these actions in order:
- Move the Instability tracker down towards 0. When it hits 0, the sun supernovas. You’d prefer not to be around for that.
- So those energy cubes are kind of unstable. If you have more than 13 energy cubes, lose half of them, rounding your loss down. Try not to hoard energy, in case that wasn’t clear.
- Finally, all players can activate their stations that are in Outer Orbit, without using an Activate Action. This means if you have an Energy Node in Outer Orbit you can gain a free energy. If you have more than one station in Outer Orbit, you may activate all of them. You must have the energy to activate Foundries and Towers, but you may use energy you just obtained from an Energy Node in Outer Orbit, if you have one.
You may keep one of the cards draw in the space on your Player Board, discarding any card that was there previously (or discarding all the cards drawn if you’d prefer to keep the card on your board). If you’d like to use it, you may, depending on the card. See below.
When you have a card on your board, you may use its effect based on what kind of card it is. Certain cards have a variety of different effects, but they generally can only be activated at specific times:
- Anytime. Some cards are just freebies.
When you’ve performed your action (as well as drawn / played any cards that can be used with your action or might result from your action), advance your Mothership one space counter-clockwise. Now, the next player should have an extra space in front of their mothership, so they go. This can occasionally be hard to remember.
When the Instability Marker hits 0, the sun explodes, immediately ending the game. The player with the most points wins! The players who don’t win are fondly remembered.
PLAYER COUNT DIFFERENCES
I find the game to be pretty interesting at two, thought it takes a bit more effort as players will likely have to build more Solar Gates to get into the sun, rather than relying on other players. It’s also kind of a nice, peaceful orbital dance, as the two motherships just kind of circle endlessly. Three is solid, as well, as there’s a bit more utilization you can do but it doesn’t feel busy. I’d say those are probably my two preferred player counts for this, as a result. At four I felt like there was just too much going on (and I would often have to wait a fair bit for my turn). It’s not bad at those counts if you prefer busier games — I felt it just kind of was too busy for me.
- Never have more than 13 energy. If you want to be an absolute monster, try to make sure your opponents do have more than 13 by using their Solar Gates on your way to hurl your Sundiver into the heart of the sun, ensuring that they lose a ton of energy when you draw a Solar Flare. That’s generally considered a jerk move but I mean hey you do you.
- Put an Energy Node in Outer Orbit. This means you gain one free energy every solar flare! It’s a good idea. And it’s free! That’s usually what I do with my Vestigial Structure.
- You may also want to put a Sundiver Foundry in Outer Orbit. This means instead of getting a free energy every Solar Flare, you can use that free energy to construct a free Sundiver every Solar Flare! That’s also nice, but it does mean that 2 / 9 of your stations are in Outer Orbit not really doing a whole lot, which might be a problem.
- Build stations. You really want that Movement Point boost. It’s critical to getting a lot of Sundivers out of your mothership and into the sun.
- Don’t be afraid to cast your Sundivers into the heart of the sun. It’s free points and they’re robots.
- Prepare for the sudden end of the game. If you’re at 3 or 2 on the Instability Track, you should be gaining momentum. If you have no momentum by that point, well, you’re about to be in a world of hurt. You don’t want to be surprised by the game just up and ending on you, leaving you with nothing.
- Use the Instability Effects. Some are ridiculously good! Some let you activate different stations, some let you teleport, some even let you duplicate Sundivers! Try to build strategies around them.
- Don’t be afraid to use other players’ stations. Sure, they get some benefit from them, but if you can either catch them at a time where they don’t want to use them (Energy Nodes when they’re at 13 or about 13) or can’t use them (Transmit Towers when they don’t have enough energy) you can make the bonus work for you. If you can use three Transmit Towers in one turn, for instance, you’re wrecking your opponents.
- Don’t be afraid to use other players’ Solar Gates. You give them energy, sure, but as I mentioned previously it might be actually disadvantageous to them to have more energy, which is great for you.
- Be smart about deploying from your mothership. You don’t want to drop all your Sundivers when you’re super far away from any Solar Gates (unless you want to build more). Plan ahead and make sure you’re keeping an eye on the gates before you push out more Sundivers.
- Put your Transmit Tower as deep in the Sun as possible. Having one further out might be good for convenience reasons, but you want points. Get points, win the game.
PROS, MEHS, AND CONS
- It’s a pretty awesome theme. I love the idea of siphoning energy from a dying star before it erupts and annihilates the entire solar system. It’s such a … space game. I’m super here for it.
- Absolutely beautiful game. The board is incredible. Just a giant sun. The entire aesthetic just screams that a lot of time and effort were put into getting it right. The graphic design is solid, the art is incredible; everything just works.
- Surprisingly straightforward once you “get” it. The small list of available actions on a turn make the game pretty easy to process. The turns are short but the game is long, I think, is a fair way to state it. You’ll be playing a bunch of short turns over the course of a longish game.
- Lots of different ways to play. You can focus on leveraging other players’ towers, you can hurl Sundivers for points, you can use only your tower and try to drive the end of the game; whatever works for you, honestly.
- A ton of variants, as well. I didn’t even get to cover a lot of them here, but there are solo modes, special Event cards you can add, a cooperative mode, all kinds of stuff! There really is a lot of game, here. I particularly like the slight narrative variant where instead of just losing you get a short description of what happened to you based on how many points you got. It’s just … a really nice touch, to be perfectly honest.
- The pieces are amazing. They’re super cool! They’re nice and well-cut and such. I like them a lot. I vaguely wish that the Stations were unique between different player colors (like the Motherships are), but that’s heinously expensive to do so I’m not going to fault them for not lighting a ton of money on fire.
- Moving in circles is one of my favorite game mechanics. Mystery of the Temples does it too, and it makes the game feel super relaxing. Even though this game has kind of a stressful conclusion, the actual gameplay itself is pretty nice and peaceful, which is great.
- The take-that elements being optional is great. It lets players who want to play that way do that without forcing it on everyone, especially if it’s not wanted. I love it when games have this (I remember highlighting it on Unfair, when I previewed it, as well).
- A solid half of the game will be wishing you could Move and Convert in the same turn. It’s almost agonizing how much that happens. I know it’s intentional, but boy howdy is it mildly irritating.
- It can sometimes be hard for new players to get what to do. A lot of the game is setting up an engine to generate energy and convert it to momentum, and I worry that’s fairly non-obvious to new players. Some hints in the rulebook on, say, your first five turns or what good goals are for new players might be really helpful so that they don’t get too stuck.
- Only being able to do one action per turn leads to some analysis paralysis. Players get stressed that their Mothership is leaving this side of the sun and won’t come back around for a while, so they get trapped between trying to optimize for movement or conversion, which ends up slowing the game down a bit. I imagine this smooths out some as you’ve played more games and players get more comfortable.
- It’s hard for me to get it to the table. It’s a slightly longer, slightly heavier game than most of my groups are comfortable with, so I haven’t had a ton of luck getting it played, unfortunately. I think that’s mostly due to the length.
- The sudden ending will not be for everyone. It can really surprise you when the game ends, especially depending on how the deck is shuffled. If you want to try a pseudo-variant, you can always pull a Coloretto and shuffle the last Solar Flare into the bottom 15 cards of the deck or something. That makes it a bit more predictable, which may or may not quite be what you want.
OVERALL: 9.5 / 10
Yeah, Sol: Last Days of a Star is a hell of a game. It’s probably one of my favorite games of 2017, and I’m consistently bummed that I haven’t played it as much as I would like. It’s a beautiful game with an incredible theme, and every time I play it I want to play it again. I love the weird juxtaposition of the peaceful nature of silently orbiting a dying star with the intense dread that comes with the knowledge that the game can end at any time, and Sol is nothing if not a game that manages to deftly marry these conflicting ideals into a superior product. One thing that particularly astounds me is that this is the first game published by Elephant Laboratories, which, is … super impressive? Like it’s genuinely a hell of a game. This is definitely a game you should check out if you love a really cool thematic experience but also want to combine that with frankly … stellar (pun intended) gameplay. This is an easy add to my Top 15 and I’d highly recommend it to everyone. The only thing I really need for it now is a killer soundtrack.