The Cardboard Hoard: Initial Thoughts on Sovereign Skies
I first met Sovereign Skies designer Aaron Andrew Wilson back in 2016. We’d both attended FeldCon, a local convention that Daniel Newman set up to play Stefan Feld games, and shared lunch that day at an Indian restaurant next door to the Brooklyn Game Lab. He mentioned, over chicken tikka masala and some naan, that he was designing a space-themed Euro game. So when I again saw Aaron at Origins in 2017, I made sure to playtest what he had started calling Sovereign Skies. This is what I wrote about my experience with it in my Origins recap that year.
I ran into Aaron Wilson, who I knew was playtesting his design Sovereign Skies, and we headed over to the Unpub room to get a game going, as Bar on Two was too crowded at this point.
Sovereign Skies was a really smooth and polished Euro that played in about an hour, and probably only needs minor tweaks before being ready for publishing.
So what are my thoughts on the current state of Sovereign Skies, after being the first original design signed and developed by Deep Water Games?
The game comes with four motherships, 64 ship cubes, 24 base cylinders, six modular hexagonal planet tiles, 15 senator cards with unique alien character art, four player boards, three boards to track different types of influence, and a bunch of influence and energy tokens.
I played a prototype version of Sovereign Skies ahead of writing this post, and my only two aesthetic complaints were the motherships being too big for the board, and the square box it came in being too big for the game. Both of these have already been changed in the final version, with the game now coming with more sensibly-sized wooden mothership meeples, and in a smaller rectangular box.
The artwork, by Giacomo Tappainer, is gorgeous, and does a lot to help sell the intergalactic theme of the game. The main board with the planet rondel, constructed of six hexagonal tiles, is well-designed and is modular, helping to make every game play a bit different. It has clear iconography, which is needed as it functions as both the game’s central rondel and area control map.
The level of polish on Sovereign Skies — which you can find on Kickstarter here — isn’t that surprising when you realize its designer, Aaron Wilson, is a graphic designer that works in advertising and that the company is run by long-time board game artist Nolan Nasser.
Sovereign Skies is a competitive game of vying for control of a system of six alien planets, where players will use a number of different actions — mining energy, occupying planets, recruiting alien senators — to gain the most influence over the system and win the game.
Each player has a mothership that orbits the six planets, which are arrayed in a circle on the modular board. When a player moves their mothership to a planet, they may take multiple actions. They can take a politic card from that planet, place a ship on that planet, or take that planet’s special action. They can take two actions for free, or pay an energy to take a third action on that turn — however, no single action can be taken more than once.
Each planet having a specific action, and players being forced to orbit the planet board in a circular fashion, means the main action selection mechanism in the game is a rondel. Each turn you must travel at least one space — you are not allowed to stay on one planet and take its action twice. Additionally, you can move more than one space by paying an energy cost, or pay even more energy to reverse the direction of your mothership and begin heading in the opposite direction — e.g. counter-clockwise instead of clockwise.
Points are awarded for recruiting senators, activating bases, and pledging fealty, meaning there are multiple paths to scoring points, and players can easily diversify and score some points for each. The game ends when either two of the senator influence token stacks or two of the activation influence token stacks are empty.
Smooth and interconnected are the first two descriptors that jump out at me for Sovereign Skies. Actions on each of the six planets require chaining actions on other planets, and efficiently managing your movements around the board is necessary to succeed, as the game is all about efficiency.
You can form a rough plan based on where you are on the board and what resources you have at your disposal. But it better be a flexible plan, as the cards you are after can get snatched out from under you, and the points you are looking to earn for colonizing can quickly diminish in value if others reach them first. Of course, you can get help from senator cards to speed things along, but only after you’ve recruited their support, which requires first traversing the board for politic cards.
The frustration factor in the game is quite low, even if you do need to course correct your plans frequently. First, because the game gives you enough other options that you never feel helpless or stuck, and second, because the game is so quick and fluid. Of course, playing quickly isn’t always a compliment — nobody ever wants to hear “well I am certainly glad that game ended quickly!” at game night. But in this case, it means the downtime is minimal and the gameplay is taut — streamlining a full Eurogame’s decisions, tension, and enjoyment into an hour or less.
While the game is still at its heart a themeless Euro, Sovereign Skies’ spacefaring veneer is a modern aesthetic touch that should increase interest in it, and avoids the drab mundanity of other Euros’ obsession with farming and/or trading in the Mediterranean.
Chris Kirkman of The State of Games podcast coined the term ‘One Hour Wonder’ to describe the rare game that plays in around an hour, yet manages to have a rich decision space and provide a fulfilling and rewarding experience. I can think of no better way to describe Sovereign Skies than to say it perfectly fits the ‘One Hour Wonder’ criteria, and I highly recommend it for fans of Euro gameplay — especially those that enjoy the underused circular action selection mechanism, the rondel.