31st Jan2018

‘Sol: Last Days of a Star’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


As far as board games are concerned, I am a real sucker for a strong theme, particularly when the mechanical elements of the game – however strange – feel well integrated with the overarching game world. A great theme can be spoiled by poorly aligned rules, whilst a standalone set of mechanics is rarely going to draw me in, no matter how smart they might be.

Sol: Last Days of a Star is a game with several mechanics that are unusual to say the least, but it also has a hugely compelling theme which drives the action in a completely organic way.  In LDOAS (I avoided shortening to Sol because there are a couple of other games commonly referred to as that), up to five players each take control of a different advanced race who share the same galaxy.

As a result of historic mismanagement of galactic resources, each race is now faced with an appalling dilemma – they must accelerate the destruction of their sun in order to power their own escape from the blast radius and (hopefully) begin a new life elsewhere. Only one race can gain enough momentum to escape, so in doing so, they condemn the other races to an unthinkable demise.

Although this is a darker theme than many, it rarely feels like it. Whilst I’ll cover this in more detail later, LDOAS is a game that features a large number of variant options for both multiplayer and solo play (as well as great scope for house rules) but it also includes a variant way of interpreting endgame scoring that is intended for solo play.

Simply put, the game includes a table that describes how well a race does depending on their final momentum score. I used this table to lighten the theme based on the idea that every race might be able to escape if they were able to score highly enough, even if they were not the overall winner. Each range of score comes with a paragraph of flavour text which helps to create a satisfying endgame outcome for each player – even if that outcome is indeed just a fiery death. This felt like an important way to draw players in, to me, because one of the most challenging aspects of LDOAS to teach (and to learn) is the idea of using structures that other players have built, which often provides rival races with a bonus. In the base interpretation of the game this is more of a necessary evil than a cooperative element, but in the variation of the endgame scenario that I’ve just described, the context changes quite a lot.

I am getting ahead of myself though, because of course I haven’t yet described the rules or mechanics at even a basic level. That, honestly, is because I am probably about to make LDOAS sound a lot more complex than it is. Firstly, each player receives a player board with a speed token set on the number three, five sundiver ships, three energy cubes (none if playing solo) and a mothership as well as a ton of stations and additional sundivers of their colour in reserve.

Next, players build an Instability Deck by shuffling thirteen Solar Flare cards with any number of the Instability Effect decks. Each of these decks features a different icon against a coloured backdrop, and the box contains a coloured token for each of these icons. Players then choose (either randomly or not) an Instability Effect for each of the symbols, which are then placed face up alongside one another with one of the tokens on each of them. Effects range from basic or simple to execute (such as allowing a station to activate an additional time) to hard and/or more combative, such as one which allows players to steal stations from their opponents. In general, the more players you have, the more Instability Effects/Decks you’ll want, because each time a Solar Flare card comes out, the sun moves one step closer to supernova.

Another way to look at this is that the more decks you use, the longer the game will last and using too few decks in a large game will result in a very untimely demise for everyone. As you would expect, the manual makes some clear recommendations, but one slight downside is that the Solar Flares can appear anywhere. However unlikely it may be that might include being drawn in the first twenty cards (or less.) Whilst I never had a problem with this in practice, if I had, I would have simply introduced a Pandemic style method of splitting the Instability Deck into thirteen small piles, shuffling a Solar Flare into each of them and then bringing them all back together in a random order (without further shuffling.)

With the Instability Effects laid out (and understood) and the player cards ready, each player then places his or her mothership onto a specific circular track on LDOAS’s absolutely beautiful board. Players leave an equal number of spaces between each mothership, except for the first player, who will have an extra space between them and the next ship.

When the game begins, players may take one of three simple actions. The first is to move, but it isn’t the mothership that makes progress here. Instead, the base movement of three allows players to spawn up to three sundivers onto spaces adjacent to the mothership or to move existing sundivers up to three times in any permitted combination. The second action is to build (or convert) sundivers into structures. This action involves taking sundivers that have been correctly positioned and simply replacing them with the station you want to deploy. What’s interesting here is that placing a station requires sundivers to manoeuvre into a specific formation, with the most powerful station (the Transmission Tower) requiring a fairly challenging sequence of moves to be completed in advance. Understanding this mechanic might seem difficult based on this description, but trust me, the game has an excellent visual reference.

The final action is to activate a single station type. Considering that this action is relatively “normal” when compared to some of the other features of LDOAS, I have to say that the manual makes a heck of a job of explaining it. Firstly, to activate any station you’ll need to have a sundiver on it. Secondly, you can activate other player’s stations to gain a core benefit and thirdly, each station does something different with energy. In all cases, stations generate a bonus outcome (which might be zero) for the player that owns it based on how close to the sun it is located.

In addition to stations, players are also able to construct solar bridges, which thematically create openings deeper and deeper into the sun and mechanically, allow sundivers to pass through the dark black lines that circle the board. I’ve just mentioned that bonuses vary depending on how close a station is to the sun, which is exactly why this is important. Building an Energy Node in the outmost ring is easy, but considering it will consume two sundivers, it is never really a winning strategy because it generates just one energy per activation.

The opposite is true when you build closer to the sun, so building an Energy Node on the innermost ring results in both basic and bonus energy that is much more worthwhile. Equally thematic and useful mostly in the late game is the ability for sundivers to pierce from one side of the sun to the other. Doing so removes the sundiver from the game entirely (and it cannot be rebuilt) but it also provides an immediate boost of two momentum points.

As players build stations, pierce the sun and draw the suns energy, they must also draw from the Instability Deck depending on which layer of the sun they are meddling with. In all cases, the closer you are to the sun, the more damage you’ll be causing it, so you’ll often be drawing two or even three cards per turn from this deck. This dramatically increases the chances of drawing a Solar Flare, of course, which brings catastrophe much closer for everyone.

As a final note on the actual ruleset, I should mention that every time players draw from the Instability Deck, they have the option to take one (and only ever one) card and store it on-board their player card. As described earlier, each one has a symbol on it that matches an Instability Effect and can, in turn, be played to gain that effect. Because the hand size is just one card, players will burn and swap cards often once they become used to how each ability can be used. This means LDOAS benefits from a constant shift in strategy that more than makes up for the fact that each race begins the game with symmetrical resources and capabilities, which was initially a reservation of mine.

Another way that the game compensates for this possible lack of individual identity harks back to the comment I made earlier around rules variation. The manual actually includes rules for how to handle what it calls “Vestigial Structures” which are effectively leftovers from the previous solar exploitation. With this variant active, players may place buildings in turn prior to the start of the game (without costing sundivers) which allows for a (slightly) asymmetrical starting position to be created. It also speeds up the game considerably!

Component quality in LDOAS is relentlessly high. The board is double-sided (and differs slightly based on player count) and is beautifully made. The pieces belonging to each race are brightly coloured, well made and scaled well in terms of the difference between the mothership, the sundivers and the various stations and bridges. Motherships are each modelled individually, whilst stations are common in design across races – this makes practical sense, especially given that players can use any station.

The game includes beautiful, minimalist cards and some very, very distinctive art design which reaches its pinnacle in the superbly crafted Mythos Book, which tells the tale of the demise of the sun that the game centres on. Written by CJ Hallowell (who I admit to not having heard of) this book is much more than just filler, especially for those who want to really experience the game as I have tried to describe by using the sandbox features and really investing in the game. LDOAS is easy to learn, but it is very challenging to master. Wasted turns during the early game can be very costly, because failure to establish an effective engine can leave you languishing. Similarly, learning how and when to use stations left behind by opponents is key, as is being effective when it comes to ancillary decisions like when to use an Instability Effect or when to pierce the sun.

Even though I would rate these decisions as marginally harder to make than they are in most worker placement games, the game is all the more compelling as a result. Decisions in LDOAS are impactful and challenging, with a very, very interesting balance to be found between managing personal ambition and shared risk. You do need to gain momentum, but whether you aim for a moderately risky strategy of establishing Transmission Towers in the Radiative (second) layer out from the sun, or just by going absolutely all-or-nothing by crashing your sundivers in to it is up to you.

An interesting consideration here is that because of how the Instability Deck is built, the sun will burn out once a certain number of cards have been drawn no matter what. If you’ve vaporised most of your sundivers when that happens and you’re ahead then you’ll be fine, but if the game goes long, your more controlled opposition will still be dragging momentum out of the sun for several turns to come.

In terms of a downside to LDOAS, there are the minor complaints about the (otherwise excellent) manual that I’ve already made, but the only other issue I found was the way in which sundivers always spawn from the mothership and not the Sundiver Foundry that builds them. This combines with the fact that each mothership is on a permanent orbit of the sun, so it takes a while to get back to any existing stations or bridges.

Whilst this really does force players to experiment with using stations built by other races, it can also lead to isolated (and useless) individual sundivers and it certainly adds to the lack of decision making clarity. These issues are almost exclusively limited to inexperienced players, so as the experience in your playing group expands, so too does the quality of opening turns for everyone, which results in numerous individual shared communities which is a really nice feature.

To summarise, LDOAS wasn’t on my radar coming into 2018, but from the moment I saw it, I felt that it was going to be something spectacular. Watching interviews with the developers and speaking to the extended team underpinned that feeling, because what stands out most about the game is how cohesive an overall experience it is.

I don’t believe that my words can do justice to the interlinking of mechanical theme with fluff and flavour that LDOAS happens to offer. Take the board – it is beautiful and thematic, but that isn’t just for show. Penetrating deeper into the sun for more energy (and more devastation) is hugely thematic, as is the visible orbit of motherships around the sun. It’s just – marvellous. Using sundivers to make patterns that form structures is like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. Need some proof? Read the Mythos Book – that’s a proper job as well.

Sol: Last Days of a Star comes in an understated, medium size box, but it unfolds into a huge, sandbox experience that delivers many of the factors which I consider to be essential. It is thematic and mechanically sound (whilst still easy to learn) and it is filled with complex decisions and strategies. If you’re playing with a group that operates at any level above gateway, you should buy LDOAS and surprise them with it – I promise they will thank you for it.

**** 4/5

A copy of Sol: Last Days of a Star was provided by Elephant Laboratories for review purposes. Elephant Laboratories’ Sol can be found via this handy link: https://elephantlaboratories.com/sol

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