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Going round in circles? – Planetarium Review

Board games are everywhere at the moment, certainly in my house, and it seems that barely a week goes by without a box arriving or some boxes leaving – it is akin to some massive airport terminal for games. Incomers have their contents checked at the border with some attempt at excitement from the inspectors (wooden tokens – check, game board – check, paper money – hmm, ok) while the outgoers are sent off to wherever with barely a murmur. Once in a while, though, the controllers need to look up from their duties and call their superiors for a second opinion, and thus it is with Planetarium. These tokens look suspiciously thick, and the board is different – it’s time to call in a Games Quest reviewer!

What’s the matter?  Planets are!

From the front of Planetarium’s box, rich with colour and yet giving minimal information (name, designer) there is something slightly different going on here, and checking out the contents reinforces that impression. The board, with its interlocking orbits and routes, is unusual to say the least, while the tokens are so thick that they need extra force to punch out and extra care to keep from ripping. The rest of the components live up to this promise. The player tokens are translucent, like some marvellous sugary treat from the 70s, and there are even some standees so that you can have your planets lying down or standing up on the board, take your pick!

Planetarium Board Game

The score tokens are fetchingly different.

But I am getting ahead of myself. What’s this about planets? Well, the clue is in Planetarium’s title, for here is a game about the formation of celestial bodies, so a round of applause immediately for a theme that is slightly different. The churlish and picky might say that it is still building things and all you need is a guy with a map on the box cover to complete the effect, but they would be wrong. After punching out the tokens (carefully!) you’ll get to unwrapping the cards which have a linen finish, feel like they should last, and contain informative flavour text on each one, while the deck is completed by a winner’s card (take a selfie with it and post your photo) and a thank you to the Kickstarter backers.

Kicked in the teeth?  Or a drop goal?

Ah, Kickstarter. Excuse me while I step away from the crowd. KS, as it’s known, is the weirdest example of mass hysteria I have seen in recent years, elections apart. Pay loads of money to maybe gets loads of stuff that looks nothing like the pictures if it ever turns up. Granted, there are exceptions, but it is like the gaming Wild West out there, and for every Gloom Of Kilforth there is at least one Glory To Rome or Genegrafter (true story: I won a competition for a copy of this, and it is the only game I have ever put in the bin, though I kept the dice) or, heavens, Katalyka. Is Planetarium destined to find its way to the bargain bin, or does the promise of genuine care and quality actually make it through to the game itself? Read on.

Planetarium Board Game

You spin me right round, baby, right round…

What Planetarium invites its players to do is to share in the building of four planets around a new star, accumulating matter and characteristics (for points, of course) until the evolutionary process is complete and these brave new worlds have formed. Said worlds could be barren radioactive spheres with crushing gravity, or Goldilocks planets with tectonic plates, or even gas giants, but they will all be different. For somebody like me who generally finds real science, especially the distant past and future of our universe, so much more exciting than science fiction, Planetarium is thematic stardust.

Rules of motion?  Not always clear!

The rules booklet, provided in English and French (although the cards only have English flavour text), is reasonably clear, but there are a couple of ambiguities and also what appears to be an error in the scoring example that really should have been caught. In most cases the correct course of action is clear, but there are some circumstances that have not been fully explained. As an example, in the section about the Final Turn it says that players may play any number of Final Evolution cards, but in the very next paragraph it specifies that they may only play a maximum of four of these.  So which is it?  As it happens, a player may only ever hold four Final Evolution cards, but that fact had been mentioned only in passing some time before and is easily forgotten in the excitement of getting a new game to the table.  Or is that just me?

Planetarium Board Game

This should have been caught earlier…

Setting up the game involves distributing the four planets tokens to their starting points on the board, and random tokens around them which represent four different types of matter – gas, rock, water and metal. Each player receives their own mat, some cubes to denote the cards they have played, and a hand of five cards. These cards fall into one of three categories, and are designated either Low Evolution, High Evolution or Final Evolution. Low Evolution cards are the cheapest to play, High Evolution cards are trickier to activate, while Final Evolution cards can only be played on the the last turn of the game and must fit certain criteria.

Planetarium Board Game

Low, High and Final Evolution cards.

Move a token, maybe play a card – it’s that simple!

On their turn a player moves a matter token or a planet, following simple rules, and will then place a matter token onto their mat in the quadrant belonging to one of the four planets. They then have the opportunity to play a card if they wish, spending the required tokens and gaining points. These cards go along a side of the main board, one side for each planet, with a cube on them to denote which player placed them.  Played cards can also turn a hostile planet into a habitable one or vice versa. In this way each of the four planets forms along one edge of Planetarium’s central board, meaning that players are fighting against each other for points while cooperating to form the planets.  At the same time they are trying to nudge their progress in a way that makes their own Final Evolution cards playable.

Players also have the option to downgrade their High Evolution cards after they have moved a token, which is a handy way of getting expensive cards out of your hand, always limited to five cards, and although the Low Evolution cards are easier to get to the table, unsurprisingly they are worth fewer points.

Planetarium Board Game

Icons are easy to understand and explained on the central board.

Evolving and revolving!  The final reckoning…

Matter tokens that have been spent to play cards go onto the main board’s Evolution track, which acts as the game’s timer, pushing Planetarium on to its final phases when the planets have formed and the final reckoning comes. Only on this last turn are players allowed to play their Final Evolution cards, but they are limited by the number of cards they have placed on each planet, which is why cubes are used to denote card ownership. At the end of it all you tot up the points and see who is the planet potentate.

Planetarium, in its movement of different types of tokens between linked spaces, feels like some kind of hyper-abstract in the first phase of a turn as players attempt to work out where they can harvest the matter they need, but the addition of the card play adds another layer to this, introducing strategic concerns that relate to the requirements for evolution. You may have been saving a specific card for Planet B, for example (yes, they really are called planets A, B, C & D), but be scuppered when it suddenly becomes habitable, so what to do? Downgrade, perhaps, or maybe see if that card can be used elsewhere? Or is there a chance that Planet B will become a hostile environment again?

Planetarium Board Game

This planet is currently hostile.

These tangled decisions are further muddied by the Final Evolution cards, which require certain specifics to be met and provide a focus for a player’s journey through the game. Thankfully, Planetarium institutes a draw-two-choose-one policy for these, so a player always has some kind of opportunity to mitigate a bad card draw.

Alone in the universe?  There’s a solo option!

There is also a bespoke solo option in Planetarium which requires two six-sided dice, sadly not supplied with the game.  In this version the planets move of their own accord based on the dice rolls, sweeping up matter and reducing the target score accordingly, providing the lonely only player with an interesting and involving experience which will be different every time.  Again, there are one or two edge cases in the rules that are not covered, such as whether a token on the final Evolution space ends the game immediately or whether all the remaining tokens from that turn are still placed.  It may not seem important, but it actually alters the target score, and on my first solo game would have swung a win to a loss, so I am surprised that this was not more clearly explained.

Planetarium Board Game

The Evolution track during a solo game.

Overall it is impossible to fault Planetarium’s ambition.  The production quality is, well, stellar in the main, although the cards are perhaps a little thin and a couple of dice would probably not have been too much to expect – Unfair provides these and only needs them for one of its six decks.  The scientific background is also genuinely interesting, from the flavour text on the cards to the several pages of background information in the rules, and I spent many happy moments in my games slowing down the play just because I was admiring the cards in my hand.

Abstract with cards?  My brain hurts!

Like some burned out husk of a planet, though, Planetarium is very dry indeed.  It is a tough and involving brain burner, but I would be hard pushed to describe it as laugh-a-minute fun, so it is exactly the kind of thing that a player would expect heading into a game that beats with an abstract heart, even if the theme really does often shine through.  It can also slow down to something approaching a crawl with the full complement of four players, especially as the board state can change so dramatically by the time your turn swings around once again.

Planetarium Board Game

This will all change by the time it is your turn again.

In two, though, Planetarium is a real test of nerve and brains.  You will be aiming for a habitable world on the outer reaches of the system, while your opponent will be trying to keep it hostile and on its current orbit.  Underneath it all, with two players, there is a beguiling layer of bluff, subtle but insistent, even if it rarely has time to develop into all-out psychological warfare.

Boldly going…but not quite great!

For a play time of under an hour as well, Planetarium does a commendable job of providing something different enough to be bordering on the unique.  Any abstract gamer with an interest in the science of what is out there would feel quite content to have this on their shelf, and solo gamers can get some value out of it as well.  As to whether Planetarium is an essential addition to the core gamer’s collection – well, that is a trickier call.  I wanted to love it and be enthused by it, but while I admire it, I found it on the dry side and less involving and embracing than I had expected.

Planetarium Board Game

Final Evolution cards can swing the game, so choose wisely.

Planetarium, therefore, does not quite make the cut for me despite its many qualities, mainly because I cannot see myself ever really being desperate to play it over everything else.  It is a good game, though, and deserves plaudits for doing something genuinely different in an overcrowded and often derivative gaming market, and I am certainly glad that I played it, but for me it just does not quite have the right mix of ingredients to make it to the inner reaches of my gaming system – 7 out of 10.

 

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5 (100%) 1 vote
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Nick O'Neill

I have been playing Hobby games for as long as I can remember, including Waddington's Formula-1 in my teens and family card games before that. I mainly play with two, sometimes more, and I'm happy to give any game a try. I lean towards medium-weight games with simple rules and deep gameplay. Homo ludens and proud of it.

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