Once More 'Round the Sun - A Sol Review
Sol: Last Days of a Star might just be the best game you’ve never played
Sol: Last Days of a Star is a game of orbits. You, the players, orbit your motherships around the outer edge of a sun about to go supernova. That supernova is measured by a countdown track, spiraling down toward the end of the game. The players’ “Arks” — containing the last remnants of once-great civilizations — spin around another track, the one marking momentum, the key to hurling your ark away from the doomed sun and winning the game.
Play passes around the table. Ships circle the sun. Players send their “sundivers” — tiny ships that are the key to most every action in the game — scurrying around the board, working to get into position, ever closer to the sun’s core.
Sol is an incredibly tight game. It’s thinky but not overlong. It works from 2 to 5 players. It’s beautiful and well-produced. It’s different every game. It has a little bit of luck and a lot of strategy. And if you haven’t played it, well, it might just be the best game you’ve never played.
You have to talk about the board when you talk about Sol. It’s a sun. That’s basically it. Orange and yellow and angry red. It has some lines on it, more orbits that determine how much energy you’re going to squeeze out of this dying star, using the structures that you build. Things like energy nodes to produce energy. Sundiver foundries, which crank out those little ships you need to perform actions in the game. Transmit towers, which send momentum back out to your ark, circling farther out in space.
But when you build, you draw. When you activate your buildings, you draw. You draw from a deck made up of a handful of suits, in orange, purple, green, blue — and red. Those red ones are the ones you need to worry about. Those are the solar flares, and each time one is turned over, the doomsday clock ticks one minute closer to midnight. The sun spirals toward supernova. There are 13 red cards in the deck. When the last one is gone, the sun bursts.
If you asked me what kind of game Sol is, I’m not sure I’d have a ready answer for you. It’s certainly a network game, since every action is ultimately about infrastructure. But Sol is best explained not by describing the rules or the mechanics, but by describing the theme.
You play as one of several civilizations that have been stealing the sun’s energy for millennia. Now, the sun is dying, and these civilizations are trying to send the best of their people into deep space, in hopes of discovering a new homeworld and escaping destruction from their fading power plant. To do this, they need to harness momentum by building structures in the strata of the sun. The board starts empty, but by the end of the game it’s full of multicolored gates and buildings, all dedicated to harnessing the sun’s fading power. But those buildings aren’t your own. Or at least, they aren’t only your own.
Everything you build in Sol can be used by the other players. Every node, foundry, and tower. Every gate that gets you closer to the sun’s core. It’s in this shared infrastructure that the game really shines — there are no penalties for using someone else’s structures; there’s no meanness there. But using other players’ buildings has the potential to give them a bonus, and you have to question if the thing that benefits you a lot is worth helping them benefit a little.
It’s a classic conundrum of instant versus delayed gratification. You need energy. Your sundiver is on one side of the board, while your energy node is clear in the opposite hemisphere of the sun. Your neighbor has built an energy node just two spaces away. But is it worth those three energy to you, if it means that your neighbor gets two energy just because you used their station? Or could you take another turn to fly around the board, to reach your own energy node and keep all five energy for yourself? Keep in mind, the clock is ticking. Can you afford it?
Regardless of the decision you make, either could be the right one for the circumstances.
Sol plays a little differently every time. In the revealing of the cards: sometimes you have 15 cards left and only one solar flare remaining in the deck. Maybe you’ll get another turn; maybe you won’t. In the special powers: Each game features a collection of special powers that you can use to break the game’s rules in minor ways, or gain a bonus ability. In the interaction or lack of interaction between players. In whether or not you play with the event cards.
The game isn’t without its weaknesses. You only have three possible actions in the game, and you pick one to take each turn: move your sundivers around the board, build a new building or gate, or activate an existing building. Because of this limited action set, the game may grow to feel a bit “samey,” but it’s never going to be exactly the same.
And there’s a little luck, especially in the card draws. The suits in the deck correspond to those variable powers mentioned earlier, and some powers are clearly more powerful than others, depending on the circumstances. So drawing a suit matching that power can be a boon for a player.
The variable power cards can also be somewhat ill-defined; some were designed with the help of Kickstarter backers, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of the powers you could get each game and how they balance with one another.
There’s also a level of luck in when the end of the game will arrive. Maybe you just needed one more turn to pull out the win — too bad, the player to your right just drew the last solar flare. This is a shortcoming, but this feeling of “will I have one more turn to do the thing I need?” is also far from a foreign concept in games.
Visually, the game is the kind you can play in public and people will stop to stare and ask, “What is that?” Much of the board, the box, and the player aids are a deep, matte black, striking in their own way. The player pieces are plastic, in unusual shapes. There are splashes of color, too — the blue and purple of the cards, the red of the energy cubes, the silver and green of the player pieces.
But most of all, there’s that star, that all-giving, all-consuming star around which the game literally revolves. It sits in the middle, surrounded with flaring tendrils and covered in patchy burns.
Sol can be reliably played by five players in two hours. Four experienced players can complete a game in around an hour. The game scales well, though it plays better at three and up than it does with just two, mostly due to the additional infrastructure on the board. (It also has a solo mode that I’ve never played.)
Sol just does so many things right. And I won’t even go into some of its finer details, like it simple, elegant solution for tracking the player whose turn it is, or the way the pace satisfyingly accelerates as the game goes on, or the clear and well-written rulebook and player aids. Like the game itself, there was very little left to chance in Sol’s development.
If this all sounds good to you, here’s the bad news: this review came a little too late. Sol was the result of a 2016 Kickstarter campaign, the first and only game of brothers Sean and Ryan Spangler. Over the past several years, they’ve been selling surplus copies of the game on their website. The EU supply dried up some months ago, and earlier this month, Ryan Spangler posted on BoardGameGeek that supplies of Sol had finally run out.
But, now the good news. Sol is going to be reprinted, part of a planned 2020 Kickstarter for a new game from the Spangler brothers, their first in four years. And I’ll be waiting anxiously, because if this new game is half as simple and deep as Sol, half as well-considered, well, it’ll still be among the best games out there.