BEYOND THE Sun review

And ever on I sailed

Celestial ways

And in the light of my years

Shone the rest of my days

— Mick Jones, Foreigner

Long before heroes were made from juke boxes, before double vision got the best of him, and years and years before he wanted to know what love is, Mick Jones penned a strange song. One part harpsichord, one part starry dreaming, and one part Lou Gramm pipes overshadowing Jones’ own pedestrian voice, the mixture from Foreigner’s self-titled first album added up to a trippy, 70’s perfect poem about “space” travel (heavy emphasis on the air quotes.)

Don’t listen to Starrider just because I mentioned it, unless you really like flutes with your Fenders. Instead, let this be the jumping point back to when you first discovered that there really is something big and beautiful to explore up in the sky.

For as long as humans have crafted handmade urns and adorned them with colorful artwork of the heavens, we have dreamed about Life Out There. We write books, we design computer games, and yes, we even created an entire mythos about robots in a galaxy far, far away. But it took a pipe organ enthusiast from Boston to finally give me that feeling of space exploration that I had lying on my bunk bed in Mamou, listening to the chorus of Starrider or reading the Foundation series.

Beyond The Sun is a 2020 release from Rio Grande Games designed by first time designer, Dennis K. Chan. This euro game fest plays from two to four players and takes about ninety minutes to play. Oh yeah, and spoiler alert, it is my favorite game of 2020! Here’s Bradly with an unboxing and overview of the game:

GAMEPLAY:

In Beyond The Sun, players are corporations in the not too distant future, who have discovered the ability to travel beyond our solar system to other systems filled with planets just waiting to explore. To get to these systems, and colonize them for stuff, the designer has reversed the usual board game emphasis.

One would think a game called “Beyond The Sun” would be about rockets, and space travel, and shiny helmets with a flag in the reflection. And one would be right. But Chan pulled the rug out a bit by giving you not one but two boards:

Yes, the namesake space travel board is a much smaller board off to the side, where space ships will watch the Northern lights flash by as old stars die and new ones are born.

The board you will spend most of your time on, the one where you will move your scientist around as if you are plotting alien invaders on a giant radar map, that’s the humongous board that immediately commandeers your game table. That huge board is NOT the space travel board, although it does affect how you play that part of the game immensely. That gigantic hunk of card board is a tech tree, with most of it hidden from the players, waiting from them to discover the secrets behind the unassuming cards that will help propel their civilization ever faster and ever farther into the future.

I should restate the game mechanics less Jones-y for clarity’s sake. The game itself is so simple, just three paragraphs will be needed. (Although if you want me to talk about it in video form, here’s me giving Dan Letzring and Steve “The Name Father” O’Rourke the overview last year on Gumbo Live!):

Players have one solitary worker, a peg with their color on it, on any available space on the tech tree that is open to their advancement. Civs start with Tech I spaces, but there is a chain of events that will lead them to Tech II, Tech III, and Tech IV spaces, namely, researching technologies that let them advance down the tech tree (or should I say, sideways?)

Once the peg is moved to a legal space, the players will take all available actions on that space. That could be researching a tech like mentioned above, but more likely it will be getting more Ore (the currency that drives research and exploration in this game) or more scientists (the resource that helps you research) or more ships out on the separate space board. On that space board are randomized star systems and planets, and if you have enough ships on a planet and enough ore, you can “colonize” that planet for a quick boost in resources, some juicy points, and maybe even a special power.

There are four random end game goals (although one is always researching a level IV tech), and once a certain number are reached, that will trigger one last round of the game. The person who scores the most points after counting up the levels of tech, the number of systems colonized, the end game goals, and any personal points scored on cards or techs or on the player board wins.

PRODUCTION:

Oh man, is this a massive production. I don’t mean in terms of the usual Kickstarter glitz. There is no gold leaf, or fancy bits and bobs, or even amazing artwork. I mean the size of these boards is just amazing to see. The tech tree board takes up an entire normal square gaming table, and you still need room for resources, player boards, and the small-by-comparison-but-normal-to-everything-else space board.

When I first saw the boards and cards, I couldn’t believe it myself. In 2020, are we still doing plain production? And yet. And yet….and yet, the more I played, the more I appreciated the pure simplicity of it all. The game literally teaches you how to play with big friendly text and very unassuming artwork on the space cards that never detracts from the game play. And then I realized that it is all so thematic. This game is not about warfare — although that happens from time to time. The game is not just about exploration, although certainly you are exploring and conquering the stars. This game is ALL about the tech tree, and the graphic designs are a brilliant choice to emphasize that part of the game and never let you forget that it is the most important element.

So, if you are looking for a space opera to be splayed out on your beautiful Game Topper LLC mat (shill!), go get Dune: Imperium or Twilight Emperium. But if you want a game that looks the way it plays, the production of Beyond The Sun is spot on.

BUT IS IT ANY FUN?

Cripes, it is my game of the year, so of course it is fun. But that’s putting the engine in front of the rocket body, as it were. The real question is why.

I discovered “Age of” games along with my sons many years ago, and we played Age of Empires and Age of Mythology to death, gorging on tech tree style games and debating which tech branch was the best to work on to win the game. They moved on to the fantasy games online, where leveling up is essentially a fantasy themed version of a tech tree itself.

The idea that identifying a path, especially if it is randomly generated, that will lead you to victory faster than your opponents is fascinating. But even without the competitiveness, the sheer dopamine boost that comes from unlocking a cool tech just when you need it for your next turn is indescribable.

So since I’ve already promised that the feeling is indescribable, I will instead give you some describable reasons why I have loved all of my plays of Beyond The Sun (and I’m approaching a dozen already). First, I love the easy pace of play in the early part of the game. Some people do not like “scripted” first moves, so Chan gives everyone a play that feels equally as good as the rest. Opening up a new tech or putting rockets in Space or developing your resource engine are all good first moves. Do what you want!

Second, I love how easy the game is to teach and play. Sure, it looks complicated at first glance, but once you take even your first turn, the flow of the game opens up. The game really is just “move a peg, take an action”, and that is not intimidating at all. The board and cards have a wonderfully easy to understand graphic design that lends itself to quick decisions, but the more you play, the more you will see that every single decision from the start of the game to the end is critical. We talked about the game’s development at length with Dennis Chan on a recent Gumbo Live!, and that “ease of entry, depth of play” was one of his goals:

But most importantly, I love how every game feels so different from the rest, depending on the player count, aggressiveness of the players, and most importantly the cards that come out on the tech tree and space board. They really do dictate the pace of the play and the story that develops. For instance, if players gravitate more toward red cards, you can sure as shooting bet that there will be some epic space battles on the board for primacy for the best systems.

Since the game gives you binary choices at each level, which forces the card you pick to dictate what the next type of tech down that branch will be, players feel both agency in directing how the game goes with just enough luck in what tech comes down the pike. (That is unless you play with the more inferior version of laying out all of the tech cards so that players can plan ahead. Way too much thinking. Way too much AP. In my opinion, it stifles the fun of exploration big time, but each player will be different.)

I love the way the cards change the flavor of the game each time. Maybe I don’t want a spicy gumbo tonight, and maybe I just want a savory dish with more emphasis on the andouille sausage rather than the cayenne pepper seasoning. Or maybe I’m in the mood for some jalapeno chicken sausage to really spice up my meal! It’s your choice, and you and the rest of the players at the table get to experience the joy of pulling on strings that move the game forward and backwards and sideways, lurching through a plot that will hopefully end in victory, but will most certainly see new stories for you and your fellow starriders to talk about the rest of the night.

CONCLUSION:

Game of the year for 2020. That’s the best way I can describe my love for this game. I’ve been playing it non-stop on BGA since it came out in Beta, I’ve played our review copy from Rio Grande a few times in person, and now that our group is vaccinated, I plan for more live plays soon. I think this game is for anybody that is into mid-weight euros, but the beauty of the friendly and engaging design is that Beyond The Sun will even appeal to gamers that are not so much into euros. The attractive space theme, the compact exploration board, and the tech tree — I can almost guarantee that one of those parts is going to be enticing to all of the members of your group.

You’ve had a tough year. We’ve all had one. You owe it to yourself to steal a ride on the passing star called Beyond The Sun. Flute not included.

Our thanks to Rio Grande Games for providing a review copy, and our thanks to Dennis K. Chan for visiting with us on the show.

For more great information about Dennis K. Chan and the design work for Beyond The Sun, check out Eric Buscemi’s In Focus interview with the designer on Punchboard Media.

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