It was a Monday, a day like any other day
I left the small town for the Apple in decay
It was my destiny, it’s what we needed to do
They were telling me, I’m telling you
Lou Gramm co-penned Long, Long Way From Home alone in a hotel room in New York City, auditioning for a spot as Foreigner’s lead singer. It was autobiographical. Maybe the road from Rochester to NYC is a short trip, but his plaintive vocals show what it’s really about — the loneliness of being in a strange place, far from home.
When I saw the gorgeous cover of Distant Suns, the new game from Iello designed by Gary Kim and Yeon-Min Jung, that’s the feeling I thought I’d get playing the game. A sharp smiling female astronaut looks both lonely and hopeful as she anticipates a safe landing after a long journey.
Opening up the box revealed something that put a new wrinkle in the randowriter genre, the one where players roll a dice or flip a card or toss or chunk donuts to see what action every player must take. The best of these combine elegant mechanics with bubble-wrap poppin’ combos, like Three Sisters or Rajas of the Ganges: Dice Charmers.
Distant Suns tweaks the familiar road map of the randowriter by letting players choose the next action that they take, while simultaneously allowing the active player to dictate what everyone else must do.
“You mean like Puerto Rico“, you ask? No, not quite. It’s not the usual “take an action, leave the same but lesser action for others” mechanism.
Instead, in Distant Suns, the action you take is completely different from what others will be forced to do.
That’s a pretty cool mechanism in theory. In practice, it’s clever but not as clever as it looks. Before we say why, let’s flesh out exactly how it plays.
Players each have a sheet of paper, a map of the part of space that they’ve just entered. The entire map is made up of hexagons, mostly blank, except for alien outpost hexes, treasure hexes, and upgrade hexes.
Players take turns grabbing double sided tiles that have two pointers on them. They’ll use the tiles to point to two actions next to each other out of six potential actions.
That’s pretty clever. One points to the action only the active player can take, while the other part points to the action all of the other players will take. And within each pointing are the instructions for the turn. Each action has two purposes, a pairing which is determined randomly in each game. The first purpose is the shape you will have to draw on the hexes, and the second is for the points you could score.
Ah, possibilities. Possible points. Hopeful scores. Hope and potential and possibility abound in this game, until your friends glance sidelong at your map and see you needed just one more “Y” looking thingie to maximize your bonus. And then they flip the tile with glee and force you to take the wrong shape on the final turn. To have hope is to be human, and humanity’s history is a long arc of disappointment and rage.
At least that’s what my barber claims.
Twenty-five or so minutes later, the players have gone through three separate rounds, and in each round either four or five shapes will be drawn. It certainly does not feel like you are very far from home if all you have to do is chart out twelve to fifteen shapes on this grid.
But it’s what you draw and where you draw it that is the key.
The players start in the lower left hand corner of the galaxy board. In each other corner (NW, NE, and SE, although a star navigator would scoff at such designations) of the board there are “outer worlds” to explore — by which I mean draw a shape that sidles up next to the designated space.
Getting to these outer world spaces is a tense race, another tiny bit of interaction pushed into the experience, with each person scoring extra points if they can be the first to connect to that space. So that’s one goal to work on.
But there are many other goals. The five “mission tiles” are the bulk of the dial scoring. A final scoring goal could be something as simple as covering alien tiles or upgrade tiles (which let you bend the rules on placement of the galactic shapes on your board). Or it could be a multi-step process like the black holes, which require players to spend time drawing the black hole and the rest of the turns trying to cover spaces adjacent to the black hole. The challenge is to choose tiles that will help you reach each of those goals, while choosing the partner tile that best hinders or slows down or even stops the other players from completing their goals.
If that sounds a little puzzly, if that sounds downright thinky, your guess is spot on. For such a short little experience, Distant Suns packs in some brain crunching. You only get 12-15 turns, and you are going to want to place shapes in such a way as you blaze a trail to the three outpost worlds faster than anyone else. And grab treasure coins. And cover alien spaces. And work on building the biggest cluster of shapes for final scoring.
It’s a daunting task, even if in miniature, I’ll bet very similar to what Lou Gramm felt sitting alone in a hotel in New York, lyrics running through his head, trying to establish a connection with musicians he barely knew. He was inside, looking outside, the millions of faces staring back up at him from the city streets outside his hotel window, but he was still alone.
I can promise that you won’t be bleak as Gramm was, especially not once you have a chance to look at the retro-future cover on the box. Vincent Dutrait’s cover is stunning and looks like something out of the New Tomorrowland upgrade. I half expected Buck Rodgers and astronaut minis with shiny space suits to be part of the game, but there was nary any shine to be found.
We enjoyed our short visit with Distant Suns. I can say that it’s a distinct take on the genre. But I can’t say that it left any indelible impression. Gramm left Blacksheep, not because they weren’t successful in Rochester, but because Mick Jones promised bigger and better things with this brand new cross-Atlantic combination of Yanks and Brits.
As we were playing Distant Suns, it did feel very satisfying to be the first to reach one of the outer worlds ahead of your neighbors. But the whole time, I kept thinking to myself that we were a long, long way from meatier experiences like French Quarter or Hadrian’s Wall. Wouldn’t visiting those areas be a more productive use of our time?
I’m coming home.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ from Board Game Gumbo
A complimentary copy was provided by the publisher.