Somewhere Beyond the Sun

I bought Beyond the Sun with my own money

Civilisation games have been around for a long time. The original Frances Tresham game arguably gave birth to a whole genre of tabletop and computer games. Now we see it exemplified by Kickstarter behemoths and giant table hogs positively frothing with options. I love a good civilisation game. I want to see the story of my people, starting in the dirt and going Beyond the Sun. 

Beyond the Sun from designer Dennis K. Chan, artist Franz Vohwinkel, and publisher Rio Grande Games starts you exactly there. You are not down in the dirt you are blasting into space and leaving good old earth behind. You stretch out your grasp to planets unknown. Unlike other games in the genre, Beyond the Sun focuses only on one aspect of Civilisation games. The development of technology and its consequences. 

Tech tree and area control board
The technology tree is ripe with possibility

The main board of Beyond the Sun resembles the technology tree of a civilisation computer game. Starting with just some simple technologies, you gradually develop and expand. As you open up new options, you get powerful actions. You also get to see a narrative for your faction evolving. 

You see we might all be humans leaving Earth, but you can’t avoid politics while doing so. Each player is a faction of the Earth diaspora. Each player board gives slightly different setup, unless you play with the more advanced versions ( we will come back to that). Every player is forging their own path through technology, but of course nothing is created in a vacuum. 

I’ve buried the lede a bit here. At its core Beyond the Sun is a worker placement game. When I say that I mean it. You have 1 worker. The worker placement spaces are the technologies you will develop all of which involve you manipulating the slightly strange resource economy. 

On your personal player board you start with a bunch of boxes. Simple boxes. As well as that you have some ore and some workers. Where do more workers come from? They come out of boxes! You can justify your own narrative for what is happening there: cryo, robots, whatever. Every action involves some combination of manipulating this board with boxes becoming workers, workers ships, ore powering transformations and abilities. 

As your turn wraps up you get more ore, or workers, or manipulate those two things into other possibilities. Doing this efficiently is a real puzzle. If you choose to make ore, that is straightforward. The more you have automated the more ore you get. When it comes to getting workers though you can only get more if you have boxes to unpack them from. It’s a weird dance to make the production of workers be as efficient as possible. That is not a criticism, though it is tricky to explain. 

Getting back to the technology board. Each turn all you are doing is placing your worker, only the 1, on one of the actions available to you. Ah yes, the other shoe. You see this boundless technology isn’t actually that at all. You’ve got to put the leg work in and either follow in the footsteps of giants or forge your own path. If you go your own way you run the risk of getting technology that doesn’t help your engine as much as you might like. Treading a path behind allows you to mitigate the risks. There will always be the sting of getting there second.

As you research, you open up branches higher up the technological tree. Actions start simple but as you climb, they get more interesting. A lot of the time they are more powerful as well, but that can be a relative term depending on the particular direction you have chosen to go. If you get to the very top tier of technology, you get some very strong effects from end game victory points, to powerful action manipulation.

Player board with a bunch of resources on it
Resource management is an interesting puzzle

A lot of the technologies allow you to manipulate your resource economy. Turning boxes into people, gathering ore, turning ore into opportunity, turning people into spaceships, and reaching out to conquer new worlds.

I’ve dropped the second shoe. Well board. 

The exploration board is manipulated by the technologies you have chosen, but it is a different expression of the game altogether. Here is the realm of area control aided by the technologies you’ve chosen on the main board. Those allow you to build bigger ships, move faster, and conquer more quickly. Planets can be controlled for different effects, and taken over for permanent victory points and further abilities. 

In doing this Beyond the Sun takes the abstract technology portion of the game and gives it a crunchy, thematic, outer coating. Those androids you’ve been researching can fly your ships. Turn into them? There is enough space in the gaps to fill it with your own imagination in a really satisfying way. 

This is the part of Beyond the Sun I really love. The emergent story of your faction of human civilisation is expressed in simple names, and types, of technology. Your faction evolves to be an economic power house, a war mongering despot, an advocate for android rights, an exploration obsessive, or some mix of those things. It is quite trope driven, but those bold strokes are no bad thing. At the end of the game, each faction has their own story to tell. 

The game in full swing
Those little yellow dots everywhere are victory points.

Bold is not something I can accuse the graphic design of being. I first played the game on Boardgame Arena and everyone commented on the weird tiny victory point symbols that are beside every card on the technology tree. This is to show that every tech advance gets you points. Great. However they are this odd yellow/orange symbol on a blue background and they are unreadable. It’s easy to know what they are because of the tiers of technology, but that is not the point. 

These graphic design mistakes bleed onto the achievement cards as well. These are the same size as the technology cards, but have smaller writing and the victory point symbols for success are smaller still than those on the board. This leads to a lot of eye strain, even from someone like me who has good vision. The graphic design in general could have done with being tightened up with a more practical eye on what it would look like in play. 

The board being so big, means that you can get quite a sea of iconography evolving over the course of the game. It can be a bit overwhelming for your first couple of plays, especially if you are reading all the cards upside down. 

Outside of the odd graphics choices I really like Beyond the Sun. As I alluded to earlier you can play with faction boards which make things more asymmetric, giving each faction a focus. I am yet to play with these. I’ve looked at them and I just have no interest in this side of the game. The thing I love is the emergent narrative that Beyond the Sun gives. If I am forced down one story branch by the actions my faction favours, it feels like it removes some of the creativity from play. 

I’ve really enjoyed playing Beyond the Sun. It distils the feel of a Civilisation game into a new form, stripping back the minutiae of the genre to a crunchy tech tree with a gooey area control centre. The puzzle of how to manipulate your resource board is challenging and compelling. That said it is just a little bit grindy in places. The graphic design grinds the gears to a halt at times making the experience not as smooth as it could be, and it is just a bit fiddly at times when you are moving bits around. I still want to play it more, and I am considering the expansion that adds a bit of variety to the setup and the technology decks. It may be in my collection for sometime to come. 

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Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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