Exoplanets review – a universe in 30 minutes

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Exoplanets crams the 14 billion year saga of the universe into half an hour of play time. But can such a neat, compact package really capture the majesty of creation?

Designer: Przemysław Świerczyński
Ages: 12+
Players: 2 – 4
RRP: £39.99

One of gaming’s biggest draws has always been the power it hands to players. Whether you’re leading mighty armies in Warhammer or micro-managing tax rates in SimCity, there’s something hugely appealing about finding yourself in a position of totally undeserved authority.

As power fantasies go, though, they don’t come much bigger than god games. The likes of Populous and Black & White give you the chance to benevolently guide civilisation towards peace and prosperity. Or crush it with fire and vengeance if that’s more your thing.

Video games have dabbled with divine power since the 1980s, but board game Exoplanets brings the idea of playing god to your tabletop. And along the way it takes the concept to a new and entirely grander scale.

Compact cosmos

Where most digital god games give players a tribe, nation or world to preside over, Exoplanets has bigger things in mind. It tasks you with forging an entire solar system. Along the way you’ll create planets, establish new life forms and frustrate your opponents by annihilating their evolving species.

It’s an ambitious prospect, and you might expect a game this all-encompassing to be sadistically complex, with hundreds of fiddly components and a box the size of a small fridge. But the surprising thing about Exoplanets is just how neat and compact its vision of the universe is.

Exoplanets board game
Exoplanets sees players create planets in orbit around a central star.

The game revolves – almost literally – around a central star. As you play you’ll create chains of orbiting planets, from Jupiter-like gas giants to water-covered ocean worlds.

Whenever you add a planet to the system you’ll gain some resources – a combination of air, water and energy. These are the building blocks of creation, and you’ll use them to foster life across the cosmos. Over time you’ll help your organisms to thrive and evolve, eventually becoming the dominant species on their planets and eradicating creatures placed by your opponents.

Survival of the fittest

Surviving life forms earn you points at the end of the game, and losing them can be a major setback. But there’s a little more nuance to Exoplanets’ scoring.

For one thing, different planets make it easier or more difficult to sustain life. Evolving a species on a hostile planet takes extra resources. But if you manage it, you’ll pick up a hefty bonus.

It presents an interesting strategic choice. Should you spread life across a host of hospitable worlds? Or should you focus your attention on planets with harsher conditions, but greater long-term rewards?

Exoplanets board game
You’ll foster strains of life on planets, evolving them to become dominant species.

And while populating planets is important, it’s not the only thing you’ll have to consider. Before the game begins you’ll draw a set of tokens with different objectives to achieve as you play. You might have to create species on particular types of planets, or on multiple adjacent worlds, or on the frozen outer edges of the solar system.

Hitting these goals grants bonus points which can edge you ahead of your rivals. But you’ll also have the option of spending your tokens to trigger powerful effects. You can discard them to gain extra resources, boost or lower the scoring potential of planets or make particular worlds more or less amenable to life.

It means that you’ll constantly evaluate the chips you hold, weighing their potential worth in victory points against the usefulness of their in-game effects. And with more goal tokens added to your hand throughout the game, it adds one more layer of decision making to Exoplanets’ equation.

Exoplanets board game
Hidden goal tokens help you rack up points, but you can also spend them for powerful in-game effects.
Symptoms of the universe

Exoplanets condenses aeons of planetary formation into a game that’s smooth, slick and fast-playing, and it’s tempting to see that as a bit of a thematic failure. There’s nothing about the game that feels recognisably epic, nothing to give its worlds’ inhabitants any sense of character or significance.

But that’s the kind of cold, indifferent universe the game tries to reflect. In its cosmic choreography, the birth and death of a star or the rise and fall of a species are just blips on a much longer timeline. Its player-deities don’t cultivate followers, work miracles or meddle in mortal affairs. Its cosmos owes more to Newton and Einstein than to Zeus or Jehovah, and it’s oddly appropriate that it often feels abstract, mechanical and science-y.

A more valid criticism is that while Exoplanets offers the possibility of fierce evolutionary battles, its solar system turns out to be a pretty tranquil place. With new worlds added on every turn, there’s plenty of room for species to coexist peacefully on separate planets. There’s no need for players to clash with one another unless someone deliberately goes looking for a fight, and the game would benefit from a more pronounced cutthroat streak.

Into the void

But it’s hard not to be impressed by this elegant exploration of time and space. It boldly strips away the trappings of conventional god games to the point where I’m not sure it’s even fair to class it as one. It creates a constant sense of expansion, growing its environment and offering a widening array of interesting choices with every passing turn.

It’s challenging on multiple levels, forcing you to think about acquiring resources, creating scoring opportunities and judiciously picking your battles with opponents. But it never gets bloated or convoluted, with a simple, intuitive turn structure. And as an added plus, it looks damn good laid out on the table.

This is a confident and original design, and it’s doubly impressive when you find out that it’s the work of a first-time creator. It balances thoughtful gameplay with rules that quickly become second nature, and it efficiently crams it all into a package that plays in half an hour.

If you’ve ever gazed in wide-eyed wonder at the night sky – or harboured a secret desire to rule all of creation – it’s seriously worth your attention.

  • Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this game from its distributor.
Have you played Exoplanets? Let me know what you thought in the comments below.
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Author: Owen Duffy

Owen is a journalist, dad and geek from Glasgow, Scotland. When he's not playing games he enjoys photography, martial arts and heavy metal music.

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