Solar Storm

What is it about space ships in board games? They always seem prone to cascade failures and disaster. It's as if they were all built in the same dockyards as the SS Titanic. We've struggled solitaire to keep our spacecraft from exploding in Lux Aeterna (Surprised Stare), we've worked in tandem to escape from a space station in shutdown in Assembly and Sensor Ghosts (Wren Games) and we've teamed up to MacGyver our battered ship while fending off alien invaders in The Captain is Dead (AEG). If nothing else, we'll surely be well equipped to patch up our ship and survive in Dranda Games' Solar Storm...

The premise in Solar Storm is that you are on a space ship plummeting towards the Sun. The solar radiation and intense heat are playing havoc with the ship's systems, so you're rushing around trying to repair them and syphon off the energy the ship needs to activate its core drive and leap to safety.

This is a compact card-based game designed by Ayden Lowther with art by Elias Stern and Vladimir Ishelin. Your ship is represented as a 3x3 grid of ship locations (bridge, medical bay, engine room et al). In the centre is your energy core but the other locations are placed out randomly for each game. Other than the energy core, each location shows three resources, initially all covered with 'repair cubes'. Damage cards remove six of the cubes at the start of the game, and a further damage card is turned over at the end of each player's turn. These initially cause further cubes to be removed, initially at just one location but escalating as the game progresses to two and then three locations. The 1-4 players each have hands of resource cards, and you get to draw more cards each turn. On your turn you can take up to three actions: move (from one location to any orthogonally adjacent location); repair (spend the resource shown to replace a cube); 'scavenge' (roll a die to determine whether and how many extra resource cards you can take); give a card to or take a card from another player at the same location; and/or take the special action in the text on that location card. The location cards also display the combination of resources that you need to pay to transfer energy to the core, which you can only do if the location you are sending from is fully repaired.

That's pretty much the game. You are firefighting, racing around the ship trying to ensure no location loses all three repair cubes because that's game over. And you're trying to make best use of your resources and location actions so that you can activate the energy transfer to the core from all eight of the surrounding locations before the resources deck runs out (which would also be game over). The acceleration of ship damage adds to both the tension and excitement of the game and, tho' you're using the same cards every time, you'll find the games usually involve an element of puzzle solving and maybe a last-minute push-your-luck judgement call to avoid oblivion. You'll want to get some early energy transfers done as that makes it easier to complete subsequent repairs at that location, but you will instantly lose the game if you gamble unsuccessfully on leaving a location with just one repair cube... One unusual feature of Solar Storm is that you can hold over unused actions - taking two actions rather than three so you can take a compensatory extra action on a future turn. This simple device adds much subtlety to the game, allowing players to maybe take a few chances early on in order to set themselves up with the capacity to achieve a game-saving sequence of actions later on when the game demands it.

Solar Storm is fully cooperative and the rules suggest it be played with open hands of resource cards. The downside of that is that it makes the game prone to 'alpha player syndrome' where a bossy player tells the other players what to do on their turn. You can avoid that by playing with concealed hands of resource cards but that ratchets up the difficulty level. Happily, Solar Storm incorporates the option for scaleable difficulty levels by varying the number of 'universal' resource cards (ie: cards that can be used as any resource). We found the game was challenging but winnable if you played with closed hands but added all eight universal resource cards in the resource deck. The game also incorporates the cards and rules for a couple of variants, including an Escape Pod that adds a semi-competitive element when playing with 3 or 4 players and it looks like the team is going to lose...

We had some push-your-luck fun with the Escape Pod but, for us, Solar Storm has been at its best as a tight two-player game. As you'd expect for a fully co-operative game, it's very playable solitaire, tho' the solo rules have a player controlling three astronaut meeples (so you're actually playing a modified three-player game). Playing solo you'll see how Solar Storm becomes a puzzle-solving action optimisation game. And no less fun for that. The game should be appearing at retail about now...

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