Review: Solar Settlers23 Apr 2019 1
Review: Solar Settlers
Released 06 Apr 2019
Solar Settlers is an extremely well-built machine, a solitaire optimization puzzle par excellence. To prove the suitability of an ever-changing set of planets, colonists (‘the player’) will explore, mine and terraform (or aquaform, or geoform) said planets until they are settled and this pocket of space thoroughly domesticated. This project must happen in a set number of turns, and in general the game becomes a question of building an engine to get those enterprising folks into their new homes. Then the engine is actually, to fine-tune the metaphor, rather like a multi-stage rocket, with each step having its micro-objectives, trajectory and fuel requirements. Oh, and it plays in about twenty minutes, full of crunchy decisions and easily-crunched small numbers. It’s a grand game to fit in your pocket.
It is clever, in a way that greatly recalls the creator’s previous game, Minos Strategos. But whereas the latter’s elaborate card formations and position requirements meant always settling for sub-ideal (but still technically ‘optimal’) choices, Solar Settlers has a much more finely-tuned mechanical foundation. The system of planets is represented by a series of cards, with the homeworld dead center. Every game starts with one homeworld, three citizens and an open field of possibilities. Move to an adjacent card and explore a nearby one. This takes hydrogen. At the end of the turn, any unsettled citizen will need one unit of oxygen to live.
Upgrades and a few other effects often require metal, which is comparatively rarer than other resources but also very effective in its niche. Cards can be discarded for resources but are generally more useful for planning upgrades to planets. Some upgrades produce resources each turn, others offer enhanced movement or just settlements. Oh, and there’s a ‘military’ resource as well, but this is only used as a skill-check on exploring the outer edges of the gameboard. The center is cozy and easy to rapidly develop, but the outer fringes will need military presence to keep them defensible from threats (that’s the thematic explanation, anyways).
You need to be ambitious ramping up the workforce and exploration early, but then there’s a turn towards sustainability. Workers generate resources by activating planets but also require oxygen to live and fuel to get into a useful position. Not to mention the game’s central twist: to win you must remove workers from the board by settling them. So there’s a natural production curve, but its inflection points are particularly interesting, especially for a game this short. Do I double-down on metal this turn and stockpile it for later, or do I explore that top tile in hopes it’ll be a gas giant I can instantly upgrade into a cloning chamber for free bodies? The layout makes it almost like a city-planning game, with efficient pathing and build order rubbing up against the imperfect circumstances of random draws and uncertain tile discovery.
It is vast. There are so so many cards and mechanics to unlock through a persistent experience system. And there a seven total races, each with unique starting planets and bonus goal cards which radically change game strategy. There’s an insect species which benefits from stacking upgrade over upgrade to create huge nesting spires and a reptile species which gets extra oxygen and other bonuses from exploring with the rare mechanic of ‘de-exploring’ tiles.
The others I still haven’t unlocked yet, unfortunately, but it seems like they’ll only get weirder and even potentially harder to use from there. The baseline vanilla Humans are kinda like training wheels in that regard. The game’s variety of cards and species gives it huge replayability, but the payout curve for experience per play is a little stingy. It would take thirty hours or more of play to unlock everything, which is a little excessive for a game without a campaign, just a variety of very good standard single player modes. On the flip side, the unlocks are all distinctive and rewarding, easily memorized which is essential for a game like this. Just like a stage magician has their favorite deck of cards to manipulate for legerdemain, the player will have certain combos or cards (planets) they know like the back of their hand.
It is scalable. With every victory, the difficulty ranks up, which means more people have to be settled in less time. Just as each game has a production curve, the game overall has a slow-paced learning curve, wherein new techniques or tools are slowly doled out and incorporated into the player’s repertoire. With early levels, mistakes or misunderstandings won’t ruin a player’s chance of victory, but starting around level ten and upwards, the margin for error shrinks significantly. As a solitaire-style game Solar Settlers has introduced elements of uncertainty and randomness to keep players on their toes. What this means in practice is while a certain combo is mouth-wateringly efficient, the opportunity to implement it might not be practical in a given game depending on the randomized layout and card draws, so the best choice in a given moment is always slightly different.
This player likes to be a stick in the mud, though, having found tried and true approaches and more or less sticking with what I’ve decided is my bread and butter. A brief spurt of early exploration and card draws to create some bonus production, then using the same few cards for endgame settling. Rather than purely incentivizing variety, the game simply makes repetition sub-optimal to force versatility at higher levels of play. In multiplayer worker placement games like Agricola, players are forced into sup-optimal choices later because of direct competition for slots; here, imperfect knowledge means making calculated gambles between the ideal and the provisional. I usually dig these kind of trade-offs immensely, but here it’s a little grating. Maybe if I had newer cards faster I’d be more eager to experiment and risk failing, but because I know I need to have perfect wins over and over to see the ‘full’ game, I’d rather play it safe to shave off hours from my personal quest to unlock everything the game has to offer.
When my mind kicks into gear with an optimization puzzle, sometimes it feels less like a concerted effort of higher brain functions and more like a lizard brain reacting based on highly patterned stimuli by merely regurgitating what I know works. Seek red planet early, park one worker on it. A bunch of small heuristics my mind invisibly constructs and then uses to make playing Solar Settlers a smooth flowing experience, the kind that gives real pleasure and steals away hours without much notice. It’s been given consistent support and updates since its release with no sign of stopping, and is a great game to have on rotation. Don’t be a completionist or perfectionist and you’ll enjoy Solar Settlers a great deal.