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Review – Planetarium

Review – Planetarium

This is a review of Planetarium designed by Stéphane Vachon. It plays 1- 4 players. Realistcally, I’d estimate the playtime at 30 to 45 minutes.

Full disclosure – I knew NOTHING about this game when I bought it. Planetarium caught my eye mere minutes before checkout and I tossed it in my cart on a whim, so basically, everything about the game was a surprise to me…

Planetarium is largely a game of abstract/grid movement. The board, a solar system, is dotted with four types of matter (water, rocks, puffy bits, and brown boys) that are used to evolve a planet over time. On a turn, the active player either revolves a matter token or a planet by a single space and always clockwise. When matter collides with a planet (as it usually does), the player takes that token and places it in their supply on the planet that absorbed said token.

Do this enough times and you’ll build up the requisite matter to pay the cost on the evolution cards in your hand. The cards don’t do much to change the state of the planet beyond thematics, however. There is a “habitable” and “hostile” token, which factors into the endgame, but players aren’t restricted from playing certain cards on certain planets – it’s largely a vehicle for hand management and perpetual point grab. These cards will mainly be “low” and “high” evolution cards, with the high cards requiring more matter, but paying off bigger dividends.

Matter tokens are made of thick stock, but I do wish they had been doubled sided. This adds a bit of time to setup, but not much.

As players empty the solar system of matter, the time track signally game’s end fills up, so players won’t spend turn after turn revolving around the board. As the time ticks off, the rotation will eventually accelerate and players can move matter two spaces instead of the normal one. This is a clever way to speed up the final turns of the game, as desirable matter and planets are spread farther apart by this time.

The final stage of the game allows players to play out as many Final Evolution cards as they are able to, and these are basically end game bonuses for having met certain conditions. Examples being a card played on a planet in a certain orbital ring, a planet’s habitability, but most importantly that you have worked to develop that planet in some capacity during the game. That’s right, if you ignore one of the four planets throughout the game, you won’t be able to cash in on those sweet, sweet bennies.

Count up your battery of points from the final round cards and the winner, most predictably, is the player with the highest score.

The grid movement aspect of Planetarium was a unique treat. At first glance, this element might seem tedious and cumbersome, but it is really quite fast and very pleasant. You have options and are rarely at a loss for possible paths.

The “timer” element of the game gives players a fair and rounded sense of how things are progressing. This is essential, as the timing on dumping lower level cards for Final Evolution cards is crucial.

Surprise! It’s space!

Planetarium focuses on the evolution of four planets as they revolve around the solar system. Planets scoop up matter to grow up big and strong, and the points go to the players that catalyze these evolutions. The unique angle for Planetarium, I feel, is the ease with which it integrates the debatable dryness of the science behind the game.

That is to say, if one wants to avoid “learnin’ stuff”, simply don’t read the cards. Pushing tokens and slapping out upgrades will be the selling point for some, while flavor text like “a geologically diverse world with nitrogen glaciers and a probable subsurface ocean” will really get the rocks off for others. Moon rocks!

While I found it personally attractive, the slim glossy box and minimalist art don’t LOOK much like a board game…

There’s enough of this theme to get space-geeks excited, but not so much that it would turn off those less inclined towards that. There is quiet grace and elegance in the theme of Planetarium.

I’m divided here because the uniqueness of the art was one main selling point for me, but could easily detract others. Let me explain…

As I mentioned, I bought this totally on a whim. This designer was totally unheard of to me, I knew nothing about the gameplay, I based the purchase purely on looks. I appreciate that Planetarium looks different from other games – the box is glossy, the art is minimalist, there really is understated dignity in the execution.

However, this is the exact thing that could prevent someone from picking this up on a shelf. Planetarium looks more like an educational toy or a box set anthology than it does a board game – but that’s simply a matter of personal expectations. I for one appreciate the aesthetic.

The card art is really neat, the symbology is slick and easy to decipher, and I can think of one other current, planet development board game that this beats the pants off of, strictly speaking about the artwork.

My one big complaint is that the matter tokens are not double sided. Unless I’ve missed something, this feels like it was a small corner to cut and makes setup a tad tedious as every single token needs to be upright. It’s s small complaint, but there it is.

(EDIT: Technically the rules tell you to place all tokens out face down, then flip them, hence not being double-sided. However, randomizing them and placing them out methodically worked fine for us. I just want to point out that this was actually intentionally by the publisher or designer.)

The iconography of the game is well executed, it’s easy to tell what is happening from a distance, and the important parts of the game are clearly labeled. We barely had to consult the rulebook after our first read.

Planetarium deserves great praise for its thoughtful pacing. This is a game that could so easily become tedious, but the designer has added in late-game matter acceleration and the use of a clever time track to keep things short. Play the game and you’ll understand what a relief this is. And I want to be clear, Planetarium is not a tedious or tiresome game – it is a game that knows exactly when it needs to end to keep you hungry for more.

We did encounter one endgame issue, although I feel it was not only a rare occurrence, but also a strategic point to be aware of. The situation was that one player (me) was in control of when the game ended because other players had their hands full of Final Evolution cards, in preparation for the end game. This created a situation where I was basically dragging my feet to get final points before letting the game end. Again, this could have been avoided by other players not cashing in all their low and high evolution cards, but at the cost of potential points. This feels a bit more likely to happen in a two player game, but it’s not a mistake we would expect to make often.

This game was modestly priced in the low $30s when I bought it and I think this is a totally fair value. As I mentioned above, the one thing I’d like to see improved would be double sided tokens. Otherwise, the components rock (moon rock!), the art is slick, and Planetarium is solid (as a rock?).

Planetarium is deceptively accessible, we found. While setting the game up was simple, it looks intimidating. Matter tokens are sneezed across the solar system and concentric circles feel overwhelming and laborious, but the actual gameplay is elegant and easy to grasp.

Point to point movement is a wonderful base mechanic in terms of accessibility, but there is always the risk of things being too simple. This is not the case in Planetarium and the mechanical focus of the game makes it easy to bring to the table.

Surprisingly, I would cite the short play time as the main factor bringing this back to our table. There’s not much to setup, not much to teach, and the game plays quite quickly when it kicks off. Planetarium pays big returns on gratifying fun for surprisingly little effort.

If I had to dream up an expansion for Planetarium, it would likely be based around evolution cards with more intricate conditions and effects. Currently, some cards can be downgraded for lower level cards, some let you grab matter from the board for free – more of that would be my guess, but it’s honestly not necessary. Planetarium is simple and satisfying as it is, and that’s one of its biggest strengths.

Final Thoughts
Planetarium was a very pleasant surprise. Fast paced, accessible, and deeply satisfying.

Inevitably, someone will think about how this compares to Terraforming Mars (you know someone’s gonna ask…), so I’ll clear it up here. It’s not similar at all beyond the theme. It’s mechanically so dissimilar that you can’t even fairly compare the two, so don’t bother. Thematically, this game will appeal to the same types of people that Terraforming Mars does, but comparisons stop right there.

My last thought is how this game plays with two players. In a two player game, we found ourselves more likely to focus on a single planet’s course and development, whereas in a game with higher player counts, there less control over this. Other players botch your plans, the time track ticks away very quickly, and you really have fewer opportunities to focus as hard as you might in a two player game. My one suggestion is that if you find this to be an issue, experiment with combining two planet spaces on your player board, for example, planets A and B combine with one another so that matter acquired by those planets could be used to develop either. We didn’t test this theory, but off the top of my head, it seemed like a potential variant for two players.