Dale Yu: Review of The Search for Planet X

The Search for Planet X

  • Designers: Ben Rosset, Matthew O’Malley
  • Publisher: Renegade Game Studios / Foxtrot Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Age: 13+
  • Time: about an hour
  • Times played: 7 so far with review copy provided by Renegade Game Studios

The Search for Planet X was touted as the next great logic/deduction game.  As the story goes: “At the edge of our solar system, a dark planet may lurk. In 2015, astronomers estimated a large distant planet could explain the unique orbits of dwarf planets and other objects. Since then, astronomers have been scanning the sky, hoping to find this planet. In The Search for Planet X, players take on the role of astronomers who use observations and logical deductions to search for this hypothetical planet. Each game, the companion app randomly selects an arrangement of objects and a location for Planet X following predefined logic rules.”

To be clear, there is a standard and advanced game in the box, and for the most part we have played the advanced game, and that is what I will explain here.  In the game, each player gets a solution sheet which shows the eighteen sectors of the universe (twelve sectors in the standard game).  One of these sectors will harbor the elusive Planet X, and each of the remaining sectors will each have at most one thing (comets, gas clouds, dwarf planets, asteroids) or be simply empty.   To complicate matters, the sector which Planet X is in will appear empty to most of your tools, so you’ll have to deduce its existence by applying the other rules of the game.

The board shows the 18 sectors in a circle, and there is a central sun dial which shows you which 9 sectors are currently visible (you can see the small numbers for the visible zones around the edge of this central dial).  There is a turn order track that is at the exterior of each segment.  Pawns always move clockwise, and the pawn which is further back on the time track is the next active player.  The central area of each of the 18 wedges is a 4 space track for peer review – where the players will put forth their theories as to what is in that particular segment of the universe.  Finally, there is an icon in the center of each side of the board.  

Players should sit so that they are right in front of one of the symbols; this is important for game setup.  It is also helpful to get the score sheet which matches your symbol.  If you match, the board on your sheet will cleverly be in the same orientation as what you see on the table in front of you.  This will make it easier for you to take notes in the appropriate spaces and to more clearly see things. In addition to the note sheet, each player gets a screen with which to hide their notes.  They also get a set of 12 theory tokens and 2 target tokens.

When you start the game, there are a few base rules which are always in effect:

  • Comets:  There are 2 comets total, and they must each be found in a sector whose number is prime
  • Asteroids: There are 4 asteroids total, and every asteroid is adjacent to at least one other asteroid
  • Gas Clouds: There are 2 Gas Clouds and each is adjacent to at least one truly empty sector
  • Dwarf Planets: There are 4 Dwarf Planets and they are found in a band of exactly six sectors, with a dwarf planet at both ends.
  • Truly Empty Sectors: There are 5 truly empty sectors in the game
  • Planet X: There is only one and it may not be adjacent to a dwarf planet.

There will also be a few rules each game which are made up by the app , and you will have the opportunity to learn some of these rules along the way as well.  But, before we get there, now is a good time to talk about the app.  Unlike many deduction games, all of the answers in this game come from a smartphone app.   While this takes out some of the person-to-person interaction in the game, this system does have the advantage of also taking out the possibility of human error in answering – and anyone with experience with deduction games has surely had the experience of a game being ruined by a faulty answer early in the game which then screwed up everyone’s deductions going forward…. Of course, the app still doesn’t rule out error on the operator putting in the query; but it’s about as failsafe a system as you’re going to find.

So, in order to play the game, you’ll need at least one smartphone or tablet.  Ideally, each player will have their own.  One player starts the game, and there will be a code which can be shared to all other players.  Each player can then look in the app, input their player icon, and they will be given a set of starting information that they can input on their sheet.  There are varying levels of information which can be given; and this is also a nice way to handicap players in the game – as less skilled players like myself can take the larger set of Beginner hints while James Nathan and Craig should have to take the Experienced or Genius set of hints… After this, the app really doesn’t care about turn order or anything else, it will simply answer the questions as they are posed.

The player pawns are placed in random order in the first sector to start the game, and whichever pawn is the furthest to the back gets to go first.  On a turn, the active player will take one of the four possible actions, resolve the action, move his pawn forward the designated number of sectors based on the action, and then you see if there is a conference or theory phase.

So what are the possible actions?

  • Survey for an object.  You ask the app about a specific object (comet, asteroid, gas cloud, dwarf planet, empty sectors) in a specific range of sectors.  For example, I want to know how many sectors have dwarf planets in sectors 2 to 7.  The app will then show you how many objects are in that chosen range, and you can mark this down on your sheet.  The other players will know what your query was, but not the result. A survey of 1-3 sectors costs 4 hours, 4-6 sectors costs 3 hours, and 7-9 sectors costs 2 hours.
  • Target a sector – you can only do this twice in the game, so when you do this, you must turn in one of your target chits.  Pick a sector, plug it into the app and it will tell you what it sees there.  Note that it will see the Planet X sector as empty.  Your opponents will know which sector you targeted but not what you found there.  It costs 4 hours to target a sector.
  • Research a Topic – There are six different topics that you can research (A to F), and the title of each will tell you what objects you will learn something about.  Choose one of the topics and the app will tell you a logic rule that is in place for this particular game.  There is an area on your sheet where you can mark down this information.  It costs 1 hour to Research a topic; and you should remember that you cannot research two turns in a row.
  • Locate Planet X.  If you think you know where Planet X is, you take this action, and input the sector into the app.  To make sure that you really know what you’re talking about, the app also requires you to know what is in the sector to the left and right of Planet X as well.  It costs 5 hours to take this action.  If you are right, the end game is triggered.  If you are wrong, the game continues.  Either way, your opponents do not know in what sector you looked in.

After your turn, you move your pawn forward a number of spaces as determined by your action.  If you end your movement in a sector with another pawn it it, place your pawn in front of theirs (that means they will go before you…).   Then check to see if the central board rotates, the first visible sector should always match up with the pawn last in line.  Thus, as players take actions and move around the board, the area of sky which is visible to the players will also shift forward.  This is important because you can only survey or target sectors which are currently visible…

If you look at the sector numbers around the central board, you’ll see that there are a few icons on the track there. As the arrow passes either a conference icon or a theory icon, pause the game to do those things

Conference – in each of the two conferences, you will learn a logic rule about Planet X (which is valid for this particular game).  All players will learn this at the same time and will learn the same information.  Note that there are only two conferences per game.  If you are still playing when you come across a third conference icon, you can ignore it.

Theory – All players secretly and simultaneously take up to 2 theory tokens into their hand; when all have selected, these theories are placed face down on the outermost square of the theory track on chosen sectors on the board.  By placing a theory token down, you are making a guess as to what object is found in that particular section of the universe.  All players that place tokens will put them in the outermost square; it’s OK if there is more than one.  Then, all theories are moved down one space on the track, and if any theories make it to the end space, there is a peer review.  That particular token is flipped over so all can see, and any player can plug this into the app to see whether the theory is correct or not.   If it is correct, all players will know what is in that sector of the board.  Flip over all other tokens in this wedge, leaving correct markers in their place, and discarding any incorrect ones.  For each incorrect guess, the owner of that guess must move ahead one hour on the track as a penalty.  If the peer review token is incorrect, that player must take the one hour penalty on the time track, but all other tokens in this wedge remain facedown.  They will continue down the track with each successive theory phase and will be revealed in due time.

Again, the endgame is triggered when a player successfully locates Planet X. All players who are behind the Planet X finding player get one more endgame action – they can either submit additional theories (one theory if they are 1-3 sectors behind the Planet X finder’s token or two theories if they are 4-5 sectors behind) OR they can take their own attempt to locate Planet X. 

After that happens, you can click the “Reveal Objects” action in the app which will show the locations of all the objects.  Flip over any remaining theory tokens and remove all the incorrect ones.  Leave all the correct ones face up in their current positions.  Now, the final scores are calculated – there is an area for this on the note sheet.

  • Theory Leader Bonuses – score 1 point for each correct theory which you made first (that is, it is located on the final space of the theory track on the board)
  • Asteroid Theory – score 2 points for each correct Asteroid theory token on the board
  • Comet Theory – score 3 points for each correct Comet theory token on the board
  • Gas Cloud Theory – score 4 points for each correct Gas Cloud theory token on the board
  • Dwarf Planet Theory – score 4 points for each correct Dwarf Planet theory token on the board
  • Planet X – score 10 points if you were the first to find Planet X.  If you were not the first, score 2-10 points for finding it, your score will be based on how many spaces you are behind on the turn order track from the player who first discovered it.

The player with the most points is the winner, ties broken in favor of most points scored by finding Planet X.

My thoughts on the game

Well, first and foremost, I guess I want to talk about whether this is even a boardgame or not.  By some definition, it is.  The box looks like a boardgame, and there is a nice linen finish board that is put on the table between the players, and there are some nice chits that look like they belong to a game.  But… the meat of the game is in the app.  In fact, it’s impossible to play the game without the app.   This has led some of the gamers that I have played with to think that this is really a phone game that happens to have a few physical pieces.  To be honest, I am not overly caught up in the semantics of it – it’s a great logic puzzle that needs both sets of bits to work well, and in the end, I’ve enjoyed all my games of it, and that’s probably what matters in the end.

I love the fact that the app makes the error possibility very low.  That is usually my hangup with deduction games, and part of the reason why I shy away from Black Vienna, Deduce or Die, etc – because I’ve been in too many two-hour-long games that were essentially ruined from a bad answer early on in the game, and that really leaves a bad taste in the mouth.  In The Search for Planet X – the app will always tell you the right answer.  Now, sure, there are plenty of incorrect deductions that can be made with that information, but those errors should be self-inflicted.  I’m on the fence about the lower player interaction, but in the end, it’s worth it to not have to worry about incorrect information being given to me.

Each game provides you a different puzzle as the locations of the objects change each time – but in the end, it’s the same type of puzzle.  This is not a bad thing – people buy books of 1,000 sudokus, and each of those puzzles is of the same style yet with an individual answer.  However, it does mean that if someone is better at the type of puzzle (say his name is Craig or James Nathan), he’ll consistently kick my butt at the game because he’ll always end up one step ahead of me due to his advanced deductive skills over mine.  Whether it’s finding Planet X or finding and delivering Pizza, that advantage is always there.  The game does allow a nice handicapping solution as you can get differing amounts of information at the start of the game, and once you know who is better at the game than others, they can elect to start with reduced information at the start to level things out.

The app is really well done, and it really seems to be idiot proof.  As I mentioned earlier, it’s agnostic to turn order or player identity.  It is just a box that answers whatever query is posted to it.  The interface is easy to follow, and it gives helpful reminders about moving your pawn forward the appropriate number of steps after each action taken.  There are also a nice set of sounds built into the app so that other players can get audio feedback (knowing that a question was answered, or knowing if a peer review is correct) without actually having to see the screen.  The audio feedback also prevents a player from taking extra turns on their own phone – but really, if you have to worry about that, maybe you shouldn’t be playing games with that type of person!

The logic puzzle is pretty challenging (at least for me), but not impossible.  I really like the way that the theory tokens help to provide continued information as the game progresses.  As players guess, you will learn bits and pieces to help you solve the overall puzzle.  You could play it safe and wait until you have collected the right information to confirm answers, or you can go out on a limb and make educated guesses slightly earlier – as this will help you get those 1 point bonuses for being the first to correctly guess in a sector.  The one hour penalty is enough to prevent you from guessing willy nilly, but there is a nice risk/reward balance here.

How you go about solving the puzzle is up to you, and there are a lot of different ways.  Some players like to get all of the research rules as soon as possible to help them, and I’ve seen other players take a target action in the first turn to get a fixed piece of knowledge right off the bat (and this will probably also lead to an early first place theory as well…).  The note sheet allows you to mark down the questions that other players have asked, and I guess you might be able to glean some information based on the patterns in those questions, but I have yet to figure out how to do that.  The only purpose I can see of it is to make sure that none of your opponents mistakenly takes the research action twice in a row.

As I said, the game is challenging, and I like the fact that you do not have to be the first person to find Planet X to win (though it definitely helps).  In fact, I have seen a game where a player managed to win the game though a good superiority in theories, and it’s a sign of a good game that this can happen – because otherwise, why even bother with a scoring system… just make the winner be the first person to find Planet X!

I have played this game 7 times so far, most in person, a few solo and once online using a homemade board on playingcards.io.  In all settings, it has been an enjoyable experience and a challenging logic puzzle.  This is definitely a game that I will keep in my collection, and for now, probably the best deduction game that I have. The length of the game suits me (around an hour) and I really like the infallibility of the app.  I’m generally not one for games that involve apps, but for every rule, there’s an exception, and the Search for Planet X is one of my exceptions!

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it! Dale Y
  • I like it. Lorna, John P
  • Neutral.
  • Not for me…

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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1 Response to Dale Yu: Review of The Search for Planet X

  1. Valerie Matthews says:

    We have played it 4 times now. I love it, I would say hubby likes it. (He most enjoyed the first game, when he won.)

    While I love the option for handicapping, this ability for varying levels of starting information also provides an opportunity for slowly increasing the difficulty for all players. I’m a firm believer in starting with a beginner level, when provided. For one thing, I think it extends the replay value of the game! So in our four games, we both started with less information with each subsequent game. This has kept the playing time at a nice 45 – 60 minutes since our familiarity and skill progressed hand-in-hand with the increasing difficulty level.

    I haven’t played many app based games, but if choosing between Planet X and Alchemist (my other most played app based game), I would prefer to play Planet X. I think both games benefit from taking risky guesses early. You increase your points for reasonable risk *and* I think, more importantly, if you build a reputation for it, you reduce the likelihood that other players use your actions as reliable information. I think one of the things that frustrated me about Alchemist is that the game always ended long before the entire puzzle was solved. In Planet X (at our current level, anyway), the winner, at least, has known the contents of every sector. But we haven’t even started on the advanced side of the board yet (which has more sectors)!

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