Dale Yu: Review of Solar Sphere

Solar Sphere

  • Designers: Simon Milburn, Ayden Lowther
  • Publisher: Dranda Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Age: 13+
  • Time: 60-120 minutes
  • Played with review copy provided by Dranda Games

“The human race has exhausted all the energy available on planet Earth. If they are to advance into an intergalactic civilization they must harness the power of a solar system. They must build a dyson sphere.  Solar Sphere is a dice placement/manipulation game with elements of engine building, resource management, and set collection. Set hundreds of years in the future in a time when competition will move mankind forward, but when collaboration is also sometimes necessary. In Solar Sphere, each player commands a mothership. Their primary task is to build a dyson sphere. But, with crew to hire and aliens attacking the sphere, there are many other ways to earn prestige and become the savior of mankind… As the game progresses, more aliens will arrive to defend a sun that they also need. Fight them off alone, or join forces with other players and share the rewards. However, if no one takes on the rebellious aliens, then you all lose points. Solar Sphere combines a combination of mechanisms with a powerful theme to bring players an immersive experience.”

To set up the game, construct the Solar Sphere in the center of the table with the core hex and 18 hexes and frame around it.  Place the 8 Location cards around the sphere.  One of the four possible sphere scoring cards is drawn at random and placed face up on the table.  Make a Resistance deck based on player count; the strengths of the cards will change, but there will always be 12 cards in this deck.  A crew display is made up, 2 cards from Tier I, II and III are made available.  

Each player gets a command center board, dice, drones and markers in their color.  Reputation and morale are marked near the top of the board.  You start with 6 active drones in the big blue box at the bottom and 2 additional inactive drones in the red box next to that.  To the left of the red box is a 3×3 grid where you can place decommissioned drones to gain more dice.  The center of this board shows the six docking ports where you will later store your dice. You also get a smaller faction board where you place your four faction markers on the 0 space.

The game will be played in a series of rounds, each having 4 phases: Dock, Deploy, Battle, Recover. The game ends either at the end of the sixth round or earlier, at the end of the round when the Solar Sphere is completely built.

1] Dock – Everyone rolls their 3 ship dice and places them on their docking ports, with matching results being stacked on the same dock (the one matching the number on the die).  Turn order is set up with the highest sum of dice going first and so on.  Now take the morale bonus for each dock occupied using the chart beneath each dock. Advance your morale marker accordingly.  If you are maxed out, take VPs for the excess morale.

2] Deploy – In turn order, players may take kickback(s) and then they must deploy a ship to a location.  If they want kickback(s), they move their morale marker backwards – for each wrench icon they encounter on their way back, they get 1 kickback if the wrench is in front of their reputation marker and 2 kickbacks if tied or behind their reputation marker.  Each kickback allows you to take a wild resource, make a drone or salvage 2 drones (move it from the red area to the blue).  Now, pick a die and move it to a Location card where it can legally be played; you may exhaust a drone to change the value by 1, and you must exhaust a drone if you visit a Location with other dice present.  (When you exhaust a drone, move it from the blue area to the red).  Now, you can either place a satellite drone on that card (max 1 per player) or you can take the action of the card.  If you already have a satellite drone in place, you will get a boosted action.  Examples of the actions (with boosts):

  • Drone Fabricator – Make 2(+1) drones
  • Salvage ship – Salvage drones up to your die (up to 6)
  • Solar Sphere – Build a viable hex with with a value up to your die number (up to 6) – pay the resource cost, gain benefits at the bottom, give morale to adjacent build hex owners
  • Crew Station – Hire a crew member (and gain a resource) – choose a crew card, possibly gain morale and VP, you can have up to 3 crew cards, each has unique special abilities.
  • Resistance Fleet – Attack any number of resistance ships by placing one of your drones on a card (and salvage 2 drones) 

3] Battle – For each Resistance ship, resolve the battle. The player with the most drones is the Commander, and he rolls a die and adds it to the Resistance value on the card.  If the total number of drones of all players is equal or greater to the Resistance Value, the attack succeeds and rewards (VP and morale) are given in order as on the left of the card.  The commander takes the Resistance ship card.  If the attack fails in the top row, a corporation (neutral) drone is added to the card, all player drones remain on it, and this card will be fought over again in the next round on the bottom row.  If the attack fails on the bottom row, all players lose 1 morale, but the Commander still takes the cards and possible Reputation.  

4] Recover – all players take back their dice, add 2 resistance ships to the fight, and untap any used crew cards.  All crew cards now age by getting 1 morale token added to it; and crew card that already has 2 on it is discarded.

The game continues until the end of the sixth round or the round where the solar sphere is complete.  Players then score endgame points:

  • Score sphere tiles based on the Sphere scoring card
  • Factions – count up your faction icons on crew cards, resistance ship cards and sphere hexes; score 5VP per complete set of 3
  • Score reputation and morale tracks based on current position
  • Score ½ pt for drones and resources leftover

The player with the most points wins. Ties are broken in favor of the player with the higher reputation at the end of the game.

My thoughts on the game

Solar Sphere was a game that I had not heard about prior to SPIEL 2022, but I was immediately interested in the game when I saw it on display at the Dranda stand.  I was actually there to talk about Pioneer Rails, but as it turns out, this one caught my eye and I ended up taking a full demo of it as well.

Solar Sphere is an intricate dice placement game which has a couple of novel ways to make the low values be interesting.  First, you get increased morale bonuses for low numbers, and greater morale for multiple low numbers…  These can be used to trigger kickbacks, which seem to even things out.  Additionally, a low die is a perfect opportunity to set out a drone onto an action space which will then pay itself back over the rest of the game with a boosted action (in fact, making future low numbers much more powerful).

There are a lot of choices to make each round, and it is important to remember that you only have 6 turns at most in the game!  You need to make the most out of each die placement, and definitely don’t be afraid to use your kickbacks to allow you to maximize an action. Sure, you’ll score some points at the end of the game for unused kickbacks (based on the location of your morale marker), but I’d say that you’ll likely score more points by taking a full action on your turn using up some of those morale spaces if necessary.

I was a little surprised in my first game at how scarce the resources can be; and it definitely makes me consider throwing out a drone on one of the production planets early on (assuming I have a die roll that it makes sense for…) – there are plenty of ways to get resources, but figuring out how to minimize the number of actions spent on simply gaining resources is a pretty big part of the puzzle for me. 

The Sphere scoring card is central to how to approach the game, and I have found that it’s hard to succeed without getting a few hexes into the Solar Sphere – however, the actual number necessary might depend on the scoring card in effect.  With at least one of the cards, the scoring is so good that it’s hard not to try to build the hexes – and in that game, we ended at the end of the fifth round!

The Resistance ship attacks are a weird semi-cooperative affair – oftentimes one player will invest a lot of drones in a fight to make sure they are the Commander; but when this happens, this will often entice other player(s) to join in with a single drone as the second and third place bonuses aren’t too bad if the contribution is small enough…  As all players in the game lose Morale when a ship is not defeated; there is also a bit of peer pressure to help make sure that there is enough fighting force on a Resistance card.  Turn order is pretty important here, and oftentimes, the player who is last in player order on a turn can make a small contribution that pays off well – whether VPs for second place or maybe a Resistance card on a failed 2nd wave attack….  

Thus far, most of our games have not had a lot of competition for the Resistance ships.  Usually one player makes a move, either a large one to ensure being the commander or maybe placing a single cube on it, trying to get someone else to finish off the card (but then scoring nice second place points).  As there are so few actions in the game’s six rounds; it is not common for a player to spend two actions placing cubes on the same Resistance ship card – at least not in the games that I’ve been involved in.  

The artwork is pretty great, and I like both the format of the cards as well as the art.  I should also mention that Dranda has done a bang-up job of fitting all of the pieces to this complex game into as small a box as possible.  This game could have easily been sold in a larger box (think Stone Age, or even Carcassonne), but instead, everything is nicely packed into a very small box; and as a gamer with a fixed amount of storage space, this efficiency is definitely applauded.

Solar Sphere delivers a tight and complex game in a small space – both timewise and volume wise.  It may take a game or two to learn the flow of the game and how to value the action options, and I think it’s definitely worth it to give it a try.  This one has currently found a home in my moderately crunchy Kallax column, and I am definitely looking forward to a few more plays of it in the coming months.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers

Dan B. (1 play): It works well enough but it just didn’t grab me. 

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y
  • Neutral. Dan B.
  • 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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