|Accessibility Report||Meeple Like Us|
|Complexity||Medium Light [1.63]|
|BGG Rank||1421 [6.79]|
If you imagined someone took a copy of Kingdomino and bent its tiles around a twelve-sided die you’d be quite a lot of the way towards visualising the game Planet. This visually striking game is from many of the same people that brought us the stunning Photosynthesis. It’s clear that Blue Orange is making ‘table appeal’ a bit part of their pitch with the games they’ve been putting out recently. The good news here is that Planet is actually still a perfectly good game when you look beyond its clever central gimmick. That’s not always true – for some games, novelty is what they have instead of playability.
One of the terms I hate the most in the board gaming discourse is ‘gateway game’. It always seems dismissive – like you need your fun with the training wheels on. I understand what it’s trying to communicate though – something rules light but enjoyable that can be used as a way to lure people down the mechanistically darker paths where our favourite games lie. It’s a manipulative term, I’ve always felt. The board-game equivalent of the book of pathetic tricks employed by a pick-up artist. Even the term has a touch of negging about it, and you’ll often find it used in such a way. ‘Ticket to Ride is a great gateway game until you graduate onto something proper, kiddo’.
So, imagine how frustrating it is to write a review where you’re dying to say ‘This is an amazing gateway game’ but knowing you can’t ever say it. So pretend I did even though I clearly said I wouldn’t, and then we can move on with our lives with our relative integrities intact.
The thing that drives the experience here is the magnetically charged core of the planets that you and your fellow players will be working with over the course of the game’s twelve rounds. Each of the faces of this dodecahedron has a magnet in the centre, and to each of those you will attach a pentagonal continent consisting of segments of different geographical classification. Oceans, ice, grasslands… you know the drill. Every turn of the game each player will select from a slim menu of options, and nestle it into the optimal place on the core before them. This they will do with their mind constantly on the fact they are especially rewarded for doubling down on the specific kind of territory that was secretly dealt to them at the start of play.
By the end of the game you will hold in your hand a completed planetoid, rich of ecosystem, that you built with your own two little hands. It’ll never be exactly what you wanted, but it’ll be home. Your own little cosmic fixer-upper.
You’ll be doing this with the intention of creating the circumstances under which particular kinds of life can thrive. Arrayed in front of you is an entire tree of life that unlocks as the game goes on – a David Attenborough DVD full of exotic creatures. Each animal has a particular kind of habitat that it is seeking, but they fall into three broad categories. Some creatures like large, connected regions of one kind that touch another kind. Large deserts by an ocean. Huge grasslands by the arctic. That kind of thing. Other creatures are fussier and are looking for large, connected regions that don’t touch another kind. ‘I want lots of ice, but if it’s anywhere near a desert I swear I will flip out’.
Building large, connected regions then is key to attracting lots of animals, but the bigger those regions are the more likely they will touch on territory that is anathema to one or more species. It’s a challenge, and the fact that you’re stuck with the tiles once you place them makes it more challenging still. There is no continental drift on your little world.
It’s a challenge made even more intense by the third kind of animal – those that are looking for lots of disconnected regions of a particular type. ‘Hey, we want grassland’, says the pandas, ‘But we don’t want to live next to each other so make sure there’s no way the in-laws can drop in unexpectedly’.
Life only emerges from the third round onwards, and the number of species evolving gradually accelerates so that you’re competing over increasingly large number of cards with each tile you place. Each card goes to a single player, and only the player that best satisfies the criteria. Sure, you might have an arctic region comprising of ten ice segments but you’re not getting those penguins because you didn’t connect it to an ocean. Instead, those penguins begin co-habiting with the player with a single arctic wedge next to an endless and empty sea. Sucks to be you.
The scoring in the end of the game is based partially on the kind of planet you were encouraged to build, the number of animals of that kind that you recruited, and the number of animals of different kinds that you managed to draw to your inhospitable wastelands. You get more points for the latter because the deck was slanted against you from the start.
It’s light, breezy fun made very tactile and absorbing by the fact you’re holding a nascent world in your hands like some kind of geeky god at the table. It’s vaguely mesmerising to rotate it around, looking at its contours and admiring the pretty geography you have created. The game forces you towards particularly gamified arrangements of the landscape but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for you to focus on a pleasing unity and flow of the continental shelves of your personal Eden. Even at the cut-throat knife-edge of competition, you can aim for a kind of harmonious beauty.
And it’s in that tactility that you find the reason why this is such a wonderful game for non-gamers. Photosynthesis had this same feature – it looked bloody lovely. In that case though that visual appeal was coupled to a game that was actually surprisingly complex and mean-spirited. The first experience some people have with Photosynthesis is one of surprise – that something so pleasing could have so many sharp edges.
Planet doesn’t have that – instead it’s fun to touch in every way. The mechanisms are simple and easily understood, although we’ll have more to say on that in a little bit. The gameplay is involving even if you’re not particularly invested in winning. Players can get a long way towards a competitive score by focusing on building their planet in alignment with their dominant habitat. You’re bound to pick up a few rogue species here and there even if you’re not explicitly constructing your world with them in mind. As long as you aren’t working massively outside the way the game is asking you to lean, you’ll manage to accomplish something of value at the end of the game.
And that’s great for a game like this because anyone that sees it is likely to want a go, and the last thing you want in that scenario is for them to cut their fingers on the design. Planet is safer to grasp than Photosynthesis because its branches aren’t quite so splintery and thick with thorns.
This is also a game that suffers from its own presentational innovation. The thing about having a twelve-sided orb in your hand is that there isn’t really a start and an end to it. For most people the shape is sufficiently unusual that there’s no real intuitive sense of how long it takes to navigate its sides. As such, when you’re checking to see if you have enough separate regions to claim an animal, it becomes as much a job of partitioning fingertips as it does an exercise in counting. It’s difficult, even with only twelve sides, to make sure you add everything correctly. The ‘wrap around’ nature of the hexes too makes it surprisingly awkward to tell when regions do, or do not, connect with other regions. The landscape can twist and turn in awkward ways. Simply arriving at an accurate count for any of the scoring is something that occasionally requires a corroboratory audit from someone else at the table.
We’ll talk more about this issue in the teardown, but spatial awareness is a factor in how much fun the game will be – and if you’re playing to win you’ll need to be able to apply it to a world held by an opponent, perhaps at alien orientations on a turn by turn basis.
The thing with a flat board is that it has a fixed reference point, and you know when it starts and where it ends. The first time I ever looked through a proper telescope I found everything I saw at was upside down. ‘Is it broken?’, I asked. ‘No, it’s for looking at stars and planets. Upside down doesn’t have any meaning in space’. It’s surprising how these fixed conceptions of ‘the right way up’ can influence our understanding of the relationships between things.
That’s important here. If it’s difficult to follow the logic of your own world, it can be positively impossible to understand how that of an opponent fits together. An idle spin of the core can make up into down, left into right, and aggressively situate the poles at right angles to what you expected. You’ll probably get an idea of what terrains another player will favour, but good luck trying to tell – within a reasonable period of time – whether you should be competing with them for a particular card on the table. That makes for a game that has a curious blend of competition intertwined with a deeply solitary awareness of the game state. It’s all open, but it takes a special kind of mind to be able to do much productive analysis of the information everyone can see.
The result is a game where your understanding of the probabilities is only ever half-formed and unreliable. You might think you have a particular ocean species sewn up only to find someone else had connected two disparate seas into a massive waterscape that makes yours seem like a puddle in comparison. You could see it coming if you were permitted to examine everyone’s planet in forensic detail before they made a move. Short of that you’re only ever going to be partially aware of why things happen. That’s not something baked into the design but just a consequence of the distinctive way in which player planetary cores are presented. It’s just not an instantly intuitive way to present information and that has an effect on how strategic people are going to be able to be.
But for all of that, Planet is a very friendly and likeable game and I found it very endearing. Sure, it may not be something that ‘win at all costs’ types may find very satisfying. It has though a certain egalitarianism in its design that ensures everyone can have fun regardless of the extent to which they grok the systems. It’s not a particularly innovative game beyond the way it’s presented, but it manages to find a literal new angle on a familiar formula and it turns out that’s enough to be compelling.