When I moved out of my parent’s house, I moved in with a guy I knew in college. Being mostly penniless I had to use a lot of tools and items that he already owned, including the can opener. The problem was his can opener didn’t work very well. When I told him this, he insisted that it DID work if I held it a certain way and turned the crank with a steady motion. And after some practice I found that he was right. The can opener worked when you learned how to deal with it’s little eccentricities. But a better solution would have just been to buy a new can opener. That’s how I feel about Exile Sun. It functions if you are willing to learn how to make it work, but it hardly seems worth the trouble.
I have no doubt that it will be worth the trouble for some people. A lot of people get a charge out of wrestling a game to the ground, and this one certainly puts up a good fight. The problem is that most of this fight is mechanical when it should be strategic. There is depth to explore, but the game is so over-designed that I find myself struggling with the basic act of playing it before I can begin to explore it. In my book that makes a game that means it fails the most basic test: it’s an enormous hassle.
Each player takes the role of a civilization seeking to colonize the solar system. You will move your ships around the board, build new ships, colonize planets, and develop technology in order to gain victory points. Mostly this is done through a combination of destroying a big ship in combat or fulfilling secret missions. On your turn, you will allocate movement points to different ships. The “terrain” of space will change how much you need to spend in a certain area. Your tokens represent squads of ships ranging from three to five, and if you land on another token you will initiate combat when the next combat round comes around. The combat itself is difficult to explain if you aren’t right at the table, but based on the ships that are in the combat you will receive a certain number of points to allocate to offense and defense for each ship. When both sides finish this arduous task, they compare how much damage each ship took versus how much defense they have, and they take the difference damage. Repeat as needed until one side is wiped out. Finally, there are also supply rounds, wherein players (you guessed it) allocate points to see who will take what “resupply” actions they want. This allows people to draw new cards, put new tokens on the board, and develop new ship technology for the fleet.
As you may have noticed, I used the words “allocate” and “points” a lot during that rundown. That’s because almost every process in Exile Sun revolves around dividing points between different possibilities. No doubt this provides strategic nuances that I cannot fathom, but from where I stand it makes for a lot of downtime. Most guilty was the combat, where we often had to divide over 30 points between anywhere from 6 to 10 different areas. Slow players will make this unbearable, and even the fastest player will be boggled at the possible combinations. The rules say that players should resolve combat simultaneously to speed it up, since players set up combat throughout their turns and then execute it during an established phase of the game. That’s fine in theory, but it’s small comfort for someone who is involved in two battles at once. No matter what people will be waiting around. It became so painful that I found myself willingly avoiding combat just so the whole thing would keep moving. And when you’re divvying up so many points among so many possibilities, the truth is that a totally random allocation would have proven about as effective for my weary mind. As one friend of mine put it, it felt like the longest die roll in the world.
The real bummer is that this combat system was the key selling point of the game, and it doesn’t have a lot else going for it. Oh there are plenty of other considerations, but most of them aren’t very unique or particularly inspired. The combat itself presents some interesting ideas, since it allows you to manage your ships with enormous specificity. But it drowns in an endless stream of action points, and it sucks out any enjoyment that could otherwise be had.
The physical production does the game no favors, although parts of it are handsome indeed. The art on the player cards in particular looks very flavorful. If only the rest of the game had been so lucky. One guy I played with saw the game at last year’s BGG.con before it made its way to Kickstarter, and he assured me that the published version looks very close to the prototype that he saw. The worst culprit is the control card, used for all your allocation needs. It utilizes little sliders to indicate what points go where, and it’s just awful. The sliders do not slide easily, which sucks because you use them all the time. We were eventually able to make them work, but it never stopped being a struggle and a headache.
Unintentionally the control cards end up being a horrible metaphor for the whole game. You can deal with everything the game throws at you, but it never runs smoothly. The mechanics work their hardest to obfuscate all of the meat of the game. I know that meat is there, because after the struggle had subsided just a little we were able to manipulate our situation to get the game to open up a little. No doubt with more practice the million little headaches would end up becoming second nature, but that is too much like the proverbial frog in boiling water for my taste. I cannot be bothered to struggle with a game like this when I already have plenty that give me so much more.
It’s too bad, because I was really excited for this game. Ever since the Kickstarter was announced a year ago, I thought it sounded promising. I like space games, and I even have a taste for games that ask a lot of me as a player. I loved Mage Knight after all. But learning Exile Sun is too much like riding a bike with your hands on the pedals. You’ll eventually learn to make it work, but everyone can tell there’s a better way to do it.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.