We join Dennis Chan for his debut game. Join us as we explore the furthest reaches of space, and the full extent of an upgrade tree
Words by Christopher John Eggett
As first games go, this is an interstellar point to be launching from. Dennis Chan, a software engineer by day and a games designer by night, is the creator of Beyond the Sun, a sprawling and crunchy game of intergalactic upgrade paths and deep space exploration. Published by Rio Grande, the game comes with some prestige, and a whole lot of upgrading and resource management. We talked to Chan about his game, and what sparked the engines for this exciting launch into the breach.
“In 2015, I was obsessed with the computer game Civilization V. I just loved its tech tree, and the feeling of excitement every time I ‘powered up’ with a new technology,” says Chan, “And then I thought, ‘Hm, I haven’t seen a single board game that has a real tech tree like that.’ So, I started doodling tree structures on my notebook and wondered what kind of boards I could construct with it.”
This is the heart of Beyond The Sun. While plenty of games have this kind of ‘upgrade path’ mechanic in them somewhere, there’s something fundamental to the way it appears in Beyond the Sun.
“As for what to put inside the tech tree, ‘worker placement’ immediately came to mind. In games like Agricola, Le Havre, and Lords of Waterdeep, players start the game with basic and core actions only, and as more buildings and spaces get unlocked, the decision space grows,” says Chan, “So I thought, ‘what if players unlock new spaces in a tree-like fashion, and what if players get to choose what gets unlocked?’ Combining those ideas, the initial prototype for Beyond the Sun was born.”
It’s a pretty lofty place to start your game design career, so we asked Chan how he moved from just being a gamer, to designing games.
“When I moved to Boston in 2012, I was looking around to meet gamers, and I stumbled upon the Boston Board Game Prototyping Meetup. I didn’t know anything about design at the time but had a lot of interest in it, so I attended, watched, and learned,” says Chan, “I played a lot of prototypes, some great, some not, but it was the not-so-great ones that inspired me – I learned that no game came out perfectly on the first try, it was not embarrassing to show people an incomplete idea, and those ideas were often the ones that sparked the most interesting discussions.”
“I distinctly remember that my first idea came from a playtesting session, where the designer wanted to go in one direction despite me suggesting a completely different direction – which I thought was more interesting – so I went home and started making a different game based on my own suggestion,” says Chan, laughing.
This decision tree, found in the middle of a prototyping session, was clearly an omen for the mechanics which followed.
Beyond the Sun isn’t all mechanics of course, the sci-fi setting is one of a last hope for humanity amongst the stars. The choices we make aren’t just to win the game, they’re the path humanity will take in the hope of rebuilding. Chan explains, “it’s a sci-fi civilization game set in the near future where we barely managed to get out of the solar system alive before we fought ourselves to extinction.”
“The next stage of humanity is now in your hands – how will you steer the future of the species as you enter the spacefaring era? Will you engage in endless conquest or dedicate yourself to science? Players will decide a different fate in each game by choosing different technologies and revealing different events, and it is up to you to use your resources wisely and adapt to changes in the new world.”
At the start of the game, everyone has access to the same technologies. These technologies are the basic building blocks of Beyond the Sun, offering initial abilities like exploring a new sector of space,
“You have just figured out how to leave the Solar System, but not much else,” says Chan, “from that point, players have four upgrade paths to choose from – four level one technologies. These are the same every game but randomized in positioning.”
Once players have upgraded to these technologies, the board opens up further – and where you take your little slice of humanity is a vital choice.
“Level one tech doesn’t provide particularly exciting powers, but what they enable afterwards is key. Level two research requires the player to possess the associated level one tech, and each level two technology chosen must inherit the same colour of the level one tech before it. This creates two interesting effects: first, if you are the first player to reach a certain branch of the tree, you are granted exclusive access to powerful actions until your opponents reach the same branch. Second, because of the random positioning of level one techs and the random order in which next-level technology cards are offered, the tree develops very differently every game.”
“You can have a game where the majority of technologies is military, which makes researching difficult and creates a lot of activity in space, or you can have a game where the majority of technologies is economic, which creates a resource-rich game and minimizes galactic conflict,” says Chan, before offering “a utopian society?” with a laugh, “every game is different, and players have to make interesting choices every turn.”
These choices can leave you with the feeling of locking in your progress path through the game. We have all experienced the strangely disappointing feeling of having to backtrack on a skills tree, whether in a video game or otherwise. It’s a hard feeling to fight, and while progressing a tree that someone else has already got access to is a difficult pill to swallow, playing catch up might be the best way to win sometimes.
“I would say Beyond the Sun actually requires players to constantly adapt to changes in the game state,” says Chan, “due to the high variability of the tech tree and the fact that you cannot be the only person choosing new technology cards, you have to keep watch of two things constantly – what common theme the technologies are leaning towards, and what state the galaxy is in.”
This kind of board reading is a draw – plotting your future moves, even if it hurts – to put you over the top in the end can be extremely satisfying. If it works.
“There were many instances during playtesting – myself included – where a stubborn player decided to stick to a single strategy, thinking that would be an easy win, only to realise that based on the way things were developing and how other players were acting, they had to pivot and change course.”
“This feeling of ‘the game pushing back’ may be uncomfortable to some players, but that is also what makes this game refreshing – while you can set a general strategic direction, the game also demands you to adapt and be opportunistic.”
We are, after all, not going to survive in outer space without a willing attitude.
Beyond the Sun has a few interesting components for a heavier Eurogame. It uses a system of tokened resource tracks, which when removed, will reveal the currently accessible amount of resources. Like the main race board, there’s going to be a certain amount of ‘missing out’ if you only pursue one track or resource type.
“It’s a very streamlined way to track both game pieces and player income at the same time, without making the game fiddly and distracting players from the fun,” says Chan, “the two games that did it very well were Eclipse and Through the Ages, and that was where I drew my inspiration from. In Eclipse, every planet you control takes a cube away from the corresponding track matching the planet type. You use the cube to mark the planet, and at the same time, the absence of a cube advances your income level. In Through the Ages, every population you put to work takes a token away from the growth track, which makes the next population more expensive. Beyond the Sun uses a combination of the two mechanics.”
Beyond the Sun uses cubes in the supply columns, and discs on the production tracks to show what resources are available. The production track covers both food and ore, the former which unlocks the population in the supply columns as more discs are removed, whereas the latter works as the currency in the game. “The removal of production discs can be achieved by area control – expanding your base of operations in space, or automation – discovering more efficient production methods. As discs leave the player track, player income increases,” explains Chan, “as for population supply, the more population you grow, more columns get emptied out, and eventually, your civilization reaches the capacity for growth. You will have to grow more food by taking out more food discs, or find a way to use supply cubes directly by employing an android workforce.”
There is a dynamic flow of resources throughout the game as players open up their options. The choice is of course – what option to open up next?
Those six sided cubes on the supply track aren’t just for your population however, they can become explorers in deep space too. While one of the sides counts as a population token, and another as a generalised supply token, the other four are given over to different strength spacefaring vessels. This was a later development in the game’s design.
“In early versions of this game the tracks held merely tokens and not dice. The next breakthrough didn’t come until the exploration board was added as the third system of the game. In the original exploration board, ship power was tracked on a tiny one to four strength track next to each system location, where players placed their population tokens on a numbered slot based on the type of ship they built. That was incredibly clunky,” says Chan, “eventually, I noticed that a single unit of population can really only be one thing at a time – are they onboard a spaceship? Are they dedicated to research? Are they idle? The number of possible states worked out to six, which was perfect for a cube, and that triggered the ‘eureka!’ moment.”
These spaceships are designed to take to the smaller, less conspicuous deep space exploration board, where players vie for control over planets and their resources.
In a previous version of the game, this board was merely a military track, however this was simply less fun than the variable space now presented “it made the gameplay very dry due to the lack of interesting player interactions,” says Chan, “moreover, without a separate ‘playground’ for players, all the technology actions either reference the tech tree itself or the player board. It does not provide a strong enough tension or feeling of a full 3x-4x game, which was my primary design goal.”
“So after some brainstorming and numerous iterations, the exploration board was added. Now the game is based on a ‘trinity’ of systems: the tech tree system, the player economy system, and the area control system, and they are all tightly interconnected.”
“The reason why the exploration board works the way it is now and does not feature a hex map like many 4x games do is three-fold: first, there is practically no table space left to put a giant map; second, I want the tech tree to be the centrepiece of the game, and having a huge map will ‘steal its thunder’; third, my goal was to create a Euro-style game after all, and not a wargame involving epic battles and lots of minis” explains Chan, “I believed that with an abstracted map, simple area control mechanics, and some player imagination, the tension of space warfare can be simulated without employing a complex war system.”
A Eurogame with any conflict at all is a rarity, so we asked Chan what he thought of the state of Eurogames today?
“A lot of Eurogames are basically ‘multiplayer solitaires,’ where the majority of conflict is indirect, and most of the time the winner is the player who manages their own turns most optimally. While this is still my favourite style of play, I think there exists a niche to be filled for Eurogames that include some direct conflict,” says Chan, “I am glad Beyond the Sun turned out the way it is, because while it is still solidly in the Euro category, it has a confrontation aspect that sets it apart from others. That said, Rio Grande also did a great job in making sure Beyond the Sun does not cross that boundary too far – ships are never involuntarily destroyed, and there are no ‘direct attack’ effects. This ‘soft confrontation’ allows classic Euro players to step out of their comfort zone just a bit, and creates a different type of tension that multiplayer solitaire games cannot offer. I personally would like to see more of these elements in future.”
EARTH IS A DREAM
Where does Chan go from here? “There are a lot of ideas swirling in my head, but none of them are fully formed yet,” he says, laughing “however, I want to explore time-traveling as a core game mechanic, and an engine-building game utilizing the software engineering concepts of ‘functions’ and ‘recursions’. And last but not least, a potential expansion for Beyond the Sun may be coming down the pipeline as well.”
With Beyond the Sun ready for us all to explore, we only have one question left. Star Trek or Star Wars? “If I must choose between the two, I would say Star Wars, although I am more a Battlestar Galactica guy.”
This article originally appeared in issue 49 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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