Pulsar 2849: A four-sided game review

Pulsar 2849* is a dice-drafting euro game (for more experienced gamers, probably aged around 12+) that will take two to four people one to two hours to play (more players equals longer game).

As you’ve probably guessed from the title and the cover, this is a sci-fi themed game; but beyond the look, and despite nice components, this is very much a dry euro rather than a thematic space romp.

On the subject of components, expect the usual high quality we’ve come to expect from Czech Games Edition (CGE): a large circular board with a bunch of smaller cardboard boards that place around it; 100+ cardboard chits and tokens, 50+ plastic tokens and cubes, plus 10 dice. The iconography is clear throughout, while the art style is on theme without ever being spectacular. On the table (and you’ll need a pretty decent sized table), the game looks solid if unspectacular – despite the relative novelty of the round board.

And on the subject of theme, for what it’s worth, the general idea is you’re playing rival corporations creating mega-structures in space to harvest (and then transmit) power over vast distances. But you’d have to be pretty spectacularly drawn by theme to feel like a spaceman while playing this one.

Teaching

Pulsar 2849 can seem daunting when you run through the rules, as there’s a lot to remember – but in truth all the things you can do are simple and you’ll find experienced players will soon pick them up: but you do have to go through them all before you get going.

But also tell players their first game will probably be a learning game; it has quite a few moving, overlapping parts and most players will spend the first game finding how certain actions complement each other – despite it only taking a turn or two to get to grips with the basics.

The game is played over eight rounds, with each player taking either two or three actions in each (so 16-24 actions in the game). A set of standard six-sided dice are rolled each round, with each player choosing two (first one in turn order, second in reverse order, as in Catan) – before each player caries out actions with their dice. There will always be at least one more dice than required, so even if you get the last pick you’ll usually have a choice.

There are seven actions you can choose to do with your dice – the most basic (and rarely used) being to take a dice modifier token. Another is to move your ship a number of spaces equal to a dice you took, preferably ending your move on a pulsar or star system. Landing on a system will give you a bonus of some kind, while you can claim a pulsar you finish on.

The third action is to take a gyrodyne: the rotor system you’ll use to generate power (read: points) from a pulsar. It’s a free action to place this on one of your claimed pulsars – but it does cost a dice action to ‘flip’ this gyrodyne token to make it operational (so that it starts generating your points each round).

The other three available dice actions let you claim either a ‘transmitter’, ‘technology’ or ‘HQ project’. These are all ways to get bonuses – from points to tokens to actions – in a typically euro point salad kind of way. They all work slightly differently, but if you’ve played a few euro games there’s nothing new under the sun here.

What is ingenious is the way in which the dice numbers are balanced. Most actions are better with higher dice – you can move further, take a better transmitter, set a better gyrodyne spinning etc. But to take better dice, you have to pay what can be a significant penalty. After the dice are rolled each round their median is marked. Taking a dice higher/lower than the median mark sees you move up/down the turn order or engineering track (which gives handy tokens that get points or extra actions).

But returning to the point salad: pretty much everything you do will score you points – either immediate, ongoing or end game. After the eight rounds, you’ll add them all up and see who the winner is.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: While I’ve really enjoyed my plays, I’ve noticed a big disparity in scores in specialising versus being a jack-of-all-trades: going strong on flying (taking a lot of planets), concentrating on gyrodynes or getting lots of transmitters can all score well. But if two players choose the same thing, they’re unlikely to win, as they cannibalise each other’s scores – especially problematic in a four-player game. It will be interesting to see if others identify this as a problem.
  • The thinker: While in many ways a standard euro, the bonus dice add an interesting challenge. The difference between 16 and 24 actions is of course potentially huge, so trying to grab one each round is a pleasant distraction. But of course, sometimes two actions combined won’t be as good as a really strong single action. It can also be hugely beneficial to set up turns where picking low dice becomes just as good as getting higher ones; another good mark for a game which rewards forward planning while having enough luck to appease those who need the thrill of the random to keep them interested.
  • The trasher: For a game allegedly about competing space corporations, it has little to no interaction – unless taking the same route as another player (which is likely to screw you both anyway). Despite the dice (obviously), uncovering star systems to reveal their bonuses, and the random order in which the limited number of transmitters are revealed, there’s actually little here for the tactician. While I’ll happy play the game (it’s fun enough for a couple of hours), I don’t see this one hanging around long term – unless an expansion (which there is plenty of room for) comes along and adds a little more personality.
  • The dabbler: While I like the round board in theory, and it looks super cool, in practice it’s a bit of a pain. It’s a massive table hog, especially if you use the (not really) optional player boards – and no matter what you do at set up it feels like a bit of a mess, while taking longer than it would with a standard board. I can see why they did it, and it feels unique, but that stops being a good thing fast! But it didn’t stop me enjoying the game! I was surprised that how simple it was to play after the rules load left me yawning – and sticking largely to one thing makes it easier to get a strong foothold, while seeing how the other bits work via the other players (and taking occasional advantage when you can).

Key observations

I’ve been meaning to finish a blog about the myth (false news?) of replayability for some time and Pulsar 2849 is a good example of my issue with it in modern gaming.

Despite adding a lot of cardboard to the box to make each game ‘different’, nothing really changes.

Bonus tiles may make certain strategies slightly more effective game to game, while you may also be led slightly by the tech trees available to you, but overall it’s not enough to make today’s gyrodyne strategy feel different to tomorrow’s.

While I’m personally a fan of ‘point salad’ games with pasted on themes (it is essentially an abstract game), if you’re not this isn’t going to change your mind – especially as this is also largely multiplayer solitaire. There are lots of ways to score very similar amounts of points each round and the game couldn’t be more about efficiency if it tried. This can also cause AP, so especially with four you may experience quite a bit of unwanted downtime (then again you could always, you know, talk to each other).

This won’t come as a surprise to people who have played and enjoyed designer Vladimir Suchy’s other games (Last Will, Prodigal’s Club, 20th Century) and if you have you’ll been on firm ground here: his designs make Feld’s look like laughing clown’s in comparison. Not a criticism, just an observation. But any potential purchaser needs to know they’re getting dry, if extremely well designed, fayre here.

But the game is averaging well over 7.5 for a reason. It does feel like a sum of its parts and while there are a lot of options to choose from it can feel very satisfying to pull off a strong, cascading combo to grab big points and an all-important bonus action. And, for the two hours you’ll spend with it, you will (if you do OK) feel as if you’ve created a satisfying little engine before then end of the game that comes to life in the final few turns – while looking and feeling very different to those of your opponents.

Conclusion

After my first few plays of Pulsar 2849, I thought I’d found a new favourite. But much as I found with games such as Great Western Trail and Railroad Revolution, later plays fell off pretty quickly.

Don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy the game and may keep it in my collection. But without an expansion adding some genuine replayability, I don’t think it will still be on my shelves long. I know it’s me, not the game: this will find a happy home in many collections. But I still see more replayability in mechanisms and opponents than in adding piles of extra components – which is why people are still playing the likes of Puerto Rico, Tigris and Brass after all these years.

So overall, I’ll say this is a very good game – even a great one if you like Feld and Suchy (I think it’s his best to date). But it is indicative of this particular time in gaming; and I’d be surprised if many are still talking about it down the road.

* I would like to thank Czech Games Edition for providing a copy of the game for review.

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