A Long time ago
Pulsar 2849 is a space themed Euro boardgame put out by CGE in 2017 and designed by Vladamír Suchý of Underwater Cities fame. It’s one of those games where when I first saw the pictures of it I was pretty sceptical. The dice were just boring wooden dice. The player pieces were repurposed from Galaxy Trucker and some of the markers were lifted straight out of Adrenaline. Not to be disparaging about those games, I think they are both great. But when a publisher reuses components from other games rather than making new ones, for me it raises an alarm. That maybe they didn’t think the game is worth the effort.
I’m going to shatter any illusion right now and tell you the story of what happened when I first played this game. It was the 2019 UK Games Expo. I had just finished a demo game of Star Wars: Outer Rim and I spotted an empty table to play Pulsar 2849. Me and a few friends sat down and played a short version of the game. We stood up, thanked the fella who taught us the game and I walked straight to a store that had Pulsar for sale. I bought it, we walked over to the free play area, we unwrapped it and we played a full game there and then.
So, what will you be doing while you play? Well, Pulsar 2849 has players competing to set up massive energy networks that span the galaxy. The energy is produced at pulsars and can be harvested by machines called gyrodynes. Players will be trying to control these pulsars by being the first player to visit them. Once they are claimed you can place a gyrodyne, think power plant, on it to earn points at the end of every round. The game takes place over eight rounds and whoever has the most points when they are done and dusted takes the space crown.
The spice of life
But that isn’t all you can do in Pulsar 2849. You have a lot of choices when you are deciding how you want to spend your turn. The whole game is driven by dice drafting. At the beginning of each round, all of the dice are rolled and then sorted by value. The median value is determined and depending on if there are more or less dice above the median value a marker is placed to the left or right of the median. This sounds a bit complicated and maths like, but it plays as simple as: “We rolled seven dice, okay where is the fourth dice. Oh, it’s a number three. Cover number three, are there more dice to the left or right of my hand? There are more to the right, okay move the counter to the right”.
Each of the players will then draft two dice. They will move their counters up and down two tracks for turn order and bonus resources. The move up or down depending on whether they chose numbers above or below the aforementioned marker. But what can you do with these dice? Well, you can move your ship around the oddly satisfying round board. The board is covered in different coloured jump gates, pulsars and planetary systems.
You use the jump gates to move around the map and if you land exactly on a pulsar, it’s yours. The planetary systems can give you bonuses if you are the first to land exactly on them. But even if you just pass through, you can place colonies out onto the board which will help you earn stacks of points at the end of the game.
Spin me right round, like a Gyrodyne
You can also buy or activate gyrodynes, which come in three flavours. Some get you more points than others but you need bigger dice rolls to buy and activate them, which will put you at a disadvantage on the resource tracks. So do you go cheap and cheerful and try not to get too far behind on the tracks? Or overindulge into excessive energy production only to end up paying penalties for falling too far behind?
Another thing you can do is build up an energy transmitter array. These are tiles that you can place your dice on to unlock one time or recurring bonuses. Many of these tiles can be connected to each other. If you manage to build two connecting sections you may also unlock an extra bonus die for more actions this round.
There is also a technology tree that you can unlock abilities on. These may allow you to move further on certain colours of jump gate, or just straight up warp to some other place on the map. The technology tree also has the round tracker on it. One feature of the round tracker is that it dictates whether there will be bonus points for each gyrodyne you have on the board. As the technology tree is modular and double sided, this can mean in some games it is actually beneficial to move quickly for loads of smaller gyrodynes. The extra bonuses per gyrodyne would be worth more than the extra you would earn by having more expensive infrastructure on the board.
The last few things you can do are fairly minor, you can use four engineering resources to buy another die to get another action. You can buy dice modifiers to either add or subtract one from a dice value or add two to a dice value. The last thing you can do is a little different though.
Each player has a home HQ board with a selection of single time actions you can take. These actions form a sort of pyramid where you can only do the basic stuff at first. You unlock a second-tier action once the two actions below it have been completed. The bottom level are all pretty basic but some of the more advanced actions can have you earning buckets of points if you can pull them off efficiently.
Players will start out quite isolated as the start points are on opposite sides of the board. As the game progresses the players will find themselves racing each other to get to those last few pulsars and planetary systems. As well as trying to get the best technology and energy transmitters before they are taken by somebody else.
This game is chocked to the brim with choice. Every turn there are several different things you can do and each of those things have several options you can choose within them. This could be a little overwhelming for some people. It should be noted that where there are many possible choices, initially very few will be available. One example being that by the end of the game with technology you will have up to 17 choices. At the start of the game you will only have three.
Of course, you will have some players who will look ahead and try and min/max the best possible route through all of the technologies. But each technology requires a specific dice roll to unlock and with limited options of how to manipulate dice values this will not always work. That’s one of the reasons why I like this game. You can plan as much as you like but you are always slightly at the whim of the dice rolls and who has drafted what. But when what you really want to do isn’t an option, there are always a lot of other equally good options available to take.
There are lots of ways to win at Pulsar 2949. You can focus on setting up pulsars. You can try and visit every planetary system on the board. You can max out your power arrays to get as many bonuses as you can. You can try and fill your HQ board up. There are points to be had on the technology tree as well as some feat tiles that I haven’t mentioned. You get these by getting certain combinations of gyrodyne values on the board first.
There are also three end game scoring goal tiles that will be used in each game and these will offer up extra ways or scoring points. Every approach to this game feels valid. It is why when a dice roll means you can’t take your preferred action, it’s not a huge pain as you’ll probably end up scoring points some other way. I don’t know whether I would go so far as to call this a point salad game, but it’s definitely heading that way.
I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Once you’re done with a game of Pulsar 2849 you’ll probably want to play it again. Probably sometime soon and there are many ways that you can do that! There is a lot of variety in the setup that can be found here. The board is double sided with two different maps to play. There are four different options for each level of the technology tree giving you 64 different options. Each of the four unique player boards is double sided with different actions on each side.
There are six different double-sided end game scoring tiles of which you will only use three. The planetary systems will be randomised each game. The order that the energy transmitter tiles will be available each turn will be different too. There is a lot of replayability here. A shout out should be made for the manual and supplementary technology guide. They are both really clear and concise and helps with the iconography, some of which you may not see that often as it is on the more advanced option boards.
On the whole this game couldn’t be much further from my initial worries about it’s production values. Sure, some of the components are reused from other games, the player aides are flimsy, and the theme is a little pasted on. But the effort has been put there where it counts. The design is solid, fun, deep and is genuinely one of my favourite Eurogames and was definitely the best game I played at UKGE 2019.