Review: A Billion Suns

A Billion Suns: Interstellar Fleet Battles. Osprey Publishing, 2021. Mike Hutchinson, designer. Paolo Puggioni, artist.

A Billion Suns rulebook.

A wise man once said, “Space…is big. Really big.”

As you know if you’ve followed this site for a while, I have a weird relationship with wargaming. That is to say that I am very interested in playing a wargame, any wargame, but a lack of friends who want to play and near-crippling social anxiety have kept me from building a full Warhammer 40K Salamanders army.

I’ve also been interested in spaceship battling wargames. I never got a chance to play Star Fleet Battles, but even though I’m not a Trekkie by any stretch of the imagination, I’ve always wanted to. The lack, once again, of friends who might want to play, as well as a fear of complicated rulesets, had kept me grounded.

Enter A Billion Suns. This starship fighting game by Mike Hutchinson, designer of 2017’s Gaslands, was released last month from Osprey Publishing. I saw that this game was miniature agnostic, meaning you could pretty much use anything from models from other games to office supplies as your ships, AND that Hutchinson had posted solo rules on his website, and decided I had to give it a try. With that in mind, please note that I have only played this game solo, though I can extrapolate what the 2-player game might be like. With that said, let’s blast off into the Core Systems and check it out!

What’s Going On Here?

Corporations, having exploited the Earth long enough, look to the stars to satisfy their greed. They strive to make money any way they can, even if that means murdering the opposition, killing indigenous animal life, stealing secrets, and putting their employees in harm’s way.

Coincidentally, all of this is true in A Billion Suns, too. You play as the CEO of your company playing against 1-3 opponents (or a solo AI) to turn a profit by completing randomly drawn objectives. You might be taking supplies to a planet, or destroying rogue AI space stations. You might be tasked to mine an asteroid field, or hack comsats to steal secrets from the enemy. You might even have to kill a Space Kraken.

Literally everything I needed to play.

To play, you need the rule book, dice that range from D6 to D12, enough tablespace for 2-3 separate space sectors, a measuring tool, a printout of the “CEO Helm,” a deck of cards, and something–anything–to represent your spaceships. And that’s one of the things that makes this game unique: you can use anything as a ship. Draw stick-figure ships on strips of paper. Grab some Lego bricks and get creative. Repurpose any ships you have that don’t otherwise hit the table *coughTWILIGHTIMPERIUMcough* and get playing.

What makes A Billion Suns different from what seems to be a thing in other games like this is that you don’t start off with a roster. Instead, you have credits that you spend to launch ships during your first turn, and all players have access to the same ship types. This isn’t to say that each player’s access is identical; players spend capital at the beginning of the game to unlock ship types that they can then requisition during the game. And while ships of the same type (for instance, gunship) have the same stats, the game keeps things asymmetrical by introducing “competitive advantages,” or bonuses that players purchase with capital and apply to their fleet. A player with “Unstable Shielding” turns each of their own destroyed ships into a potential bomb, while a player with “Heavy Frames” gives their ships more hull points before being destroyed.

Players pew pew at each other while racing to complete objectives, and the player with the most points wins, especially of they have also turned a profit by the end of the game.

What’s Good Here?

One thing I love about A Billion Suns is that it is just as complicated as it needs to be. The standardized ship types, the abstraction of everything to a 2-dimensional plane, the way that almost everything is measured from the centerpoint of a ship, all leads to a game that has depth, but doesn’t require pages of charts and graphs. It’s one of the few games of this type that I felt I was able to understand (for the most part) without watching an example in play.

Ships from various games, some dice as damage markers, and a coaster as a planet.
Miniature-agnostic AF.

I also love that the game is miniature agnostic. It’s also sort-of setting agnostic. I mean, the game says you are playing as the CEO of a corporation, but you could easily take these rules and these action options and say that you are a government or a horde of greenskins. The in-game setting compliments the mechanics, but it doesn’t cement them, and this allows for a lot of creativity.

Probably the best thing about A Billion Suns, though, is the designer’s support of the game. On Mike Hutchinson’s website, he has free downloads of measuring tools, counters, the Helm Dashboard, beta solo rules (which I used in my playthroughs), a development blog, and other resources. There is also a very active Facebook community around this game that Hutchinson interacts with fairly often.

What’s Not So Good?

A have very few actual complaints about A Billion Suns, but I do see some things that might come up during gameplay. One of those things is a product of one of the game’s strengths: the lack of standard models. I found myself getting confused about what was a gunship and what was a light utility ship in my solo game, and I could definitely see how it could get complicated if all players are using their own ship models. Less-than-honest players could take advantage of this fact (“No, THAT one is my cruiser…THIS one is my battleship!”), but, like, don’t play with those people, right?

No incentive to fight except that it’s RAD.

Also, even though you can adjust the game’s setting to any one you choose, the missions themselves lend themselves to the whole corporate warfare genre. I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to create a new set of objectives that are more gunplay-heavy and rely on defending targets form opponents, but that isn’t a thing that exists yet.

And that leads to the third issue: there’d not really much incentive to attack your opponent. Ships cost credits, and losing a ship can really lose the game for you pretty quickly. In fact, if you put out too many ships, running your credit deficit up, you could make the game unwinnable as you can never make enough credits back with objectives. I would like to see a mission deck that rewards players for destroying each other’s ships, but maybe that’s a different game.

What do I think?

After two solo plays, I have to say that I really like A Billion Suns. It’s a fast, relatively inexpensive game that’s not too difficult to learn, but still provides a lot of strategic opportunities. It’s not perfect, and it’s not exactly the game I was looking for, but it checks enough boxes to make it more-that-worthwhile. Now, if I can only get Em to play with me…

8/10 victory points.

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