If there is a theme that’s perhaps as overused as the zombie apocalypse, it’s terraforming space. In the last few years alone there have been a number of games that focus on establishing a new world in the outer reaches of the universe. These games have also largely eliminated combat as players work somewhat independently on their colonies.
Kepler-3042 is a game in a similar vein. It uses what I, a non-scientist, assume to be a hard science basis for its framework of establishing technologies and exploring space. Kepler has a few new innovations, but builds on a resource management and action selection that will be very familiar to fans of Euro games. It can play with 1-4 players in about 90 minutes.
Kepler-3042 is played over 16 rounds in which players will compete to explore, colonize, and terraform various planets in the galaxy. The board is divided into three zones, with only the planets in the zone closest to Earth initially visible. The planets are spread around the board randomly, adding to the replay value of the game.
Each turn you can perform one of nine actions, optionally up to 2 bonus actions, and then move your ships. Available actions include building spaceships, generating resources, colonizing planets you have landed on, and terraforming planets you have colonized. You also have a technology board which to spend actions on, allowing you to upgrade your proficiency with various technologies, effectively powering up future actions. Progress on the technology track becomes crucial to unlock your ability to travel faster, exchange goods between planets, and produce on and terraform your colonies.
The resource management element of Kepler is clearly its key innovation. First, you can only spend resources from Earth or from other planets you have colonized. But all resources for an upgrade or to build a spaceship must come from a single planet. You are also limited in the number of resources you can have available in general. You only have 7 cubes for matter and energy and 3 for the very rare anti-matter. So you can’t stockpile a ton of resources.
The available resources quickly become more scarce as you have to “burn” them to take bonus actions. These bonus actions can be quite powerful as you won’t be able to do everything you want in 16 turns without taking advantage of at least some bonus action opportunities. However, the resource you burn is taken out of the available supply. There are a few ways to get them back, but its a fairly heavy price you have to pay.
After 16 rounds, players score points for their colonies based on their distance from Earth. You also score extra for terraforming and climbing up the technology and colonization tracks. Each player will also receive a secret goal during setup that will score if they are able to accomplish it. There are bonuses for colonizing sets of similar planets or one of each type. The player with the most points is the winner.
Kepler-3042 is a very polished, very classic Euro game. To be successful, you must do a lot of advanced planning. In all the games of Kepler thus far, my experience is that you almost always wish you take just another turn or two to really do something great and having to fall back on the next best plan. But those few experiences where everything just comes together in turn 16 are glorious. The downside is certainly a lack of important, intense moments. The tradeoff is that every choice matters and forwarding thinking is generously rewarded.
Success in Kepler-3042 really comes down to how efficient you can be. With rare exceptions, the main actions aren’t limited. If you use your “build spaceships” action, you can build 1, 2, or 3 depending on how many resources you have available. Advancing technologies is similar—you can advance as many in one action as you have the resources for. You have to plan multiple turns ahead to make sure you aren’t repeating the same main actions more than is absolutely necessary.
The game doesn’t have much player interaction, but it clearly has tried to add enough not to be multiplayer solitaire. Only one player can colonize each planet, so there is occasionally a bit of racing to get to a planet before other players. At the start of each round, an event is revealed which resolved at the end of the round and often has a bit of an interactive element to it. So I think there is certainly enough here to make the games interactive – but you won’t be shooting other players out of their spaceships or anything.
There is also quite a lot of variety for the game setup. The planets are distributed around the map in a mostly random fashion and very few are visible at the start of the game. So which planets are revealed and when can really impact the strategy you take. You also have an endgame goal that gives you a little direction to get started, which is especially good for new players.
Kepler allows you to pick a strategy out of many options that seem viable. Winning scores seem to fall into the mid-30 to 40 point ranges. Theoretically, you could score almost 30 just from the maxing out your technologies and reaching the end of the technology leadership track without ever even bothering to build a ship. Although, that is probably not a great winning option (however, maybe I’ll give it a shot next time), it speaks to the breadth of options available to you.
While Kepler isn’t a point salad game in a Feld-like way — you only tally your scores at the end of the game — there are quite a few ways to score points here and there and none of them are big swingy options. It really just comes down to getting the most out of each of your 16 turns and using the bonus actions at the most opportune times.
Kepler-3042 is not a game of big moments. It is a game of inches. Or death by a thousand paper cuts. Or whatever other metaphor you prefer. It is only as you reach the last 3 or 4 rounds where you’ve mapped out your actions, bonus actions, and determined exactly what you need to do that it feels particularly rewarding.
It can almost feel like a puzzle in that way, but a puzzle that is different every time. There isn’t a set solution and the variable setup ensures that whatever worked yesterday won’t necessarily work today. There have been a lot of games recently that blur the lines between Euro and Thematic games that tie in the best elements of both. Kepler doesn’t really attempt to do that. But, if you are a fan of classic Euro games, Kepler-3042 is a really good one with some unique resource management elements.
Final Score: 4 Stars – A unique euro that rewards good planning and efficient use of limited turns.
• Lacks important, tense turns
•The player interaction is minimal – if you are looking for space combat, look elsewhere