The Search For Planet X Review
Halley’s Comet. Barnard’s Star. The Kuiper belt. The James Webb telescope. If you do good things in the field of astronomy, there’s a chance you’ll get something named after you. In The Search for Planet X you play rival astronomers who are trying to locate the hypothesised Planet X, and who knows, maybe put a big sticker with your name on it on the surface. You do your searching of the skies in private, behind a player screen. Other players will know where you’re looking, and what you’re looking for, but not the outcome. It’s time to employ some logic.
“Logic is the beginning of knowledge, not the end”
The Search for Planet X is a logic & deduction game. As astronomers, you’re trying to find not only the location of the mysterious Planet X, but also a variety of other astronomical objects. Asteroids, comets, gas clouds, dwarf planets – they’re all out there, waiting to be found, and there are points on offer for the people who find them. Luckily, being the clever scientists you are, you have some clues as to where things might be. For example, you know that every asteroid is in a sector adjacent to another asteroid, you know that Planet X cannot be adjacent to a dwarf planet, etc.
There’s not enough information there to figure out where everything is, though, so how do you get more of it?
The game is driven by an app. There, I said it. App-haters look away now. I’ve got no problem with a game requiring an app, and in the case of The Search for Planet X, it’s a game which couldn’t exist without an app. When you take the various actions to search the skies for objects, you input those choices into the app, and it tells you what you find. It’s a very elegant and simple process which works well, as you’d hope.
As well as directly searching for things, you can choose to attend a conference as an action, which reveals some additional indirect information. It might tell you that a comet isn’t within three spaces of a dust cloud, or an asteroid is opposite a dwarf planet. Not much on its own, but when you combine it with the things you’ve crossed out or circled on your player sheet, then you’re starting to get somewhere. Now you’re on the path to winning.
Let’s get this out of the way now. The Search for Planet X is awesome. It’s very, very good. There are some caveats, of course. If you’re after action and you hate logical reasoning, you’re going to have a bad time with this game. It’s not a game you can come to with a hangover or after a heavy day at work, because you need the mental bandwidth to contend with the puzzle. If you tick those boxes though, there’s an amazing puzzling race waiting for you.
Better still for me, personally, is the main board working as a form of rondel.
I love rondels.
The action you choose to take has a cost associated with it, and that cost is the number of spaces your observatory pawn moves around the sectors of the board. The board is divided into the sectors you’re searching in, and a rotating cardboard piece – the Earth board – on the middle of the board hides half the sectors at any one time. You can only perform your searching actions on the visible sectors, and which sectors are visible is driven by the furthest back pawn. It gets so frustrating when you want to search a sector which has just been hidden. You might take expensive actions to race around to the other side, but if the other players don’t do the same and take cheaper actions, they could take multiple turns, learning more and more, while you’re waiting.
As the Earth board rotates it also points to some icons which allow the players to submit theories. If you think you know where some of the things in the sky are, you can add tokens to those sectors with your assertions hidden on the reverse side. With each of these theory phases the existing theories move inward one step, and once they reach the middle they’re flipped, checked on the app, and if they’re correct then not only will those players get some points, but everyone else knows exactly what’s in there.
Space is hard
If you’ve ever done any of those logic grid puzzles, you’ve got a good idea of what you’ll need to do in The Search for Planet X. It’s a process of elimination and using the scant information you’re given to lead to logical conclusions. It’s a really satisfying thing when it goes well, and the Eureka moments are fantastic. When you put two and two together and come up with four, well, that makes you feel like some kind of genius, and it’s great.
What happens when it doesn’t go well though? I’ve played games where I’m absolutely certain I know where planet X is. I make my guess, and part of that guess also includes what its neighbours are, and it tells me I’m wrong. When that happens, it’s very demoralising. It also makes things feel impossible. You can be certain of some things you’ve crossed out and circled, but you know some are wrong, and it leaves you desperately trying to unravel your mistakes, without necessarily knowing where they are. That’s a hard task at the best of times when you’re using the standard side of the board. When you’re playing the advanced game on the other side with 18 sectors instead of 12, and with even more things to identify, it’s a hard blow to take.
I’d also hate to be the person who sits down to play but isn’t used to any kind of logic problem. Maybe they’ve never done a logic grid, a sudoku puzzle, or a nonogram. The kind of thinking that helps you solve puzzles like these is normally learned, rather than innate, which makes The Search for Planet X a game where you need to be careful who your audience is. Bear that in mind when you’re deciding whether to buy the game or not.
My last review was for a game unlike any other I’ve played: Oros (review here). I’m lucky to be covering two in a row that I can same thing about. I really enjoy logic puzzles, and I love rondels, so when Matthew and Ben (the designers) put both in the same box, I was already smitten. Biased? For sure, yeah, but then you’re here for my skewed opinion, right? The Search for Planet X ticks so many boxes for me, and I have so much fun playing it. I love playing a game that makes me feel clever, even if that does come tumbling down like a house of cards when I get it wrong.
This might just be me, but I have continuous paranoia when I’m playing. No matter how well I’m doing, I’m convinced that everyone else is one step ahead of me. It’s one of my favourite things about the game. It’s a full-on racing game at its heart, with the players racing to get to the right answers first. There’s a palpable moment of tension when the first person announces they’re going to make a guess for the location of planet X. If they get it wrong, there’s a good chance they’re close and things get very serious. If they get it right, those behind them in turn order get one last chance to make a guess at the location of different objects, and then it’s over. It’s important to note that you can win even if you don’t find the planet first. There are plenty of points on offer for identifying where everything else is, too.
The need for the app isn’t as bad as you might imagine, and one of the biggest added benefits from its inclusion is the fact that you can play solo. Sure, you only play against one opponent, but the game you play is exactly the same game as you’ll play against human opponents, so it’s the perfect way to practice or to get a learning game in ahead of teaching it at your local game night.
It’s not a game that everyone will enjoy, for sure, but with the right people, The Search for Planet X is amazing. It’ll give your brain a proper burn for an hour, and if you and your fellow astronomers are finding it easy, the advanced mode will bust you back down to feeling stupid in no time. Competitive logic and deduction at its finest.
You can buy this game from my retail partner, Kienda. Remember to sign-up for your account at kienda.co.uk/punchboard for a 5% discount on your first order of £60 or more.
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The Search For Planet X (2020)
Design: Matthew O’Malley, Ben Rosset
Publisher: Renegade Games Studio
Art: James Masino, Michael Pedro
Playing time: 60 mins