Billabong Boardgamers
 

6 Billion

Publisher: Board Not Bored Games
Players: 2-5
Playing time: 2-3 hours
Reviewed by Doug Adams
Official 6 Billion Home Page: 

http://members.optusnet.com.au/bnbg6billion/6billion.htm

6 Billion is a game I've assisted in playtesting for two years prior to production. While I will try to review the game fairly, please tolerate any perceived bias you may read in this review.

6 Billion is the first game designed by David Coutts. David is based in Australia, and is dedicated to bringing quality European designs out to game starved Aussies. He is so dedicated, he even runs a small business importing European boardgames into Australia.

6 Billion brings together several of David's interests into one package, namely his passion for boardgames, astronomical sciences, and a tiny thing known as the future of all mankind. The theme of this game is the nurturing of Earth's population as it grows beyond the limits of Earth, and leaves our home planet for the first tentative steps to the other planets in the solar system. The rulebook provides some hard data by the way of an introduction, and it is very sobering reading. Providing the human race survives long enough, founding colonies on other planets is not so much an "if" as a "when".

6 Billion is totally an in-house game - David has designed, developed, tested and finally produced this game. For a one man effort, the final result is very good. We are not talking of the breathtaking objects of beauty that we now take for granted in our typical European boardgame release, but 6 Billion is no desktop published game either.

What we receive is a boxed game, containing a full colour mounted game board, along with over 100 cards, rulebook, some reference cards, and finally six sets of plastic counters. The two cards are a Distance chart, cross-referencing distances between any two planets, and a Discovery Track which are used in the optional rules. The flipside of the Discovery Track contains a comprehensive list of references on the subject of colonisation, as well as several internet sites to visit. A thought provoking poem on our attitude to our future, penned by David, is also provided.

The game board is quite dazzling when you first lay it out, showing Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and the Asteroid Belt ringing the Sun. The outer planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto are banished to holding boxes around the outside of the board. It appears space on the board precluded showing the orbits for the outer planets as well as the inner ones, and the result may cause some confusion during play. My advice is to bear with it, as the game rewards perseverance.

Each planet on the game board has an exponential population track, beginning at 1 billion and doubling all the way up to 1024 billion. Some planets, where life must struggle to grow, stop way short of 1024. Mercury, for example, stops at 8 billion. It is only on the beautiful Earth or plentiful Asteroid Belt where gigantic populations are possible.

The object of the game is to earn victory points, which can be accumulated through the play of cards, as well as at the end of the game when majorities of populations on the individual planets pay off.

The game starts with each player placing a single counter representing their faction's population on Earth. This is Earth, 1999, and the 6 billionth person has just been born. The set-up does vary depending on the number of players, but it is geared so that 6 billion people always begin the game on Earth. Neutral players, whose function in the game is to block and hinder players, also start the game on Earth.

Players are dealt five cards off a sizeable deck and add a "Colony 2" card to form their starting hand. Finally each player draws a Hidden Agenda card. Hidden Agenda cards indicate which planet will score double points for which players at the end of the game - these are best kept secret!

The cards come in a few different flavours, all clearly indicated, along with their specific function in the game:

  • Action Cards: these can be played on a player's turn. These may be used to perform a variety of useful tasks, such as double a player's population on a planet (ie. advance it to the next space); send out a colony to establish itself on another planet; remove another player's colony that is attempting to establish itself on a planet, and so on.

  • Cancel Cards: these are the "hah, take that!" cards, that are used to prevent another player's action. It is here that hoary old Pestilence and Famine can appear to stop doubling populations, wiping out several billion people with the play of a single card.

  • Response Cards: these can be used in response to a Cancel card, and often result in two factions marching off to war (a painless mechanic that is speedily resolved).

  • Discovery Cards: these wonderful cards allow you to hurdle the vast distances of space to instantly found a population on, say, Pluto, avoiding all the planet leap-frogging of your population out there. As a bonus, your points are doubled for objects on your Discovery Cards at the end of the game.

Playing the Game

At the beginning of a new turn, each player contributes a chip to a cup, and they are randomly drawn out to determine the turn order. Turn order is critical in this game, and your position can dictate your strategy for that turn.

A player works through the following steps on their turn:

  • First off the player must "free double" all of his existing population counters. This simply means advancing a population counter to the next space along a planet's population track, and it represents natural population expansion and growth. Free doubling is very easy - the player simply announces they are free doubling on such and such a planet, and the other players can interrupt with a Cancel Card, if they choose to.

    However, each planet has a growth limit - the natural boundary where free doubling of a population stops for all players on that planet. On Earth the limit is set at 128 billion, and if all players population counters on the three preceding spaces up to and including the 128 billion space equals or exceeds 128 billion, then free doubling stops there. Double Cards may still be played to double a population past the growth limit, however natural growth has ceased on that planet.

  • After free doubling has taken place, the player spend two actions on card play. Actions are used to establish colonies on other planets, to double important populations further, make discoveries and finally to protect your interests on "your" planets! An interesting use of Action Cards is that some of them may be used to help the other players - with a victory point reward for the player who played the card. I've seen games won where players have based their game on this "good Samaritan" strategy.

  • The last step in a turn is to replenish your hand to six cards, and here choice is important. 6 Billion uses the tried and tested "drafting" mechanic to give players a choice of three face up cards, or a draw off the face down deck. It is here that players strive to create a balanced hand - a balanced hand having some expansion, offensive and defensive options available. There will usually be something valuable for players to swoop upon while replenishing their hand, but some tough decisions can arise when trying to determine which ones to actually take!

At the end of a turn, the turn order markers are removed and drawn again for the following turn. Turns are played over until the game ends. This can happen in one of two ways:

  • Every planet's population track contains a counter, OR
  • A counter has reached the 1024 billion space on Earth or the Asteroid Belt.

In both cases the game ends immediately.

Victory

At the end of the game, each player's positions on each planet's track are scored. Only the first three spaces on the track score, with ties reducing the score by 1 for each other player causing the tie. The positional scores are typically 4/2/1 points for 1st/2nd/3rd, however the blue ribbon planets of Earth, Mars and the Asteroid Belt award 8/4/2 points. Points earned for a planet may be doubled if a player has a Discovery Card for that planet, or has that planet as their Hidden Agenda.

The winner is the player who has the most victory points after the final scoring.

I've only touched on a couple of the central mechanics in this game. Some of them deserve further explanation.

Colonies

The game begins with an opening treaty between all player factions, and this essentially means that nobody can "hit" another player until they have left Earth and established a colony on another planet. This opens up all sorts of strategies - do you let your population happily free double on Earth for a few turns, or do you leave Earth early and open yourself up to attack from the other players? Quite often your Hidden Agenda card will decide your opening strategy. You will be feeling rather foolish if Mars is your Hidden Agenda, and you are the last player to establish a colony on that planet!

Each planet is a unit of distance from their neighbouring planets, and a handy chart is provided with the game to determine distances between any two planets. In order to colonise a new planet, you must have a colony card with the appropriate distance on it to ensure you can reach this new planet. Players begin with a Colony 2 card, which allows an immediate tentative step off Earth to begin with, removing the problem of a duff deal at the beginning of the game.

The distances ensure that population expansion occurs sensibly, and players cannot jump out to Uranus to establish their first colony. Colony expansion is a sort of leapfrog affair, and it feels right.

Colonies just don't appear from nothing - they must be "sourced" from a population track already belonging to that player. A basic example is if a player has a colony of two billion on Mars, they may play a Colony card to try to establish a colony on the Asteroid Belt. The player moves their 2 billion on Mars back to 1 billion, and places a new counter in the "1" space of the Asteroid Belt holding box. Providing nothing happens to that colony, it will be placed on the "1" space of the Asteroid Belt next turn.

As seen in the example above, new colonies do not land immediately. They must wait until the players take their next turn before they land, and sit out the wait in a holding box for the new planet. An anxious time is guaranteed as any player so inclined can hurl a "New Colony In Trouble" card at the holding box to kill any chance the colony had of establishing itself on the new planet.

This is where turn order can be vital. The ideal scenario for establishing colonies is to go last in a turn, play your colony card, and then hope that you are drawn to take the first turn in the following round. There are no intervening turns from any other players, and thus a new colony is established, risk free!

Migrants

Migrants are similar to colonists, however there are a couple of subtle differences. Firstly, migrants can only be established on planets where there is already an established colony belonging to another player. Secondly, migrant cards usually have much greater distances on them when compared to the colony cards - it can often save a player time by using migrants rather than colonists to travel quickly to a "must have" planet.

The Importance of Turn Order

In this game the turn order is vital. As it is decided randomly each turn, players do not have much control over their fate until they see what the turn order will be, then they can plan their strategy. However, it may not necessarily be the strategy they want to pursue.

For example, my Hidden Agenda may be Mars, and there is a bit of competition for the lead on the Mars population track. As the populations are rapidly closing in on the Martian growth limit, I want to be going early in the turn so MY populations get to free double before the growth limit is hit. If players who are battling me for the lead on Mars free double before me, there is every chance I will not get my "free double" on Mars! In such cases I would like an early position in the turn order.

The other end of the spectrum, as highlighted above, is establishing colonies. If I am player 1 on a turn and send out a colony, I am asking for trouble. There is every chance I may be player 5 on the following turn, which means there are eight other player turns between my two turns. I would not expect my colony to be still sitting in the holding box when my next turn comes around. When I want to found colonies, going late in the turn order is a big help!

There is a solution to this dilemma, use the Optional Rules!

The Discovery Track - the "mandatory" optional rules

David has included two optional rules in the game which must be used. Quite frankly they turn a good game into a very good game. The rules relate to using the Discovery Track.

The Discovery Track is a stand-alone card that sits beside the board. The card depicts three more tracks which represent how happy your population are, how wealthy they are, and how environmentally aware they are. Each track has a corresponding symbol (a dollar sign, a smiley face and a leaf).

Under the optional rules, players can establish a presence on these tracks via their two actions per turn. Each card in the deck has one of the three Discovery Track symbols printed on it, and players may simply discard a card and advance one of their counters along the appropriate track. However, the environment track requires two cards to advance along this track, ie. using up all of your actions for a turn.

At the end of the game, the Discovery Tracks score in exactly the same way as planets, and as they may pay out double via Discovery Cards as well, a little investment on the Discovery Track can reap big rewards. However, an even bigger reward is to be had for a lead on the Discovery Track...

A lead in any of the three Discovery Tracks allows manipulation of the turn order for the upcoming turn. As soon as the turn order is drawn, clear leaders on the Discovery Tracks may invoke a special ability to fiddle the turn order:

  • The leader of the dollar track may spend victory points to move up or down the turn order, one point per position shifted, THEN
  • The leader of the smiley track may exchange their turn order position with a neutral player, THEN
  • The leader of the environment track may adjust their turn order position by up to two spaces.

These special powers allow players to plan their turns ahead of time. The environment track is especially powerful, as moving earlier or later in the turn is extremely useful depending on whether doubling or colonising is the strategy of the day!

These optional rules work very well, and should be used in your first game of 6 Billion.

Neutral Players - a help or a hindrance?

I made a passing reference to neutral players existing in this game. Up to two neutral players begin the game on equal footing with the players on Earth. Like the active players, Neutral players also take a "turn" as governed by the turn order. The player who has the lowest number of population counters on the board controls the neutral player's turn.

Neutral players simply free double any of their population counters, then attempt to send migrants to an already colonised planet. The player controlling the neutral will be attempting to get them to planets where opponents have established colonies. If the neutral players get ahead of players on the population track, their victory points will be reduced.. Neutral players are there to get in the way - hopefully of your opponents!

Some of the Action Cards affect the neutral player factions. For a victory point reward, these can be played to double a neutral player's population, or establish a new neutral player colony, and so on. The victory points earned by these cards has been carefully tuned, and pursuing points through the play of such cards can be a viable strategy.

6 Billion - the Verdict

There is a lot to like about 6 Billion. It certainly is a "gamer's game" that can be played on several levels, as friendly or as ruthlessly as your gaming group style dictates.

With the various sources of victory points, it is very difficult to tell who is winning at any one time, and often leads to close finishes.

Given how much I enjoy the game, there are a few things that I feel are less than perfect:

  • The spiralling game board layout is confusing, and it can be difficult to see who is leading where. It only takes a few turns to adjust, however.

  • I find the growth limit rules not very intuitive, having to factor in the final three spaces of a planet's population track to see if natural growth has ceased. There should be a more elegant way to determine this.

  • I find the 3 and 4 player games that use two neutral factions just a bit too fiddly for me. To keep the game spinning along, I prefer to play with one neutral player.

These criticisms amount to little more than nitpicks in what to me is a fine first effort by a new designer. The game is pitched at the 2-3 hour mark, however with the optional rules the game seems to play faster than that.

Overall, very good and well worth considering.


David has created an extensive 6 Billion Website, that contains a Frequently Asked Questions page, house rules, extensive example of play, play reports and lots of images from the game. Click on the link below to visit:

http://members.optusnet.com.au/bnbg6billion/6billion.htm


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