Dropping terrain tiles onto a planet from space may not be the most effective way to terraform a planet, but it makes for a pretty great tabletop game!
What Is Planet Unknown?
Planet Unknown is a tile-placement game for 1 to 6 players, ages 10 and up, and takes about 60–80 minutes to play. It was originally funded on Kickstarter and delivered to backers in early 2022, with a retail edition arriving in stores in the fall of 2022 (which sold out very quickly). There is currently a Gamefound campaign for an expansion, plus a reprint of the deluxe edition or add-ons if you own the retail edition and want the deluxe content. The pledge levels are $100 for the deluxe base game and $30 for the expansion.
Planet Unknown was designed by Ryan Lambert and Adam Rehberg and published by Adam’s Apple Games, with illustrations by Yoma.
New to crowdfunding? Check out our crowdfunding primer.
Planet Unknown Components
I received the deluxe edition, but I’ll note which components are different in the retail edition.
Here’s what comes in the retail edition:
- 6 Double-sided Planet boards
- 6 Double-sided Corporation boards
- S.U.S.A.N. Space Station turntable
- 144 Polyomino tiles (12 each in 12 shapes)
- 60+ Biomass Patch tiles
- Commander token
- 60 Event cards
- 28 Objective cards
- 36 Civ cards (9 each in 4 ranks)
- 12 Depot indicators (2 each in 6 colors)
- 30 Resource trackers (5 each per player)
- 14 Rovers
- 36+ Lifepods
- 60+ Meteorites
The deluxe edition includes:
- Custom GameTrayz
- 6 additional Planet boards
- 2 additional Corporation boards
- Flux token
- Lifepods and Meteorites are plastic miniatures instead of wooden tokens
The planet boards are quite large and are cardstock, each showing a planet surface with an overlaid grid; there are small medals along the edges of the grid, and some blue circles scattered around the grid as well for the lifepods. The fronts all show the same planet, KSB-4156, but the backs are all unique and have different scoring conditions or placement restrictions. My only complaint about these is the little medals along the edge—they indicate the score for filling the corresponding rows and columns of the grid, but they are very tiny and use white numbers on a gold background, making them a bit hard to read.
The corporation boards are actually triple-layered cardboard because they have indentations for the five tracks (along with a few other areas) on both the front and the back. The indentations are very useful because with five cubes to move up and down the tracks, it would be very easy to bump and lose your position. The fronts all show the same corporation, Universal Coalition, and the backs have unique asymmetric corporations. There are some truly wild abilities on these—Oasis Unlimited (shown above on the right) has a water track that meanders around the board onto the other tracks! These boards also use the same small medal icons as the planet boards.
The polyomino tiles come in 12 different shapes (a sampling is shown above), ranging from 2 squares to 5 squares in size. Each one has two terrain types, which are distinguished by different colors along with a resource (which looks like a little building or a rover). Some tiles may also include a flaming meteor.
The centerpiece of the game—literally!—is the Simultaneous Unit Selection Axial Node (S.U.S.A.N.), the turntable that holds all the polyominoes. Designed by GameTrayz, it’s an impressive piece of engineering. There’s an outer ring that holds the larger tiles, and then an inner hub that holds the smaller tiles. The hub can be removed and rotated in any of the six positions so that you can have randomized pairs (one large one small). And, of course, the whole S.U.S.A.N. spins freely.
In the deluxe edition, the lifepods and meteorites were upgraded from wooden cylinders and flat starbursts to plastic miniatures; they were also given a wash that unfortunately didn’t turn out properly so they have kind of a grungy look to them. In the current Gamefound campaign, they’re available as a separate add-on for $12 and I imagine this time around they probably won’t have the same issues with the wash (or will forgo the wash entirely). I did notice that the add-on wooden bits in the campaign have replaced the cylindrical lifepods with lifepod meeples.
The deluxe edition had custom plastic trays for storage—these also have lids that hold the scorepad. I don’t believe there is a way to get these separately from the deluxe edition.
Overall the rulebook is pretty easy to use, but the one part that I think could have been a bit more helpful is the section on the asymmetric corporations. Each of these has its own abilities and technology, and the rulebook offers some clarifications but there were sometimes still questions we had that weren’t answered.
How to Play Planet Unknown
The game’s goal is to score the most points by filling your planet with tiles, achieving objectives, and making progress on your resource tracks.
Give each player a planet board, a corporation board, 5 resource tracker cubes, a depot marker, 6 lifepods, and 2 rovers. (If using the asymmetric planets and corporations, some players may have more or fewer rovers or lifepods).
Place the S.U.S.A.N. in the center of the playing area; each section of tiles should be shuffled and placed back into the turntable. Each player should place their depot marker pointing at one section of the turntable, spaced as evenly as possible.
Place the meteorites and biomass patches in a supply. Shuffle the objective cards and place one between each pair of players (with the “neighbor” side face-up). Shuffle the Civ cards; from each rank, take 1 more than the number of players and return the rest to the box. Place these in 4 stacks according to rank, face-down.
Choose the first player to take the Commander token.
Each round, the Commander may rotate the S.U.S.A.N. to any position (including not changing it at all), and then every player takes a tile from the depot facing their own depot marker. (The depot includes the large tile on the outer ring and the smaller tile on the inner hub.)
Then, everyone places the tile on their own planet board and adjusts their resource tracks accordingly. Your first tile must be placed on the outer edge of your planet (we decided this means they must be flat planets!) and then subsequent tiles must be placed adjacent to existing tiles. When you place a tile, you generally advance the two resources shown on your tile, though with some important exceptions. For the water tiles, you only advance the water track if at least one square of the water terrain on the tile is placed on top of the planetary ice (the blue areas) on your planet board. The other exception is the energy resource (yellow): there’s no energy track on your board, so instead you get to advance one resource that’s adjacent to the energy area you just added to.
As you advance on the resource tracks, you’ll trigger other effects. Some spaces have a synergy boost (which looks a bit like a beach ball)—when you reach one of these, you immediately advance any track one space. Others have medals—at the end of the game, you’ll get points for the highest medal you’ve reached on each track. Finally, there are milestones that are specific to each track with their own effects:
- Civ: Take the cards of the corresponding rank, choose one, and return the rest. Some have an immediate effect, and some are for end-game scoring bonuses.
- Biomass: Take a biomass patch (a one-square green tile) and place it immediately on your planet.
- Rover: The rover icons allow you to add a rover to the tile, and numbers allow you to drive your rovers around. Rovers are used to pick up meteorites to remove them from the board and to rescue life pods. Note that if you place a tile on top of a rover, it is destroyed and removed from the game.
- Tech: Gain the effects of the corresponding technology on the right side of your corporation board.
The water track does not have its own milestones—it just has more medals for scoring.
After everyone has placed a tile and resolved the resource tracks, pass the Commander token to the left and repeat!
The end of the game is triggered by one of two conditions. If you are unable to place either of the tiles available to you, then you choose one, advance your resource tracks based on that tile, and then discard the tile. If you take the last tile from a depot—that is, both sections facing you are now empty, that also triggers the end of the game. In either case, players finish that turn, and then the game ends.
For each column and row in your planet grid that is filled with tiles and has no meteorites, you score the points indicated in the corresponding medal. For each resource track, you score the highest medal that you reached (or passed). You also score 1 point per lifepod retrieved, and 1 point for every 3 meteorites collected.
If you have “End Game” Civ cards, reveal those now. Some award medals, and some give you extra points for things like lifepods or biomass patches. The Meteorite Repo cards increase the payout for meteorites—the more of these cards you collect, the better the payout. The Commerce Agreement cards also give you more medals if you collect more of them.
Check the objective cards next to you, and see how you did compared to your neighbor. The player who achieved the objective gets 5 points; if there’s a tie, each player gets 2 points.
The highest score wins, with ties going to the player with the fewest number of uncovered grid squares, and then the player with the fewest meteorites remaining on their planet.
There are a few variant mode rules included. For a 2-player game, you use 3 neighbor objectives between the two players. Each of the objective cards also has a private objective side—these can be added so everyone has one secret objective as well.
If you’d like a little more randomness in the game, you can add the event cards, which come in green, orange, and red alert levels. You build a deck of 20 event cards, a mix of the three alerts depending on how difficult you want to make the game. Red alerts are, of course, much more punishing than the green alerts. If the event deck runs out, that also triggers the end of the game.
There is also a solo mode—you’ll have 3 private objectives and you’ll use the event deck. Each turn, you must rotate the turntable clockwise one space. Your scoring goal is based on the makeup of the event deck.
Planet Unknown is GeekDad Approved!
Why You Should Play Planet Unknown
Tile-laying games have a particular draw for me. I like games where I get to build out a map of some sort, whether as a group (like the classic Carcassonne) or individually (like Cascadia) because it’s fun to see the area grow and spread throughout the game. I like the puzzle of figuring out where pieces go to get the best effect, and with polyomino tiles, there’s also the puzzle of making everything fit without leaving too many holes.
Another feature I enjoy is tech trees, and trying to decide what to improve and in what order. Quite often in games like this, there are synergies to discover—building one technology may help you improve another, and figuring out a good combination is really satisfying.
Planet Unknown includes both of these elements: you’re trying to cover your entire planet in polyominos, so you have to plan ahead for what tiles might fit where. But you’re also managing the five different resource tracks and figuring out what to advance. The tech resource is important because it unlocks some abilities—on the basic corporation, they include letting you place tiles anywhere (instead of in a contiguous group), saving biomass tiles to place at the end of the game, speeding up your rover, and even ignoring any future meteor strikes. If you’re using the asymmetric corporations, the tech abilities are usually a big part of what makes the corporation unique, so you usually want to invest in those.
The Civ cards are also quite effective—the earlier cards have small effects, but if you can get all the way to Rank 4, they can be extremely powerful. Some of the corporations even have the ability to gain multiple cards per rank (which can mean that some players won’t get one). The earlier you hit a Civ milestone, the more cards you’ll have to choose from, so the timing matters.
Getting your rovers up and running helps you pick up lifepods and also clear meteorites, which is crucial to scoring points for those filled columns and rows. Depending on where your meteorites are, you could rob yourself of up to 6 points for a single meteorite. But your rovers also present an additional complication—since you can drive them around directly on the planet’s surface, they’re at risk of being crushed by new tiles, so if you’re not careful about where you park them, you end up blocking yourself. Is it worth waiting until you’ve got your faster rovers before you advance your rover track—or will you run out of time to pick up all the meteorites?
Many games of this sort—where each player is building their own individual map—can feel a bit like multiplayer solitaire, where what you do doesn’t really affect anyone else. Not so with Planet Unknown. The shared objectives help with that a little bit since you’re competing with your neighbors for a couple of specific goals. But the S.U.S.AN. is an even bigger factor: it’s not just a fancy spinner—it’s also what allows for hate-drafting.
When it’s your turn to spin the turntable and choose a depot for yourself, you’re also choosing for everyone else. The first time you play Planet Unknown you probably won’t care about this too much—you just want to pick the best possible tile for yourself. As you get more familiar with the game, you’ll start to realize that sometimes making sure another player does not get a particular tile may be worth just as much. This can be particularly true for those neighbor objectives. You and your neighbor are both looking for water tiles? Turn the S.U.S.A.N. so that you get one and they don’t, even if it’s not your favorite water tile.
The orientation will also start to matter toward the end of the game, as players start filling up their planets. Since the game ends if somebody is forced to take a tile that doesn’t fit on their board, you may have to choose between getting a nice tile and getting another turn—how many points is that last turn worth?
The asymmetric planets and corporations are a fun way to mix up the game and give everyone some different effects and abilities. I wouldn’t say that they’re necessarily balanced—you may get some combinations that are much better than others—but they are a lot of fun, and force you to change up your approach. Both the planets and the corporations have complexity ratings on them, so you can give tougher ones to more experienced players.
I’ve really enjoyed playing Planet Unknown so far and I’m glad that there’s a reprint coming because I know it’s been really hard to find. I’m giving it our GeekDad Approved seal because it’s a great combination of puzzly gameplay and cleverly designed components, plus I like that it goes up to 6 players without significantly impacting the game length. Since everyone plays on every turn, you’re engaged and involved with very little downtime.
If you like tile-placement games and good puzzles, Planet Unknown is a great way to scratch that itch. For more information on both the base game and the upcoming expansion, visit the Planet Unknown Gamefound campaign.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.