Once every cycle, four to eight shadowy figures meet to decide the fate of planets from all corners of the galaxy. Where they meet up is a closely guarded secret. Who they truly work for, even more so. A formalised and highly civil system for making and taking bribes is observed. Oh, and they have quotas. Planets in the galaxy must be settled, taxed, conquered, mined, and thrown into black holes in equal quantities! It is only fair. You are asked to join the ranks of the Black Hole Council, and decide the fate of these planets, and of course, come out on top as the most influential councillor in the galaxy!
4-8 Players| 30 minutes | Designed by Don Eskridge
Black Hole Council was published by Orange Machine Games via Kickstarter with the campaign running during January 2018. It was designed by Don Eskridge (of The Resistance/Avalon fame) and was delivered in August. The game is the second game from Orange Machine and Deskridge, following on from Abandon Planet in their series of space-ish, deduction-ish themed games. I found it particularly notable that Black Hole Council was very affordable at a price of just $25USD per copy.
How does it work?
Black Hole Council is a negotiation and deduction game that is played over a series of 10 rounds, with a mixture of negotiation rounds and deduction rounds taking place before a final scoring round after which a winner is determined (the player with the most influence at the end).
Players are each given an ‘agenda’ card at the beginning of the game, which tell them their secret preferences. This guides them in which planets they would like to see settled, taxed, mined, conquered and disposed of in black holes. There are 5 types/colours of planets, and each player will have one of those assigned to each category by their card, e.g., you might want red planets to be settled, yellow to be taxed and so on.
In each of the negotiation rounds, the council leader will arrange 5 planets cards as their proposal for what will happen to them (one in each of settle, tax, mine, conquer and black hole). Other players can make suggestions for re-arrangement but only the leader may touch the cards. After a two minutes, all players vote pass/fail on the proposal. During the two minutes, ideally the leader will have arranged the cards in such a way that a majority of players agreed they would vote for the proposal.
If the proposal passes each player determines if they will gain influence by seeing how many planets match their agenda and how much they are worth. They may move up in the influence track at this stage. If the proposal failed, a new one is attempted by the next leader. Players may use their coins to bribe other players to vote their way, but must be careful as coins can also be used to gain influence.
In between the three sets of two negotiation rounds, players try to guess what their neighbours agendas say (e.g. guess what their settle/tax planet colour is). If they are successful in these guesses, they gain coins. At the end of the game, there is a bonus scoring phase where players gain coins and may make a final dash up the influence track before the game ends and a victor is decided.
What do I think?
I’ve played Black Hole Council several times with differing numbers of players. I think that the game is best with the max player count (8) as it really pushes the negotiation phase into a hectic and wild 2 minutes that can end up all over the place. I found playing with 5 players to be particularly weird as you could just find a sweet spot with the planet arrangement where two people were happy to vote for you and then you could just stop and wait for the vote. 6/8 players means you need to please 3/4 other players to get majority and makes the juggle to get the planets right much more exciting and there is much more yelling!
The Good Stuff
- A unique theme – Galactic politicians arguing over the fate of planets. It fits well and the fact that everyone has a bias and secret agenda works very well (“Well, you know I do get a little help funding my lifestyle from the mining industry…”)
- Black Hole Council feels really different to other ‘social deduction’ games. While obviously inspired by games like The Resistance, Black Hole Council has a different core mechanism, and there is no traitor – everyone is always being tugged away for their own reasons. I find the free form negotiation system to be really exciting, it feels like an auction where everyone is yelling what they want and lots of stuff is happening.
- The moments when you swap two cards and everyone starts exclaiming they will no longer vote for your agenda are really fun. The whole ‘what if I do this’ and gauging how many votes you will gain or lose is an amazing element of this game
- I really like the clean and abstract art and design the game has. It’s a break from the usual space game dark and foreboding feel.
- Knowing who will win is pretty wide open until the end of the game. This keeps everyone involved and tense!
- The bribe system is a bit quirky but I think it works really well. The whole ‘you can have this bribe … but only if the vote goes through!’ thing is a great mechanic.
- The game runs really quick and is over before you know it! All players are engaged for pretty much the whole game, there is no downtime since everyone participates simultaneously.
- It’s interesting how there is a fair bit of varied strategy in the influence track. It’s very rewarding to pull off a surprise win after hardly moving all game because you are lining up the 0 influence planets so you can gain a massive amount of coins at the end of the game.
The Bad Stuff
- The two rainbow planets just feel really pointless. They match every colour and give -1 or +1 which affects everyone equally. I feel like they could have had some other interesting effect on the round they come out in.
- The deduction phases can be a bit hit or miss. If you pay careful attention you can usually get it right, but it’s easy to get caught up in the negotiation part of the game and forget about it. It feels like a part of the game that doesn’t really need to be there, but it keeps people from wholesale revealing their agendas so I suppose it’s required.
- The intrigue cards are pretty boring. Almost always everyone forgets about them and when remembered, they don’t really do much. I think that they could have been more exciting if they allowed people to change the planets around after people had voted or something like that.
- The sand timer …. cheap sand timers just suck. It gets jammed and because it’s small it’s really hard to notice. We’ll probably use a phone in the future as we had a lot of trouble with the timer.
I really like the new games coming out of Orange Machine Games, they are both very unique games that cater to high player counts and provide a bit of a deeper experience to more well known ‘party’ games. I think Black Hole Council is a lot of fun and when played with a crowd that enjoys games like The Resistance it can get very competitive and provide for an extremely enjoyable experience that you will want to come back to again. I understand that the initial print run of the game was quite small but if you see a copy floating around definitely try it out and hopefully it will gain wider popularity! I wouldn’t be upset to see this game talked about up there with Avalon and The Resistance, I think it’s just as good.