Black Hole Kyrum Review (SOLO Sci-Fi board game) – What a ride!
Posted On March 4, 2023
I recently backed the Black Hole Kyrum Kickstarter for a physical copy of the game, knowing nothing about it, but having read glowing reviews.
Black Hole Kyrum is an exclusively SOLO Sci-Fi Board Game, which was originally a free Print and Play. In Black Hole, you play as Jakub, an explorer who travels to various planets through space and time. The game is a solo campaign, with some legacy aspects, that spans 30 to 45 game sessions of about 30 minutes each. Although each individual mission has its own objectives tied to resource management, the ultimate goal of the campaign is to piece together the story of Jakub and his world, by answering an end-of-game questionnaire.
TL, DR: Black Hole is a hidden gem for solo gamers, dripping with space/time travel theme.
Although I did get the physical version, except for the components quality it is the same as the Print and play. I encourage you to get the free print and play, and give it a try for about 3 game sessions (at about 30 minutes per game). By then you’ll know if the game is for you or not.
Note: I made a video version of this review for those of you who prefer the video format:
Initial Impressions, components, and art
Note that some aspects of what I’ll say here will be specific to the physical copy I received and do not apply to the Print and Play version.
My very first impression when opening the box was, to be frank, a bit of disappointment that the game doesn’t really come in a proper box. The Kickstarter instead provides a bag to store the game, but, honestly, what kind of mad person stores a board game in a bag? Considering how gorgeous some of the game’s art is, it’s even more disappointing that it didn’t ship in a matching, thematic box.
With that being said, and as I mentioned in my unboxing video, that’s the name of the game for kickstarter, in particular for an individual designer like Yossef, who’s basically driving everything from start to finish on his own: the result isn’t perfect on all aspects, but the kickstarter delivered on its promise, and I’d rather send my money to a small designer like Yossef who uses Kickstarter for what it was originally intended, than shelling hundreds of dollars to an established publisher that shouldn’t go through Crowdfunding. Anyway, I digress: too bad that the game doesn’t have a box, but I’ll figure out a way to make my own.
For everything else, there isn’t much to say about the components themselves (the dice are ok, the quality of the card stock is good, the miniature space ship is a bit gimmicky but does the job), but I have to say the art is gorgeous. There is a very nice space exploration theme dripping through the art of the cards and in the book. And considering that this is originally a free print and play game, wow.
It definitely helps with the immersion through the game, even if there isn’t that much art overall. Given how detailed the universe of Kyrum is, one can only imagine how great an illustrated novel would look like, or how the game itself would look like with more funding.
Black Hole Kyrum – Gameplay
The heart of Black Hole Kyrum is its campaign, which is all about piecing together the story of the sci-fi world you evolve in.
The campaign is made of 30 missions (possibly more, up to you toward the end of the campaign) during which you play as space explorer Jakub, who will have to travel to planets (and through time), in order to understand his own story, but I’ll get back to that shortly.
For now I want to talk about the core loop of a single mission.
Each mission lasts about 30 minutes. The loop of each mission is as follows:
draw 4 planet cards
You can choose to travel to some of them using fuel (depending on dice rolls, some planets are further than others and cost more to travel to) in order to try and acquire resources.
Once you travelled to a planet, roll two exploration dice (black and white respectively). Depending on which die has the biggest number, you either get the resource that matches the “white” arrow or the one that matches the “black” arrow. If the dice are equal, you instead get to read a specific paragraph of the story book.
When you’re done travelling to the planets (or don’t want to travel to more planets of this step), you draw 4 new ones, rinse and repeat.
A game session ends either when you achieve the mission’s resource goals (typically something like “have your life at its max, 4 uncommon resources, and 2 rare resources”), when you die or run out of fuel, or when you’ve cycled through the planet deck 4 times.
So typically for a mission you will try to balance the cost of travelling to a planet versus what it can bring you if you explore it successfully, and how that matches the current mission’s goals. Black Hole’s core loop is a resource management and push-your-luck dice game.
However, the real “meat” of the game, and the ultimate goal of the campaign, is to understand Jakub’s story. Any time you roll equal numbers on the exploration dice, you get to read some paragraphs that give you sporadic details about the universe Jakub lives in, or on Jakub himself and his family (a lot of the game revolves on your relation with your son, but I won’t spoil). This mechanic of reading paragraphs of a book is a bit similar to a game such as Sleeping Gods, although I think Black Hole does it better (more on that in the review section below).
Game designer Yossef Farhi manages to hook you pretty quickly on the story (I played with the French version of the game so I cannot speak for the English translation of the PnP) , and the need to “play one more game to understand what’s going on with planet X, Individual Y, or Artifact Z” becomes quickly intoxicating. This is why I think if you give a try to the PnP game: a handful of sessions should be enough for you to know if you want to continue or not.
After a few games, it becomes clear that more than “resource management to complete the current mission”, it is equally as important to “survive as long as possible during this mission to learn more about the story, even if this means failing the current objectives”. This equilibrium reminds me to some extent of e.g. Pandemic Legacy, where sometimes losing a mission was inevitable, and alternate choices needed to be made in order to squeeze the most out of it despite the incoming failure..
As you progress through the campaign, more details are revealed, as well as a questionnaire (in 3 parts, revealed progressively). The ultimate goal of the campaign is to answer questions about Jakub, his family, and what happened to their world. This questionnaire mechanism isn’t unlike a game such as Sherlock Holmes, but I’ll explain below why I think it works a bit better.
Black Hole Kyrum – Review
Before I get started with the review, if you want to give the game a try, I suggest you only print the game components, and possibly the rule book, but I wouldn’t print the story book (except for the games page and the scripts check page, which you have to write on), which is by far the biggest component to print in the game. Instead, keep a pdf of that file on your phone or computer, it will be as convenient as a printed version. And skipping that one means the rest of the game is very lightweight in terms of printer cost.
I’ve mentioned it above, but overall I love this game. I feel that the campaign mechanic is original, the games play quick enough for a short session here and there (shout out to the setup which is literally 2 minutes per game), and the story of Jakub is so exciting it’s difficult to stop playing. As a matter of fact, I completed the campaign in less than 10 days, and that was probably the only game I played (and the only I wanted to play) during that period. I hadn’t been so excited by a board game in a long time.
But Black Hole Kyrum is far from perfect of course.
In particular the resource management core loop of each individual session felt cruelly random to me. A lot of the planets you visit have a “good” outcome and a “not so good”, sometimes “really bad” outcome depending on your exploration dice rolls.
And mitigation for those rolls is almost nonexistent: there are a few items you can purchase between missions to get rerolls for example, but those are quite expensive. More so that the “currency” you use to buy those is acquired in game, in particular when you win missions. The result is a vicious circle of “the more you lose, the more you lose”, as losing a mission means you probably won’t have enough money to buy items to help with the next one. Conversely, if you get a few good games (through luck or otherwise) and end up with a lot of resources, it can tremendously help for future missions. I’m sure a better balance was achievable here. By comparison, I feel a game such as pandemic legacy did a better job of “putting you back on track” when you lost a given mission, by sending you “extra support”. That was also justified in the story with pretty clever writing.
Randomness is unfortunately the name of the game for a lot of the individual missions, with even some parts reminding me of the old school “choose your own adventure” books: make a wrong decision or a wrong dice roll in some paragraphs of the book, and you’re simply dead. The campaign isn’t over, but you just failed the current mission. At least the time travel gimmick make it easy to suspend disbelief and have your character come back the next day for a new mission. Those brutal endings, although frustrating, are baked into the gameplay: you now know you’ll have to either avoid that specific paragraph altogether in the future, or come more prepared with mitigation items to ensure you don’t lose this or that dice roll. Live, Die, Repeat.
Some of the missions in my experience are simply “impossible” to win (or too expensive in terms of mitigation items), statistically speaking. Or, to make it clearer, they’re not worth the effort or wasting mitigation items. Where you have actual agency is in choosing whether you’ll visit a given planet or if it’s not worth the risk/fuel.
More than once I pulled my hair, yelling at the game “there is no strategy, it’s all f…ng random!!!”. And for some missions I chose from the start that I’d simply not win them (for example missions with objectives to finish the game with both maximum health AND a ton of rare elements feel impossible to me, because the only way to heal oneself in the game is to consume rare elements, while most ways to get these elements involve a 50% probability of losing health instead), and instead focus on reading more of the story. The same can be said for some of the planets, which have huge penalties if you fail exploring them (then again, you occasionally want to visit them at least to read their stories…!).
It is an interesting dilemma of the game ultimately, and paradoxically a huge part of its appeal, once you understand that winning the current mission isn’t always what it’s about.
Once you can psychologically move beyond the mentality of “winning a given game at all cost”, Black Hole Kyrum really shines. The resource management and missions become a mean to an end, the end being “figuring out what happened/happens/will happen in Kyrum”. It’s a story about a world at war, although why it is at war, and who is involved, is initially unclear. How Jakub’s family is mingled in this whole story is also something that progressively reveals itself a your read more random paragraphs from the book.
The genius of the writing and the universe that Farhi has created here needs to be emphasized: because time travel is involved in the story, it completely justifies that we’re reading bits and pieces of Jakub’s story in an arbitrary order. It’s like the movie Memento (or the video game Her Story), but with years, sometimes decades between each piece of the story. Not to mention that the story spans on multiple planets. More generally, although I’m not equipped to judge the writing level, I feel it conveyed sufficient style, atmosphere and mystery for me to be kept interested throughout the whole campaign.
And here I have to make a comparison with Sleeping Gods. Because to me, Black Hole is everything that Sleeping Gods failed to deliver. This is of course a very personal opinion, and your mileage might vary, but to me one of the biggest disappointments in Sleeping gods after several hours of play, was that all the stories I was reading were entirely disconnected. It was obviously a choice the designers made for the randomness of the paragraph reading to make sense, but to me it meant there was no “mystery” to unravel, just vignettes not connected to each other, except for the fact that they happen on the same patch of land.
Black Hole takes this concept of reading arbitrary paragraphs but elevates it, forcing you to try and piece the story, which is what all the excitement is about. On a different topic, I also felt that Black Hole was more “honest” than sleeping gods in the randomness of its resource management mechanism: a Black hole game where your resource management doesn’t go well, is over in 30 minutes at best. Quick and painless. Sleeping Gods was having us hop from rotten plank of wood to miserable coin here and there, delaying our inevitable demise by hours, even though it was clear we were just dead from the start. Ha, just my experience, I know others will disagree.
On the end-of-game questionnaire aspect, Black Hole is similar to a session of Sherlock Holmes, but I feel it does it better, because of one single point: In Sherlock Holmes, you have to find clues, ask questions to witnesses of a given mystery, then reveal the end questionnaire and hope that you wrote roughly the right details. It’s often hit and miss, once you’ve actually solved the murder, but didn’t think to take down notes for details that seemed irrelevant, but happen to be part of the questionnaire. Black Hole solves this by revealing the questionnaire progressively, mid campaign. Meaning that you are given some more time to actually answer the questions now that you know them. Of course the randomness of the gameplay can get in your way nonetheless, but I found it much more enjoyable than Sherlock Holmes due to that one simple trick.
The originality/nice design of Black Hole don’t stop here: the designer has also added some quite “meta” aspects to the game. Without spoiling too much, it’s actually possible to play the game in parallel with a friend, both playing through the same story, and exchanging bits of information through the “black hole” mechanic, which can possibly make the game more exciting. The game also lets you real-life email the enigmatic “bob” to ask a few questions… be prepared for possibly puzzling answers though.
Black Hole is for you if…
You like Sci-Fi/space exploration Solo games
The theme and story are possibly more important than the gameplay for you, or you’re willing to forgive a bit of randomness in the gameplay as long as the story is good
You are ok with getting hooked on a single game for a week or two
You’re looking for some original and fairly unique board game experience
You like Time/Space travel themes, movies like Memento, Primer, or Interstellar; video games like Her Story
Black Hole is not for you if…
Gameplay/mechanics are way more important than story/theme
Randomness in a game is something you can’t forgive
The personal satisfaction of piecing a story together does not constitute a “game” for you
Part Memento or Her Story, in a thematic sci-fi setting, taking the best of games like Sherlock Holmes or Sleeping gods, with an engrossing story that reveals itself progressively and makes me want to play “just one more game to know what happens next (or…what happened before?)”, Black Hole Kyrum is certainly a hidden solo gem. Despite its flawed core gameplay with too much randomness and not enough dice roll mitigation for my taste, time flew by during the 20 hours or so I spent on the campaign, and I’ll certainly be following Yossef Farhi’s future games closely. Black Hole Kyrum was one of the best solo games I played in a long time.