So, last night I got together with some friends and we* tried out The Stars Are Right, from Steve Jackson Games. The game was originally released by Pegasus Spiele in German*, and SJG has translated it into English.
I picked the game up at GenCon this year, read the rules, and got thoroughly confused. The rules are not badly written, but there are a couple of layers of complexity involved that lead to some obfuscation of exactly how simple the basics of the game really are. I wanted to sit in on a demo, but timing never worked out. I did manage to watch a demo for about five minutes, which did a whole lot to clarify how things work.
The idea is that you are a cultist trying to summon the Great Old Ones, their servitors, and minions. Most of these are worth a certain number of victory points*, and you need to accumulate 10 victory points to win. To summon a creature, the stars need to be right, hence the name of the game.
The stars in question are double-sided tiles set in a 5×5 grid representing the night sky. You need to be able to find the constellations (i.e., the combinations of tiles in the correct relationships with each other) printed on the bottom of each card. If you can’t find the right arrangements of stars to summon anything in your hand, you need to rearrange the sky*, by discarding one of the cards in your hand and using the rearrangement icons it represents perform one (or more) of three possible actions:
- Push a row or column one space, sliding the end tile around to the beginning of that row or column.
- Flip a tile over so that it shows the stars on the opposite side.
- Swap the places of two tiles that are side by side.
If the stars are then right, you summon your creature, have the option to discard one card from your hand, and draw up to your maximum hand size. Next player’s turn.
As I mentioned above, there are a couple of layers of complexity to the game that, when spelled out in the rules can conceal these simple basics. For instance, most of the minions have a special power that is active either as long as you have a summoned minion in play, or kick in when you discard said minion from play. And all the other cards have a special feature that lets you trade one type of star-shifting action for either a different kind of action or multiples of the same action. You need to have the card summoned and in play to take advantage of this, but it can lead to long chains of swapping types of action to give you the shifts you need.
Oh, and there’s four “suits” of cards, each based around one of the Great Old Ones you can summon. Having greater and lesser servitors of those Old Ones summoned and in play can give you bonus constellations when summoning their specific Old One.
See? It gets a little complex and difficult to explain until you actually play it.
Add to that the very visual nature of the game and the demands it makes on your spacial awareness and imagination, and the game winds up feeling very different from most other games you play. There is a learning curve, here, and it’s a pretty steep one, based on my observations last night, but we all agreed that, given time and repeat plays, it could wind up being very fast. It’s mainly a matter of training your brain to work with the kinds of visual patterns the game uses.
The nature of the game produces one interesting artifact that came out during play last night: most of the players felt that it wasn’t worth their time to try and plan ahead based on the arrangement of stars, because it would change three more times before it got back to them. I’m not sure how much that thinking prevails with repeat play – maybe players learn to anticipate the possible conjunctions more – but it struck us as very difficult to make any predictions.
The game also provides very little interaction between players. There are one or two minion cards that let you steal from someone else and things like that, but mostly it’s just a race of individual achievement. That said, especially during this sort of learning period, there was a lot of table talk and anguished cries as someone messed up a star arrangement that someone else was really hoping would last until his turn.
All in all, the game was fun, and everyone agreed that they’d like to play again. Next time, I want in on it.
*It’s a word if I say it’s a word. Back
*Also, in Germany. See how that works? Back
*Minions are worth 0 points, lesser servitors are worth 1 point each, greater servitors are worth 2 points each, and Great Old Ones are worth 4 points each. Back
*Technically, you rearrange the sky before summoning, but in play, you’re generally making a decision about whether you invoke or not based on whether or not you can summon something good with the current arrangement of stars. Back