Monday, September 12, 2011

Board game review: The Stars are Right

What is it?

The Stars Are Right is a multiplayer card game with puzzle elements loosely wrapped around the Cthulhu mythos as depicted by H.P Lovecraft.  It sounds weird, it IS weird and by gosh golly gumdrops, it's a difficult game.

What's in the box?

25 double-sided constellation tiles
80 creature cards
Rule sheet (4 sides of A4)
A Little Book of Evil reference card for each player.

How to play

The playing board is made up of 25 square tiles, arranged in a 5 x 5 grid.  On either side of each tile is a constellation or other celestial body.  By moving tiles around the board in a way similar to those old-fashioned sliding block puzzles, intricate patterns of these symbols have to be arranged to 'summon' different kinds of horrific beasty.  At first, the monsters are small and no more dangerous than a slightly-annoyed nun with a rolling pin but as the game progresses, the patterns become ever more complex as players attempt to summon the biggest of them all, 'The Great Old One'. 

Essentially, the turn order is thus:
  • Invoke a creature by discarding its card and the powers it possesses will allow you to rearrange the constellation tiles. 
  • Depending on the creatures invoked, there are 3 different types of move 'powers' to rearrange the constellation tiles: Pushing (moving a row in the grid), Swap two neighbouring tiles or Flip a single tile over.
  • If the stars are right, that is you can find a constellation that matches one of the creatures in your hand, you may summon it to gain the point(s) and possibly more powers to re-arrange the stars on your next turn.  If a creature is summoned, it is placed on the table in front of the player.  That player is then considered to 'control' the creature.  The first to 10 points wins.
  • Fill your hand up to 5 cards (or 6 in certain circumstances) and turn progresses to the next player.

As you summon more creatures and the powers they possess, whole sequences of commands can be built up to flip, push and and swap the stars around in the sky to summon ever more powerful creatures.  There's a bit more to it than this with players joining the ranks of cultists and gaining bonus points for certain creatures and such-like.  Also, summoned creatures in play can 'augment' commands available to the player by, for example, turning 1 push into 2 flips or 2 flips into 2 swaps etc.  It sounds complicated but after only one game, we had the rules sorted.

What's it like to play?

First of all, monsters are not *actually* summoned.  We spent ages waiting for something to appear and even the offer of human sacrifice didn't seem to speed up the process.  Saying that, we're from Doncaster so the chances of finding a virgin were remote in the extreme.  It's one of those games with a simple mechanic but is incredibly difficult to play well.  Some members of our board games club took to it like a duck does to Hoi Sin sauce while others were left scratching their heads like the waiting room of an STD clinic. 

I must admit, I fell into the latter category and trying to fathom out the patterns amongst the grid of tiled cards was frustratingly challenging, challengingly frustrating and bloody difficult.  Not only can the tiles be 'shuffled' along the lines of, as mentioned, those sliding block puzzles, but they can also be turned over, swapped with their neighbour and along with the other creature modifiers, it becomes very complex trying to find patterns amongst the stars.  If only I'd got Russell Grant with me. 

The complexity doesn't stop there as you can match the stars to any of the 5 creatures in your hand.  I found myself constantly shuffling through my cards, trying to find the slightest inkling of a connection and what should be a fun game, rapidly turns into an arduous mental challenge.

There is no real competition except for you and your brain and other players are there merely to mess up the board moments before you make your big move.  They don't mean to do it as they are just trying to win the game for themselves but there is little interaction between you and anyone else.

Analysis Paralysis is a big problem with the game and as it's so difficult trying to figure out where to move or how to change the tiles in a meaningful way, turns took way longer than our patience allowed.  More often than not, as you're scanning the board, trying to work out the moves, someone else will have changed it by the time it gets to your turn.  You then have to start from scratch in your deliberations.

It sounds like I'm down with the game but really I'm not and there's a lot to like.  The artwork, by Goomi this time, is excellent and amusing as per all Steve Jackson games.  A vein of humour threads its way throughout and while not quite as silly or irreverent as say, Munchkin, it's certainly got its tongue firmly in cheek.  It takes the Lovecraftian Cthulu mythos and puts a neat, cartoon-y spin on it albeit with that venerable authors madness, if you can imagine that.  The game IS quite abstract from the theme and would work just as easily without all the monster and cultist references.

It's possible to play strategically by scuppering the playing board for other players.  In reality though, it's hard enough concentrating on your own cards without having to worry about what anyone else is doing.  The challenge is part of the fun though, it's just when playing at lunchtime and you're trying to have a break from all that hard work (yeah, right), it's nice to have something light and fluffy to play as opposed to this which is dark, heavy-going and liable to cause mind-fracturing.  I suppose it's the difference between a banana and a double-choc cream cake with extra cream and chocolate.  They're both good for you but you could only eat one after a big meal.

To conclude, it is a game worth checking out especially if you're of a more cerebral nature.  Looking beyond the simple mechanic is a mind-bending puzzle game with a surprising amount of depth to the challenge it offers.  It's just a shame there is so little interaction between players and your mind will have melted by the end.

About £25 for the box.  Unusually for Steve Jackson Games, there are currently no expansion sets available (as of September 2011).

Mechanic: Hand management and pattern recognition
Suitable for ages 12 and up but if your kids are good at this, get them enrolled into Mensa or something.

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