Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Stars are Right

This past weekend I played a board game called The Stars Are Right in which players attempt to be the first cultist to summon an old god from beyond space and time.  Who will then presumably destroy the universe.  The summoning cultist might even survive, somehow.

I love the premise.  The idea of summoning lesser creatures to assist you in summoning even more powerful creatures until you can bring forth Cthulu itself to eat the universe is solid and the basic mechanic of the game looks good at first glance:  There is a 5x5 grid of symbols on the board and each turn you play cards to manipulate the grid by shifting, swapping, or flipping cards in an attempt to get a particular configuration that will allow you to summon a new monster.  Each monster can only be summoned when the 5x5 star grid has particular arrangements of stars, planets, suns, and other celestial bodies in it and at the beginning it seemed like the game would be about long term planning and setting up big plays for later.  Unfortunately the game didn't pan out that way.

The trouble with the idea of planning ahead is twofold.  First off you have five cards in your hand and you spend two of them on your turn to do things.  Then you can discard the worst of your cards and draw back up to five again.  This means that you generally are only going to know a small part of what your hand will be next turn when making decisions so you can't make useful long term plans.  The other big issue is that the board gets massively rearranged between each of your turns by your opponents.  Especially when you have three other people playing you can expect the board to be seriously manipulated six times or so between your turns and as such there is really no point in thinking ahead.  What this ends up meaning is that alternate between making a simple short term plan and ignoring the game.  Because you have no information you can't usefully work against your opponents at all and each player simply becomes a randomization agent for the others.

The other issue with the game is that each player takes their turn scoring points until somebody gets to ten points and then they win.  Given this I would guess that the player going first would win a solid 40% of the games and the player going last would win more like 18%... hardly a reasonable starting proposition.  I went first in my game and I certainly won at least partly on that basis.

The Stars Are Right ends up feeling like a game that had some cool ideas but which totally failed the playtesting and polish segment of game design.  At the very least they should have set it up so that going first wasn't such a monstrous advantage by completing a full set of turns after somebody gets to ten points!  Whether or not it is feasible to actually salvage the game given that it felt like playing solitaire 1/4 of the time and like not playing at all 3/4 of the time is a harder question.  Most games are turn based and you have to spend some time just watching but it is important to feel like paying attention matters and that your opponent's strategy is relevant.  Unfortunately The Stars Are Right ends up feeling like your opponents are just random number generators and you can safely ignore them - not compelling gaming.

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