Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 26 February 2010

Pattern Recognition

In most games you do not get to be evil. You play as “White Hats,” heroes fighting the evil doing “black hats” whether said “black hats” are crazies, zombies, Great Old Ones, or Nazis, and invariably saving the world in the process. There are exceptions to this of course, of which The Stars Are Right is the latest addition to those exceptions. This is not the supplement for Call of Cthulhu from the 1990s, but the English edition of a card game originally published in Germany by Pegasus Spiele, but now available from Steve Jackson Games. Designed for two to four players, aged twelve and up, in The Stars Are Right each player is a cultist, attempting to bring the Great Old Ones to Earth. Unfortunately for each cultist, the stars are not quite right to summon such Lovecraftian horrors, but if a cultist can summon Lesser and Greater Servitors, then with such creatures he will be able to make the Stars Come Right and so summon his true Master, end the Rule of Man, and thus become a new Lord of the Earth. Or his Master’s next nibble between meals...

My first reaction to The Stars Are Right was, “Yay! I get be an evil cultist!” My second reaction to The Stars Are Right was, “Yay! It’s illustrated by Goomi, who does the amusing Unspeakable Vault (of Doom)!” My third reaction to The Stars Are Right was, “Yay! It’s not another Munchkin variant!” For while The Stars Are Right is still a silly game, it is never as silly or as random as Munchkin and its various re-themed variants, being a more substantial affair that melds a strong theme with a solid game design that just happens to look good in well done cartoonish style. The game play focuses a star pattern grid which the cultists will alter, flipping, pushing, and swapping individual stars by invoking Servitors to create particular patterns in the stars and so use those patterns to summon Lesser and Greater Servitors whose powers enable greater numbers of flips, pushes, and swaps. Eventually, by using these manoeuvres – and by sacrificing Greater Servitors – a cultist can achieve the complex pattern of stars necessary to summon a Great Old One.

This is an attractive looking game. From the eye-catching box itself to the cards and the tiles, the quality of the components is nothing less than solid. True, the rules sheet feels a bit flimsy in comparison, but the box itself comes with an insert to keep everything together and the tiles come in their own ziplock bag. Trivial as the latter two facts might seem, they do mark another change at Steve Jackson Games because many of the publisher’s older titles lacked internal packaging which meant that in terms of production values lacked the class of The Stars Are Right. That said, it would have been nice if the game had included another ziplock bag for its cards.

The game consists of two elements. The first are the Star Tiles, of which there are twenty-five. These are double sided and come in rich night sky blue , and depict a number of night sky elements – one, two, three, four, or five stars; waxing and waning moons; shooting stars and meteors; the Sun and the Moon; a Lunar Eclipse and a hooded eye Solar Eclipse; and an empty void. The corners of each tile depict what lies on the other side, so making it easy for a player to identify the tiles that he needs to flip.

The other element is the game’s cards. Four of these are each a “Little Book of Evil,” or Reference Cards. The remaining seventy-five are Creature Cards, each of which depicts a Mythos entity and comes packed with quite a bit of information. These include a creature’s name, type (Great Old One, Greater Servitor, Lesser Servitor, or Minion), its Invocation Symbols (how it rearranges the Star Grid when played), a symbol indicating which Great Old it serves (Minions lack this privilege), its Victory Point value (Lesser Servitors are worth one point, Greater Servitors two points, and Great Old Ones four), the Constellation or pattern of stars that have to be visible on the Star Grid to be summoned, and its Power, or how it alters the Invocation Symbols from other creatures.

All of the information on the cards is easy to read, with the Symbols corresponding to the Flip, Push, and Swap manoeuvres needed to make the Stars Come Right being very clear. The cards are also darkly attractive, with Goomi’s artwork being as excellent as you would expect, though Lovecraft purists might balk at his slightly tentacle in cheek take on the Mythos. After all, the cultists in the game are not summoning Hounds of Tindalos, Dagon, or Cthulhu, but Tindaloo, Dagoon, and great Cthulhoo. The four Great Old Ones that appear in The Stars Are Right are Chaugnar, Hastur, Tsatso, and the aforementioned Cthulhoo. The more powerful a Creature, the greater the number of Symbols it grants when Invoked or when its Power is used.

At game’s start, the Star Tiles are laid out in a five-by-five grid and everyone receives five cards. The first aim of a cultist on his turn is to generate as many as manoeuvres – the Flips, Pushs, and Swaps – represented by the Symbols as possible. Initially this is done by Invoking (and discarding) a Creature to use its Symbol in one of two ways. In the opening stages of the game, the Symbol will be used to alter the Star Grid, but once a Cutist has managed to summon a Creature and have placed on the table before him, he can use the Symbol from the Invocation to feed the Power of the Summoned Creature. A Power either exchanges one Symbol into another, or generates extra Symbols. A Creature is not discarded if its Power is used, but the Power can only be used once per turn.

Once a Cultist has all of the Symbols that he can generate, he can expend them to alter the Star Grid. A Flip turns a Star Tile over; a Push forces a vertical or horizontal row along by one space, with the Tile that has forced out of the Star Grid being placed back into the empty space created by the Push; and a Swap exchanging the places of two orthogonally adjacent tiles. If the Stars Are Right and the Constellation on a Creature card matches a pattern in the Star Grid, then that Creature can be summoned. Once done, a Cultist is allowed to discard a card and then refresh his hand.

All of the Constellations in the game are different, even between Creatures of the same type, and the more powerful and the more useful a Creature is, the more complex, and the more difficult its Constellation is to achieve on the Star Grid. The elements of a Constellation need not be adjacent and some of the Constellations for the more powerful Creatures have dark spaces in their patterns that can contain any sky element. The most complex of Constellations are those for the Great Old Ones, but if the summoning Cultist controls any Greater Servitors that are devoted to the Great Old One being summoned, then it can grant the Cultist a Bonus Star. This Bonus Star is used to ignore one of the sky elements in the Constellation needed to summon the Great Old One. Up to three Bonus Stars can be donated in this way, but the Greater Servitors are sacrificed in the process.

Most Creature cards give something towards a Cultist’s Victory Point total. Minion cards do not. While each Minion card provides a Symbol when Invoked, its Power does not change or multiply other Symbols. Instead, Ghasts and Ghouls allow a Cultist to increase hand and discard more cards respectively, whilst Gugs and Tindaloos allow a Cultist to swap a Lesser or Greater Servitor that he controls with another belonging to a rival Cultist. Any Gug or Tindaloo is discarded in the process...

The aim of the game is to score ten Victory Points. The first Cultist to do so not only wins the game, but heralds the beginning of the End Times... These points can be scored by summoning lots of Servitors, or just enough Servitors and a Great Old One. Of course, as soon as the Stars Come Nearly Right for one Cultist, all of the other Cultists really start trying sure that they go Wrong...

If you do happen to buy a copy of The Stars Are Right, then I would recommend adding two things to make game play a little easier. First is a means keeping track of everyone’s Victory Point totals, using either tokens or dice. The other is a means of keeping track of a cultist’s Symbols during his turn. Again, tokens work well here. Pleasingly, the publisher is supporting the game with not only a Scoring Track that can be downloaded for free, but with a set of Action Tokens which will be available – also free – in the near future.

The card and Symbol mechanics in The Stars Are Right are easy enough to grasp after a round or two, the learning process being aided by the clearly written rules. Where the game gets really difficult is in the “Pattern Recognition,” the process of reading a Constellation on a Creature card and matching it on the Star Grid, and in working out how the Symbols that you have can be used to create or get closer to creating the Constellation on the Star Grid. In fact, on our first play, this was an extremely frustrating process. For what is actually a simple card, this element of The Stars Are Right can be hard work and take more effort than you would have thought. This is also means that this is not a game to play with someone who is prone to “analysis paralysis.” This frustration lessens though with more play, but it does mean that The Stars Are Right is not quite as conducive to casual play. It takes the right frame of mind to want to play this. Well, you are playing a Cultist...

Nevertheless, this is a game that will be enjoyed by all fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, and by fans of Munchkin Cthulhu wanting a little more substance and a lot more evil. This is a game in which you not only fight evil, you are evil, and the only reason that you are fighting the other evil is because it might get to be more evil than you. With a design and mechanics that strongly match its insanely eldritch theme, The Stars Are Right is brain wrangling fun.