Gamers have numerous reasons for choosing certain games. For me, it was the theme of Stellar that caught my eye. My family had recently acquired a telescope and enjoyed the wonders of the night sky. However, in the UK it is often wet, cloudy, usually cold and light pollution seems to make star gazing a challenging pastime. What better way to experience the glories of space and become like Sir Patrick Moore in the comfort of your own home.
Stellar is a new game from Renegade Games. It was released earlier in 2020. It is a two-player card game that involves set collection and card placement. We have found most games take about 20 to 30 minutes. Whilst the game is about scoring the most points, whether you win or lose, you still have a lovely snapshot of different celestial objects to show for the game.
Stellar is all about collecting sets of cards. Played over just 12 rounds, on each turn a total of two cards are selected. One must be placed on your telescope and the other in your notebook area. It is the interaction of these two areas that are used for scoring at the end of the game.
It is best to pay Stellar on a table or with enough room to spread out. Out in front of each player is a photo montage of 12 cards. These form a picture of a young astronomer looking through a telescope at the night sky. It is also onto these images that a single card is placed each turn. The cards in Stellar are grouped according to the type of celestial body; planets, moons, black holes, asteroids and interstellar clouds. A sixth suite, satellites, can be used as a wildcard. Each card is numbered (zero to six) but also has a separate value this is indicated by a number of stars in the right-hand corner (zero to three).
Laid out, face up between the two players, are a row of five cards with numbered positions. It is these cards that need to be drawn by each player. To start a player’s collection each is given two cards of medium value. One must be placed at the apex of the photo montage. The other in the notebook area. These four cards are of different types so no one player has any initial advantage. Once placed, two more cards are dealt to each player at the start of the game.
Each turn consists of drafting a card from the numbered row, playing one card to either the telescope or notebook, and then retrieving the appropriate second card. The second card taken from the row is determined by the number of the first card played. This card must be placed in the other area, opposite to the first card. Therefore, for each turn both the telescope area and notebook area receive one card each. At the end of the twelfth turn the telescope is field and the game ends.
A simple series of rules govern card placement on the telescope. The cards need to be placed in adjacent groups. (Any moon card must be placed in a position touching existing an existing moon card). If no other card of that type has yet been placed then that card may be put in any unused position on the telescope. Sometimes it is not possible to place a card next to an existing card type, due to other cards blocking access. As this new card cannot be placed legally it must be placed face down, yet occupy another space on the telescope.
The notebook area also has rules regarding how cards are placed. These should be grouped by sub type, and in numerical order. Satellites count as wild cards. The goal is to create runs of consecutive numbers of that card type. There should be no gaps in the sequence otherwise only cards with adjacent values will be used in the scoring phase.
Multipliers, majorities and diversity
There are three ways to score points in Stellar; multipliers, majorities, diversity. The player with the largest aggregate score is the winner.
For each of the five celestial body types a score is formed by multiplying the number of consecutive cards of that type in the notebook area, by the number of stars on those cards in the telescope. The player’s telescopes are subdivided into three sections; upper, middle and lower. A bonus of 10 points is given to the player who has the highest total score for each telescope section. Finally, a diversity bonus of 10 points is awarded to every player whose telescope has all five card types.
Thoughts about Stellar
For me theme and artwork is everything. I prefer games that are based on reality rather than in fantasy. The box lid artwork shows a night sky with telescope in silhouette. It is a relatively small box but then it only needs to contain a series of cards, scoring pad and rule book. Anything larger would be unnecessary.
The 16-page rule book is well written with a useful watch, learn and play app. The set-up, gameplay and scoring are clearly laid out. This, together with the app, meant my daughter and I had no need for rule clarifications during our first game.
The artwork, some of it an artist’s impression, is gorgeous. The celestial bodies really come alive with vibrant colours. Each card has some additional information about that object. Did you know that a day in Venus (243 earth days) last longer than a Venusian year (225 earth days)? The cards are a standard weight, shape and size of a playing card. Once the game is laid out it did occupy about half of our dining room table.
Gameplay is quick, with just two cards to choose and play each turn. The challenge is in making the first card you play to be useful, not just in its position, but because of the influence on the second card that is automatically chosen. There are a number of competing thoughts making this game surprisingly strategic. Firstly, at the start of each turn you have very few cards to choose, the two in your hand and one of the five cards laid out.
The card you play and its position will set the card and position of your second. Also, it is important to increase the star values on your telescope. These are used in the scoring multipliers, but cards with three stars tend to have lower numbers. This then weakens the telescope in the majority scoring section. Conversely, the highest numbered cards have no stars at all. The advantage of these cards is that they can increase a section’s points, but then again could be used to gain the diversity bonus.
All of the telescope and notebook areas are visible to both players. This allows one player to deliberately target cards to prevent the other from gaining a sequence and run. Similarly, as the game draws to a close, a player might choose to leave a narrow selection of the five cards making it difficult to play anything on the telescope legally. This means a card is forfeit or worthless. The satellites (wild cards) add a way to counter such tactics. These do not have any star values. Again, this is another facet to think about.
The Sky at Night
Card placement on the telescope too needs consideration. Some positions will naturally be adjacent to numerous cards, for example the very centre of the image. Others might only touch two other cards, so might be better used for sets that a player does not want to develop. The final spread of cards for each player looks like an astronomy poster, especially if the game is played out on a black tablecloth.
For such a small game it is good that Renegade Game Studios has provided a scoring pad. This didn’t need to be printed on both sides or in colour, but it shows the attention to detail. It fits nicely alongside the cards in the box, with room for a small pencil too. These things might seem trivial, but keeping a scoring pencil with the paper in the box saves so much hassle at the end of the game.
Stellar is a game that would really appeal to a family of gamers. It can be played by primary school age children (from about seven years) yet enjoyed by adults too. Aside from the space and astronomy element, there is a need for simple mathematics skills. For every card selected, there are usually a couple of different positions. Each of these will yield a different scoring possibility. Therefore, the immediate effect and the long-term scoring potential must be considered. This exercise in itself is useful for children to talk through and work out where a card might be best place.
In my reviews I often talk about planning ahead, where an earlier action has implications for later play. This occurs at every turn in Stellar.
Final thoughts about stellar
I like Stellar …….. a lot. For a game that was purchased purely on theme alone I feel as though I hit the jackpot. My teenage daughter also loves the game. It is quick to set up, takes just 20 to 30 minutes to play, yet has thought and planning. There is no certainty of who will win until the final scores are tallied.
This game is good for its educational element too. I would certainly recommend this to parents of older primary school children. The kids will learn much about strategy, planning as well as astronomy. As we approach that time of year sometimes it’s good to plan what to get nephews and nieces for Christmas. Their parents would love you for getting something “educational” and their kids would love you because it’s is a challenge and can be played with adults too. What’s not to like? Buy one now and that means that there’s one less thing to think about in the run up to December. As in the game, it’s all about planning ahead to make your life easier.