Full disclosure: A review copy of Stellar was provided by Renegade Game Studio.
Back with more Renegade titles! I think this makes two weeks in a row, and Gloomy Graves next week (just in time for Valentine’s Day, if … that’s your thing) will make three! So romantic to just … bury fantasy corpses. Though I suppose I’m still a week ahead. Either way, that’s not what this game is about; it’s about stars and astronomy! Let’s try that instead.
In Stellar, you sit out at night looking at stuff in the sky with your telescope, trying to name what you identify. But your friend got the same telescope as you and is trying to scandalize you by naming other things in the night sky first. You’ve gotta lock that stuff down by becoming the best! Draft cards, look through your telescope, and make recordings in your notebook if you want to pull this off. Will you be able to earn a score that’s truly out of this world?
Setup isn’t too bad. Give each player two of the five starting cards (marked with diamonds):
Shuffle the remaining one into the rest of the deck:
Set those aside, for now. Have each player construct their telescope:
Those are tall. Set out the five number cards:
And set out a score sheet:
You should be about ready to start! Have each player choose one card to place on any spot in their telescope and one card to place next to their telescope, in their notebook:
Not actually too much to describe in this game; here’s how it breaks down. Your goal is to have the most thrilling time (astronomically speaking) by seeing various celestial objects in the night sky with your telescope. The player with the most points at the end of the game wins!
Players take 11 turns over the course of this game, and they all go the same way:
Add Card to Hand
Take any of the cards in the number row (1 – 5) and add it to your hand. There’s not much else to say on this one.
One important thing, though: if you take a Satellite, your opponent may discard every card in the row at the start of their next turn.
Play Card from Hand
Choose any card from your hand and play it to your Telescope or Notebook. If you play it to your Telescope, it must be placed so that it is touching a card of the same type, if one is present. If one is not present, it may be placed anywhere in your Telescope.
For your Notebook, just kind of make a tableau.
Either way, remember the number of the card you played.
Play Card from Row
That number I told you to remember? It matters, now. That number determines what the next card you’ll play will be. Take the card matching that number from the row and play it to the other location (if you played to your Telescope previously, play it to your Notebook now, and vice versa). This way, a card is added to your Telescope and your Notebook every turn.
If that card does not exist (you played a 6 / 0 or the number row is currently empty in that spot), draw the top card of the deck instead and play that.
If, for some reason, you cannot play a card, play it face-down. It counts as a 3, but of no object during scoring.
Flip the top card of the deck to refill any empty spots. There will always be at least one empty spot.
End of Game
After 11 turns, the game is over! You’ll know because your Telescope will be full. Now, score three ways:
- Diversity Scoring: If you have at least one of each of the five major card types (Satellites don’t count) in your Telescope, you gain 10 points.
- Majority Scoring: For the three major sections of your Telescope (Top 5 cards, Middle 3 cards, Bottom 4 cards), count up the total value of all the numbers on those cards. The player with a higher value in each section gains 10 points; if there’s a tie for a section, nobody scores. Note that Satellites retain their value during this portion.
- Telescope Scoring: Now this is the hard one. Count up the number of stars you have in each type of object, and multiply that number by the length of your longest set of consecutively-numbered cards (biggest run) of that card type in your notebook. The product is your score for those objects. So if you had 0 – 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 of Moons and 3 Stars across all the Moon cards in your Telescope, you’d earn 12 (4 * 3) points! Note that Satellites in your Notebook are considered wild for this scoring, so, make that work.
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
Only two players can play this one!
- Watch how your opponent is placing cards. You need to keep track of their values in the three sections if you’re going to go after them on majorities. That said, I don’t think that’s necessarily super wise, since, end of the day, that only gets you 30 points and a lot of low-star-value cards. You may be better off using that information to figure out which zone you can cave on and which zone you can barely edge them out in while still getting a bunch of points for the stars in your Telescope.
- Don’t forget the adjacency rule. This can really mess you up if you’re not careful. You must place cards adjacent to other cards of the same type (unless they’re being placed face-down or are Satellites). This might force you to make a non-optimal placement if you’re not careful.
- Unless you absolutely need it or you can see a card that your opponent needs in the number row, I’d highly recommend not taking a Satellite from the row as your action. It gives them a LOT of options. That said, if you know there’s a card your opponent needs in the number row, taking the Satellite knowing that they won’t dump the whole row is a power move and I’m legally obligated to respect it. Either one works.
- Generally speaking, though, Satellites are much better in your Notebook than in your Telescope. They’re wild in your Notebook and they just take up non-scoring space in your Telescope. Not worth adding to your Telescope if you can avoid it.
- Wouldn’t recommend playing random cards to your Telescope at all, actually. That’s how you mess yourself up really badly. It’s not terrible, usually (adding random cards to your Notebook can just be a net 0), but you should likely do it earlier in the game than later while you have time to recover from the entropy. Later in the game, it might end up being a 0.
- 6 / 0 cards are very helpful in both your Telescope and Notebook, but don’t forget they have 0 stars. They’re good for majorities or capping runs, but they won’t get you any points beyond that.
- Actually, just don’t forget about stars, period. They’re going to be a nontrivial chunk of your points. I don’t believe that you can win without them, honestly, unless you’re hate drafting at a level that I can’t truly understand. If you are, more power to you.
- The diversity bonus is usually worth it, especially if you’re adding random cards to your notebook infrequently. It’s not that hard to get a few extra cards and then you get at least one point per star in your Telescope, which is essentially even more free points.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The game’s beautiful. Like, spectacularly so. It’s up there with Planetarium for beautiful space games, honestly, which is always good. I have a soft spot for Sol: Last Days of a Star, though, so that’s probably where I’m putting my money for prettiest space game.
- It’s an interesting mix of drafting and some area majority. I like that it’s doing a few different things in the gameplay section; just drafting alone would have been nice but a bit underwhelming.
- I like the game’s forcing function along deciding whether to go for runs or high cards. Having to balance the two is super interesting, even moreso when you need to try and balancing having those high cards in your Telescope even though they won’t score you any points on stars (as they have 0 stars). It’s a good, solid tension for the game’s weight.
- Very portable. Renegade doesn’t disappoint with their small-box line, and this is just cards, so, you can throw it in a Quiver pretty easily. I generally am very pro-that, since it means I can take more games with me when I travel. More games is good!
- The way players are forced to play cards is also solidly interesting. That, I think, is the real crux of this game. How can you weave a path through the cards you have in order to get the cards you want into the right spot? When is it worth taking a risk or a lower-value card so that you can get the exact card you need in the right place? These are all interesting questions that I think the game gives you the space to answer for yourself.
- Might be nice to make the marker for “starting cards” a bit more prominent on the front of the card, since you can’t mark the backs of them. I occasionally miss them, and you really want them to be out and available when the game starts so that you don’t have to dig through the entire deck to find them. Speeds up setup, a bit.
- Scoring can be a fair bit to keep track of. This is probably what annoys me the most when I play; just make sure that you’re either using the score sheet or writing things down every so often so you don’t forget what you’ve already done. Sorcerer City actually did something pretty smart with this one and included tokens you can place on tiles you’ve already scored so that you don’t mess it up; might have helped with this one.
- The telescopes are both a bit challenging to set up and massive space hogs. This is part of what makes the game so visually striking, yes, but it also makes it hard to play if you don’t have the table space for it. Animal, Inc. (review next week) has similar problems, being honest. It’s not the biggest thing in the world but it’s still a surprising problem for a small-box game.
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I found Stellar quite pleasant! I think it maintains that thing I love about space games; they tend to be almost somber in the way that they encourage players to meditate and think while they play. I find them all very relaxing, and Stellar isn’t a deviation from that course. It’s very peaceful; you’re not really attacking each other, and short of taking a card the other player wants there’s not a whole lot you can do to mess them up (you can also attack their majority, I suppose, but only by augmenting your own to compete with them). A lot of two-player games manage this tug-of-war aspect through direct negative interaction, so the more passive interaction appeals to me, for sure. I am still not a hundred percent sold on the whole telescope thing (it takes up so much space!), but I very much respect that the game has a particular aesthetic it wants to run with and, if you have enough space to play it, you should let the game run its own aesthetic. I think this game will appeal most to the gamers who are fine eschewing a bit of interaction for a game they can talk over while playing, or for people who want to relax but can do a bit of math while they do so. It’s not a bad combination to be able to do, so, I’m fine with it. Oh, yes, also, if you like beautiful space games, this is certainly one of those; the art is impeccable, and it shows the best of what exists outside of our atmosphere. If you’re into that, you’ll likely be into Stellar, and in that case, I’d definitely suggest checking the game out!