Stellarium (2020) first impressions
Please note, these are first impressions of a prototype. Rules and components may change before final release.
There is nothing more relaxing than on a hot summer night, than to lay out on the cool soil of your garden and letting your eyes wonder at the little dots that are so far away. Living out in the country allows me to see the trillions of stars that line the dome around our globe. It’s something that I adored doing as a kid and speculating on what those twinkling lights are. In Stellarium, you’ll be doing the same thing. But with a little astronomical experience. Knowing the names of constellations and using them to navigate your way around the seas.
1 to 4 players (yes, there is a solo mode, that I haven't tried) will have two star constellation cards at the beginning of the game. A basic very easy starting formation and an easyish one too. Each card has a selection of the three different coloured stars scattered on square spaces. These indicate the distance between each star and their colour. Fulfilling a card, by observing it in the playing area, or night sky will score you a number of points and tiles as marked on the bottom. And in between all of the players, a grid of random tiles will be drawn from the bag and placed out. This is the night sky. Somewhere in this Sky is the formations that you seek. But sometimes not. A majority of the game will be spent staring at this night sky and trying to catch stars that match your constellations you are searching for.
So far, this sounds like a quick fire observation game. But this is not a race against the other players but a race against the clock. Players will take 30-second turns to point out their constellations in the night sky that match their card. If you fail to find one or mistakenly point out the wrong stars, either in colour or distance, you miss a turn and the opportunity to score points. When you do find one, the other players must concur that you have placed tokens on the tiles that correspond to your constellation, you’ll score that card at the end of the game. An added bonus is provided on that card. It will tell you how many tiles you can take as a bonus. But only the tiles that you place the tokens on. These also score at the end of the game. One point per star on a tiles you have. So there's some benefits of taking a tile which has three stars depicted on it instead of one. The remove tiles up replaced with random tiles drawn from the sack. And now you have the choice of drawing a new constellation card, this time you'll have a choice of the difficulty.
There are three difficulties in the game. Choosing the very hard formations to find will obviously give you more points if you do find them at the end of the game and also let you collect more tiles. But of course, these will be harder to find as they have have large areas of the sky and more stars in the correct position to pinpoint. There is also a variant with the game which has another deck of constellation, and these are even harder. One is revealed to all the players during the game, meaning that any player, on their turn can discover and score this card instead of one of their own. There are only a handful of these and they are quite possible of finding. If playing with this variant, there will always be one on the table for all players to search for.
The good thing about having turns, where each player is put in the spotlight to try and score points, is it eliminates those very powerful observant people from winning. We’ve all played a speed observation game, like Ghost Blitz or Set, where one play racks up points because they can process everything rapidly. These players don’t stand out as much in this game. They have their own turn to talk and take actions, as well as push themselves to pick the harder constellations to find. Yes, these are more point than the easy and medium difficulty cards, but they are darn hard. Sometime hard to find in the time limit but occasionally because of the random layout of tiles, sith their 3 colours and numbers. So the game has a kind of balancing mechanism for different skilled opponents. If you're playing with the variant, they may accelerate their score rapidly by finding these mega point cards instead of the two they have in hand. Plus, if you're playing at the full player count, if you’re a slower player, you'll have much more time to try and find your constellations, even before your turn starts. But sometimes that time is never enough, possibly because you're constellation does not exist...
Yes, yes it is possible to look into the night sky and not find what you're looking for. But you shouldn't freet, as this sky will be changing when players collect tiles. On top of that, these bonus tiles that you have collected can be used to force your constellation to appear. A really nice touch is if you are struggling to find what you're looking for, for you have the power to place out one of your collected tiles. This is kind of a forfeit, as you will be losing the points from it. But by placing this one tile out, it will help you advance a little in removing a card from your hand that might be difficult to complete. This is great if you have a three starred tile as it acts like a joker. The sad news is, you will be losing those three points, as this tile cannot be collected from the selection of tiles that you collect. Being observant and resourceful can really be a big payoff in this game. Making stupid mistakes, like placing out one of your tiles to complete a card. Then finding out that the constellation is still not correct will have you kicking yourself as you have missed your turn, but also lose your tile with its points. That then becomes a permanent fixture in the sky and helps out another player.
The game continues until there are no more tiles to replace the empty spaces in the night sky. It's at this moment players count up the amount of points from constellation cards and from the stars on your tiles to see who has the most points. This ending seems a little unbalanced and is very swings and roundabouts. Having another player complete more cards due to the fact that they had more turns will seen a little unjust. And like any speed observation game, even though this one gives each player that own slot, is still unfair to slower players. Faster players are always guaranteed to score more, especially if you play with the verient. Where as slowest player may miss a turn due to not finding the most advantageous constellation. But it kind of even outs. Only playing many times will tell.
The game is quite tranquil as you gaze at a bunch of tiles, trying to to find your objectives. I enjoy observation games like “word searches” and “spot the difference”, so this game appeals to me on that level. As well as the theme and mechanism. And again, more relaxing with more players, as you will have time to find your constellations a few times over. If someone takes a tile from that formation before your turn, you can adopt from the new tiles or fallback to the second card in your hand. But that's it. It is pretty shallow and repetitive, but doesn’t drag out. A game can last for about 20 minute and at that point, you'll be ready to move on or play again. With all the playtester I encountered, some found it relaxing and pleasurable, while some found it stressful and frantic, and others found it a tad dull and drab. Not only in the colour palette but also so in the gameplay itself.
Now, this is the prototype version that I played, that had missing pieces. Again, I am unsure if the style of the games art and design will be the same or change. But what I had was all clear and easy to interpriate. Games ran smoothly. We even player without a timer. This was not as fun. Maybe if you were playing with children, this would be an option. I’ll finish by saying that this is a great introductory game for those getting into the hobby and a sweet family game. Short and easy to understand. Some interesting ideas, but not enough to keep coming back. Extra rules or a fourth colour or larger night skies, would all be nice. We shall see when the final version comes to stores later this year from Precisamente.
Azul (2017) review
With three versions of the game now in print, (Summer Pavilion, Stained Glass of Sintra and the basic version of Azul) the sky seems to be the limit for Next Move Games. All three games are abstract tile placement games, share the delightful tactile feel and have had some generus buzz built around them. Winning an award or 10 in the progress, like the 2018 Spiel des Jahres and the As d'Or. Having never played the to newer versions, I cannot give you a comparison or rank the titles in any shape or means at this time. Maybe in the future this will come to pass.
Two to four players will have the privilege of collecting these delightful otherworldly tiles and try to apply them on their wall. Of course this sounds very simple, but there are ways and means of collecting and attaching them to your wall, that will add a challenge. Each player will have their own plateau to place their tiles on and score their own points. While in the middle of the table, tiles will be randomly placed on a number of beer coasters, (there is no other way of saying it) to squabble over. This is technically the heart of the fun, or discomfort of the game. Planning ahead and calculating what the other players will take or discard will take up a vast amount of your gaming experience. And the great thing about it is you can still play the game haphazardly and probably still fair well by the end of the game. Making it an easy game for any level of experienced gamer. Just like anybody can slip on a pair of socks but weather there a matching pair all the correct way round doesn't really matter.
So let's go back to the beer coasters. When your turn comes around, you can select one of these beer coasters and remove the tiles from it. From those removed, you can only keep one set of the same pattern. As seen as there are only 5 different patterns (or colour) in the game, you're more than likely keep one or two of the four tiles that are placed there. All of the remaining tiles will be removed to the centre of the table. The centre of the table is treated like one giant coaster. At some stage in the game, a player may decide to collect all of the tiles of one pattern from this space. As the game goes on, more and more tiles will be added to this. First player to do so will have the benefit it of being the first player in the next round. Of course it has an advantage but it also has a disadvantage explain later on. Taking from this pool can have some benefits of its own, as you can grab a greater number of same coloured tiles in one action. Totally beneficial. Also someone could leave you with no choice but to pick up large group of same coloured tiles to add to your board, which could lead to your downfall. This is one of the great dilemmas of the game. Calculating what you need and guesstimating what the others will need. Picking and choosing while forcing the other players to leave you the best scraps. This is not evident in the first and possibly second round, but as the game goes on, you will find and that this is all you're doing.
Let's go back to the tiles that you have decided to keep. These will go to your individual player board, where you have a 5 by 5 gridded wall to try and decorate. But before you can add these tiles to your wall, they will have to be placed off to the side of a column that you wish to add them to. As soon as all of the tiles from the coasters and the middle of the table have been collected, this is when they can be applied to your wall. But only if you have the correct amount for the column. Each column requires a different number of same coloured tiles before they can be added to your wall. One column requires one tile. Another two tiles, three tiles, four and then five. It is only now that they can be added to the wall and you will score points for each that does. Again restrictions are in place to make the game a thoughtful, challenging and hopefully fun experience. Each pattern can only be attached to the wall all in a column that doesn't already have the same pattern. Think sudoku. Not only are you trying to get the correct colours in the correct column, but also so in the right quantities. If you do not have the prerequisite to move a tile onto your wall, the tiles you've collected it was stay in that saved space until you do have the required amount. This can lead to missed opportunities in scoring. And the hope of getting them fulfilled the next round. Observant players may take a gander at your previous rounds treasures and play it to their advantage, as I stated before, taking the things you need leaving the tiles you don’t need to collect in you negative point box...
Moving onto scoring, there are multiple ways to get points from this game. These are all relatively simple, but the strategy relies on how and which spaces on the wall you fill. Placing a tile on the wall will give you a point. Adding a title to an adjacent tile will give you a number of points depending on the number of adjacent tiles, either horizontally or vertically. So as you can see, placing a tile in the right column at the right moment can give you big numbers. This is the strategy that will separate the mice from the men. But it relies on what tiles come out of the bag and onto the coasters, what tiles the other players leave for you to take and which columns you place these tiles into. To win every time you'll need to be a clairvoyant. Or just aware of the scoring strategy. Two things I haven't told you about the scoring are 1) there is a bonus chance to get extra points at the end of the game and 2) you can lose points by taking the wrong pattern or number of tiles.
The bonuses are very simple. You get extra points for each column horizontal or vertical. On top of that, if you manage to add 5 of the same coloured tiles to your wall, they score you mega points as well. But the gut-wrenching part of the game is losing points from round to round. How does this occur? Going back to the very beginning, when you collect tiles from a coaster or the middle of the table, your add them to one column next to your wall. These all need to be of the same colour. And the correct amount needed for the column. If you have more than you need, they cannot be added to another column. If you have no space in a column or it cannot be added to a column due to the fact that you already have that colour attached to your wall in that row, these count towards negative points. At the bottom of your bored there is the negative point boxes. You will add these unused tiles to this one by one, from left to right. And even the first player marker, which is a tile, will go there as well (see, being first player has benefits and negative effects). When a scoring round comes along, this is when you total up every negative point that every negative tile gives you. If you miss plan or have other superior players screwing you over, this can really sting, as each box gets a little more negative. One time that this happened to me, made me hate the game immediately. If I had reviewed the game then and had been a vain critic, my rating would have been very poor. But that's not the kind of critic that I am. Everything deserves more than one chance and not be judged by its cover. Plus this is it go-to game for my wife, hence I have no choice but to play. LOL
Even if you're not enjoying the game, they never tend to last very long. Normally after five rounds the game or come to a close. As the finishing condition is when one player or more has as five tiles in a horizontal line. This is very easy to achieve as the first column only requires one tile of one colour. As long as someone one fills this column each round, round six never exists. It is then that you look at your final scores to decide who the winner is. With relatively simple rules to follow and a rapid playing time, this is a perfect family weight game in a family sized box. Play loose or play it with profound concentration, the choice is yours.
Chunkiness is the key. The boards are thick and sturdy. The tiles are gloriously smooth. And the sack is not bad too. Although I'm not a fan of the black cube, which you place on your board to keep your score. This sucker will slide around from time to time, with so much movement having to move and removing tiles from your board, the board with shuffle or the cube will get knocked. All very minor when you consider the rest of the presentation. Presentation is at its best in the accompanying Rulebook. Well written and well presented with plenty of examples. There is even a variation to the game. By simply flipping your player board over, you will go from a wall that tells you where to put a particular tile, to a wall where you have to decide where to put a particular tile. Still following those Sudoku rules.
Technical Score 9.5/10
The game is brimming with wonderful tactile components, although it a little dull to look at. Simple rule set and quick dplaying time makes for a good family game.
My BGG Score 6/10
(ok -will play if in the mood)
I will hand it to Azul, that it is a very interesting game. But it feels restrictive and repetitive. You have to learn how to be good at it, with a little card counting, bluffing and of course luck. You could say the same about Carcassonne, but there's something enduring and pleasurable about building a map in my opinion.
Combined score 7.75/10
Now it's over to you...
Going back to the darker days of board gaming. When a slightly younger version of me was making segments for The Dice Tower "Barry Thinks..." There, I was a disgruntled little man with opinions on what is right and wrong with our hobby.
And here I am, doing it again. But why?
Well, I received a package the other day from a Kickstarter. And it lead to this...
What do you think?
Please feel free to write comments in the section below. I would be happy to respond and hear your side of things.
And if you missed out on those Dice Tower videos, here are a few of them for you to muse over.
Queenz: To bee or not to bee