Iä! Iä! Cthulhu Fhtagn
It’s been far too long since I rode in the demo saddle as a Man in Black, going back to Carnage in November. Steve Jackson Games published a number of new titles since then, the first of which being The Stars Are Right. Players manipulate a five by five grid of tiles called the sky. They push, flip and swap tiles to create specific constellations of celestial objects. For, you see, when the stars are right, squamous beings from beyond time and space can enter our world. The more complicated a constellation required to summon a creature, the more victory points it’s worth, right up to the Great Old Ones themselves, worth four points apiece. The Great Old Ones have their servitors, of course, which can help make summoning one of the big bads easier by providing bonus symbols, making their constellation requirements less stringent.
The core of The Stars Are Right, searching for ways to manipulate the tiles to reproduce the pattern one’s looking for, is simple enough, but it’s time-consuming. Even though I did my best to stay on top of how celestial objects moved around the sky, I found myself taking a fair bit of time once my turn began to figure out how to summon the particular creature I wanted to get on the table. For other players, either brand new to the game or predisposed to indecision and second-guessing, turns could take upwards of ten minutes. Part of that is the nature of a demo game. People need to take time to learn to recognize symbols and patterns of play. However, there are those paralyzed analysts who will drag a turn out, agonizing over how to proceed.
Frankly, The Stars Are Right is just not for them. Players need to be comfortable recognizing symbols, mentally reorganizing them in their head according to the moves available in their hand of cards and then acting on their plan with a minimum of hesitation. Everyone else is having an equally hard time that I find with The Stars Are Right, it helps to pick a Great Old One and focus on summoning their particular servants.
Batten the Hatches
After two plays of The Stars Are Right, we hit that moment of synchronization where the other group’s game of Dominion: Seaside had just ended, so we were all at a loose end. I hit on the idea of pulling out Red November, one of Fantasy Flight Games’ silver line products, meaning it comes in a smaller box and is probably a lighter game than their larger, crunchier mega-board games. I had only skimmed the rules briefly in my few days of ownership, but I didn’t think the whole gaggle of free gamers would jump on board a test play, either.
So we wound up with seven gnomes running about the good boat Red November, trying to stay alive long enough to be rescued. In the beginning, there was a sense of “Well, what is there to do?” Nothing was aflame, flooding or otherwise threatening the crew’s lives. The first three players all spent their time raiding the store room for stuff. Fortunately, that lack of tasks quickly changed.
In Red November, actions are measured in the amount of time they take. A gnome who takes seven minutes to put out a fire moves their marker down the time track seven spaces. It’s always the turn of the player whose marker is furthest back on the track. So turn order skips around the table, typically to the player whose been waiting the longest to go. Moving down the time track also triggers events, which are almost all bad things, thus solving the problem of not having much to do in the early turns. Fires break out, compartments flood, missile systems activate or a kraken may begin attacking the ship. It’s a perfect storm of accidents and bad luck for the crew of Red November.
It’s a fun, goofy game that’s more about gloating over the problems besetting your gnome than actually saving the ship. However, in this first session a lot of time went to players discussing how to best use their time to save the ship. Eventually, Alex proposed disallowing strategizing, leaving it up to the player of the moment to decide what to do and how much time to allocate. This led to an interesting choice on one person’s part to attempt one action ten times, using one minute each time, instead of just dedicating ten minutes to the task. The former wasn’t a guarantee, but the latter was. The player, however, felt he could save time if he lucked out and rolled that crucial one early in his string of attempts. I don’t think it worked out that way, but I can’t be sure. My attention was waning by then, while five or so players all stood around the table, fiercely debating the most important crisis to handle first.
For such a little game, that I thought would be as light and quick as a Citadels, Red November inspired passionate discussion from a number of players. I, on the other hand, felt disengaged from the game. I understood how to play, mostly thanks to Alex reading out the rules, and got the fun of it, but I didn’t click with the game, partly because I felt overwhelmed with six other people to interact with over a tiny little board. I think I need to keep my learning games smaller in the future — and not start one later in the evening, when people want to wind down.
The question also arose of what causes the oxygen track to drop, as there are no cards that target it. So either my set is missing cards, or there’s something in the rules that we missed. Either way, research is required before breaking this one out again. That will both answer the question and allow me to grok the game more directly.