A Glimpse Into The Vault: The Stars Align

The sun starts to go down, dusk begins to fall, and the stars start to come out. As true night begins, the star begin to flicker . . . and if you’re lucky and have a sharp eye, you just might spot a shooting star! Sounds like a pretty great night, right? Well it’s also a pretty great board game, where the first person to spot five shooting stars wins! This is The Stars Align, designed by Matthew Radcliffe and Sean Fenemore and published by Breaking Games!

After reviewing We’re Doomed! and Trellis and getting to take a look at Kroma I’ll admit that Breaking Games has earned a certain amount of trust with me; I haven’t looked at a product with their name on it yet that’s been disappointing, and that carries weight. So that meant I made a point to wander down to their booth proper at PAX East 2020 to see if they had anything small that caught my eye (I’ve, uh, still got some larger games of theirs to cover from Unplugged; scheduling is hard).

Thinking of Trellis had me looking for more ‘zen’ games, especially if they looked artful, and through that lens The Stars Align caught me. It drew me in further by promising a playtime of 20-30 minutes (easy enough to fit into the schedule), and by being for two players (date night).

Here’s what we’ve got to work with:

  1. 54 Constellation cards, which depict stars in a variety of formations – all of the Tetris shapes are represented, basically.
  2. The Night Sky Map, which is a 7×7 grid literally just on the back of the bag the rest of the pieces come in. Efficiency!
  3. 50 Player Stars, wooden tokens that each have a light side and a dark side.
  4. 10 Shooting Star Point tokens for keeping track of the score, five for the light star player and five for the dark star player.

The goal is simple: each player picks a color, light or dark, and is trying to fill a column or a row with their color of star. If they succeed, they get a Shooting Star Point. First one to acquire their 5 Shooting Star Points (which, for a nice touch, form a star when they’re all put together) wins!

However, like Crystallo earlier this week, The Stars Align has two phases of play to make things interesting.

The Dusk Phase: The Stars Come Out!

After the players have picked their color, a Player Star is tossed onto the table: the color that lands face-up determines which player goes first. On their turn, each player draws the top Constellation card from the deck and places it so both players can see it. As mentioned above, the card will display four stars in a variety of formations very familiar to anyone who ever played Tetris for ten seconds. The player then places their color of Player Stars on the Night Sky Map, matching the Constellation card, after which the card is discarded and the other player draws.

You can rotate the constellation, but you can’t place it diagonally and you can’t flip it. That holds true throughout the game, but in the Dusk Phase there is another parameter: a constellation cannot be positioned so that it overlaps Player Stars already on the map.

Like tic-tac-toe, this means that claiming a Shooting Star Point in the Dusk Phase is pretty unlikely. It’s possible to get a lucky draw of the cards (a four-stars-in-a-straight-line can prove particularly handy for this), but by and large the players are going to be able to block one another from lining up seven Player Stars in a row or column. That’s okay though, because you’re really setting up for the next phase. When there is no way for a player to play their card without overlapping, it’s time to begin…

The Night Phase: The Stars Flicker!

Now players can overlap stars, even if there are enough empty spaces available (which will happen, as when a row or column is completed, the stars are removed from the map). If a space is empty, simple, place a star as normal. If a star overlaps an existing star of the opponent’s color, that star flips to the active player’s star. If it overlaps an existing star of the active player’s color, it actually flips to the opponent’s color. You can overlap as many of your own stars as you want, but only as many as three of your opponent’s, and once you’ve committed to placement by placing or flipping a star, there are no take-backs.

This is where play really gets interesting. Players need to keep an eye on both what their opponent is doing so that they can counter it and what they themselves are doing so that they don’t provide an easy Shooting Star Point by setting up an easy overlapping move. You might flip three of your stars over to your opponent so that you can place the single one you need for a Point, or you might find yourself retreating to empty space to avoid giving your opponent opportunities. It’s an interesting give and take that makes the strategy surprisingly robust, while remaining very straightforward.

And, like with Tetris, sometimes it’s going to be about dealing with the shapes you’ve luckily or unluckily been handed as best you can.

All of the pieces of the game are high quality, with the art by Ian Reed (who was actually the person at Breaking Games I was able to talk to about the game) helping lend it a charming, relaxing air. It’s also an immensely portable game; fold up the bag a bit and you could fit it in many pockets, never mind a backpack, purse, or suitcase.

The only nitpick I have is this: while the Player Stars have a little plastic baggy to store them, the Shooting Star Points are few enough to simply toss in the bag, and the bag and the Map are the same thing, once you take the Constellation cards out of their wrapping there’s nothing to put them in but the bag itself. I could see them getting mixed up, so you might want to grab an elastic band to keep from having to reorganize them.

As nitpicks go, that’s almost comically minor.

The Stars Align is lighthearted while presenting a fun strategical showdown, is well-made, meets the ‘only needs 2 players’ bar that means wrangling a ‘group’ to play will be much easier than usual, and is recommended for ages 6 and up. Those are plenty of reasons to get yourself a copy, and I look forward to playing this game on some quiet nights in (or perhaps on the next long train ride).

You can find a copy of the game rules on the Breaking Games site, although actual copies of the game are sold out there as of this writing. You can still find The Star Aligns on Amazon and such, and give your friendly local gaming store a try as well.

Keep an eye out for those Shooting Stars!

Thanks to Breaking Games for providing a review copy of The Stars Align, and to Ian Reed for giving a demo of the game!

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