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Stellar Review

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Review of: Stellar
Board Game Review by::
Andy Schwarz
Price:
$20

Reviewed by:
Rating:
3.5
On Feb 19, 2024
Last modified:Feb 19, 2024

Summary:

We review Stellar, a two player set collection game published by Renegade Game Studios. Stellar has players trying to collect sets of cards for points.

StellarIn the late 1970s, Bill Murray (backed by a young Paul Schafer) had a great SNL skit where he added lyrics to the Star Wars theme, including my favorite verse:

Star Wars
If they should bar wars,
Please let these Star Wars
Stay.

With these lyrics in my head, I finally convinced my wife to give Stellar a try. Stellar is a two-player card duel that packs a deceptively strategic set-collection game into a peppy (30 minutes or maybe even less) and portable package. Stellar was designed by Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback and is published by Renegade Games.

Gameplay Overview:

A game of Stellar consists of 11 very short rounds, followed by a lot of end-game scoring. This is followed by one of the two players regretting at least one key choice along the way which led to defeat. Usually, in my games with my wife, that regret was emanating from me, not her, because, well, math is hard.

I thought I did pretty well, despite having to place a card face-down. My run of 6 notebook planets scored 30 points because I had 5 stars on my telescope planets.

Players are essentially asked to balance three goals at once. You want to get a lot of star icons onto your telescope in one suit and then also have many consecutive cards of that same suit in your notebook. But you also want to have higher valued cards on the telescope than your opponent. Typically, the more stars a card has (good for one goal) the lower the value of the card (bad for the other).

There’s a third consideration, which is that there are also ten “easy” points to be had by making sure you’ve got at least one of each suit on your telescope. This tends to work against the goal of maximizing your points from maxing out the stars in one suit. Of course, this is multiplied by the length of your best consecutive run in that same suit. You cannot score all the points, and so to be stellar at Stellar, you really need to focus on just a few options. Go as hard as possible at scoring a ton of points and hope it’s enough to win.

A game consists of players performing a simple set of actions until each has taken 11 turns, and then the game ends. The actions are:

  • Choose one card from the five offered at the market.
  • From the two cards in your hand plus the one you just claimed, play one card either to your telescope or your notebook.
  • Based on the point value of the card you picked, take the card from the market corresponding to that number and place it into the other tableau. If you played your first card to the notebook, the second card must go to the telescope, and vice versa.
  • You draw one or two new cards to replace the ones you just removed from the market and pass the turn to the other player.
Let the star wars begin!
Let the star wars begin!

Game Experience:

If you like playing games with a chess clock, this could easily be a ten-minute game. That being said, you will probably want to allocate a bit more time to think because the placement rules and the scoring rules can take time to internalize.

The reason you are placing these cards is so that, when the game ends, you can score the most points. Points come from three different activities: having all five of the space-themed suits, having a higher point total than your opponent of telescope segments, and points from suits (somewhat tricky math calculating these).

If your card cannot be placed next to an adjacent card of the same suit, you must instead place it face down, and treat it as a 3 with no suit and no stars.

On top of this, there are some placement rules for how the telescope works. You can place the first card of any suit on any empty spots on the telescope after. After that, you must place any additional cards of that suit in an adjacent spot. If you cannot, then you place the card upside down, so that it becomes a suitless “3” with zero stars.

There are also satellite cards that are treated as strong wild cards when placed in your notebook or as weak wild cards when placed in your telescope. Taking a satellite from the market can also trigger an option for your opponent to refresh all 5 market cards.

At first blush, it might not seem like there is much game here. Draw a card, play a card from your hand (two one of two different tableaus) which triggers a free card to the other tableau, refresh the market, and pass the turn. Repeat 11 times and add up your score. But the game becomes a lot deeper once you realize how your choice of the first card you play (and where you play it) affects the second card that you play.

If you play, say, a 4 of planets to your notebook, then whatever card is in the 4 spot of the market will automatically go to your telescope. But if you really want the card in the 4 spot to go into your notebook, then you have to play something with a 4 to your telescope. You have to think far enough ahead to not draw the card you want to get auto-placed, while also keeping in mind that scoring is based on three different goals, and pretty soon you can end up in a five-minute AP doom loop.

In your notebook, the satellite cards can fill in for any suit.  Here, the “1” satellite is acting like a planet to complete a run of six cards.

My board game superpower is I always do a fast turn. My board game kryptonite is that I always do a fast turn, even though sometimes a little more thought would have served me well. This makes me a very bad Stellar player. Melodi, on the other hand, is more thoughtful (without slipping into AP), and she was able to keep all three objectives in mind while manipulating the cards to her advantage. Though we played several games and I got better, the score from our first match illustrates the point.

I was focused on getting a big score from Planets, and I succeeded in getting 5 stars from planets on my telescope tableau and a run of 6 consecutive planets in my notebook tableau, for 30 points. That was enough to carry me to 41 points from this aspect of the game, while also netting 10 points for having at least one of each suit on my telescope. I also did this despite having had to place one card face-down because there were no available spots adjacent to the cards of the same suit already in my telescope.

Melodi was less concerned about the diversity bonus —she put no planets on her telescope at all. She also made a mistake because she gathered 7 stars from moon cards, but then forgot to put any moons into her notebook, meaning for the first two rows, she scored nothing. But she managed to do well enough on the other three suits that she was trailing by just 3 points when we subtotaled the top of the scoreboard. And then, even though we knew I would get 10 points for having all 5 suits and she would not, she steamrolled me in the area majority section, grabbing all 30 points and cruising for an easy win. We’ve played a bunch more and I have won once or twice, but this is a game I like but not one I can often win. And that’s okay because it’s still a quick, fun game.

The game fits into a box not much bigger than two decks of standard-size cards.

I also like the fact that it is a compact game. However, the big downside of this game being so portable is that it’s incredibly flimsy—the telescopes are just 12 thin cards you have to lay out carefully and if you breathe too hard or a sleeve grazes over them, you’ll have to reset them. Every play of a card usually sent my telescope into disarray and had me wishing the game came with 2 neoprene mats or at least cardboard tiles, instead of 12 very thin cards for the telescope. Of course, this would make the game less portable, but I think my biggest reason not to play this more often is I am tired of the cards flying off the table the moment anyone looks at them even slightly askew.

Final Thoughts:

I like Stellar more than I thought I would. It’s playable with a good pace, with many scoring considerations to balance with each play, and it’s over so fast you can seek revenge after losing, again, to your brainiac wife. If it came in a deluxe version with more substantial components, especially for the telescope grid, I would definitely have given it a higher score. For its weight and speed, this game hits a niche that no others can fill.

Final Score: 3.5 Stars – I would even go so far as to call it a 4 for the game and a 3 for the components, so a 3.5 overall.

3.5 StarsHits:
• Plays fast but offers some good brain-burning thinking
• The paths to points are varied enough that there isn’t just one dominant strategy
• Compact format for easy transport.

Misses:
• The components are too easy to jostle.
• I got “Satellite of Love” stuck in my head every time I played a Satellite card

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Andy is an antitrust economist with a subspecialty in sports economics. Andy has served as the case manager for the NFL and for a series of plaintiffs’ classes suing the NCAA. He was one of the initial sponsors of California SB206, which helped restore college athletes’ name, image, and likeness rights in the state of California and launched the NIL moment. Andy’s latest project has been to combine this passion for college athletes’ rights with his equal love of all things Euro board gaming to create the board game Envelopes of Cash. Andy holds an M.B.A. from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA as well as an A.B. in history from Stanford University, and an M.A. in history from Johns Hopkins.

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