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Subject: The Stars Are Right - Design Notes rss

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Klaus Westerhoff
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As of writing this, the release of Steve Jackson Games' english version of "The Stars Are Right" is nigh - a good opportunity for shedding some light on how that game came to be.



IT'S ALL IN A QUOTE

Technically, the game has been there since H.P. Lovecraft had the mad sailor Castro utter this famous line in "The Call of Cthulhu" on its 1928 release. But it was only in 2004 when I jokingly mentioned that "the stars are right" for having lunch that it dawned on me: Why not make a game where you see to it that the stars really *are* right? By manipulating a central grid of star symbols everyone could arrange specific constellations to bring into play creatures from the Cthulhu mythos and thus gain points!
Hence from the very beginning the game was based on Lovecraft's works and took its name from the famous line "The Stars Are Right".

During that fateful lunch break my first thoughts went to the material. For the tiles with the star symbols, I quickly settled on a grid of 5 by 5 tiles - that size could provide enough variation while still being clearly arranged.
Since the manipulation of these tiles should be card driven, I needed cards with both action symbols and with the creatures to be summoned. For a short while I pondered splitting this into two different card types, but that included the danger of eventually being stuck with only one of the two on your hand. Also, it would necessitate an unnecessarily complicated draw mechanic, so I chose to combine both the grid manipulation and the creature onto the same card. Oooh, and that would even cause the juicy dilemma whether to play a card now to change the grid or to keep it for summoning later.

In the evening of the same day, I met with fellow roleplayer and Lovecraft scholar Christian Wolf, who provided great input on how to properly fit in the game's mythos theme. The creatures were split into Great Old Ones, Minions and Servitors, just as Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG suggests. Also, Christian made the crucial suggestion that creatures should have some sort of power when finally summoned, which led to both the creation of the creatures' services to change one action into another, as well as the independent creatures who would have more of a metagaming effect. Finally, this suggestion led to the crucial inception of having the lesser creatures make the summoning of their respective Great Old One easier.


TRIAL AND ERROR

With the basics firmly in place, I went on to create the first prototype. And thus the first problems became apparent.
First off, the star tiles and resulting patterns proved to be too complicated. Since the night sky is usually plain black with only a few stars sprinkled here and there (at least on the northern hemisphere), I put the star symbols in one corner of the tile, which meant that the alignment of the stars within constellations - e.g. 3 stars in the top left corner to the right of a solar eclipse in the bottom right corner - would also have to match. This approach meant that besides pushing rows and turning tiles over, the third action was to rotate a tile. Some playtesters had a real problem wrapping their minds about that.
Meanwhile, I had designed the creature cards with variety in mind, containing 9 different pantheons of 9 cards each - 1 Great Old One, 3 Minions, 5 Servitors - as well as 7 different Independents with 3 cards each. With so much diversity, no one was able to draw enough creatures from only one pantheon and use their synergies. And since there was no limit on the number of creatures you could summon, the game ended with one player just putting down as many easily summoned servitors as possible.
In the end everyone agreed that the game as a whole had great potential, but the balancing was still off by far. Back to the drawing board, then.

First I introduced a maximum of 6 creatures that could be summoned. The star tiles were simplified to just contain one plain star symbol in the middle. The creature cards meanwhile needed more work: With the simpler tiles I'd have to think of new constellations for the summoning. The rotating action was substituted by swapping adjacent tiles, which meant a new assortment of creature powers.Finally, I reduced the number of pantheons from 9 to 6 with 13 creatures each - 1 Great Old One, 3 Minions, 9 Servitors - while the number of 7 Independents with 3 cards each remained.

Off to more testing. This version proofed to better, but through the card distribution it was still too hard to get creatures on your hand that shared a pantheon.
So for the next prototype the number of pantheons was again decreased from 6 to 4, while the number of Great Old Ones within each pantheon was increased from 1 to 3. While it made sense thematically that each Great Old One was in the game only once, the fun part is in summoning these powerful creatures, so the odds for drawing them had to be increased. Decreasing the number of Independents from 7 to 5 certainly helped, too.
That version finally worked well; you were able to build towards a certain pantheon and could aim for the big finish by summoning your creatures' master.



THE ONLY REAL VALUABLE THING IS INTUITION*

But something still didn't feel right, the game didn't flow the way I hoped it would. While I already had a hunch what exactly was nagging me, my brain insisted on sticking to paradigms I set with the very first prototype.
So I let the game rest for a few months and let the nagging feeling sink in until finally my stubborn reasoning gave in to my intuition.

What had been wrong? For the victory points I wanted to be able to reflect the indivual power levels of the creature cards, and thus had used high numbers with a total of 35 points needed to win. Not intuitive enough, too much bothersome calculating; so the numbers were shrunk to roughly a fourth as seen in the final version.
Also, originally I wanted the Independents to differ from the way the pantheons worked. Their special powers were originally used by playing them from hand, and their minimal victory points value was not enough of an incentive to ever summon one. On top of that, they didn't even provide a push/swap/flip action when playing them from your hand!
Also, not very intuitive, so the Independent's powers were changed to be used only by summoning them and they finally received their action symbols like the other creatures.

And that was just it. Finally, everything fell into place and *felt* right. Though a few minor modifications had to be made, here was a version that I could at last introduce to a publisher.



FLIGHT WITH THE PEGASUS

Pegasus Spiele had always been my first choice of a company to show The Stars Are Right to. As german publisher of many Steve Jackson Games licenses, they already knew me through my activities as an MIB - incidentally, later I would become a Pegasus supporter as well. Also, as the publisher and creator of many excellent books for the german Call of Cthulhu RPG, they had experience with games based on the mythos.

Though they had a longer struggle whether Cthulhu made a good theme for an abstract card game like mine, they finally decided on a great balancing act to lessen the seriousness of Lovecraftian horror by hiring Goomi to apply his satirical style of the Unspeakable Vault Of Doom to the illustrations. Combined with the lovely layout done by my wife - who had worked with Pegasus before - I'm very happy with how the visuals turned out.



AND NOW IT'S OUT THERE...

Die Sterne Stehen Richtig has now been out in its german original for almost a year. I'm amazed myself that after all that time I still feel like playing an occasonal session with my wife (who regularly beats me, by the way).
Looking back, I still am just happy how the design turned out with all players struggling to manipulate one central resource to their advantage, not knowing what their opponents are planning. I understand that many people have accused the game of being an incarnation of downtime; and I admit that it helps to have a knack for visual puzzles when playing The Stars Are Right - heck, those games with my wife are sometimes over in about twenty minutes!

But if you have that knack, The Stars Are Right might be just the game for you; and if not, just ask one of Steve Jackson Games MIBs for a demo. Maybe the supporter explaining it to you is a certain german who still can't believe they chose to licence his first ever proper game design...



*Quoted from Albert Einstein
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Steve Duff
Canada
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Great read, I always appreciate these designer insights.
 
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Philip Reed
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Thanks! We've got the game at our GenCon booth and it's doing very well. Less than 20 copies left.
 
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Klaus Westerhoff
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PhilReed wrote:
Thanks! We've got the game at our GenCon booth and it's doing very well. Less than 20 copies left.

What a pleasant surprise - thanks for letting me know!
 
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Philip Reed
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Merimac wrote:
PhilReed wrote:
Thanks! We've got the game at our GenCon booth and it's doing very well. Less than 20 copies left.

What a pleasant surprise - thanks for letting me know!


We sold every copy of the game that we took to GenCon. It starts shipping to stores next week.
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