Friday, September 15, 2023

As a campaign, Star Maps falls flat

While I first picked up the PDF version of Star Maps five or six years ago, I’ve only now decided to do some printing and try it out. At that time, I was a little confused by the rules but, after years after playing Roll and Writes, it now seems simple lol (I still had to look at rules forums to clarify a few things so the rules really do need some editing)

Star Maps was part of a line of games from Spiel Press. The idea behind Spiel Press was to make campaign Roll and Write books. Since their third product never got published, I am guessing it didn’t quite work out. (However, since it came from the guy who’s behind Button Shy and PnP Arcade, I think the big picture is doing all right)

Here’s the basic idea: each player sheet shows curving loops of stars with boxes in between the stars. There are six different stars shapes. Roll two dice and assign one to pick a star shape and write the other number in a box next to a star of that shape. When the boxes on both sides of a star are filed in, write the difference of the two numbers on the star.

There are also connections. You can forgo writing down a number and check off a connection spot. Stars in more distant lines, even if you fill them in, aren’t worth anything unless they’re connected. More than that, connections are great for dealing with horrible rolls. 

Some connections are locked. Their star has a number written in and you have to fill in the boxes with the right numbers to make that number to unlock it.

When someone can’t make a move, game ends. Star points (plus bonus points which are different on different maps) get totaled and most points wins. 

I am of two minds about Star Maps. One is about it as a game and the other is about it as a campaign.

I do like it as a game, treating each map as its own thing. You don’t have a way to manipulate dice in this format (I’ll get to that) but a game has around thirty rolls, including connections. That’s enough for luck to average out and you can make intelligent decisions.

There are special bonuses that let you manipulate dice but those are part of the campaign version of the game. You earn them for later games.

Which is my clever way of seguewaying into writing about the campaign.

The game has four different maps and I think it’s safe to say they do increase in complexity and difficulty. However, from what I can tell from the rules (which, as I mentioned, can be vague), there isn’t a step-by-step structure to the campaign. With multi-players, you track who wins and the losers get access to bonus powers. In solitaire, you have to pass a point threshold to get bonuses.

More than that, it looks like you can play the maps in any order and as often as you like. If I’m wrong, a campaign is four games with the only ongoing element being three chances to get bonus powers. I think Star Maps would have been stronger with a greater variety of maps and in-game ways to earn bonuses as you go.

I can’t help but compare Star Maps to Bargain Basement Bathysphere which came out around the same time. A free, soliatire Roll and Write campaign game with at least thirty different play sheets (I haven’t peeked ahead so I’m not sure) that keeps building on itself. Bargain Basement Bathysphere has an interconnected, developing narrative, something Star Maps lacks.

And I can’t help but wonder if the Spiel Press business model played a part in that. I have the PDF version of the book. Which contains 22 copies of each map. Which is completely unnecessary for a PDF but makes perfect sense for a physical book where you’d tear it the pages like Sid Sackson’s Beyond series from the 1970s.

The Star Maps sheets are labeled 1.1 to 1.4, indicating that more Star Maps was planned. And I do wonder if it has been produced as a PnP if it might have done better and we might have seen more of an actual campaign.

Star Maps, as a game, has enough going on to be interesting. However, I think it also fights against its publishing format to its detriment.

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