Stellar is the latest game from veteran designers Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle, whose previous designs such as Fleet, Ladder 29, and Morocco rank among our favorite games ever. And when we think of Ridback, we think of clean designs with intuitive mechanics that result in gameplay that is engaging without being needlessly complex. So the question that sprang immediately to mind when we saw Stellar was whether it would live up to its pedigree (let alone its name) or find itself decidedly earthbound.
We received a copy of Stellar for our consideration and possible review. We only publish reviews of games we think are worth discussing, so we weren’t otherwise compensated.
In Stellar, two players will square off as stargazers, each of whom wants to observe the most impressive array of celestial objects. Your player area is set up to mimic the shape of a telescope (as well as a row called your ‘notebook’, which is where the cards you draft will end up. Each card is from one of five suits – planets, moons, asteroids, interstellar clouds, and black holes – and are worth points at the end of the game for players who manage to cleverly gather majorities and sets.
On each turn, a player will follow the same three steps:
- Add a card to their hand – draw a card of your choice from the row
- Play a card from their hand – play one card from your had to either your telescope or your notebook
- Play a card from the row – you must play the card from the row matching the number on the card you played in the previous step
The placement of cards is at the heart of the puzzle of Stellar. The two places where your cards go, your telescope and your notebook, are how you will wrack up points at the end of the game. The telescope is divided into three areas, and each one will be scored based on a comparison of the total value of cards you’ve managed to place there. Cards can only be added adjacent to others of their own suit, so you have to be strategic in when and how you add cards to it. Cards get added to your notebook in numerical order, divided by suit. Your goal here is to create runs of consecutive cards for suits you are also collecting in your telescope, because you will score points for each suit based on the longest run of cards in your notebook times the number of star icons on that suit in your telescope.
There are a couple of other kinds of cards aside from the five suits – moons that act as either 0 or 6 depending on where they’re placed and satellites that act as wilds – but Stellar is really a mechanically austere game. The challenge comes down to being lucky and clever with your drafts and plays, always keeping an eye on what your opponent is in contention for and trying to snag what you need before the game ends.
For such a small game, Stellar does spread out quite a bit on the table, making it just a touch less portable-friendly than we would have liked, but that’s a pretty minor quibble in the face of an otherwise well-designed and beautifully implemented game. We definitely enjoyed Stellar and recommend it for any gamer pair who likes a puzzly challenge (with the bonus of a really attractive theme pasted on).