Before There Were Stars
Published by Smirk and Laughter Games - 2018
Designers: Alex Cutler, Matt Fantastic, Alexander Wilkinson
Head Artists: Marthy Angue, Lisa Falzon
3 - 6 players ~ 40 - 60 minutes
Review “Stories in the Sky” written by Luke Muench
Few genres of games are so polarizing, so contentious that even their classification as games sparks debate, as storytelling games. While point systems and restrictions can be put in place, most boil down to people sitting around a table spinning vast narrative webs to share with their friends. It’s an acquired taste and not for everyone.
Before There Were Stars embodies everything I think of when I imagine a traditional storytelling game, for better or worse, but if used in the proper context and as a teaching tool, I believe that it can rise above its competition as an intelligent teaching tool that can help shape the imaginations of younger minds.
Reading the Constellations
“The stars we look up to reflect what’s within us.” - Anonymous
In a round of Before There Were Stars, players, in turn order, claim 2 constellation cards, each of which feature a single word or aspect that must be used in your upcoming narrative. Rather than choosing freely, players roll 12 dice each. The results can be used in combination to claim a story card, each of which requires a couple of specific die results for you to claim it. This can occasionally force you to be unable to take the cards you want or are most drawn to, which can feel disheartening, but I suppose that creativity springs forth from limitations.
Once everyone has claimed their cards, each person will have a minute to present a portion of their story. Each round encourages players to focus on a section of what would be considered a traditional legend, mimicking the format of Greek myths and the like. While these are guidelines, much of the game pushes you to follow this strict format.
Some rounds will require that you use cards from previous rounds of the game, which can sound challenging but is often very simple. Many stories will have a couple of cards act as pervading themes or main characters in the story at hand, resulting in those cards being reused round after round.
After everyone has told their tale, players pass colored bags around, dropping colored stars into the bags, awarding the more precious (and higher point value) stars into the bags of the storyteller that you liked most that round.
Keeping Score In Stars
“You can be the moon and still be jealous of the stars.” - Gary Allan
I find that scoring is one of the trickiest and most polarizing aspects of the game. On the one hand, I acknowledge that within the current state of the hobby, for a game to be considered a game there needs to be a system to determine a winner. There will always be those who want to know what the score is or who won. So it makes sense to have the stars system present, as well as keeping it hidden for most of the game in an effort to both disguise and ignore its importance.
But on the other hand… do we REALLY need a scoring system?
This year at the Metatopia convention, I had the chance to talk to one of the co-designers, Matt Fantastic, while we were playing a round of Before There Were Stars. When addressing the scoring system, he explained that his goal was to create a feeling of everyone being a winner by awarding players with colorful stars. At the end of the round, players pour out a bunch of pretty tokens that are meant to make you feel good about how you’ve done, regardless of the points behind it.
In some ways, I admire the aim of this thought and feel that it is a genuine gesture that will work for some. To me, however, the fact that players keep score at all undermines these altruistic goals; by awarding points at all, it puts value on the ideas of winners and losers. Honestly, I agree with the designer and want everyone to feel like they won, so if I were to revisit Before There Were Stars, I would nix the scoring altogether in favor of the end-game awards.
When each game concludes, players receive a token that they award to another player, noting something special or impactful about their story that they related to or appreciated. This encourages everyone to pay attention when everyone else is speaking and gives everyone a chance to feel good about a specific, tangible part of their story. Even someone who feels pretty disappointed in how their narrative came together is shown appreciation for a part of what they made.
Journeys and Their Bright Destinations
“It is not the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.” - WIlliam Shakespeare
The thing is, I likely won’t be returning to Before There Were Stars, not because it’s a bad game, but that it isn’t made for me. Rather, this title is clearly tailored to a younger audience. The 1-minute time limit each round, the restricted choice or cards, and the scripted narrative structure are all designed to guide stories in particular ways, helping those who may otherwise not have the confidence or encouragement to tell stories. As a writer and actor, I’ve done my fair share of improv and storytelling, and these confines feel a little too confining to me. Back in 5th grade, however, this would have been a wonderful tool to get my brain moving and forcing me to try what I might otherwise find terrifying.
Families and teachers will get a kick out of putting this on the table and watching kids eyes light up as they engage with and earnestly invest themselves in the stories at hand. It’s colorful and imaginative and helps form stories out of thin air. Many adults, however, will likely pass this one over. I set up this game to play at one of my weekly game nights, but when players realized what it was, they had no interest in participating, asking me to pack it away rather than have them go through the motions.
It’s not for everyone, but if you can find the right audience, Before There Were Stars can transform right before your eyes into a magical experience full of starry-eyed wonder.
Who Should Get This Game: Groups who care more about storytelling than mechanics, Parents or teachers looking to guide younger players through a beautiful storytelling experience.
Who Shouldn’t Get This Game: If you care about score or don’t like being put on the spot, you’ll find this game to be less than enjoyable.