Thanks to Button Shy Games for providing a review copy of Twin Stars.
“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
In contrast to the above proclamation, this game is NOT big at all. Here’s
Twin Stars is a solo game system created by Jason Tagmire and Mike Mullins, published by Button Shy Games. Over the last year or so, Button Shy has been distributing scenarios as stretch goals for their Kickstarters, beginning with Pod-X (which shares the so-called Pocket Universe with Twin Stars). Next week, a deluxe version of the system will be up on Kickstarter, featuring six scenarios, twelve characters, and all the tokens and dice needed to play.
In the past, each set for Twin Stars has contained two characters and a scenario. All other components would need to be provided by the player – four dice and coins or other markers to track different stats. For this review, I was sent four scenarios, eight characters, dice and hand cut tokens – the tokens in the final version will be of better quality.
For each scenario, you’ll start each turn by rolling two dice. You’ll then assign those dice to your two chosen characters. Each scenario has a suggested set of characters, but if you’ve got multiple sets, you can mix and match. Each character has six slots for dice, and each slot has a symbol or some other effect. INSTANTs are optional, while EFFECTs are mandatory. What you are trying to do is create combos of symbols – two stars or two checks are generally good, while two exclamation points are generally bad. If the symbols do not match, you’ll need to reduce one of your dice by one and reroll the other. If you do get a combo, you’ll resolve it and reroll both dice. You continue doing this until you meet the conditions for victory or defeat.
In the Escape the Brig scenario, you’re trying to get out before the guards catch you. If you manage to get two star symbols, you’ll be able to advance a space towards the exit. Two checks will allow you to move toward the exit, but you have to do a skill check. To do this, roll two dice and if either falls outside the skill check range for the characters, you lose a health. Instead of advancing with two checks, you can choose to move the guard back a space – no skill check is required for this. If you get two exclamation points, the guard advances. If you ever have a die on an INSTANT effect, you can choose to use it, but in this scenario it will either trigger guard movement or give you a skill check. If you make it to the exit, you win. If the guard makes it to the tunnel, or if you die, you lose.
Each scenario has its own different twists on the system, and each character works slightly differently than the others.
COMPONENTS: I got a prototype, so I won’t say too much here. The cards have a lot of information on them, and are designed well graphically. There’s no confusion about what the symbols are. Some of the more advanced actions have to be explained on the cards, and those can get confusing. My copy included hand cut tokens, and they have scenario specific symbols on them, which is cool. If their size is any indication of how big they’ll be in the final game, then you might just want to substitute in cubes because they’re mostly a little too big for their purpose.
THEME: The Button Shy Pocket Universe is shared between several games in their line. It’s basically generic sci-fi because, really, there’s not a whole lot of lore you can cram into a tiny game. However, I am of the opinion that generic sci-fi is better than generic fantasy. In fantasy, creators tend to stick to the same archetypes – wizards, dwarves, elves, dragons, etc. In sci-fi, the different races and creatures always tend to be very creative and different. And that is the case here. Each one has a little snippet of flavor text and plays out differently according to their character. Fanoobia, for example, is “a loud, shrieking Quassian tentacle creature” whose first three slots are exclamation points. That works.
Each individual scenario also has its own theme. Escape the Brig is about trying to evade a guard and get out. The Quark Star is about your scientific efforts to create the Quark Star after the discovery of the pentaquark (a nice nod to Mullins’ other solo game for Button Shy, Pentaquark). Rule the World is about trying to fire an ion cannon before the Liberation Starfighters stop you (I guess you’re the Death Star in this scenario). And in Stop the Virus, one character is the doctor trying to save the other character’s life from a deadly disease. Those are the ones I got and can report on, but each one has its own little story that plays out, and it works as a thematic experience.
MECHANICS: Twin Stars features dice rolling and placement on a small scale. Placement just involves putting a die on one of the characters and trying to figure out which combination will be best. When getting a combo, you just refer to the result on the scenario card. When you fail to get a combo, you’ll have to remove a die and reduce a die, which is a clever way of keeping things fluid and not being able to just leave a die in place until you roll what you want. Instants and Effects are used to help give each character a little more oomph than just making standard combos. You also get Skill Check die rolls to see if certain actions succeed or not, which involves rolling to see if each die fits into the character’s skill check ranges.
Overall, the game has some pretty simple mechanics – roll, place, resolve, repeat until you win or are crushed.
STRATEGY LEVEL: The biggest decision point in Twin Stars is determining where to place the dice. If you can make a combo, great, do that. If not, you have to think into the future as well as the present – determine the best place to put them for now, and since you’ll have to reduce a die, determine what will be the best setup for next round. There’s a lot of luck in the game, with a few options to mitigate that luck through character special powers (which I personally always seemed to forget to use). It is important to know the various quirks of the scenarios too as they all have slightly different rules. For example, in Escape the Brig, using an Instant will alert the guard or force you to do a Skill Check. In Rule the World, reducing a die brings the Liberation Fighters closer to you. And so on. Just be mindful of the little intricacies, and you’ll have a better time.
ACCESSIBILITY: This system, while fairly simple, is not that easy to grasp, at least at first. The rules do a good job of laying out the basic mechanics, but some of the more complicated bits of each scenario and characters are not terribly well explained and aren’t mentioned in the rules at all. It could probably do with some sort of FAQ.
REPLAYABILITY: All alone, I think a Twin Stars scenario would overstay its welcome. With only two characters and a scenario, you’d probably get tired of it fairly quickly. However, with multiple scenarios and characters, there are a lot of combinations to explore and makes this a pretty replayable game. Each scenario has a suggested character set, but it’s just a suggestion – mix and match however you please.
SCALABILITY: This is a solo game system, and I can’t really see if being playable by any more people.
FOOTPRINT: Each Twin Stars game is a three-card game, so it’s got a quite small footprint. Definitely airplane tray worthy.
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes. I enjoy the system a lot. It’s got a good challenge to it, and can be played very quickly in a small space. I think it’s great that there are a number of scenarios and characters out there – this system lends itself to expansion. My favorite of the scenarios right now is probably Stop the Virus because I think it’s the most different, but they’re all good (at least the four that I’ve tried). If you’re interested in solo microgames, this is definitely one to check out when the Kickstarter goes live on July 19. It will only run for a week, so check it out when it does.
Thanks again to Button Shy for providing a review copy of Twin Stars, and thanks to you for reading!