Game Pile: Before There Were Stars

Oh hey I already have this pic uploaded, sweet.

It’s 2021 November, and I have finally followed up on a promise from a game I bought in January, 2019.

Before There Were Stars is a mythic fantasy storytelling game about creating a mythology. It is in its purest sense, an improvisational storytelling game, where you get a variety of prompts to fit a structure and you tell a story to fit it, and other players vote on your story. It is absolutely the exact same game as Cards Against Humanity just with a different value set – you’re trying to tell the story of how the world got made, instead of the story of how everyone at the table learned who was really more okay with racism than they thought they were at the start of the play session.

As a game in its genre, Before There Were Stars is both aggressively fine, and incredibly pleasant. You don’t tend to need to have a reason to sit around weaving a story with your friends, and the tradition in our own real world history of people gathering around, say, a fire or a candle in the cold night to tell a story about what they did or didn’t see in the flames as an explanation for why turtles poop is so storied it might well predate what we consider ‘humans.’ The actual game design is fantastically toothless and even anonymises the reward system so people are able to praise one another or shade one another without even that much friction. The game presents you with a tableau of prompts, and then through a momentarily confusing drafting system that’s just a tiny bit poorly explained, limits which ones you can pick based on a dice pool or lets you let one rip off the top of the deck, and the confines this puts on your storytelling are… fine? Moderately challenging?

Like I said, the game is very much fine. The entire genre of ‘creatively respond to a card and the table votes on it’ is toothless and bankrupt because we’re remarkably bad at just encouraging storytelling in our day to day lives, and these games don’t tend to make us better at it.

But Before There Were Stars deserves some special credit, not just for being a game I bought entirely because Fox thought it was pretty but for actually being as pretty to handle as it looks on the shelf. It’s not uncommon to get a game with a lot of bright, riotous colour where the actual gameplay muddies it up until you’re ignoring the beautifully painted board in favour of looking down at a tableau of brown cube yellow cube blue cube, wheat, and this game is in almost all of its components, aggressively pretty. Tiny blue, yellow and golden stars are how you score, you have your own private bag to fill up with points in a silent, private draft, and the cards depict beautiful constellations that you need to draft through rolling dice – dice that are, themselves, aggressively nice. Don’t get me wrong, the dice are a colourblindness accessibility nightmare, as they are both black dice with yellow or gold pips, but the core of what you’re getting is just a really nice, aesthetic object.

I don’t need this game, and for its particular job I will often do a lot with improv games. But the game itself is such a sweet and lovely object, and which has an aura of mystique around how it has to be set up and the ritual of the dice and the cards, that I feel like it’s a great idea to check it out, as a designer, to see how you can orchestrate around a game space we’ve normally been leaving to san-serif public domain fonts to create a sense of theatre.

Oh and if you’re a teacher or into educational stuff, the website has a bunch of resources for using this game to teach actual myths and history, so that’s neat.