Rogue Stars is another of the Osprey Wargame Series. This one is written by Andrea Sfiligoi who also wrote A Fistful of Kung Fu and Of Gods and Mortals. In addition, he works with Ganesha Games and wrote the popular Song of Blades and Heroes rules and their derivatives. That means he has an established track record of game design. I had certain pre-conceived notions of what I was going to find once I cracked the cover of this book based on what I knew of his design philosophy, but I heard some initial rumors that made me think that the design of Rogue Stars would diverge significantly from Mr. Sfiligoi’s previous works. He has a strong design ethos to his games.
I know many people were looking forward to this game as a generic Sci-fi skirmish set so they could bring the models they owned to the table. Some of the pre-release models from Northstar miniatures were very promising, harkening back to and older, nostalgic time of Oldhammer wargaming. They created a god deal of buzz and fueled further speculation on the rule set ahead.
Unlike some of the other Osprey games, Rogue Stars does not start with and design criteria or notes. However, the initial “The Basic” section gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect. Those are that the game is played on a 3x3 board between groups of 4 to 6 models each. Each model is supposed to be a “character” with their own personality and story behind them. The models can be any scale with some slight modification, but they are designed with 28mm in mind. The game uses 3 d20 per player and it is helpful to have some tokens for stress, pins, and wounds. Online the author recommends that each character have a sheet on a sideboard and the tokens actually go on the record sheet and not the table.
There is only a brief 2 paragraphs introduction to the setting and it is pretty generic. At the edges of a crumbling galactic government, your models are trying to make a living, meet interesting people, not get killed, and keep in flying. The setting is a lawless and dangerous place.
So, with all this build up and excitement for this game, how does it play?
Things I like
The game wisely keeps the same Initiative/turn sequence that A Fistful of Kung Fu and Of Gods and Mortals uses but replaces it with d20 instead of d6. The attacker in a mission gets to choose who to activate first. You choose 1 to 3 d20 and roll to activate looking for a Target Number. For every success, the player can take an action. However, for every dice you fail your opponent can react. Reactions take place before the active player’s activation. As a reaction, your opponent can try to steal the initiative or complete an action. This is a very dynamic system that keeps all players engaged in the game at all times and making decisions.
I adore the Mission, Complication, and Location generator in this game as well. It delivers a variety of scenarios allowing for re-playability that I have not seen in other games. On their own, each is a relatively simple Sci-fi trope, but it is in the combinations where system really shines. No two games need be the same.
The system has a way to cover a wide range of characters and model types provided they are roughly man-sized that cover all of the major Sci-fi elements you can think of. They do not have rules for vehicles except as obstacles or objectives. This is an infantry skirmish game between characters, not grunts. Each model is an individual rogue or hero.
Things I Do Not Like
If you have read my reviews of the sister games, you know this is the part where I rant about special rules should not replace stat lines. Rogue Stars has no stat line. Instead, they have a list of unique special rules for each character. Ugghhh. I am not smart enough to keep track of all that stuff. Let’s take Movement as a Stat vs. Special Rules as an example. In Rogue Stars a character can walk, run or sprint. All of which have different distances involved. However, these can be impacted by traits such as Flight and Jump Packs (and probably others that I do not recall) that each have a paragraph of rules. Instead, it would be much simpler to have a M stat of 2/4/6 and a ignore terrain rules. The stats are far more intuitive than all the special rules mechanics as no one needs to told what a stat called Movement means and the 2/4/6 tells you how far a unit can move with a sentence instead of a couple paragraphs.
The system gets into a lot of “If This/Than That” rules mechanics. In fact, they are littered all over the game. An example is something like the Quantum Leap (I wonder if this is a reference to the old TV show?) rules where the actions are a list of actions with a few sentences and then suddenly, we have about three paragraphs about the Quantum Leap rules. They cover things like Blind Jumps, Critical Failure, Critical Success, etc. Then, back to the basic actions. A combination of lay-out and “If This/Then That” rules adds unneeded complexity to the rules sets. In fact, the whole ruleset feels needlessly complex in an effort to create an artificial sense of “Depth”.
I really dislike games that give a character “stress” or “fatigue” or whatever penalties just for doing simple things like daring to activate and walk. I get that the idea is that the more you do the harder it gets to do other stuff but just put a limit on actions and be done with this. Instead, you will get one or two “good models” doing all the work while the other models stand around and cheerlead from the baseline. Yuck.
Modifiers galore! This game has a ton of modifiers to apply. These come from stress, pins, wounds, traits, rules, and other bits. I can actually feel the crunch weighing me down as I read the rules. This is based largely on the d20 mechanics. I feel that d20 mechanics are far too swingy, and this nibbling around the edges doesn’t really off-set this core problem. Sure, you want to show someone is better at one thing than another? Okay, but with a d20 a +1 doesn’t mean much of anything. It is false granularity. Again, if you used actually stat lines, you could avoid some of this Modifier Galore nonsense by building better skilled characters into it, instead of littering your rules with special rules.
Some will argue that to get to the “character” elements that the game is striving for and customization you need to have this level of granularity and complexity. I would argue that they are wrong. For example, in Dragon Rampant you can completely customize each unit and that game has very simple resolution mechanics. I am sure there is a market for this type of game and this level of crunch. I would argue that the lack of stat lines actually makes the game less complex and more granular in an intuitive way than the special rules “if This/Than That” boutique we are presented in Rogue Stars.
Meh and Other Uncertainties
Experience Point or XP is the currency of the game. You use this to buy gear, traits, etc. They are also earned in game by KOing other models and completing objectives. XP also appears to be the “points” system for balancing.
Models that get killed are dead, it is better to retreat them off the board when they get battered. Losing a character in a campaign game can be a campaign limiting decision.
The game has a lot of environmental special rules. These help each game be a unique experience. On the downside, it is more special rules to recall during play.
The layout of the book is not that great in my opinion. There is not a clear flow on how an attack works because it is interrupted by all sorts of special rules for weapons, armor, doing this or that, etc. The lay-out is confusing and not clean. The art is character artwork that probably led into the mini lines, and I like them, but I do not need to see full page shots of them. The mini pictures are good with a decent variety of models represented.
I was hoping this game would do for Sci-fi skirmish what Dragon Rampant did for Fantasy gaming. It does not. In fact, I am questioning if I will even play this game. Stating up a couple of 4-6 model warbands looks like a chore to me. The example character’s based on the North Star miniature line makes no sense to me and just looks like a jumble of words when I look at it. I honestly do not know if I will play this game.
I was hoping to play this game using INQ28 instead of the normal Inquisitor rules. However, I do not feel like these are a vast improvement. I know my review seems a bit harsh, but I am sure this game will scratch the right itch for many gamers. In theory, this game is designed to deliver what I like in gaming which is a narrative, character driven, 1:1 skirmish game for campaigning. However, after reading the mechanics this is simply not the style of game I want to play. I am disappointed, but I will still probably end up playing it a few times with my fellow local gamers.