Back in November, I pledged for the Rogue Stars Nickstarter. It seemed like a game I'd enjoy; it's a Science Fiction skirmish games, about 5 models per side, and it's largely setting agnostic. Plus, Mark Copplestone sculpted the models (or at least most of them). Why not try it?
My thought was I could apply a reasonably light weight set of rules to the Warhammer 40k background and play small games with my kids. The author, Andrea Sfiligoi, is known for doing some good rulesets.
The Nickstarter closed on December 4, 2016. But since I live on another continent, I wasn't expecting it right away. In fact, I sort of forgot about it. Then, while riding the train home on Monday the 19th, I saw Whiskey Priest's review. It is not kind. I was scared. Did I waste my money? And as I arrived home, there was a box in my mailbox from Northstar. So I would have a chance to check it out for myself almost immediately after reading some negative things about it.
So here are my thoughts.
To me, this seems like a roleplaying game, disguised as a skirmish game, but without any roleplaying. Make sense? Of course not. Let me try to explain.
Rogue Stars is, ostensibly, a skirmish game for two players of up to 5 models each. Everything is based on a D20. Roll higher than a difficulty and you pass an action, roll lower and you fail the action. Pretty simple in concept.
But, the game is reliant on "themes." When designing your squad, you pick a theme. That theme is very reminiscent of roleplaying. It's not picking an army or a race. If you want to play miners, for example, you can have a space orc, a space elf, a space dwarf, a space rat, and a human all working together. What's important is that they are miners, not who they fight for or what their species is. And this theme is used to help you tell the story of the mission. And the rules contain eight pages on setting up your mission (the book is only 64 pages, so that is one-eighth of the entire book). The rules clearly want you to have a story as those eight pages help you describe every aspect of the mission: what the purpose is, where it occurs, what the weather is like, etc.
This, however, is where it loses the roleplaying. Almost all eight of those pages are charts. And much of the 56 other pages are also charts. And what little text there is is boring. Like really boring. There is no fun in the explanation. It's very clinical and sterile. It feels like you're reading a textbook, not a game that is supposed to be fun.
Now, after complaining about all the charts (so many charts...), I don't think it is as bad as others have made it out. I suspect most of the charts are easily memorized after a few games as they seem largely to be specialized rules. For example, many relate to he effects of weapons or armor. Once you've modeled your squad, you will largely use the same weapons and same armor. I think this will hold true for the special actions as well--most players will likely find they are shooting at the same range most of the time or attempting the same combat moves based on their weapons most of the time.
I also really like it's initiative system. Basically the starting player keeps going until he or she wants to let the other player have a turn. Now, there are plenty of reasons to do this. Each action accumulates stress, which makes it harder to do more actions. And failing an attempt at an action gives the opponent free actions that occur first. But passing the initiative removes all the stress from your models. I think this is an interesting take on the I Go-You Go system.
In addition, I think it was nice that the weapons and armor rules cover almost every thing from classic science fiction games and stories. Except the Space Marine's trusty bolter. I can't figure out what to classify that as. Molecular Slugthrower, maybe?
But, to circle back around, this is where the presentation hurts the game. All those charts I mentioned? They're actually pretty simple. They just list modifiers to your difficulty rolls. And most of them do not stack. For example, a called shot to the head has one difficulty modifier while a rapid fire burst has another. Clearly, you're not doing both at once. The only place where they stack is either range based modifiers or modifiers from different charts. So a long range called shot to the head with a primitive needle gun would have several modifiers from several charts. But those would 1) likely be few and far between and 2) easy to skip while learning the rules. So these charts look far more imposing than they really are.
All this said, there is one thing I really, really, really do not like about Rogue Stars. You have to keep track of hit locations. I hate that in wargames. It adds unnecessary complexity and book keeping. My seven year old isn't going to be able to keep track of which mercenary has lost the use of his right arm and which has lost their left leg. He just wants to know if his guys are dead yet or if they can shoot now.
So I originally wrote this review and finished with a recommendation against picking this game up unless you like lots of bookkeeping. But then I slept on it. After thinking some more about it, I don't know that I still agree with my original conclusion. I don't think this game is any more complicated than, say, (the original) Confrontation...it is just presented in a way that makes it look that way. I think it's not a bad system. And limited to 4-6 models per side, there isn't too much complexity to keep track of. The only house rule I'll add is dealing with hit locations. So all in all, I probably would recommend this game, at least to read.