“Look, up in the sky! It’s the Great Bear!”
“Ha! But if I take away one star, then it’s the Hydra!”
“Oh yeah? Well, if I include one over here, then it’s Aquarius!”
“That’s what you think! I’ll just block out that star, and now it’s Pisces!”
Published: 2008, 2018 (Currently on Kickstarter, through Thursday, October 5; $15 U.S. for base game, $20 U.S. for base game plus neoprene playmat upgrade, $28 U.S. for two copies of base game, shipping extra for all levels, local pickup available in Toronto.)
Designer: Tim W.K. Brown
Artist: Jamie R. Jones
Publisher: Fabio Del Rio/CSE Games
Thanks to CSE Games for providing a review copy! Art and components pictured are not final.
Good abstract games are often praised for the amount of strategy they can create from a simple ruleset, and Gridstones excels on that front. The rule booklet’s only four small pages, including a page and a half of variants. All you really need to know is that you’ll use a different part of the board and a different number of constellation cards depending on player count, and that on your turn, you’ll either add one star stone to the board or remove one from it in an effort to create patterns on the board that match the hidden constellation cards you’re holding.
Once you make a match, you place the matching card face-up on the table. When you’ve matched all of your constellation cards, you win. That’s it! But that simple ruleset produces a fun, deep, and intriguing game, and a rare abstract that works well with up to six people. There’s a reason this game has stuck around for 10 years, and this anniversary edition should help more people experience it.
What really makes Gridstones work is that the card patterns show stars and empty spaces on a 3X3 grid, but the actual playing area is significantly bigger; 4X4 for two players, 5X5 for three to four players, 6X6 for five or six players. You also have the ability to turn your cards to any orientation you want, and to make matches before or after you place or remove a star (or both; there’s no limit on how many matches you can make on one turn). So there’s lots of flexibility here to make matches, and you rarely feel locked out.
You have multiple possible matches you’re working towards (you start with five cards in a two-player game, four in a three- or four-player game, and three in a five- or six-player game). And you don’t know what matches your opponent or opponents are trying to set up. So, unlike many abstracts, there isn’t necessarily a lot of direct confrontation, especially as you don’t know your opponent’s goals.
It’s much more about setting up multiple possibilities for yourself (especially early in the game while you still have all your cards), and about taking advantage of what other people play. And the hidden goals mean that you can’t easily prevent what your opponents are trying to do; sure, you can remove a stone they’ve played (except in the two-player game, where you can’t undo exactly what they just did to avoid stalemates), but that’s not necessarily all that helpful, especially compared to trying to build your own constellations.
This also enables the game to have a relatively similar feeling at different player counts. The larger board with more players means that while you’re getting less frequent turns, there are more areas to expand into and more possible combinations. The board state is going to change more between your turns at higher player counts, but there’s also more room to expand into areas where others may not be focusing. And it’s still very much about building for yourself. But this isn’t a multiplayer-solitaire game at any count; building constellations all on your own would take way too long, so the key is taking what your opponent’s doing and building off it in a way that you can accomplish your own goals. There’s probably more long-term strategy and less reactionary tactics with two than with five or six, but both are involved at any count.
There’s a lot to like about Gridstones, even if you’re not typically a fan of abstracts. It’s an easy-to-teach, easy-to-learn game. And from this corner, it would seem to be easier for new players to pick up and win at than many abstracts, as the hidden and random goals mean you’re not necessarily going to have a huge advantage just from playing this (or other abstracts) more frequently than your opponent.
Now, there is some luck involved, especially with the goal cards. If your constellations are closer to each other than your opponents’ are, or if your constellations are close to what they’re trying to accomplish, that probably gives you a better win percentage. And that may turn off some who only like no-randomness, perfect information abstracts. But the spatial considerations, emergent complexity from simple rulesets, and opportunities for clever moves that often characterize those titles are present here as well, so this may work as a change of pace for abstract lovers too. It seems particularly good as an introductory abstract, though, and especially as one that can accommodate a higher player count. And while the theme isn’t overwhelming, it definitely fits; it does feel like you’re trying to see constellations. Plus, the short playtime means it could be an excellent opener, closer or filler for a game night.
Another advantage this game has is its portability. It’s a small deck of cards, a small board, and a bag of stones, and that makes it easy to transport and play on small surfaces. It’s fun to play outside under the stars, and the weight of the stones means any wind isn’t going to alter the board, a concern with some games. The patterns on the cards also don’t require a ton of light to see. This is a good camping game, but it’s one that could also work in a bar or restaurant.
There are a few variants here that can offer different options, too. You can play an extended point game (drawing new cards as you play old ones and racing to complete 10 cards), or a series of elimination games (with the last player to complete their cards eliminated each time and the others moving on to start a new game). And you can work in Shooting Star cards, new for this 10th anniversary edition. If you use those, each player gets one during setup, and they give a powerful one-time ability that can be used on any turn, from rotating a 2X2 space of stars to swapping a constellation card with one from the deck, to placing, removing or moving stars. They’re not going to dramatically alter the game experience, especially as you only get one per game, but they can be a fun twist.
Overall, Gridstones is a solid abstract game, and one I’ve definitely enjoyed. It plays quickly and is easy to teach, and it plays well at any player count from two to six. The spatial planning will make you think, but the flexibility in having different goals to accomplish, having a large board to work on, and being able to rotate cards means you generally feel like you’re making some progress. There are also lots of opportunities for clever plays. This one’s worth checking out.
The Gridstones Kickstarter runs through Oct. 5.