Starlight is the newest game from OOM Games and Brendan McCaskell with previous credits including Last One Standing, No Escape, and Battle Bears.  Those titles may not resonate with most readers, but Starlight certainly will be considering by the time of this writing, it has crossed the half-million-dollar mark. But what sets this game apart from the others…you know, besides amazing production value and a scale of design far exceeding previous efforts? Having gone through the rules and analyzed the various gameplay videos, I have isolated what I believe are the top five innovations of this new game.


Starlight doesn’t focus on one aspect of its genre, but rather three, specifically the three we most associate with the science fiction genre—space voyages, spaceship combat, and planetary exploration. It’s what we look for in our television shows. Having a space battle every week would get tedious, even if it looked pretty, likewise if every episode centered on a planet without any spaceships. The great settings of TV and literature properly mix and balanced the content to ensure a continually entertained returning audience. However, most board games prefer to focus on one aspect of this, obvious given the difficulty in incorporating more. Starlight bravely attempts to tackle all three ideas into a single package…well, maybe more with expansions.


I need to stress that I love die-placing as a mechanic. When done right, it can be applied to give players choice while also occasionally allowing them to do something amazing while limiting options. A perfect implementation (like another science-fiction game, Alien Frontiers) ensures that no matter what someone rolls, the player neither wastes a die nor his or her turn. Starlight replicates this mechanic without replicating the rules seen in these types of games.  Each player possesses the same selection of basic actions as well as four custom actions, two based on weapons, the other two based on engines. When dice are rolled, they can be assigned to any action matching the symbol rolled. Some actions get better as more dice are added, while some actions can be used more than once. It allows an amazing level of functionality on each turn. Adding in the fact that players can customize their character boards with actions, and what remains is an amazingly original and robust combat system.


I am separating this rule from the previous entry because it’s worth being isolated and praised. It’s not uncommon in die rolling/die-placing games to have a die result that cannot be used or that hampers a character instead of helping. Alternately, a specific die facing can result in a windfall, something better than the standard; perhaps it’s a wild result or one that allows a specific action (I’m looking at you, Apocalypse Chaos). Starlight’s genius compromise was to have all these functions tied to a single die result. The stress symbol, when it appears on an action die, on the surface appears harmful. Gain too many of these, and a player will begin to incur penalties, mostly involving the inserting of miss results in your character’s modifier deck. However, they also double as wild dice, able to replicate any other die result. But it doesn’t stop there—certain actions become even more powerful if a stress die is used to activate it. It’s a perfect risk vs. reward system, which also ensures there is never a bad result when dice are rolled.


Strictly speaking, the option to upgrade one’s player area is not a novel idea; many games employ it. And the concept of upgrading characters perpetually through multiple game sessions has also been seen before, either through writable character sheets or legacy components (elements of a game permanently altered through stickers or destroyed cards). But I have never seen a game that allows three different forms of customization on one’s ship while ALSO employing a writable sheet for the character.  That’s right, each player possesses two different aspects of customization, a character AND a spacecraft. These are customized individually. Although they obviously affect each other when you combine these two aspects, it results in unheard-of customization. Characters are not matched to specific ships, so they can be mixed to further increase customization.


I know what you’re all thinking; there are hundreds of science fiction games.  But are there? Think about it.  No, I mean really think about it. How many are abstract with a slapped-on theme? How many are just a tool to sell miniatures with only the bare skeleton of rules glued onto it to justify the expense? Once you eliminate those, there are notable examples (like the aforementioned Alien Frontiers and personal favorites like Xia and the underappreciated Kepler 3042), but when weighing them against the tens of thousands of abstract eurogames and Ameritrash tactical combat games, most of which are either contemporary- or fantasy-based, heavily thematic science fiction games like Starlight are incredibly rare. They’re not unicorns—maybe just dolphins. They do exist, and you may have seen one in person. But few people have played with them.  Starlight is a pervasive, campaign driven, science fiction game with customizable and upgradable characters and spacecraft, and I honestly can’t think of another game like it.