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Storytelling Game Review: ‘Before There Were Stars’ from Smirk & Laughter

Before There Were Stars from Smirk & Laughter Games allows players to compose their own myths and legends about how the world has come together. Like many anthropological stories, the tales are inspired by nature, in this case the stars. The real components, however, will come from players’ own minds, weaving together their experiences, hopes, and dreams into rich tales never before told.

Before There Were Stars begins with a Stargazing phase in which players gather inspirational Constellation cards. The first player lays out five choices, such as the Angel, the Father, the Moon, the Shark, and the Necklace. The player then rolls dice for star clusters that will match the dice marked out on the cards. Players collect cards of their choosing, drawing new Constellations for the next player to roll over.

Once players have their Constellation cards, the real fun begins, with the Storytelling phase. Players spin their own myths, which could be of any flavor – spooky and dark like the cryptic origins of the world from night in Egyptian myth, funny like a Coyote tale from Southwestern Native American legends, hopeful and joyous like the many legends of earthly paradise. Players must use their Constellation cards in the stories, though they can stretch however they like; the Shark, for example, could being a literal character or a figurative trickster taking advantage of another character. Stories should be quick, generally only a minute or two at most.

Players then move into the Appreciation phase in which they grant each other Star points. Rather than voting as in other party games, the appreciation is shown positively. Players do not give anything to themselves, only handing out stars to the player who had the best moment in their story, the next best, and so on. This encourages maximum creativity so that ideas are rewarded directly rather than being influenced by things like performance or coherence.

Play continues through additional rounds of storytelling, adding new Constellations each time to build on the developing worlds. At the end of the last round, each player gets a Moon token. These serve as a bonus, with each player recalling their favorite moment of all and passing that token to the player who told that tale as a bonus point. The player with the most Star points at the end of the game is a winner, but really everyone is a winner for having heard a slew of new stories.

There is a great deal of flexibility from the base set of Constellation cards, allowing for many variations to the game. Players may tell an ongoing saga with multiple chapters, or they may have themes appear in four levels of myth, from creation to the rise of a hero to the end of days. They can weave tales together or retell others’ tales with a new perspective, comparing the “cultures” of their worlds. There is no wrong way to imagine.

Before There Were Stars is a storytelling game for three to six players aged 10 and up. It is a moderately lengthy game, depending on how long or short players make their stories. The creative aspects are as limitless as the players’ imaginations, making it an excellent addition to writing groups and family functions. Classrooms, too, will benefit from stretching those mental muscles, so Smirk & Laughter offers Common Core lesson plans for grades 6 through 12.

About Jeff Provine

Jeff Provine is a Composition professor, novelist, cartoonist, and traveler of three continents. His latest book is a collection of local ghost legends, Campus Ghosts of Norman, Oklahoma.

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