04 June 2019
The tower of love
With just two players, a couple hours and a tower of wooden blocks, Star Crossed manages to conjure up unparalleled stories of romance, tragedy and comedy – as long as you’re able to relax and shrug off the awkwardness that can come from in-character flirting.
The box describes it as “a game of forbidden love” and, while that sounds a little vague, that’s exactly what it is. There are no presumptions about what setting you might use or what tone you should work towards, because the only hard-and-fast requirement Star Crossed imposes on its player characters is that A) they feel a powerful attraction to one another, and B) they have a very good reason for not acting on that attraction.
Everything else – the genre you want to riff on, how silly things are going to get and how grounded you’re going to be in reality – is decided by the players when they kick off a session. One game could drop you into the realistically grimy shoes of two soldiers sharing a mud-slicked trench in a time when a love affair could lead to prison or worse, while the next may propel you into a wacky sci-fi setting where a starship science officer establishes a relationship with a sentient gas cloud.
Many games claim to only be limited by the players’ imaginations, but in the case of Star Crossed it’s completely accurate. For some people, picking from a functionally infinite list of scenarios can be a rather daunting prospect, but once you get used to the idea and learn to go with the flow you’ll be scribbling potential pairings as you sit on the bus or lie in bed.
There’s more to the game than smashing characters into each other, though, and while the rules are feather-light they do manage to elegantly capture a feel of rising tension and anticipation. This is achieved through the teetering tower of wooden blocks – think Jenga – that acts as a rough stand-in for the sensible part of them that knows the relationship can’t work.
As scenes play out and the characters grow closer by revealing intimate secrets or accidently brushing hands/tentacles/mind-probes, the players must draw bricks from the stack and place them on top. If the tower topples to the table then the characters’ resolve breaks and they act on their emotions, with the exact consequences depending on how many bricks were placed over the course of the session – a representation of how close they grew.
Watching your wooden edifice sway and teeter as your characters bare their hearts is an electrifying, tense experience, with the blended fear and anticipation of the crashing of wood and spraying of blocks across the floor managing to provide a real link between the in-game world and reality. Making the decision to throw out a hand and intentionally sweep the tower to the ground at a story-appropriate moment is one of the most satisfying moments found in all of roleplaying.
All of this does come at a cost, however. Star Crossed is a game of intense emotion and intimate moments and, while this makes for great stories and excellent roleplaying, it can sometimes be hard to play.
In many ways this isn’t a fault of the game, but rather an issue with the entire concept. Indeed, Star Crossed does an incredible job of making sure that every player stays safe and comfortable, with plenty of encouraging words about setting boundaries and avoiding uncomfortable topics.
This doesn’t change the fact, however, that playing out an intense romantic relationship can be, well, embarrassing.
Not everyone will feel this way, of course. There are plenty of folks comfortable enough in their skin and sexuality to laugh off any awkward moments, but if the idea of reading love poetry out loud sends flushes of anxiety across your cheeks you might struggle to find the detachment needed for comfortable play.
This all raises the question: is it worth shelling out for a game system that you might hesitate to pull out for the local games night or a session with your friends or family?
If this was a review for something practical – a washing machine or a car – then the answer might well be no. But it isn’t. It’s a review for a game that can be awkward, embarrassing and beautiful all at the same time. If you’re the least bit interested in its sweetly simple concept and have a couple folks to play with, Star Crossed is well worth taking a gamble on.
PLAY IT? – MUST-PLAY
Despite the simple rules, Star Crossed isn’t always the easiest game to play – but when it works it’s a truly wonderful experience.
Designer: Alex Roberts
Artist: Jess Fink
This review originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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