|Star Fluxx (2011)
|Meeple Like Us
What is up, party people. I am writing this while on the train to Manchester, where I am going to be meeting with some researchers at the BBC regarding the RGUx Future of Video Game Accessibility project. There are crying children, talking adults, and an unusual amount of turbulence given that, as best I recall, trains are somewhat anchored to the ground. Forgive me then if my thoughts are a little more unstructured than usual.
Mostly, I have a great collection of games. Unlike many recreational purchases, games tend to be just on the wrong side of ‘impulse buy’. Or at least, the wrong side to let the impulse take me too often. Occasionally there is a deal of sufficient magnitude to justify some indiscriminate splurging (for example, the games currently on sale at the Works). If I’m going to put down £50 for a game though, I want to make sure I’m going to get a sufficient amount of entertainment out of it. As such, I tend to research games a lot before I buy them. I have wish lists that are constantly being updated and curated – games are added, games are removed, games are removed and then re-added and vice versa. I whittle this down to a short-list and at the end of the month I work out which of those on the shortlist are going to eat up my games budget for the month. The list is influenced by numerous sources – Shut Up and Sit Down are by far the biggest influence on what ends up being included (I LOVE SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN), but The Dice Tower and Tabletop are also capable of propelling a game onto my wishlist. I put in the research, is what I’m saying.
Unfortunately, I didn’t research Star Fluxx very much.
I let Tabletop be the sole thing to influence its purchase, and since then Tabletop has been given a considerably reduced weighting in my mental calculations. At least at a modest £10.50 the sting isn’t too bad. To be fair, the first time I played it I did have a little bit of fun, but it does not hold well up to analysis, and I really don’t want to ever play it again. Perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that I’d choose to play it over Monopoly. But that’s pretty faint praise for a game that is bizarrely, almost perversely, popular. It is genuinely mystifying to me that it has the appeal it has – an appeal that extends to a dozen re-skins (including Firefly, Cthulhu, Pirates, Batman and more), a half dozen expansions, and an average Amazon rating of 4.8. What the hell is going on here? What the hell am I missing?? Whatever it is that people find appealing in Fluxx, it’s obviously not something with which I can get on board.
So, what is Star Fluxx? Well, imagine rolling a dice every time it’s your turn. You then pick up a different dice, and roll that. Sometimes you pick up ten dice. Sometimes you pick five dice and get rid of three of them. Sometimes you roll a number and keep that dice in front of you. Then, at some point, you roll your handful of dice and someone yells ‘I win!’. That’s Star Fluxx, except it uses cards and not dice, and it tries to hide its fundamental, uncontrollable randomness through aggressively whimsical branding. It’s not a game, not really – it’s an exercise in pandering to the shallowest elements of geek humour. It’s the Monty Python quote of tabletop games. Even in its theming it is almost psychopathic in its laziness, plucking the lowest of low-hanging fruit and relying on a false sense of geekknowledgement to carry it through. It comes in sheep’s clothing, telling us that ‘hey, I understand you. I get you’, but it’s lying. It’s lying to your face.
This is how Star Fluxx works. We start with the Basic Rules card. This is the foundation stone of how the game plays. It gives a hand limit of three. It dictates a gaming flow of ‘draw one card’ and ‘play one card’. And then you go around the table, with each player doing just that. You draw your hand and you might end up with something like this:
These are the choices of card I can play. I can place down a goal, which changes the win condition for the game. So, we can change the win condition to be ‘These aren’t the droids…’ which would mean anyone that can play the Unseen Force and the Robot at the same time wins. Or we can play ‘What Doctor, where?’ which means that anyone that can play the Doctor and the Time Traveller at any time wins. Those are known as ‘Keepers’ and we play them face up in front of us. Later on we may be limited as to how many we can play, but we’ll get to that.
We also have a ‘surprise’ card, which has the ‘cancelled plans’ title. If someone tries to a play a goal we get to discard it, without it being our turn. We just completely undermine their dirty schemes.
We get other kind of cards too as the game goes on.
We can play new rules, and these are just what they sound like – we rewrite the rules of the game as we play. Playing the ‘keeper limit: 3’ card will override any other keeper instructions, and make it so that we can have only three keepers in play at once. We might have rules that requre us to draw different number of cards, or play differrent numbers of cards too. Or we can play a keeper – if we have the right combination of keepers in front of us, we win. We can play actions, which let us do things to other players (or ourselves). Or we can play malevolent creepers, which allow us to sabotage keepers to take them out of active play, or make them behave erratically. We can undermine our opponents efforts, or place sinister traps for those looking to profit from our own works.
Look, I know this sounds like fun. It sounded like fun to me. From a distance, it even looks like it might be fun. But there is a fundamental problem with this – it’s entirely uncontrollable. Not uncontrollable in a ‘look how wacky and madcap this is! We’re all mad here!’ kind of way, but uncontrollable in a way that fundamentally invalidates its existence as a playable gaming experience. That’s a strong claim, and some of it is dependent on my own view as to what games are, so let’s unpick it a bit.
Games are, in my view, engines for enabling interesting decision making. Our fun, as players, comes about in large part from being able to learn and master this engine, learning strategies and seeing them bring improved results with regards to the decisions we take. This, more than anything else, is the element for me that defines whether a game is good or bad. They have to have a good answer when they are asked the question ‘How do I get better at playing this next time?’.
To be fair, games are also engines for immersion and wish-fulfilment, and I don’t discount at all the importance of theme. Theme can turn a mediocre game into a good game, or a good game into a great game. In my experience though, it can’t turn a bad game into a good game even if it can sometimes convince you, briefly, that it’s done just that. It’s possible to enjoy a game just for the role-playing it lets you do, or the story it lets you tell yourself. I am not at all indifferent to that, and I think that if this is the key thing you want from your gaming experience then Fluxx is probably a good deal of anarchic fun.
But, if you want to be able to demonstrate mastery, Fluxx fundamentally undermines your ability to play better because it is inherently a game of hidden randomness. Randomness is games is fine, as a flavouring. If it’s the core of the game, it’s indistinguishable from rolling a dice to win. All of my strategies can be undermined just because you happen to have the ‘undermine that strategy’ card. My careful planning and manipulating of keeper placement is completely demolished by the fact you’ve got the ‘steal someone else’s keeper’ card. I play a card to change the goal, and someone else plays the ‘stop someone changing the goal’ card. You put together a careful plan involving a series of feints making use of a beautiful combo of cards to be played in intricate order from your hand. And then someone plays the new rule that forces a one hand card limit. What are you supposed to do in those circumstances? You roll with the punches, because it’s all you can do.
Eventually someone wins out of sheer randomness and everyone goes ‘Oh’, because the win wasn’t deserved and the loss wasn’t earned. It just so happened that a goal was played, perhaps even against the player’s best intention (some rules require you to play cards whether you want to or not), and it just so happened that someone had the necessary keepers in an easy to access location. You can’t plot your winning strategy, because the win will change. You can’t engineer a winning hand, because the rules will change. You can’t force an opponent to submit to your superior tactical awareness, because you’re just as likely to have someone play the ‘get out of superior tactical awareness’ card.
Imagine children on the playground playing… God, I don’t know what children play. Spacemen and Martians, let’s say. ‘I shot you with my laser’, says the spacechild. ‘Nuh-uh, I used my Martian ray shield’, says the marskinder. ‘But I have a laser that shoots through ray shields!’, cries the spacechild. ‘But we’re in the alien fortress and human technology doesn’t work here’, yells the marskinder. ‘I’ll cut you!’, screams the spacechild. ‘My dad told me you were adopted’, wails the marskinder. That kind of free form ‘sez you’ thing is fine for children exercising their imagination. It makes for a fundamentally terrible gaming experience.
As I said though, I did have some fun playing this the first time, because it is genuinely high energy to begin with and some of the rule combinations are wickedly funny. ‘Draw five cards’ and then ‘play all the cards in your hand’, and then it’s just mayhem. The first time you play it feels like you might potentially, if you get enough of a grip on what’s going on, develop mastery. It’s got all the parts that it would need to enable that- it’ll fool you in that respect. It’s got things that let you steal keepers away, or clone other keepers, and many goals that share at least part of the wining strategy of other goals. This is a cruel illusion – your ability to meaningfully deliver on a strategy is virtually zero. ‘How do I play this better next time’ has a depressing answer. ‘You don’t’. Slip Fate a tenner, because that’s the most reliable strategy you have available.
Having written this review, I may have actually stumbled on the reason why there are so many variations of Fluxx – it’s a game that requires novelty to drive the fun. It’s pretty cool to step through the cards, getting all the in-jokes and admiring the way in which they’re expressed through the game mechanics. It makes you feel as if you’re part of the gang. Once the novelty is gone though there isn’t a compelling game experience in there that will enthuse you to continue playing. If you read through the cards in a pack of Fluxx, you’d have robbed it of 95% of its appeal. As such, if you want to keep playing and enjoying it you’ll need to look on to the other sets. Cthulhu fluxx! Firefly fluxx! Batman fluxx! Seriously, fluxx all of them.
The Meeple Like Us judgement on Star Fluxx is that it is a generous 1.5 out of 5. It is cheap, which is good. And it can be fun the first time you play it. But it’s fooling you. The comedy references and funny quotes aren’t the joke – the joke is the fact it’s deceiving you into dumping your precious time into its hungry, unworthy maw.