I found myself in something of a Donkey Paradox yesterday whilst buying the last present I needed to complete my Christmas shopping. I knew the couple I was buying for are big into games, but in the end the game I wanted to buy for them wasn't available, and I couldn't decide between two very strong contenders for second place.
In the end, I bought them both (take that, utility theory) and took them to The Other Half's flat. I figured I would show them both to her, see which one she most wanted to play, and wrap the other one up for my friends.
In the end, we plumped for The Stars Are Right, since it looked like another one of those very silly but exceptionally playable Steve Jackson games (though I don't play Munchkin much anymore, it just takes too long unless everyone else in the group knows the rules well enough to play with pace).
Handily, that's just what it is. It's almost stupidly simple to play - one of those games that has slightly daunting rules that click into place almost immediately upon applying them. Basically, the game revolves around a 5x5 grid representing the night sky. Each square tile features one of multiple stellar objects; various numbers of stars, asteroid showers, eclipses both solar and lunar, and so on. The tiles have different symbols on front and back, so all told there's something like fifty thousand trillion trillion trillion combinations, though I'm cheating there because there are repeated symbols.
Anyway, this being a Cthulhu (sorry, Cthulhoo - don't want to get sued!) game, the arrangement of the constellations is critically important. Each player (or "cultist") has a hand full of unholy creatures that can be summoned if various tile combinations are currently in play. Rather than summoning a creature, though, one can discard it in order to gain the ability to "change the sky", which allows you to push, swap or flip tiles (depending on what you tossed aside). The more powerful the creature, the less you'll want to burn one in this way, but the more changes doing so will allow you to alter the night sky. To complicate matters, most summoned creatures can augment the changes given to you by your discard.
The ultimate aim, unsurprisingly, is to summon a Great Old One - in fact, it's quite difficult to win any other way (you get points for each of your summoned creatures, and you need ten points from at most six creatures - Old Ones are worth four, and nothing else is worth more than two). Naturally, these mighty monsters require very complicated constellation patterns before they can arrive, but to make summoning them easier, you can use their Greater or Lesser Servitors to simplify the patterns.
And that, in essence, is it. The complexity comes in working out the best creatures to summon: some are quick and easy, others difficult but more valuable. The more effort you have to put into a constellation the greater the rewards, but the more likely it is that another cultist will accidentally or otherwise ruin the work you've put in (so far I've only played with one other player, I imagine the calculus gets a lot more complicated once there's four of you). It's also very quick; after three games we've already cut our time down to just twenty minutes.
And finally, it looks very pretty. It's the standard Jackson style of simple cartoon images, but still, they're lovely:
Honestly, who wouldn't want a cute fang-trunked elephant like that?