Celestia* is a small box push-your-luck card game for two to six players, designed by Aaron Weissblum. Listed as for ages eight and up, it plays in around half an hour and will set you back around £20.
The game reimplements the 1999 release ‘Cloud 9’, giving the art (by Gaetan Noir) and components an amazing overhaul (the old wasn’t bad itself) whilst adding some special action cards that spice things up a bit.
Where once players were travellers in a balloon, you’ll now be in a fantastical airship travelling past a series of beautifully illustrated cloud islands. At each island you can choose to get off and claim a prize – or continue on to greater riches, but also greater danger. And if the airship fails to make it to the next island, you’ll end up back at the beginning empty handed.
In the Celestia box you’ll find more than 150 cards, four dice, nine city tiles, six player pawns and a fantastic cardboard airship you have to assemble – but once made it just about fits in the box so you don’t have to fiddle with it again. All the components are top notch and while the player pawns are a little dull in comparison to the rest of it you can even upgrade those – for a limited time – to gorgeous sculpted ones (see link below).
Each turn a player is assigned as the captain of the airship (this moves clockwise after each player turn). The captain then roles as many dice as indicated on the current city (two on the easy ones, progressing to four at the highest cities) – with each dice having four symbols (essentially suits) and two blank sides.
Each player other than the captain now decides if they think the captain can ‘beat’ what they rolled with the equipment cards in their hand. Equipment cards mostly match the symbols on the dice, while there are some wild and special cards to spice things up a bit.
The trusting stay on board while the nervous get off at the current city – and claim a treasure card from it. And yes, the treasure cards (mostly just victory points) are better the longer you stay on the ship.
Once everyone has decided whether to stay or go, the captain either discards the equipment cards necessary to continue (to beat the dice) or moves the ship back to the starting city. If the latter happens, the journey is over and those who risked it get nothing (but all players draws one more equipment card). On a success, the remaining players move on to the next city while the others curse their luck.
Players have to spend the basic equipment cards they need to beat the dice if they have them – but can choose not to play any wild or special cards. If a player has reached 50 points by the end of a journey they can declare the end of the game: at which point whoever has the most points wins.
The only wrinkles come in the shape of the special cards. None of them are particularly complicated, but unfortunately the publisher has decided to go for style over substance – there is no iconography on the cards and no player aids, which means players will constantly be reaching for the rulebook for the first few games. It’s a shame, as everything else is so simple, and I’d suggest leaving these cards out for a younger audience.
The four sides
These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.
- The writer: It bears repeating: this game is beautifully produced. While the theme is pretty thin the whimsical art really draws you in – and I’m not usually someone blinded by shiny goodness. And the theme is carried through: cannon cards beat the pirate dice, a compass beats a clouds roll etc. The airship piece really is fantastic, while each player also gets a little cardboard chit with their character’s portrait on it – another little unnecessary extra that shows this is a publisher (Blam!) that’s happy to go the extra mile to make its games look great – and that should be applauded.
- The thinker: When you hear ‘push your luck’ its easy to presume strategy will be non-existent, but good knowledge of the cards and the ability to closely follow what’s happening around the table (what’s being discarded, who failed to beat which rolls etc) can definitely give you an edge – at lest in terms of percentages. The special cards throw a spanner in the works to a degree, with the jet pack (lets you get a card even if the boat crashes) being particularly unbalanced. But if you start playing a game of ‘luck-pushing’ it’s only to be expected – and this is a fun one.
- The trasher: I think Celestia is a lot of fun – but don’t play with anyone who might cheat! The game relies on honesty to really sing, so keep an eye on the less trustworthy members of your group. The game’s special cards give some great screwage opportunities too: there’s nothing like playing a ‘hard blow card’ on an airship you’ve quit to make them re-roll the dice – then watch them crash and burn! Or kick someone out of the airship as you’re cruising towards some easy points. Just watch your back afterwards!
- The dabbler: Played with the right group you can really get a fun role-playing atmosphere going here. ‘Oohs’ and ‘aahs’ meet every dice roll, with captains sucking their teeth to bluff their position while their shipmates loudly pledge support or wave a dismissive hand as they bail over the side – then just listen to the cheer and boos as the airship sails on – or crashes and burns. Beautiful and brilliant fun, with the game losing nothing (for me) if you remove some of the nastier cards for a more passive group (described as the ‘beginner variant’).
As mentioned earlier Celestia is a reprint of old game Cloud 9 and while this is a clear upgrade in terms of components and artwork, some players clearly prefer the simplicity – and balance – of the original.
Luckily this isn’t an problem as it is very easy to leave out the cards you don’t want to use and play what is largely (from what I understand) the original game anyway.
There are some complaints about the variation of points gained on the treasure cards making the game too luck driven, but I haven’t seen this decide a game so would tend to disagree.
It has also been noted that this game isn’t a million miles from Incan Gold (or its predecessor Diamant). Incan Gold has the advantage of playing up to eight players, but Celestia has the bigger advantage, for me, of being fun at a lower player count – Incan Gold is crappy with three or four, where Celestia shines.
But as already noted above there is a problem with almost constant ‘rulebook diving’ when it comes to the special cards. It’s not that they have obscure iconography that’s tough to understand – they have no iconography at all! I would very much hope that this will be addressed in later editions – or that some bright soul publishers a nice crib sheet on Board Game Geek that players can print off.
When I targeted Celestia on the Essen 2015 preview list it was a combination of the art and the simple ‘push your luck’ idea that hooked me – and when I saw it in the flesh it became my first purchase.
What I didn’t expect was just how much fun it would be – and that we’d play it back to back, two nights in a row, with a mixed bunch of gamers who like everything from serious war games through euros right down to the simplest of card games.
I’m a big fan of Can’t Stop and Pickomino – both of which will never leave my shelves – so you could argue I didn’t need another push-your-luck dice game: but Celestia will be taking its place alongside those classics for a good time to come. It plays well, looks great and covers a wide range of gaming abilities – and that’s more than good enough for me.
* I would like to thank Blackrock Games for providing me with a discounted copy of the game to review at Essen 2015.