The board game Celestia, which features a funky “Gulliver’s Travels”-inspired art scheme and a brobdingnagian 3D-cardboard ship, is like your hippy aunt, in that it exudes whimsy. The key difference? It isn’t grating. Not at all. Celestia wants you to get weird and strategic at the same time and makes that prospect seem remarkably appealing.
To the types of people who taxonomize board games, Celestia is the breed of game known as a “push your luck game.” (It’s based on an older game that’s a staple of the genre, called Cloud 9.) In practice, that means a lot of rolled dice and players get clotheslined by probability.
Celestia works like this: You and up to five other people, represented as pawns, hop in the cardboard airship and set off on a journey consisting of many skyhops, akin to Solar Impulse 2’s global trek. (The rules say the game is based on the IP of “Gulliver’s Travels,” though none of the floating islands appear to be Laputa). The farther the ship makes it toward the last stop — an island known as the City of Lights — the more valuable treasure passengers will be rewarded with; the victor is the first to get 50 points of booty.
There is, of course, a catch. Each turn, one of the passengers onboard the airship becomes captain. He or she rolls dice — in increasing numbers the further you get into the journey — that represent obstacles like angry birds, menacing clouds, or angry and menacing pirates. Defeating the obstacle requires playing the matching colored card from your hand. It feels a bit like, say, Uno, though a round of Uno never ended in vehicular disaster.
If the captain can’t play a card to counter the pirates, birds, or other obstacles, the journey comes to a crashing halt. No one who remains in the ship gets treasure as it goes down. To get around this, after the captain has rolled the dice but before he or she attempts to counter the obstacles with cards, players have the option to disembark on the current island. That way, you’ll definitely get some treasure — but it won’t be as valuable had you stayed in the ship and it completed the next leg. This tension, between wanting better rewards but not knowing if the captain can stick the next landing is what makes Celestia’s heart pulsate.
After the ship crashes — which it usually does long before making it to the City of Lights — everybody goes back to the first island. New cards are dealt, the captain rotates, and you dust off your knees and learn to fly again.
Celestia is not a tremendously deep game, though it doesn’t aspired to be. The converse of that means it’s easy enough to learn or teach, even to the sort of people who say they don’t like board games. (There are just a few other wrinkles, like wild cards that defeat any obstacle or trap cards that allow passengers to throw one another overboard).
In a group – which is where it is really meant to be played rather than head-to-head – Celestia zips along in the span of about 30 minutes. It’s the type of game that could amuse a bunch of nerdy twenty-somethings looking for something to do over beers, and just about equally entertain a handful of nerdy eight year olds.
If you’re a dedicated tactical board gamer, though, or even have something approaching a decent collection, Celestia likely won’t oust any favorites. By design, it’s long on swing and short on mull-worthy decisions. If you feel the need to stretch those ludic muscles before a marathon gaming session of Twilight Imperium or Pandemic Legacy, Celestia could make for a nice warm-up. Otherwise, as decent as Celestia is, you might want to let it float on by.