Rogue Stars

Game book review

gaming scifi wargame

Imagine a far future where space travel is trivial, mercenary missions are determined by a random table, and your wargame rules use a d20. Sound unlikely? It's all real, and it's a wargame by Andrea Sfiligoi called Rogue Stars, published by the ever-reliable Osprey Games.

Rogue Stars is a 64-page blue book, with beautiful illustrations that mirror the equally beautiful miniature photography. The illustrator, Johan Egerkrans, drew renditions of actual miniatures from the photographs, and the effect is surprisingly effective. When I saw a photo of a character I recognised from an illustration, I felt excited, like I knew that character. This little visual trick does a lot to make up for the absence of substantial lore. There's the usual paragraph at the start of the book providing the premise, but that's the last of any sense of lore you get. The rest of the book is all business.

Designed by tables

Rogue Stars is less a rulebook so much as it is a book of tables. The use of a d20 allows for a lot of modifiers, because Target Numbers (TN) can start near the middle of the die (8 or 10, mostly) and then get modified up or down by 3 or 5 or 7 different variables. If you have fond memories of old school RPG or wargame books in which every. single. action. has a table of modifiers associated with it, then this is the wargame for you. It's no exaggeration that over half the pages in this book contains a table, and in fact some of those pages are nothing but a table.

This game keeps you referencing your rulebook for modifiers and statuses and stats and options. If you're looking for a rule set you can memorise and set the book aside, this is not the system for you. But if you love treating your game as a technical specification for an emulated reality, this is it!


Rolling initiative is a whole subsystem all its own.

Both players roll initiative on a d20 (and adding modifiers, always), and the highest wins. Simple enough. The interesting thing is that the winner never loses initiative. Activating a miniature always requires a d20 roll with a Target Number of 8. But a failed roll doesn't mean you've lost initiative, it only means that your opponent gains a React dice that can be used to activate a miniature before you roll to activate again.

You can even choose to roll more than 1 d20 to activate, but any dice that doesn't reach the Target Number gives your opponent the opportunity to make a Reaction roll.

Each time you choose to take an action, your miniature gains 1 Stress token. Each Stress token becomes a negative modifier when you attempt to activate that miniature again, so eventually you're going to lose Initiative altogether.

To sieze Initiative, your opponent can roll a d20 with a Target Number of 16. There are penalties for failure, as usual.

The Initiative minigame is 3 pages long, and this is pretty reflective of the entire game.

In practice, I find the initiative minigame pretty punishing. It can feel like one player is at the table to play a game while the other player sometimes gets to react. Theoretically, there's incentive to pass initiative to your opponent because the more you accumulate Stress, the less effective your soldiers become. But because there's no rule that says you have to forsake initiative, there's also incentive to hold on to initiative just to starve your opponent of a resource.


In some games, when you activate a miniature you can, for instance, Move and Attack. Easy, but arguably a little reductive. The minimalism is often made more robust through incidental rules. Moving behind a solid object grants you cover, functionally serving as Hiding or Stealth or Cover rules.

In Rogue Stars, every action available to you is defined in the rulebook. There's an action for Melee, Crawling, Hiding or Sneaking, Walking, Running, Sprinting, Drawing a weapon, Reloading a weapon, Aiming a weapon, Shooting a weapon, Standing up from being prone, teleporting, using Psionics, Picking up an object, Picking up a heavy object, Priming a grenade, Throwing a grenade, Healing, Leading, and using Technology. Many of these actions are conditional on — you guessed it — a table. Others are defined in a section all its own, with subsystems governing how the action may be executed (shooting a gun, for instance, might be done with two-hands, one-hand, your off-hand, a cybernetic implant, and so on).

In the end, it all comes down to a d20 roll plus or minus situational or stat modifiers. The Target Number for an Attack is 10. There's no defence or armour roll (armour is a modifier on a specific body part, described in a table), so Attack rolls are relatively quick, at least once you're used to the modifiers involved. If you get your roll to 10 or above, then you're successful.

To apply damage, you roll on the Damage Location table to find out what part of your target's body you've damaged. There's no Health Points or Wounds in this game. Damage applies penalties to your miniature and may eventually force the miniature to be put out of action (OOA), but you don't track how many hits a miniature has taken. The trade-off is that you're probably tracking how many arms and legs your miniature has left, or whether it has dropped its weapon, whether it's pinned, stressed, blinded, and so on. I found this nearly impossible the first few times I played, because I was used to WYSIWYG wargaming. Eventually I figured out that the key is in detailed character sheets.

Each miniature a character

Rogue Stars is a skirmish game, so you're only ever dealing with 4 to 6 miniatures. Every miniature you intend to field is a character, with up to 6 traits, a handful of enhancements and weapon upgrades, armour values, weapon stats, and eventually a bunch of situational conditions. Use a blank sheet of paper for each miniature so you can write down what each keyword means in game terms, what bonuses apply to attacks, what kind of armour each body part has on it, what weapon is equipped and what's holstered, and so on.

Every miniature on your team is a little story, and you have to record it as you go.

Old school gaming

Rogue Stars feels a little like BattleTech or an old RPG, but with modern consistency of design. The system demands constant calculation and rules reference, but the basic mechanic is really simple: roll a d20 and hope for a 10. There are exceptions, which are admittedly a little annoying, but even the exceptions tend to be pretty elegant (the target is 8 for Activation and, cleanly, twice that for stealing Initiative).

I appreciate the idea of a minigame for Initiative, but in practise I find it's a very heavy process for something that feels like it ought to be simple and quick. The aspect of gambling on how many dice you want to use for Activation is clever. It takes adjustment, from the player perspective, to accept that this isn't a game where there's an even balance of Turns. Getting a Turn at all is part of the minigame, and that's a bold move, but also an expensive one.

I tried the initiative system for a few games, but ultimately I abandoned it. Now I use alternate activations, with a TN 10 roll to retain initiative. In other words, I roll 3d20 with a TN 8 for each to earn up to 3 actions, and then activate accordingly. I end my turn with a TN 10 roll on a single d20 to activate my next soldier, or to pass initiative to my opponent upon failure. Stress tokens still accumulate with actions, and instead of clearing them by passing initiative, I clear them with a special Rest complex action.

Because of its reliance on tables for practically everything you do, it's highly methodical. That can be intimidating in the first few games you play. There were times, in my first few sessions, where I chose not to attack only because I just couldn't bear the thought of figuring out the modifiers, body part, armour, a potential Endure roll, and the resulting conditions. It just didn't seem like the attack was worth the administrative effort.

This reveals much about the design of the game, but one of them is that this is a fantastic Stealth game. Even the initiative system promotes this idea, with one player being the primary mover and the other being the defender who mostly reacts to each minor fumble. Attacks are expensive, both in terms of administration and in revealing your position. The game itself doesn't assume Stealth, though, so you'd have to emphasize Stealth (and the Spot ability) in your character builds.

The "real" answer to alleviating administrivia is a good character sheet. It's vital for tracking the status of your characters, and also for making even basic actions non-intimidating. Write down the variables you need on your character sheet so you can calculate modifiers easily. It makes all the difference.

Rogue Stars is an interesting game. If you want a hyper-analytical, methodical, and extremely technical sci fi game, then take a look at Rogue Stars.

Header photo Creative Commons cc0.

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