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Starfield's greatest mystery is a boardgame nobody knows how to play

Search for rules continues

The mysterious Symbol Game, a chess-style boardgame found inside space RPG Starfield.
Image credit: Bethesda/Angry_Washing_Bear

One thing that keeps luring me back to Starfield - other than the idea of building space stations out of onions - is a mysterious game within the game. Titled "Symbol Game", it consists of chunky, etched, sloping pieces and a 4x6 grid mat adorned with stars, dots and lines. You may have pocketed a few sets, during your journeys across the Settled Systems. They're not hard to find. But as far as I can tell, nobody has discovered the rules, though there are plenty of theories.

I only have one of the mats myself, but they apparently come in different materials - wood, plastic and bone. The pieces are named in the game's database - Assaulter, Defender, Shadowqueen and Snowlord. The Assaulter and Defender pieces are relatively easy to decipher. Shadowqueen is harder to pin down - it appears to be a reference to The Elder Scrolls Online. Snowlord? Your guess is as good as mine.

A Starfield screenshot of the in-game boardgame Symbol Game, placed on a table.
Image credit: Bethesda/bobbigmac
A Starfield screenshot of the in-game boardgame Symbol Game, viewed from above with pieces taken off the board.
Image credit: Bethesda/FinestSkydiver

Naturally, when I seek an explanation for some opaque nugget of RPG bricabrac, the first thing I do is visit the subreddits. There are a bunch of threads about Symbol Game from the past month, with redditors straining to deduce the rules from the design of the board, and the way boards are set up in Starfield's many colony habitats and ship canteens. Interpretations are as abundant as posts. For some, the symbols are starting locations for the pieces; for others, they're locations to be captured. Do the symbols dictate how pieces move? Is the goal just to take all the other player's pieces, or maneouvre one piece to the diamonds at each end of the board?

There are other table-top games in Starfield, like Solar Frontier and Starlocked, but these appear only as boxes - you can't pick up the components and fiddle around with them, admiring their curious contours, so there's less opportunity to speculate. Besides which, they resemble today's commercial boardgames - Solar Frontiers puts me in mind of Cosmic Encounters - whereas Symbol Game looks like an artifact that dates back centuries. It positively stinks of Lore.

Some Starfield players think it works like chess, with players being evenly matched to begin with, while others think Symbol Game is an asymmetrical experience, in which one player tries to defend against the other. Over on r/boardgaming, wizened sages are calling it a Starfield homage to the Royal Game of Ur, one of the oldest games ever preserved. Others make comparisons with the recently published Quarto, which Eurogamer's Christian Donlan wrote up in May, and which I have still yet to play despite absolutely loving the looks of it.

And then, of course, there are those who think the symbol mats and pieces are just decorative clutter - another handful of eye-catching ornaments from Bethesda, infused with false resonance and scattered around interiors to suggest that NPCs have lives when they're not being hassled for quests, traded with and/or shot at. Even if that's the case, and it probably is, it doesn't matter. As with the bug jars of Skyrim, Symbol Game has taken on new life in the spawning chambers of the internet, its mystique redoubled by the fact that Starfield as a whole is sorely lacking for strangeness and enchantment. It's out in the wilds now, out of the hands of its creators. It's only a matter of time before somebody devises a way to play it.

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