Astrologaster is one of the funniest games I’ve played in a long time. The real-life story of Simon Forman is bizarre and comical enough on its own, but when you tell it through a Blackadder-style historical sitcom complete with plenty of Shakespearean innuendo and earnest choral renditions of some truly ridiculous verse, you get something that’s downright hilarious. I can’t remember the last time a game made me laugh like Astrologaster did.
Simon Forman was an astrologer and “doctor” in the late 16th century who, having survived an outbreak of the Bubonic plague in London, found his calling in astrology-based medical practice. By reading the stars, he could diagnose any illness and determine the most appropriate treatment—or so he claimed. Depending on who you asked, he was either a genius or an absolute quack, but he made enough waves to catch the attention of the College of Physicians, who attempted to ban his practice due to his lack of a medical license.
Therein lies the source of Astrologaster‘s humour. Playing as Forman, you’ll listen as different patients—ranging from the local hypochondriac to historical figures like Emilia Lanier and Robert Devereux—share their troubles with you, and do your best to give them the answers they seek. From “pimples on the privy member” being mistaken for spotted fever to an apparent bewitching incident at a dinner party (“I found myself overcome with feelings of mirth, laughing most immoderately … At other times I felt an unnatural fascination with the shape of the candelabra in the table centrepiece.”), the people of London come to “Doctor” Simon Forman with all manner of ailments. Laughable enough as they are in their own right, they’re only made more so by the Elizabethan dialogue and pitch-perfect delivery.
It doesn’t take Simon Forman long to be seen as more than just a physician—as folk start seeking his “wisdom” on personal problems, he becomes a counsellor, a psychologist, a fortune-teller. Through all these, the scenarios grow ever more wonderfully bizarre: a young woman who somehow seems to keep finding herself widowed by the very old men she marries, and needs Simon’s detailed insight into likely causes of death for her next suitor and what specific things to avoid that could bring about an early demise; an old clergyman’s string of poor investments in an effort to make a quick buck (to better serve God, of course); the grandiose adventures of an earl who’s far less adept than he fancies himself to be.
The brilliance of Astrologaster is how it weaves all these different threads together. There are some 13 different patients to meet, each with their own story that evolves over the course of repeated consultations. Each visit begins with a short verse to set the scene or recap what happened previously, sung beautifully by a choir—which only makes the absurdity of these verses funnier. It’s one thing to read “Fap not Forman, thou art not alone” in text; it’s quite another to hear it sung with all the earnestness of a church hymn.
As these stories evolve, you start to see the links between them, building up into this wonderful web of rumours, rivalries, gossip, busybodies, and sneaky trysts. Again, the writing is superb, finding every drop of humour in these colourful tales possible with comedic timing that never misses a beat. There’s the odd bit of wry, pointed satire—Emilia Lanier’s story of men taking claim for women’s creative accomplishments and abusing their positions of authority in the entertainment industry feels especially relevant today—but it’s mostly the sort of witty turns of phrase and innuendo that would make Shakespeare himself proud.
At the heart of it all is Simon himself, who may be a genius or may be a quack, who is deeply sincere and cares too much for his patients—perhaps too much, for he has a bad habit of falling in love with them. (There’s nothing quite like reading “Coitus post consultatio” in his case notes.) Ultimately, Simon’s goal is to earn an honorary medical license, which he can do so with eight letters of recommendation from his patients.
Getting those letters depends entirely on the answers you give to the questions your patients ask you. Each consult ultimately revolves around one key question, prompting Simon to “turn to the stars” and give you a few different astrologically-derived options to choose from. You don’t have to know anything about astrology at all to play Astrologaster, but it’s fascinating to see how he reaches the conclusions he reaches (and, sometimes, the leaps he takes and assumptions he makes to get there). The answers you give will determine how the story plays out, and also your reputation with each client. Impress someone enough, and they’ll give you their letter.
But while chasing those letters may be a goal of sorts, it’s not the only way to play Astrologaster. The “wrong” answers are often hilarious and worth exploring, both for their own sake and to see how the story can play out. You’re not going to lose the game if you do so, but just see a different, probably even funnier way for things to pan out.
Astrologaster is a pure and utter delight. Between its creative interpretation of the strange real-life story of Simon Forman, its Blackadder-esque sense of humour, and writing and delivery that make every joke land perfectly, you’d have to have a face of stone to not at least crack the odd smile—me, I don’t think I went more than a few seconds at a time without bursting out laughing.
Fap not Forman, thou art not alone
For many querents thou hast known
If one wench chooseth to forsake thee
Find solace in another lady!
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.