Time for a review of a small game that has been a big success in the deckbuilding genre:
Star Realms is a two-player science-fiction card game designed by Robert Dougherty and Darwin Kastle that is published by White Wizard Games. The game is the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013, and officially published in 2014. The game is all about spaceship combat, with the goal of bringing your opponent’s authority (health) to zero.
Star Realms comes with an 80-card trade deck, 16 Scout cards, 4 Viper cards, 10 Explorer cards, and 18 double-sided Authority cards. Each player begins with a personal deck of 8 Scouts and 2 Vipers, from which they draw five cards (the first player draws only three on the first turn). The Explorers are kept in a pile to the side, and the trade deck is shuffled with five cards dealt out into a trade row. Each player begins with 50 authority, or some other number depending on the length of game they wish to play.
Standard deckbuilding procedure follows – play cards from your hand to buy new cards and attack your opponent. Cards sometimes generate a trade value which can be used to purchase cards from the trade row, and you can buy as many as you can afford. These include ships and bases, with the difference being that ships are played then discarded at the end of the turn, while bases remain in play until destroyed. Cards can also generate combat, which is used to attack your opponent and reduce his authority. Some of the bases must be destroyed before you can attack a player, and you must be able to fully destroy a base before you can attack it.
Some cards have a little trash can item on them. This means that if you trash the card, you will get an additional one-time bonus, but you lose the card forever. Sometimes, it’s worth it. There’s also often an ally effect – if you have played more than one card from a particular faction, ally effects will trigger once during the round, making each card more powerful. Bases count as allies.
I should talk about the factions here. There are four:
- Trade Federation (blue): These cards are usually concerned with making money and defending you by increasing your authority.
- Blobs (green): These cards tend to generate lots of combat and remove cards from the trade row.
- Star Empire (yellow): These cards tend to allow you to draw more cards and make your opponent discard.
- Machine Cult (red): These cards are best for helping you thin your deck and giving lots of strong bases.
As you build your deck, you’ll most likely have a mix of all of these factions, but finding the right balance is a key to success.
The game continues until one player has been reduced to zero (or less) authority. The other player wins.
COMPONENTS: This is a small $15 card game, and for that price, what you get is fantastic. It’s really just 128 cards in a tuck box. Though, I should say that the box is pretty awful – mine ripped the first time I tried to open it. It holds all the cards, but it’s not really made for use. The art on the cards is very nice, and the text is easy to read so you know exactly what everything does. There are symbols for gaining authority, trade, and combat, but other than that, everything is spelled out.
The Authority cards that are used to track your authority take some getting used to. You begin with a 20, two 10s, a 5, and 5 1s. But the 20 is on the back side of another 10, and the 1s all have 5s on their back. So if you lose two authority, you can discard two of the 1s to get down to 48. But let’s say you lose four next time to go down to 44. Flip the 5 over so it’s a 1. Bingo. Then you lose 5 to go down to 39. Flip the 20 to a 10, then take a 1 back, flipping it to its 5 side. And so on. It’s easy to get lost – you may just want to find some other way to track authority. Like poker chips. Or something.
Overall, what you get for the price is very nice. But you can easily get sucked in to accessorizing, as demonstrated in this comic from Tiny Wooden Pieces:
You of course do not need all of that stuff to enjoy this game.
THEME: This feels like fairly generic sci-fi to me. Some work clearly went into the factions and making them work within a theme. But overall, it doesn’t really feel that immersive to me. At least, not in the original set. From what I understand, more story lines and scenarios are introduced in expansions. And, if you get the app, there’s a campaign mode that works you through a storyline. Still, to me, I never feel like I’m really engaging in space combat, just collecting cards that can reduce my opponent’s health quicker than they can reduce mine.
MECHANICS: This is a deckbuilding more in the tradition of Ascension than Dominion. In fact, designer Robert Dougherty has done a lot of work on the Ascension system, designing several expansions. The games share the central row where you buy random cards, as opposed to having separate decks for all cards you can possibly purchase. One of the issues I have with Ascension is that there are some cards in certain factions that are clearly better than others, and if they come out when you can’t afford them, or for an opponent, you’re pretty much done. This game combats that problem by rewarding you handsomely for using the same factions, so even the cheap cards can be back breakers. As a result, there are a lot of cards in the game that feel really overpowered, and part of the fun is putting together a combo that will cause a ton of damage in one shot. I was playing around on the app recently, playing against the Easy AI and seeing how big of a combo I could create. I was way ahead – I had well over 50 authority to the computer’s 4, so I was toying with it, not killing it off and just seeing what kind of combos I could create. I ended up being able to do 81 damage in one shot, which was pretty cool.
The ally effects of the cards goes a long way to making these combos so powerful. If you have a bunch of cards in the same faction, they’ll be able to play off each other and really hurt your opponent. So there’s incentive to specialize, but there are also a bunch of other cards that you just want. There’s a red base I always try to get that counts as an ally for ALL factions, which can be a killer. Though I will say that I have gotten it and still lost. That brings me back around to the point that there are plenty of cards that seem overpowered, but when every card is overpowered, none of them are. As in the games of Carl Chudyk, one card that is a killer in one game can be a complete dud in the next.
Overall, the game is fairly easy to learn. Once you get a grasp on how the ally abilities work, you can pretty much figure everything out from there, especially if you already know how DBGs work. The funkiest part of the game is trying to figure out the authority cards, but I’d just suggest using some other form of score calculation – an app, a piece of paper, poker chips, something.
STRATEGY LEVEL: The biggest strategy point in this game is trying to figure out which cards to buy when. Are you going to be reacting to what your opponent does, or trying to build a strong faction deck, or spreading yourself out and getting the most powerful cards available? Once the cards are in your deck, decisions are limited. It doesn’t really matter what order you play them because ally effects trigger whenever another card of that type is played, no matter at what point in the turn. You’ll need to decide how to apply damage, and some of the cards (bases and ships) give you a choice of an effect. There’s also the decision about what cards to scrap in order to thin your deck out a little, as well as when to trash cards with the trash can icon. So while the cards you receive determine what can be done on a turn, there are still opportunities to make choices and try to optimize your turn.
ACCESSIBILITY: I’d call this a gateway game. It’s very easy to learn, and very quick to play. It’s probably a pretty good intro to deckbuilding in the Ascension style, and has the potential to bring in people who like the science fiction theme.
SCALABILITY: This game is for only two players, but you can play more with multiple sets. I have not done this, so I can’t speak to how it works, but I think the two-player version is just fine for when you need something really fast to play.
REPLAYABILITY: I’m actually quite surprised at how replayable this game is. With only 80 cards that you use in every game (plus Scouts, Vipers, and Explorers), it seems to me that the game would be limited in its replay value. But the cards combo in such interesting ways, I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. Expansions provide scenarios and extra challenges that would further increase the replay value.
INTERACTION: Because this is a game about combat and not just building your own point-producing engine, there is high interaction here. You not only have to build up your fleet, you also have to react to what your opponent is getting and prepare yourself accordingly. I often say I’m all about that base when building my deck, but sometimes it’s just not possible, and you have to be willing to adapt your strategy if your opponent is pursuing the same options.
FOOTPRINT: This is a small game. It fits in a single tuck box, and doesn’t take much room on the table – just space for the trade row and any bases you might bring out in front of you. I’d say a smallish table would be fine for the game, but you will want some sort of playing surface.
LEGACY: This being a DBG, I have to look at it in the pantheon of other deckbuilders. I’ve compared this to Ascension several times, and I do think this is a better game than Ascension. It doesn’t have the card support (yet), but I think the factions are better balanced, and it’s a whole lot quicker. It’s not on the level of Dominion for me, but that’s not as fair of a comparison because they are two completely different styles of game – one is points based, the other is combat based. But still Dominion has more strategy for me, and I’d probably continue to pick that over Star Realms. But I do have to give Star Realms props for being incredibly quick in play, set up, AND clean up, which all is an advantage over Dominion.
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes. This is a very good game. It’s fast, and it’s fun. It’s not incredibly deep, but it is a really good experience for the value. On my Yeah-Meh-Bleah scale, I give it a
Thanks for reading!