Review: Star Realms
December 19, 2016 /
Publisher: White Wizard Games
Category: Deckbuilding/Strategy Game
Player Count: 2
BoardGameGeek Rating: 7.65 (16,264 votes)
When I was around 10-years-old, the Magic: the Gathering craze began full swing in America. I have fond memories of building deck after deck, reading Pro Tour Qualifier reports (.txt files!) on The Dojo, and forcing my friends to let me crush them in a game that I was way more invested in than they were. I also vividly remember Rob Dougherty and Darwin Kastle, eventual designers of Star Realms, winning the first team Pro Tour with Dave Humpherys. Darwin even had his own card!
A few things have changed since then. I grew up, and had to start paying for my own Magic: the Gathering cards (ouch). Then, Settlers of Catan expanded my view of what a board game could be. After that, Dominion showed me the amazing possibility of building your deck while you play, which was a revelation. No more expensive singles and randomized packs, either! I spent graduate school just as enthralled with Dominion as I had been with Magic. Unfortunately, I couldn’t kill my opponents anymore, and the game as a whole wasn’t very interactive.
Fast forward to Gen Con 2013. To my surprise, Rob Dougherty contacted me about an upcoming game he and Darwin had designed, Star Realms. It promised to give me the best of both worlds—mid-game deck building and one-on-one combat! And I was going to meet a Magic Hall of Famer! I still remember Rob teaching me with a prototype copy in the middle of a hotel room floor in Indianapolis. It was about to become awkward if this game wasn’t any good…
Spiritual Content: One of the factions is called the Machine Cult, a group who worships technology.
Violence: The game is about space battles, so of course players are blowing each other up. There are lots of explosions on the cards, but no gore, not even any sentient beings—just ships and bases.
Language/Crude Humor: None.
Sexual Content: None.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Other Negative Themes: The game is by nature aggressive. Players are trying to reduce each other’s authority score (i.e. life total) to zero, and attack each other by other means, such as destroying each other’s bases and making each other discard cards.
I was not initially impressed with the artwork of Star Realms; it felt subdued and bland. Since then, I’ve played the game extensively both digitally and physically. I now like the artwork, but that printing somehow kept the artwork from really “popping.” It looks great on new printings, on PC backgrounds, and on playmats. I also really love the graphic design. The artwork implies action and explosions but is completely devoid of gore or partial nudity so common in medieval fantasy. (If that genre is more your thing, though, Hero Realms is on its way.)
Fortunately, even if Star Realms wasn’t love at first sight, it was definitely love at first play. I could immediately see in Star Realms the natural evolution of what I wanted from a deckbuilding game. Rob and Darwin had previously worked on the card game Ascension, an attempt at modifying concepts originated by Dominion. It was clear that Rob and Darwin had learned a few lessons from those days.
Ascension’s big contribution was streamlining gameplay. Unlike Dominion, players weren’t restricted to one action or one purchase in a given turn. Payers shuffle a central deck and just start playing without sorting out piles of cards. Ascension‘s other new twist was that the game had two currencies: money and combat. Combat was used to attack certain cards (that couldn’t be bought), while cards that cost money could not be attacked. The central tableau could clog up with the “wrong cards,” and it turned me off of that game fairly quickly.
Star Realms takes things in a much more obvious direction, where the combat currency is used to attack your opponent. Now we finally have a game with the truly smooth gameplay that Ascension had tried to create. This is a head-to-head dueler that is by nature far more interactive than Dominion. Players attempt to knock each other to zero “authority,” while tussling over the best cards available in the central tableau. Card combos, the centerpiece to Dominion and Magic both, arrive through an “ally” mechanism. Bonus effects are given when you play a second card in a turn of the same color. This system is highly intuitive, yet has major consequences. It forces players to diversify, and an experienced player understands the difference between a synergistic deck and a train wreck. The nature of the game’s goal also gives it an important edge over Dominion. When you finally pull off that 20-card turn, you will just kill your opponent and be done with it. No more waiting back-and-forth as players combo out farther and farther.
Players always want to know if a game is “deep” and “strategic,” but I find that those are nebulous terms. In a game with luck, won’t equally skilled players basically be flipping a coin? How is that “deeper” than a game that’s purely random? For me, the sweet spot is when a game will reward skill somewhat, but not completely. I have played thousands of digital games of Star Realms. Though I am highly ranked, my win percentage is a mere 65%, about normal among the top players. (This may be a good time to mention that Star Realms has a fantastic app.) Star Realms often evens the playing field for new players, but the luck is important for another reason. It’s important because it drives a narrative.
Back when I played Magic regularly, we would always have a story to tell about the match to each other. We were excited to explain our plan that our opponent never saw coming, or desperate for consolation over our loss. Of course, sometimes luck had its way and the game was over too quick to be of any interest. Star Realms has this kind of narrative in spades every time you play. It is absolutely a game of ups and downs, glorious comebacks, and lucky shots. The theme fits this kind of narrative well—think of those epic Star Wars space battles—although we’ve already seen the theme could really be anything (Hero Realms and Cthulhu Realms are based on the same system). A few cards even have flavor text to help immerse the player. But it’s really the mechanisms themselves that drive the game’s exciting narratives, and it’s a real feat to have a game that feels so strategic and yet so volatile.
You may have done a double-take when I mentioned that I’ve played the digital game a few thousand times. And I’ve played the physical game at least a hundred times. Yet, I knew early on in those first few games with Rob that Star Realms was truly something special. When Dominion first came out, designer Donald X. Vaccarino knew to expect other deckbuilding games, but he said what he saw was “other Dominion games.” Having played about twenty different deckbuilders, I agree with him about those early days. It took a few years, but Star Realms has finally managed to eclipse Dominion as the premier deckbuilder on the market. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the game is incredibly aggressive priced as well ($14.99), although that quickly adds up thanks to the many expansions and accessories. And if you need more convincing, check out that free app and play a few games against the AI, because I don’t know what else to say to convince you at this point. The genres of one-on-one combat games and deckbuilding games have both become glutted in the last few years, but in my mind Star Realms remains king of both domains.
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