Review – Star Wars: The Deckbuilding Game
|Too many to list
|Fantasy Flight Games (Asmodee North America)
|Two-Player Game, Deckbuilding Game
|March 3, 2023
Whatever you think about Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars games, one thing is for sure: they sure have been active with this license. After several miniatures games, a giant Twilight Struggle-esque board game, a sandbox board game, a Living Card Game and much more, we finally have a Star Wars deckbuilding game, with a rather apt title. I was eager to review this game because of its high similarity to Star Realms, my favorite game of all time. How do they compare? Let’s find out!
Let’s start with one of the few (minor) bad things. I’m not all that impressed with the components. You’re going to see constant comparisons of Star Realms in this article, so let’s get right to it. Star Realms owes a lot of its success to its $15 small box. SWDBG is over twice that price, for various reasons: inflation in the past decade, licensing fees, a bigger box, a few more cards, cubes for damage and resources. That makes the $38 price tag actually pretty reasonable, except for two things. First, while I like the artwork, the internet tells me it is recycled from other Fantasy Flight titles, and not for the first time. The other thing about the artwork is that I would have preferred a cartoony look rather than a realistic one, for two reasons: to see a new take on scenes and characters from the original trilogy, but also to more easily integrate characters from Star Wars Rebels, which I think will be difficult to impossible with this art style. More important than the artwork, is that the Force Track is just a tiny, very flimsy piece of … cardstock? Paper? It has a fold in the middle that I am sure is going to rip in half. Why wasn’t this a cardboard tile? The components aren’t all that bad, but this one thing just screams “cheap” and undermines the rest of it.
Okay, I’ve got complained. And I’ve got nothing else to complain about. This game is a ton of fun.
Given how much I play Star Realms, I was worried that this game would either be complete plagiarism, or an unworthy knock-off. I was wrong on both counts. While it is clearly inspired by Star Realms, the differences are vast, and both minor and major. Each player plays a specified faction (Rebel or Empire) and can only buy those cards, or neutral cards. But you can “attack” cards in the row that belong to the other player. This is a nice twist on “row scrapping” from Star Realms that belonged to only a single color of cards. Players can also get rewards from defeating cards in the row, making for an interesting decision between attacking the opponent’s base or attacking cards in the row.
Of course, you have to attack your opponent’s bases to win. (We dove right into playing the full game with all 10 bases on each side, of which you must defeat four.) Rather than just knock someone down from 50 life/authority/HP to 0, here you must knock the player down one base at a time, which have around 8-14 defense apiece. The big difference is that you can only knock out one base per turn, avoiding crazy “instakill” turns, but what happens next is more important.
If you lose a base, you pick a new one at the start of your next turn from your reserve of bases. And they do crazy things when they come into play. In some sense, it is very similar to the “Gambits” expansions for Star Realms, but those are dealt out at the start of each game. The fact that you can choose them is a big difference from Gambits, but also that you can choose them midgame. It’s an absolutely brilliant catch-up mechanism (you just lost a base, after all), and it’s just downright fun. I was able to use Corellia to put Darth Vader straight into my hand, and that just felt awesome. And of course, we are experienced enough players to know that abilities like exiling (trashing/scrapping) three cards from hand or discard pile is incredibly strong, even if it’s not as sexy. The effects are interesting, varied, powerful, and fun. Over time, we’ll memorize the abilities and be able to predict what might be a good move, and that might change our behavior. But that doesn’t make the game less fun; having those tough choices is just another “avenue of fun” for me. I like big splashy plays, but I also like when games are easy to learn and hard to master.
One advantage of Star Wars licensing is that this game reaches a wide audience, including a lot of players who apparently never played Star Realms and think SWDBG is imbalanced after one or two games of it. Right now, BoardGameGeek’s forum for the game is littered with people trying to “fix” this game, including people who say that Rebels are overpowered and players who say the Empire is overpowered. There are also players saying that it’s unfair if your opponent just clogs the trade row with their capital ships, which cannot be attacked or bought by the other player. Capital ships work like bases in Star Realms, and are far too good to leave, making this a bad strategy. Basically, this game does not need fixing. At all. There is a variant in the rulebook that we’ll use every time from here on out (“paying off” neutral cards), but it’s in the rulebook. Caleb Grace did his homework, and it shows. I’m 15,000 games into Star Realms and still not completely positive about balance issues I perceive or what the fix is; I don’t think anyone should be griping about game balance here until they’ve played about 1,000 games. (Yes, I’m being serious.) My gut tells me that even if one side is favored after thousands of games, it’s not more than 55/45, which isn’t enough to be concerned about.
So I think the game’s balanced, and yeah it’s swingy — as it should be — and it’s a ton of fun from a gameplay perspective. But I also just kind of nerded out as a Star Wars fan. The gameplay itself is nowhere near as thematic as X-Wing or Rebellion; last game I blew up a capital ship with an AT-ST. But it’s fun to see the different characters and ships and how they were integrated into this game, including some faces from Rogue One I hadn’t seen in a game before. There are some key faces missing, but I’m not sure why that would surprise anyone; I am sure the first expansion is already designed. (As an aside, I think I’d like to see a bunch of separate core sets instead of a bunch of tiny expansions that make the trade row huge…)
I’m just in shock. One of my favorite franchises has combined with my favorite board/card game genre for some truly epic gameplay. I had so many reservations and they were all quashed. If this game ever came to digital (even though I don’t think it can), and they got the expansions right, it could be the game to finally convince me to take a break from Star Realms. In the meantime, I’ll have a lot of fun playing this at the table whenever I can.
The Bottom Line
The perfect mashup of smooth, fast deckbuilding gameplay and Star Wars fandom.