29 Jul 2016

Star Realms
2014 - White Wizard Games

Isn’t that the name of a knock off movie from made by The Asylum? Surely this cheap little box couldn’t compete with the other deckbuilding games I had just started to love when this game was released... fortunately, even I am wrong on occasion.

I was still dubious after a few plays. This certainly wasn't as complex as Dominion or as thematic as Thunderstone. It’s a very straightforward deckbuilding game. You start with a deck of ten crap ships: scouts and vipers. Five cards are drawn randomly from of deck of all the other cards to make a shared trade row. Use your crappy ships to buy better ships that go into your discard pile and eventually making up your new deck. Make a better deck of spaceships than your opponent. Draw your spaceships and kill your opponent with your spaceships.

If you’ve played Ascension, yes, it’s almost the same thing. With spaceships.

What both games have over Dominion and Thunderstone is that dynamic trade row, which puts the players in immediate, direct competition for cards. No need to play with yourself anymore. Basic Dominion is largely playing out a strategy you thought of when you saw the cards at the start of the game. In Star Realms your opponent's deck will spin off in a different direction to your own based on the cards you each run into. There is no choice but to react and evaluate what's on the table constantly.

Some people won’t like the two layers of luck, the trade row and the draws of your decks. These people are accountants. Twice the luck is twice the excitement. Every time you flip cards in the trade row or draw a new hand is a little buzz as you eagerly search for ways to snatch an advantage in this barely controllable fight.

Even the deckbuilding snobs will confess Star Realms is cheap, portable and playable, but in truth this is the least of what it has going for it. It is genuinely smartly designed, a blast almost every time. It lives in the same exciting place beyond Kingdom Cards and Duchies that Ascension took us, and then tells Ascension too to take a hike -- and it's not only because Ascension is ugly as sin.
Come on, now.
Star Realms has a central conceit so compelling you can't not be drawn in -- and they call it the combo. Ascension flirted with the idea ("If you played another Lifebound hero this turn..."), but Star Realms commits: almost every card has a combo effect that can be used if you play another card of the same faction in that turn. Some of these effects are as significant as the card’s basic power. The difference between playing one card of a faction and two cards of a faction can sometimes be devastating.

The important, delightful tension here is that each faction is also tied closely to a particular game effect: the red faction have a monopoly on the scrap mechanics, which you need in order to ditch your rubbish scouts; blue is loaded with health gain; green with combat; and yellow with discard effects. You can’t get by without some trade to get better cards, or combat to take down your opponent. Nor can you allow your opponent to dominate the scrap or discard effects or you might find yourself overwhelmed. So on one hand you want some balance, and on the other hand you'll need the powerful combo effects.

This dichotomy makes valuing cards so damn interesting. Each turn you might only have a choice of two or three of the cards in the row, but if the decision is a close one, or otherwise tricky to work out, as it often is, that’s all the choice you need.

All white Wizard has done is up the importance of the faction of the card, but this alone makes every card more meaningful: if the choice is between a poor green card and a decent red card, but you already have a Blob Carrier in your deck (which combos to take a card for free) that green will look quite a bit more attractive. But what if your opponent has a Patrol Mech, which combos to scrap, and that other red gives scrap too… maybe you should take the red card to stop him getting a scrap advantage… agh!

Of course, any of those two-card combos mentioned above still need to come into your hand at the same time. In Star Realms you become the commander of numerous vastly powerful warships and weapons platforms, except you can only pray that they will show up when you need them.

Once you’ve got your fleet working, you can draw five great ships that combo and you really let loose with a barrage of 20, or 30, or 40 damage. You feel like a beast. Get a pants draw and it’s hilarious. "Five scouts! Again?! Where is my Battle Blob?" Well, hilarious for at least one of the players, anyway.

Then again, getting all your shit cards in one hand means you're statistically more likely to get a nice combo in your next few hands - one the lovely consequences of the deckbuilding mechanic. This game really can do no wrong.

As a minor note, this importance of factions also makes it more visually impactful when you draw a good hand: the cards are probably mostly the same colour.

Ejecting the monsters of Ascension from the trade row also works in Star Realms favor. Monsters had a habit of getting in the way, limiting options until somebody could kill them. Or they wouldn’t show up at all when you had combat to go around. Now your combat is used directly on your opponent to win the game, and to take down his bases to stop him getting repeating effects. It's tighter and fightier.

Like all card games, it gets better the better you know the cards. The Death Star is more terrifying once you've seen it destroy Alderaan. Similarly, once you've seen exactly how ridiculous scrap-two-cards-and-draw-two-cards really is, you will sit up in your seat every time a Brain World breaks into the trade row.

Star Realms is only about 20 minutes long; you can play a bunch of games in a session, or, as some people at my board games club got into the habit of doing, a couple turns on your phone in between turns of a bigger game. Actually, don't do that: you’ll annoy everyone else at the table. But this game is addictive enough to make you want to, and that says it all.

Dominion is just as engrossing, and if I had a chance to play it more I might prefer it. Yet, it feels like it works harder for it. It needs all those cards that introduce new mechanics. It needs players to carefully track their turns. Star Realms is just casually awesome. It is fundamentally more exciting. There is anticipation in seeing what ships the trade row delivers, tough and dangerous decisions to be made in choosing what ships to take and how to build your deck, and tension in the direct competition of blows as you race to be the fastest to beat down your opponent — and pretty much nothing else to get in the way of those elements. If Dominion had cards as simple as Star Realms it'd be crap. If Star Realms had cards as interesting as Dominion it would blow every other deckbuilding game out of the water.

That said, the cards are still very smartly designed.These are some of my favourites:

This is the one card always available on the trade row. It's vitally the card that keeps the game moving if the trade row is five cards of 6+ cost on the first turn, but it's also just nicely balanced for the first half of the game: you can scrap it, so it's not going to get in the way in your deck like a scout does, and you get bonus 2 damage. Maybe you still want the Explorer for trade but you could use the 2 damage to get an enemy base out of play. Decisions! 

The number one card to give a blob rush legs, or whatever blobs use to move. An early trade boost to gestate the new blob damage dealers, plus it turns into a damage dealer itself when you have the blobs to combo it, and will trigger the combo of other blob cards. But if it all falls apart a three-trade card is nice in any deck.

Can work into an offensive yellow strategy or into a slower base heavy strategy. The special effect might be used to replay one of your own bases (repeat War World for total 22 damage, maybe) or to get an opponent's protective base out of the way so you can deliver a killer blow. Nice as an unusually complex effect. 

More cards that works into a base heavy strategy. Not so good if you can't get any other bases, but massively powerful if you can put down a base every turn or so. 

Ha, just kidding, this card is terrible. "So called because it's the last thing you would pick", as one of my regular Star Realms opponents pointed out. Then again, if you already have a War World… agh!

Speaking of spaceships, didn’t it suck that The Force Awakens introduced, like, one original vehicle design? The Star Realms artists aren’t Colin Cantwell or Ralph McQuarrie (I only wish they were), but you do get some 50-odd cool looking spaceships to play with. That’s rad.

...the thought of Star Realms with art at the level of Ralph McQuarrie or Chris Foss makes me dehydrated from drooling. White Wizard has already improved its graphic design and sourced better artwork for it's recently announced fantasy game, Hero Realms. I say let's see what they can do with Star Realms 2!


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