Sunday, January 5, 2014

Star Realms Review

Star Realms is a Kickstarter project that ran in October, and went out to backers in December.  Personally, I almost didn't back it because that just seemed to wildly impossible.  But it arrived the day after Christmas, and I've played it constantly since it got here.

Star Realms is a sci-fi themed deck building game, most closely related to Ascension.  It was designed by Robert Dougherty and Darwin Kastle and published by White Wizard Games.  Robert Dougherty in specific put a lot of work into the Ascension series, which explains how closely related the two games feel.

Rule Summary

Players begin with a small and weak personal deck of 10 cards.  These will consist of 8 Scouts which provide 1 Trade each, and 2 Vipers which provide 1 Combat.  Players also begin the game with 50 Authority, tracked using double sided Authority cards, or whatever other method you choose.

A stack of 10 Explorer cards is set out.  The rest of the Trade Deck cards are shuffled, and 5 are revealed creating a row.  This is the Trade Row.  Now, the start player will draw 3 cards, and the other player will draw 5.

The trade row

On their turn, a player can play some or all of the cards from their hand.  Most cards belong to one of four factions, and will provide you with Trade, Combat or Authority based on the symbols on the card.  Other cards will spell out what they do, like "Destroy a target base" or "Draw two cards".  Cards will usually have a default ability that you always get.  Many also have an Ally ability or a Scrap ability.  The Ally ability can be used if there is another card matching the faction symbol of the Ally ability.  The Scrap ability is used by putting the card in the Scrap pile.  Cards in the Scrap pile are permanently out of the game.

These two cards would trigger one another's Ally
abilities, plus the one on the right has a Scrap ability.
Cards are also either Ships or Bases.  Ships are played, and then go away at the end of your turn.  Bases however stay out until they are destroyed.  They have a Defense value which must be matched by your opponent's Combat.  When they are destroyed they go to your discard pile.  Some Bases are Outpost.  Your opponent must destroy all your Outposts before they can target you or your other non-Outpost bases.

While playing cards, players can choose to purchase ships from the Trade Row using their accumulated Trade, or attack their opponent using their Combat.  Players can alternate between playing cards, spending Trade, or attacking their opponent however they like.  Players can also purchase any number of cards they can afford.  The Trade Row is immediately refilled when a card is bought, so as long as players have more Trade to spend, there will be more cards.

At the end of a player's turn, they discard whatever is left in their hand, move all their played ships to the discard pile, and lose any Combat or Trade they didn't spend.  They then draw 5 new cards.

The objective of the game is to reduce your opponents Authority to zero.  You do this by attacking them with your Combat values.  Every time an attack gets past their Outpost, they lose that much Authority.  So if you have 12 Combat, destroy their 5 Defense Base, they will then lose 7 Authority.

Timelapse of play.

How accessible is the game to new players?

Star Realms is the easiest deck builder I've played yet.  The rules are just a single page front and back, and well formatted too.  The rules and cards are clearly written, with appropriate headings, and result in no conflicts.  I've never had to have anyone backtrack because they tried to do something that wasn't allowed.  The game is permissive first, and then heaps on bonuses second.

What could have been done better?

Generally I like my games to have reference material.  But this game really doesn't need it.  The 1 page instructions double very well as a reference for whoever needs it.  The rare times I've needed to reference a rule, I quickly found it thanks to how well laid out the rules are.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

As in most other deck building games,
you'll want to scrap these cards ASAP.
As is often the case, new players chronically undervalue Scrapping cards.  But they quickly and intuitively grasp how powerful Ally abilities, Outpost and gaining Authority can be.  What I've found interesting though is that sometimes the focus on sticking with a specific faction encourages a new player to try out new strategies, and diversify their experience.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

To be honest, the theme feels a bit pasted on to me.  I don't get much connection between it and the mechanics of actually building a deck.  But often times deck building is just that sort of mechanic.

I love the theme regardless though.  The factions are imaginative, and I especially love the Blob faction.  They have well defined character and emphasize different abilities.  I also love the artwork and the color palettes chosen for each faction.  I suppose I would say that while the overall structure of the game doesn't reinforce the theme, the individual implementation of the cards really do.

Star Realms plays incredibly smoothly.  Plus the adversarial nature keeps you engaged more on the other person's turn.  There isn't much you can do when you get attacked.  But it still keeps you engaged as you fret over whether they are going to take out a base, or go straight at you.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

I already want expansions for Star Realms.  I want to see cards with cross faction Ally abilities.  I want to see cards you can use to react to attacks.  I just want more.

I play a lot of Ascension on my iPad, and I really appreciate how much more interesting the game has gotten as expansions with more varied and creative abilities came out.  Star Realms starts off much more interesting than Ascension did to me, so I really can't wait to see where expansions take this game.

Still, as a core set, this game is phenomenal, and there is little I'd change.  Just get those expansions rolling out!

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

The Blob world might seem better, but
the Battle Station will protect you.
I feel like the game is more strategic than tactical.  Hands more or less play themselves, and the order you play cards rarely matters, except when you are given the chance to scrap a card in your hand.  The only decisions you'll make on your turn are what cards to buy, and if you want to use a cards Scrap ability.

But the decisions about how to build your deck feel more interesting than other deck builders.  You'll be compelled to stick to just one or two factions, thanks to the heavy emphasis on Ally abilities.  But every now and again a card comes out that is just too good to pass on, even if it disturbs whatever great ally stacking you have going.  There are also the bases which tend to be less bang for your buck, but which can take hits for you, or provide long term perks.  Most important of which is often enabling Ally abilities to trigger.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

I won't lie, I don't find the dilemmas to be the most interesting in the world.  That being said, they are quick, and fun.  Extremely fun.  I think due to the adversarial nature of the game, and the imaginative world you are playing in.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

I have a hard time holding what I consider to be weak dilemmas against Star Realms.  Because it still packs an awful lot of game into a $15, 20 minute package.  It's fantastic having a deck builder that plays that quickly.

But if I were going to mess with things, I would have loved to see cards you can play from your hand to block or alter attacks.  Except if you play them to do that, then you can't use them again on your actual turn.  I'd have liked to see bases that give you bonuses when the other player does things.  Like draw a card every time they play a blob.  Really, anything at all that is creative, increasing player interaction, and prevents you from just plopping all your cards face up on the table, and figuring out what your total attack and trade values are.

Physical component design and limitations?

I love how every card
has an action shot.
The packaging for Star Realms is incredibly tight.  About 130 cards come in a tuckbox with a small folded rule sheet.  The cards are of decent enough quality.  They riffle shuffle and bridge easily enough, although they did begin to show some minor signs of wear after a few plays.  But they do feel good to hold and play with.

I've already mentioned, but I love the artwork in this game.  Every faction has clear and distinct visual themes, and a defined color palette to help you tell them apart at a distance.  Plus from a graphic design perspective, I find the cards well laid out, and the information on them to be clear.

What could have been better?

The authority tracking cards are kind of obnoxious.  But they can easily be replaced with whatever counters you want, and I'll likely play with poker chips instead when given the opportunity.  It's feels like a component that was compromised on to conform to a packaging size and a price point, and wisely so I think.

Long term prospects?

Star Realms isn't without a few small shortcomings.  But this game still jumps out at me as being the real deal, and shows incredible potential.  This is the first Kickstarter project I've gotten that I desperately wanted to play again and again.  It's just consistently fun every time.  My games are rarely as fast as the 20 minutes listed on the box.  But I'm ok with that.

I think what I can appreciate most about the game is the pace of it.  While the overall length of the game can drag, individual turns tend to go quickly.  It even manages to mostly solve the issue of waiting through someone else's obscenely long card combos.  Because usually, after a turn or two of that, you are dead.

I plan on playing a lot of Star Realms over the next few months.  So far all my friends and my girlfriend really like it.  I'm almost wishing I had gotten a few copies to have as gifts for Christmas.  It's been a long time since a game was such a unanimous hit for me and mine, and I'm very impressed by how much game got into such a small package.  I'd strongly encourage people to get it once it comes out at retail.


  1. Great review. I picked this up on the recommendation of a friend, played my first game tonight, and I'm excited to play again soon and introduce it to others.

  2. I have just played my first game this evening and enjoyed it immensely.