|Star Realms (2014)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [1.92]
|Robert Dougherty and Darwin Kastle
Star Realms packs a lot of game into a tiny box. For a handful of your Earth pounds, you too can be engaging in an interstellar war spread over the farther reaches of a hostile and dangerous galaxy, dying in a blaze of light and glory for the safety of the universe. Who wouldn’t want to do that for a living? Most people? Really? Oh… uh… okay. Are you sure? It sounds like a blast to me.
Star Realms is a deck-builder game in the style of… you do understand that you’d be flying space-ships in this interstellar war, right? Dog-fighting your way between asteroids and blasting aliens with your lasers? It’s just, you seemed to be… you know, you’re right. This isn’t a conversation for a review. Let’s just move on. But lasers, man. LASERS.
Star Realms is a deck-builder game in the style of Ascension and Dominion, except set in a lightly themed sci-fi universe embroiled in an all-out war between four factions. The game is staggeringly simple in its key mechanic – you draw five cards into your hand (although if you’re the first player you draw three in that turn only), and you play those five cards down. Those cards will come with military power, which you use to inflict damage on your opponent, and they also come with trade power which you use to buy new cards from the marketplace in the centre. When you’ve played them, you set them aside into your discard deck, and at the start of your next turn you draw another five cards from your main deck. If you don’t have enough cards left, you deal out what you can, shuffle your discard deck, and that becomes your new deck. Ships you buy start off discarded and then gradually make their way into activity when the discard pile becomes the main deck. When you’ve purchased a new and awesome ship you can enjoy the warm glow of delayed gratification as you slowly churn through your old, beat-up runaround bangers and get ever closer to the new ship smell of your recent acquisition.
Each player starts off with fifty ‘authority’ points, and this is the value you’re trying to whittle down to zero – once you have, you win the game. You start off with ten terrible ships in your deck, and you incrementally leverage their weak economic power to buy bad ships, which you use to buy okay ships, which you use to buy good ships, which you use to buy the powerful dreadnoughts and mother-ships that will allow you to dominate the galaxy. It honestly couldn’t be simpler.
Well, actually it could.
See, there’s a bit more to the game than what its slim mechanics would imply, because each of your ships may come with special actions.
A ship card is broken up into several parts. The header of the card gives its faction (on the left), its name (in the centre), and its cost in trade (on the right). We also get some very nice and evocative art-work on each card. The bottom third of the card is made up of one or more tiered sections, showing a ‘primary ability’, which is always in effect, an ‘ally ability’ which activates if there’s another card in play with a matching faction, and sometimes a ‘scrap’ ability which you can trigger in exchange for permanently removing the card from your deck.
It honestly couldn’t be simpler.
Well, it could.
Some cards you buy aren’t ships at all – they’re ‘bases’. Bases are played down in the same way as ships, but they remain in play until they are destroyed. They grant a range of ongoing bonuses, and they all have a basic defense bonus which counts as their health. Some of these bases are marked as ‘outposts’ and double up as shields – your opponent will need to get rid of them before they can inflict damage against you or any other non-outpost base. The health of a base has to be taken out all at once – you can’t whittle it away turn by turn. It’s all or nothing. It honestly couldn’t be simpler.
Well, it could.
Those horrible ships you get at the start are rapidly going to become like terrible croutons in a luke-warm cup of a value-brand soup. They’ll float in and out of the rotation, making you gag and retch each time they arrive. So, you need to adopt a mercenary mindset and ensure that you have plenty of opportunities to scrap these ships as you play other, better ships. The cards that let you do that are almost exclusively belong to the machine cult faction, so competition over those cards can be cut-throat.
The scrapping ability means you have to hope your discards align with the timing of the machine cult card entering play. If it doesn’t – if you’ve just played the card from a fresh deck and have no discards to sacrifice, you need to be willing to give up a little short-term advantage for longer term strategic gain. You want your better ships drawn more often that your bargain basement starter ships – it’s not about how many good cards you’ve got in your deck, it’s about the percentage of good cards to bad cards. It couldn’t be simpler.
Except it could.
Because the more good cards you have, the more likely you are to trigger ally bonuses from the five cards you have in front of you, and that’s when Star Realms starts to veer off into the comically entertaining. Let’s have a look at what a good, but not implausibly so, card deal might look like in the end game:
Look at what we have here – two bases already in play from a previous turn, and five new cards dealt in front of us. It’s an armada full of promise, although before you can cash in that promise you need to sit down with your transparent green visor and crank through the numbers on an old-timey calculator. First, we tot up all the primary abilities:
- We get to scrap a card from our hand or our discard pile, thanks to the junkyard base
- We get to draw a card for the dreadnought, one for corvette, one from the flagship, and because we have two bases in play we also get to draw another two from the yacht.
- We gain three authority
- We get fourteen attack power
- We get three trade power
Crikey. With the draw card powers, we draw another five cards directly into our hand:
Holy moly. So, to our existing bonuses we now add:
- Three trade OR five attack power for the patrol mech
- Our enemy has to discard a card on their turn, for the imperial frigate
- We gain a further three alliance OR gain an extra two attack power from the defence centre
- We get a further ten attack power from the primarily abilities of each ship.
BUT! Now we have to take into account the ALLY BONUSES:
- The corvette gets an extra two attack power because there are other Empire cards in play.
- The trade pod gets two extra attack power because there are other blob cards in play
- The flagship also causes us to gain a further five authority because there is another federations ship in play
- We get to scrap another card because there is a machine cult ship in play and the patrol mech now gains that ability
- The frigate gains an extra two attack power
- The defence centre gains an extra two attack power
- The royal redoubt now causes the opponent to discard a card when they play their next turn.
Let’s say we focus on attack power for our optional choices. That sums up to what is almost certainly a game-ending combination of:
- Thirty-nine attack power
- A gain of eight authority
- Three trade
- Scraping two of our worst cards from our discard deck.
- Forcing our opponent to discard two cards from their next deal.
BUT THERE’S MORE!
We have cards that have scrap abilities too – if we wanted, we could scrap both of our blob wheels for another six trade, scrap the dreadnought for another five attack power, and scrap the frigate for another card draw. We keep all their benefits for that turn, we just get that as an extra at the cost of never being able to play the cards again. You can wipe out a sizable armada of bases with a draw like this, and still have plenty left to absolutely devastate your opponent. I mean you can go to town on them. You can absolutely ruin them.
As I say, this is an unusually good draw of cards, but it’s far from an impossible one. This is the kind of card synergy that careful curating of a deck will enable, and it’s why you can go from feeling comfortable you’re going to win one turn to looking at a new asteroid field of smoldering metal the next. It means that you’re never truly out of the game unless you managed to completely mess up your deck economy at the early stages. However, it also means that success in the game is heavily influenced by what your draw might be.
Star Realms then is a game where you’re balancing your deck composition against the inherent randomness of the draw. You’re not really doing much to influence the game other than working out what are the good buys and when to scrap the ships you have in your deck. Really, that’s the only decision that ever requires thought, and that decision is usually relatively straightforward. You don’t take an active role in proceedings, you’re involved at a higher level. A command level. You can’t smell the void as a dreadnought blasts massive rents into your mother-ship. You get the war dispatches from the front, and mull over them as you sit, in your underpants, in front of a fire as you sip at your hot chocolate.
It’s all strategy, with hardly any real opportunity to develop tactical response. It can be very frustrating when the cards you need don’t come out in the combinations you want, but over the course of the game you’re looking to engineer the circumstances that prune and snip the cruft away from your deck.
It’s a very pacy game, which puts it in a different class from heavier deck-builders such as Dominion. A match lasts perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes, and has a very agreeable escalation built into it. The card design enables, and perhaps even encourages, power-creep.
You’ll spend perhaps six rounds focusing on building trade capacity and making available routes to scrapping your discard pile. You’ll spend another six or so buying up the best ships you can, and then a few fraught turns knocking lumps out of each other with the heavy hitters you managed to procure. An unexpected combination of cards can be game-changing – you might find yourself chaining together a gain of ten or twenty authority points, or a combination of outposts that creates a shield your opponent will need to spend several turns chipping at.
Just as likely, you might find yourself with a hand of five scouts and nothing you can afford to buy. It’s a roller-coaster, but you get to lay down the tracks and influence their direction as the ride is speeding up. You might not be able to change the route the ride is going to take, but you can make sure it’s going to pass all the key stops at some point. The matches though are short, and you don’t have time to gingerly pick at your deck – you need to be ruthless if you’re going to survive the cull that’s almost certain to come.
The deck is all that matters. The holy deck. And in worshiping the deck, the game encourages a certain discrimination in purchasing cards. Sure, that eight point monster may be affordable, but how does it synergise with the rest of your deck? If you’re focusing on blobs, do you really want that federation command ship? The ally bonuses are key to getting the right value out of your ships, and a poorly considered eight point behemoth may not yield as much benefit as two three point junkers of the same faction. You only have a limited marketplace of cards to buy though, and you may find yourself having to change your buying strategy depending on the economics of availability. You can’t really do much about what your opponent is doing, so you have to focus on what *you* can do, and perhaps throw up what barriers you can as you hope the punches that are winding up don’t have the heavy weight of inevitability behind them.
All in all, a fun filler game. But it does have problems.
First of all, the deck you get is cheap, but so is the quality of the box. I ripped the damn thing just trying to get it open, and even where it’s not ripped it’s coming apart. After a couple of games, I had to replace it with a more durable plastic box. What you get for your money isn’t going to stand up to the rigours of travel, which is a shame since it advertises itself as an ideal portable game. That wouldn’t be problem really if it weren’t for the fact they have really doubled down on the card-game aspect. You track your authority with double-sided authority cards – some cards are 20/10 and other are 5/1. There are eighteen of these cards in total, shared between two players. Losing or gaining authority becomes a tedious mini-game of flipping over cards, looking to see what’s not currently being used by other players, and occasionally making change or trading cards to arrive at the right combination across all participants. It is utterly bizarre. I recommend the first thing you do when playing this game is burn the authority cards and salt the earth where they once resided so that nothing will ever grow there again. Tracking your authority with pencil and paper is better and that’s ridiculous. Use poker chips, or money, or whatever else you like but don’t use those dumb-ass cards.
The synergy of ship can lead to overwhelmingly powerful combinations, as we saw above. That is awesome when it’s your deck that just produced the magic. It’s pretty disheartening when you’re on the receiving end. When you see something like this winding up, there’s a certain horrified awe it invokes as it gathers momentum before being directed your way. That soon becomes a weary resignation as you look back at how you played and think ‘There’s nothing here I could have sensibly done to have meaningfully altered this outcome’. You can shape the luck of the draw with deck curation, but at the end you’re still very much at the mercy of The Lady. You can shape an acquisition strategy and develop your deck accordingly, but just because you have the right cards there’s not much you can do to ensure they are dealt in the right combinations at the right times. Winning can feel random, and losing can feel deeply, unfairly undeserved. The game would have benefited considerably from having cards that allowed you to counteract opponent cards as they’re played. It would have been nice to have a fiercely hoarded opportunity to actively throw a wrench into the engine of destruction being constructed in front of you. Perhaps expansions provide this, but we review the game as it comes out of the box.
The synergy of cards too means that a lot of your turn is spent in silent book-keeping, working out what you’ve got and what that means. You need to keep track of how you’re distributing damage, how you’ve spent trade, and how many of each special ability you’ve triggered based on allies, scrapped ships and more. Matches begin with a snappy energy, but before too long become bogged down in a numbers game more like Star Accountancy than Star Wars. Just when your deck is starting to spew out lava-like destruction every turn, you’re losing the thrill of that because every deadly capital ship you draw is a mini-chore of calculation. Some cards let you draw multiple new cards, and while the totals you’ll end up with are excitingly embiggened, it’s anti-climatic to turn around and say ‘Okay, I do seventy bajillion damage and you’re dead’ after a solid minute of silent number crunching.
I have had tremendous fun playing this in its two player version, but by itself it hasn’t been enough to convince me to invest in the kind of expansions that would extend its reach, or even in the second base deck that would double its player count. To be fair, I didn’t really rate Dominion very highly either (although I’m holding out on a final judgement for Dominion until I’ve played it a few more times) so perhaps I’m just not the deck-builder demographic. If someone said ‘Hey, let’s play a game of Star Realms’ though I certainly wouldn’t resent the time I’d spend playing it. Unless they were using those damn authority cards. Star Realms gets a robust three and a half stars – not so much a star realm then as a healthy star province that shouldn’t get ideas above its station.