Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Star Realms

So a few weeks back, I mentioned Star Realms as a game I'd played. It's a game I've played both in person and online via their app. It's a game I like.

But it's no Dominion.

Several of my friends have told me that Star Realms is their favorite deckbuilder - and I just don't understand that.

Like most deckbuilders, players start with a pre-set deck of cards.  In the case of Star Realms, it's eight Scouts and two Vipers. Players also start with 50 life points (called "Authority" in this one).  There is a small deck of "Explorers," and the top five cards from the rest of the deck is turned up to create a purchase line.

The first player draws three cards. Later players draw five. During your turn, you play cards from your hand, either one at a time or all at once (most of the time it doesn't matter).

Scouts give you one trade (money). Vipers give you one attack.

You use Trade to buy cards from the purchase line (or from the Explorer deck, which is a bunch of identical ships). You use attack to ... attack your opponent to reduce their life.

Cards in the trade line are of two types - ships and bases.  Both of them are purchased to your discard pile (which introduces a timing element with some of the expansion cards - more on that later).

The cards fall into four factions, whose names I struggle to remember. Realistically, it's Red (who help you remove cards from your deck), Yellow (who help you draw cards and can force your opponent to discard cards), Blue (who increase your health and money), and Green (who blow stuff up real good).

Most cards grant either money or attack. Many of them also have an Ally effect - that is, if this card and another card of the same faction are in play, they are more powerful. They can also have a "scrap" effect, which you can choose to remove the card from play entirely to gain.

There are two basic kinds of bases, too.  Normal bases, and outposts.  Before I can attack an enemy, I have to destroy all of their Outposts.  Note that discard effects are not attacks.  So if you have three or four outposts with a total live of 14, and I play a yellow fighter that has one Attack and forces you to discard, then you still need to discard. Even though my one Attack isn't getting anywhere near you.

The difference between a Base and a Ship is that Bases stay in play until they are destroyed.  Ships are returned to the discard pile at the end of your turn.

Every time a ship is purchased from the purchase line, a new ship is drawn from the deck to replace it.  This means that you will not know from turn-to-turn what will be in that line for you on your turn.  You're also not restricted to one Buy.  If, somehow, you manage to accrue 20 or more Trade, you can buy as many ships and bases as you want until you hit 20 spent.  And you buy them one at a time, so buy one, see what comes off the deck, buy another, and so on.

The fact that the available cards each turn depend on your opponent's purchases and a random draw means that there is no long-term planning available in the game.  You can try to buy Only Red Cards or Only Green Cards - but if there are four Blue cards face-up in the purchase line, you need to decide what you're going to do. Buy Explorers?  You can, but a 2-cost card from any faction is going to be better than the Explorer. So you need to have fallback plans. And remember: The more factions there are in your deck, the less likely you are to be able to use those ally abilities.

Compare this to Dominion, where everyone starts on an equal footing, and everyone has the same set of cards available at all times throughout the game.  In both games, there is the random "What will I draw from my deck this turn?" issue, but Dominion has no other random element. You can look at the cards and come up with a plan. "If I have X Coins, I will buy Y," and so on.

For casual players, I can definitely see the appeal of Star Realms - as I've said: I do like the game. I just don't like it as well as Dominion.  If pressed, I think I'd put Star Realms in second place for deck-building games. Third if you consider Hyperborea a deckbuilder.

Its ease of play makes it a solid introduction to the concept of deckbuilding, so I do think it's a better gateway to deckbuilding than Dominion.Not least because the buys in Dominion being limited can be a hard thing for a player to grasp.  "I have 14 Gold, and I can only buy one card?" is a common question I get from new Dominion players.  The direct head-to-head combative nature of Star Realms is also appealing to a lot of players.

And yes - I know that Star Realms supports more than two players, but it's not made clear enough on the box that multiplayer requires two starters. Not only that, but most of the discussions of multiplayer suggest that you only use the Vipers, Scouts, and Explorers from the second box for your multiplayer game.

So, factoring all of this in, I think I'd give Star Realms a 7 or 7.5 rating.  It's playable. It's fun. It's fast. It's filler with a little bit of meat to it. Just don't look for some of the deep strategic interactions you'll get when playing Dominion.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

One Good Day

Sometimes, all you really need is one good day.

One of my online friends is in town for a few months, and can't make most of our regular Wednesday game nights.  So I decided to host it on a Sunday, instead.

Over the course of about nine hours, I played eight different games.

I started with Sun Tzu against Brian (who owns the FLGS). I really like this one, and dig it out as often as I can. After the first turn, I had zero armies on the board, but I still managed to win this one.

We then played Age of War. Three-player. Dice hate me, so I didn't win.  As we drew near to the end, everything was "locked" except for that one green castle. I had 10 points, Brian had 13 points, and Joseph had 12 points. The green one was worth three. If I got it, Brian and I would tie for the win.  If anyone else got it, they would win outright.  But dice hate me.  Brian won.

We then set up Argent: the Consortium, but, before we got through explanation, the shop got busy and so Brian had to break away to help some customers, so Joseph and I went and played another couple of games.

We started with Province which he described as "the tiniest Eurogame."  I dug it, even though I did crazy-poorly.  I think I'd do better if we played again, but I'm not sure how much better. I think this was the weakest of the games we played that day - but I don't know how colored that perspective is by my loss. Since there is little or no randomness, I can see this game getting stale, too.

That was followed by Star Realms, which I enjoy. The more I play it, the more random it seems to be, though.  Especially once you stir in the expansions.  There are broad sweeps of strategy that you can try to adopt, but, if the cards you are looking for don't come up, you won't get anywhere.  I won big, but that was because I saw that the initial set of cards included a bunch of red, so I whittled my deck down to only about seven or eight cards, most of them red. And that meant I had a lot of firepower (and not a lot of purchasing power) every turn.

While we were in the middle of Star Realms, my wife arrived.

Stephanie, Joseph, and I payed a quick couple of games of Murder of Crows.  I won the first one, Joseph won the second.  It's pretty random but also pretty quick. It's a set-collection game with some screw-your-neighbor elements.  It was fun, and I'm thinking about getting a copy for myself.

We then moved back over to Argent: the Consortium, and actually managed to play a (three-player) game.

Worker Placement as a mechanism has been done almost to death, so I hadn't expected to like this one. Especially given how crazy-busy the board is and the huge number of components that need to be used. With that said, however, I loved this game. Players are competing for votes, but we don't know at the beginning of the game what will earn us the votes. During the game, there are ways to peek at who the voters are and what will get their votes, but I ignored these and, instead, pursued a strategy of getting as much of everything as I could. At the end, Joseph had five votes and I had four votes. Stephanie had one.  But a bunch of Joseph's votes came down to a tiebreak, so even though Steph had a low score, it wasn't due to poor play.  My second place finish was a surprise to most of us, I think.

I've already placed an order with Brian for my own copy of this one.

While we were in the last round of play, Crissy arrived.

We followed Argent with a four-player game of Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension, a favorite of mine that doesn't hit the table often enough. It sits in an odd position for me - it's too thinky to be pure filler, but it's too random to be pure strategy. And there are two random elements. The first is the deal. Players get to draft cards, but you only know what half of the cards you are drafting are. Then there's the movement - your turn order is based on the cards everyone has played, and movement is based on the current position of everyone on the board. So it's possible that what would have been a very good move early in the round becomes a very bad move later in the round. Admittedly, this isn't necessarily randomness - but it's beyond your control and involves guessing, so I tend to treat it as randomness.

And then we wrapped the evening up with a game of Musketeers. Remember how dice hate me?  Cards are ambivalent towards me.  This is a semicooperative card game, where the players are working together to beat opposition cards. But they're also competing - the best card gets a bonus when you beat the opposition, and the worst card takes a penalty when the opposition beats the players. I barely squeaked out a win by managing to Not Be Worst at any point during the last round. Steph was only three or four points behind me.

Eight games, no duds.  For me, that is an ideal day. And it was an excellent way to acclimatize to the time change that always comes with Daylight Savings.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


We've hit that tipping point for GenCon.  The point where it becomes real instead of being in the theoretical future "later this year."

I mean ... I know it's coming. I know it's real. But it doesn't hit me until I have travel arrangements. Every year. I'm going to GenCon!

But as of this week, I have my hotel details.

Every year, I'm also so crazy-thankful that Stephan B. thought to give me the opportunity and Christophe A. was willing to give me a shot.

This year, I'd also like to thank Audrey and Carol for their help with the hotel room.

I can't wait to see what the team is like this year.  Last year, I posted that we had the best team to date - and I strongly believe that it was. And it sounds like this year's team will include most (if not all) of last year's team. And more folks. "The biggest team to date," I've heard. Which is crazy.

And, of course, there will be a new crop of games for us to teach.

Since the last GenCon, Asmodee has acquired both Days of Wonder and merged with Fantasy Flight Games. I don't know how this will impact the booth(s) at GenCon, but I'd be surprised if there wasn't some sort of impact.

Other than the size of the team and booth. Because "MOAR BIGGER" has been the theme of the last few years. And that is astounding to me, in large part because I remember my first GenCon, where Asmodee was in a small 10x20 booth with Jungle Speed and Woolly Bully for sale with demo copies of Dungeon Twister and Mall of Horror. And a total of four of us in the booth. Close to 90% of the people wandering by had never heard of Asmodee Editions, and the remaining 10% spoke French well and English poorly.

This year, I'll be at Origins, too.  For the first time in about a decade (and the third time ever for me). And I've seen the hotel reservations for that one, too.

The only missing piece of the puzzle is the airfare for both - but we have some time on that front.

Are you excited?  I am ...

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Technology and Gaming

It's funny. I love technology. I love all of the doors it's opened for us. I love the possibilities it has presented to us. Both in gaming and in the rest of our lives.

But I'm still resistant to games with a required technological component. Take, for example, Fantasy Flight's XCOM game. By all accounts, it's a phenomenal game. Players seem to love it. But it requires the use of a smartphone app.

It's not like One Night Ultimate Werewolf, where the app facilitates play, but isn't actually required. You flat cannot play XCOM: The Board Game without a smartphone.

And yet I have no problems playing in campaigns where the GM requires the use of Obsidian Portal.

Or playing Space Alert, which requires a CD player. And - as MP3 files take over - CD players are in process of disappearing from homes. When I bought my current computer, I had to pay extra for an optical drive. Because those are slowly disappearing, too. Microsoft Office? It's a subscription program, now. Not a CD with an authorization code and hoops to jump through. And I can access most (if not all of it) online. When even Office doesn't require a CD-ROM ... well ... 

Wizards of the Coast has keep the 4e D&D Insider tools up for those of us who want to keep paying for them. It costs them a pittance and brings in some subscriber fees even now. And (honestly) I've found it much easier to track my character online than the old-fashioned way with pencil & paper.

I have a smartphone. Like most smartphones, it's crazy-powerful when compared to the computer my family had when I was a kid. It's more powerful than the computers we used in school. And I trust Google. I actually have a couple of apps on there that aren't in the Appstore anymore - but when I upgraded my phone a few months ago, Google transferred them for me. Automatically. I didn't have to call anyone. I didn't need to go online and track down some obscure file to install the apps on my phone. They just installed themselves on the new phone.

So I don't know why the app has been such a barrier to entry for my interest in XCOM. But somehow it is. And that makes me feel like a total Luddite.