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.


  1. This was about my experience with Star Realms. It was good (the expansions do help, and are cheap), quick to play and there's a fair amount going on. Those early decisions can really come back to haunt you. Not going into a second color can be as crippling as going into too many. There's a tipping point where you need to stop buying and let your machine run and win the game for you, but it's not easy to see at the best of times. I also think you may be selling the Explorers a little short-early on they offer pretty good money, and they're the only economic card that can remove itself from your engine.

  2. Star Realms is light and fun and I love space ships. But Dominion is a great game. I've never tired of it. Having that selection of cards available makes for some very interesting decision-making. And being able to vary the selection of cards keeps the game fresh.